Come this Nov. 14, there will be hoop skirts and parasols aplenty out at Charleston’s gorgeous Boone Hall Plantation as the annual Living History Weekend unfolds. One highlight of the various activities planned will be the reenactment of the Battle of Secessionville, a relatively minor Civil War battle that occurred nearby and in which the Confederates prevailed.
The faux engagement will feature lots of noise and smoke and yelling, but not much in the way of open field charges. That’s because, one weekend veteran explains, the majority of participants are getting on in years — younger folks simply aren’t signing up — and so attacks now look more like ambles. Age is literally slowing the ranks, and ultimately, thinning them as well.
Business aviation is seeing a similar trajectory, and will be all the poorer for it. When I first entered the community, the lions reigned. Mostly World War II and Korean War veterans, they ran the flight departments — some, like Charlie Morris’s Mobil Oil operation, were vast and employed scores of people — the manufacturing and service companies, the associations and the vendors. But the advance of time is inexorable, and one by one, they withdrew from the crowd, and then their roars silenced.
Just recently, two more lions — Otto Pobanz and Jim Holahan — departed. None were more sure voiced, impressive and effective when in command. Otto ran the Federated Department Stores flight department seemingly forever, was an NBAA board member, safety champion, and one of the nicest, most considerate men you’d have the pleasure to know. Meanwhile, Jim was a messy desk aviation journalist of the first order, a well-respected predecessor of mine at this magazine, who went on to cofound the Aviation Consumer and, later, Aviation International News, two excellent publications at which he set the editorial standard.
Both men were passionate about business aviation and its people, and whom I am privileged to have had as friends. They were special. Blessings and cheers for them and the things they and their contemporaries achieved.
After all, it was that generation that created what’s considered modern commercial and business aviation. The evolution was accelerated by the technologies developed and skills acquired by service pilots like Otto and Jim during the Big War.
Their legacy makes for a rather extensive list, including: pressurized aircraft, turbine engines, radar-based ATC, transponders, weather radar, stall and ground proximity warning systems, flight directors, full motion simulators, VOR/DME and global nav systems, aviation media, automation, national representative organizations, business aircraft, FBOs and supersonic flight.
As importantly, they embraced the technology and systems as never before. By 1980, many vets were in their mid- to late 50s, an age when a person typically achieves the top rungs of career and income. It’s not surprising that the active pilot population in the U.S. that year topped 825,000, the highest figure ever.
Typical among them were my uncles Bob and Bill Gunther. War veterans, both earned their pilots licenses after they returned from overseas. An engineer, Bob ran the family printing company and needed a means to travel to plants he was establishing around the country. He bought several aircraft, eventually settling on a Cessna Skymaster, which he flew extensively. At one point he considered moving up into an Aerostar jet that Ted Smith had designed, but that project never went forward.
Bill, meanwhile, went door to door in the Empire State Building and throughout the New York metro area selling Cessnas for a while. He later became enamored with the potential of helicopters, struck a friendship with Frank Piasecki, and even ran an aerial spray company in Central America and Mexico.
To accommodate such enthusiasm, manufacturers ramped up production like never before, turning out more than 1,000 aircraft a month throughout much of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a giddy time for general and business aviation, one we’re unlikely to see again.
But advances and activity aren’t ending with the exit of the last of that storied, aviation-minded generation. The momentum they began continues with successors who have already developed GPS, SVS, RVSM and ADS-B. A civil tiltrotor is in flight test, biofuels are turning turbines, and, yes, a supersonic business jet program is slowly moving forward.
While we’re unlikely to see another tidal wave of vets eager to acquire wings, there is an undeniable, widespread enthusiasm for flight, albeit of another kind. Whether they make you grin or groan, drones have captivated the general public, private industry and the public service sector. They will become a major aviation element going forward.
So, a salute to those who brought us so far; aviation’s next era is upon us.
And I won’t be surprised if when the aging bluecoats of the 28th Massachusetts huff and puff their way toward the graying Confederates at Boone Hall this fall, their slow motion charge will be recorded by something small hovering overhead and guided by satellite navigation. B&CA