The Vicissitudes of Air Travel

In a few days I will proceed to Virginia on a family visit. This will take me through four airports in 17 hours, with boring layovers, overpriced food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. You know the drill. I love my family, so these are costs that must be borne.

I also love airplanes—anything but the Boeing 700 series and most commercial airliners. They embody the very definition of a hostile environment: uncomfortable constricted seating, bad food, and hordes of germ-laden yahoos. Close to 200 people in an aluminum tube breathe recirculated air and line up for maybe two bathrooms.

I’m old enough to have experienced the joys of flight differently. In my early teens a friend and I would ride our bikes out to the local small airport and cadge rides in single-engine Pipers and Cessnas. At 15, a friend of my dad’s let me fly (momentarily) his Ercoupe. To get to college, I commuted in Constellations, DC-3s, and the Boston & Maine Railroad.


These were experiences in which transportation inevitably became a personal adventure, not a mass movement. Your senses were engaged, not dulled.

Super Constellation

In the mid-2000s I did communications work for the Navy at NAVAIR, its major aircraft test and developmental center in Maryland. It was up-close work with engineering feats like the Osprey and the F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter. I got no rides, but working on these projects was a revelation in discovering aircraft design and complexity.

V-22 Osprey

The Navy is a highly controlled environment. Commercial flying today is anything but. For over a year Covid kept us pretty much masked, depressed, and at home. We’re all being let out of our cages this summer. The Wall Street Journal reports that passenger volumes are way up, and they predict “a very bumpy summer.”

Fares are rising, middle seats are no longer empty and everything from parking lots to security lines is getting more congested. Meanwhile, some airports are understaffed to handle demand, many airport restaurants are still closed or at limited capacity, some terminal seating remains blocked for social distancing, and passengers scuffle with airline staff over not wearing masks.

So the travel environment becomes ever more alien and different from the explorable, enticing world it used to be. Last night I watched a wonderful film, My Octopus Teacher, the story of an intrepid filmmaker who penetrates a forbidding habitat to form a friendship with an octopus and understand its underwater world.

I’m reminded that flying used to be like that—a discovery and a journey into the potentially hostile world of the upper air. Like too much of what we encounter today, flying has become robotic and routinized. It has lost its soul.

Trump Disparages the Military

Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’

Did Trump call US war dead “losers” and “suckers”? The controversy, explained.

Trump Faces Uproar Over Reported Remarks Disparaging Fallen Soldiers

The story, all over the media for the last four days, pits Trump’s denials against the comments of several anonymous but respected (even by Fox News) sources. Vox comments:

Four reputable news outlets, all citing anonymous sources, report President Donald Trump disparaged US troops, veterans, and missing service members, with several outlets reporting he has called military members “losers.” Yet the president, along with current and former staff on the record, continues to dispute those stories.

The reporting is explosive. The denials are emphatic. And the consequences are potentially enormous.

This is proving to be a Big Story because the last thing you want to do as president is insult the U.S. military. It’s the third rail of presidential politics. It has been pro forma for every president to praise, if not worship, the military. Trump’s gaffe may end up costing him the election since the millions of active duty, reserve, retired and disabled service members are not going to take his comments lightly.

I think the perpetual praise of the military has often verged on idolatry, causing bloated budgets and sometimes reckless decisions. How did you like Teddy Roosevelt’s blustering adventures? Reagan’s invasion of Grenada?

I’d always had a kind of left-wing reaction to the military until I went to work for the Navy. I spent three years doing PR and communications for NAVAIR, the Naval Air Systems Command (which develops, procures, repairs and tests all U.S. Naval aircraft and weapons systems). It was a rewarding and sometimes trying experience.

The military bureaucracy is frequently a fearsome thing. The glut of money over time has produced not only a daunting military-industrial complex but a lot of technocratic operational inefficiencies: a special office for this, a unique procedure for that, a command structure that doesn’t always reward competence.

The people who worked in my office, civilians and contractors like me plus the military staff, were decent, hardworking folks. There was an unwritten rule not to discuss politics, though nearly everyone was conservative. We did get into amicable political discussions over after-work beers. I learned how conservatives think.

In short, I discovered firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of our military. It has taken on all the virtues and failings of our government, but few recognize how hard and effectively its members work. They are anything but suckers and losers. For the bone spurs dropout to denigrate these people is one more demonstration of his depravity—and his political stupidity.