With the passing of Chuck Yeager late last year, the era of the World War II aviator is symbolically gone. Along with it, the living memory of the war is fading, as well. Which is a direct challenge to all of us in aviation, not so much to remember—we will—but to adjust to a future none of us had imagined.
The twilight of World War II is upon us. When I started flying in the mid-1970s, the U.S. aviation scene seemed a direct outgrowth of the Second World War. I think younger me was right. It’s not hard to trace the lines from Gemini and Soyuz back to the development of rocket planes and jets immediately post-war by the world’s surviving major powers. And the migration of GIs back home following the war created both the culture and marketplace that propelled personal flying into a 40-year-long boom of activity that continues to impact and largely define our flying world 35 years down the line. It’s anybody’s guess what our aviation future will look like in the coming years now that we’ve burned through a big chunk of the legacy aircraft built from around 1955 to 1985, especially since these planes are getting more expensive to maintain than ever. I don’t think that in 1957 anyone at Cessna thought that many of the first batch of new 172s it delivered would still be flying more than 60 years down the line. But they are.