As of June of this year, I’ve been cranking out this column for 40 years! These are words I never thought I’d hear coming out of my mouth. And, no, I’m not some bent-over old scribe with four teeth and drool on my shirt. At least, I don’t think I am. I just got an early start (more or less). Actually, I got an early and weird start in the magazine business.
A problem with what I’m about to write is that I’ve written something like it in the same context before—no less than 10 (nor more than 20) years ago on the occasion of a previous “Grassroots” anniversary. And although to some people 10 years sounds like a long time, it’s really not. You can print a C-172 pilot report every three years and no one will say anything, but you have to be careful about repeating yourself in other contexts. I once used the lead paragraph out of my first Fieseler Storch (look it up) pirep to introduce a second similar report, and readers practically handed me my head: “How dare you reuse words that you…yada, yada.” The catch is that the two articles appeared 26 (that’s “twenty-six”) years apart in different magazines! So I do repeat myself, and to some degree, this is going to be one of those times.
I say I got a weird start in the magazine business because the very first thing I ever published was the precursor to Grassroots, but it was initially titled “Instructor’s Side” (for a year or so, then “Student’s Corner” for another two years). Through a fortuitous meeting with Robert Cumberford, who’s now the design editor for Automobile magazine and a close friend, I got an introduction to the editor of Air Progress, who invited me out to lunch. I walked out of that lunch with an assignment for a monthly column. That was late 1968, and I was just out of graduate school. Just like that, without paying five minutes of the dues I had always heard you had to pay before getting published in a magazine, I was an aviation columnist—I haven’t looked back since. What I’ve done, however, is look around a lot during the journey, especially now that I’m talking about numbers like 40 years.
I know that to a percentage of people reading this column, 1969 is ancient history, and, you’re right, we didn’t have laptops or iPods. We did, however, have TV, running water and automobiles, and all sorts of other newfangled stuff. To those of you who were at least in your upper teens at the time, you have to remember how far away 1969 is to people who are only a few years younger than yourself. Try to imagine how a WWII vet feels when he’s talking about his experiences: To him, they happened yesterday.
When Grassroots first took to the newsstands, sport aviation was growing like crazy. Aerobatics, which had languished in the weeds since before WWII, was enjoying a frantic rebirth: American Champion had introduced the Citabria a few years earlier, so we finally had a modern aerobatic trainer; the Pitts Special was finally taking hold; a two-place Pitts was in the wings (so to speak); and we were starting to see European birds like the Zlin over here.
The warbird movement was still just a bunch of guys who liked blasting around the countryside in surplus birds of all descriptions. A flying but tired Mustang cost $3,500, and a really pristine one ran $6,000. P-40s went begging for $1,500, and some were available at half that. No one was totally restoring warbirds because it wasn’t worth the effort. But that was changing fast, and in only a few years, Mustangs started costing more than $20,000. Of course, we thought people were nuts for paying that much. We do, however, need to put that in perspective: At the time, avgas cost only 30 to 35 cents per gallon.
Oshkosh was still just a town in Wisconsin where they made overalls and fire trucks. The name had yet to be retranslated to mean the largest annual outdoor event in the world. I went to the EAA convention at Rockford, Ill., that year for the fourth time. (The first two times, I had hitchhiked up from Norman, Okla., where I was in school.) That was the last year I attended the convention not as a working journalist. By the time they held the first convention in Oshkosh, in 1970, I was doing articles for Air Progress—I’ve been a card-carrying flight-line warrior ever since. During the late ’70s and most of the ’80s, I prowled the grounds in my ’77 Dodge van, which had a ladder up the back so I could get on top and shoot high-angle pictures. I even had nonskid wingwalking material on the roof to keep me from busting my butt.
Every year, after the convention, I got into the habit of writing Grassroots in my head during the 1,000-mile, nonstop drive home. Often, it would be about what I had seen or experienced. More often, it would be about my family or what aviation means to so many of us. To this day, as I’m waiting in the airport for my flight home to Phoenix from Oshkosh, I’m brain-dumping that Grassroots into my laptop. It’s more than a tradition for me: It’s something I simply can’t not do.
In ’69, as I was starting my aviation career, aviation was just recovering from a downturn, having turned out only about 7,000 airplanes. But soon, everything about the industry was sunshine and roses, and factories began popping out airplanes like cookies. It continued that way until production peaked in 1979, when 17,800 airplanes were delivered. Then, liability lawsuits raised their ugly heads, and it’s been downhill since. By ’93, production was barely 900 airplanes. Since ’79, aviation has never recovered (2008 production was 2,500), and traditional aviation isn’t likely to regain its peak production levels, although sport aviation doesn’t show any indication that it’s going to slow down.
It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be doing another anniversary column 40 years from now, but I definitely plan on at least a 50th and 60th version of it. It’ll be interesting to look back and see how we’ve recovered from what we all agree is a mess right now. Who knows? We may be saying, “What were we so worried about? It was just a little blip.”
In the long run, who cares? As long as our health and avgas hold out, we’ll survive. And, hopefully, so will Grassroots. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.