Romance in Aviation

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
January 1986
Flying Magazine “Minifeature”

It seems you hear more and more pilots bemoaning the fact that there is no longer any romance in aviation. I vote that’s ridiculous. There’s still lots of romance left. We all get jaded and just lose sight of what romance is.

On a recent trip from London to Jeddah, fellow crewmembers and I were discussing what still turns us on about flying. That subject came up over Egypt at 45,000 feet between Asyut and Luxor. It was clear night with a full moon overhead. I was watching the reflection of the moon on the irrigational canals around the Nile River. It was a spectacular, slow motion, laser-light show. The moonlight reflected in flashes off the canals, first in one direction and then another at 90-degree angles. When I brought this beautiful sight to their attention, Roger and Andy crowded over to my cockpit window where we all went “oooh, aaah, wow, that’s really neat.” Ok, so they’re dated exclamatory comments. Maybe we’ve all been overseas too long and it shows in our vocabularies. Anyway, that’s what got us started on the following list of aviation turn-ons.

The smell of burning jet fuel. Grandma used the same stuff to start a fire in her kitchen stove to bake biscuits every morning. Anyone remember what she called it? You gray-haired old guys are the only ones who do. She called it coal oil. Another incredible smell; a freshly opened Thermos of hot coffee, early in the morning, at about 8,000 feet in an unpressurized airplane.

Falling stars and the rise of a full moon viewed from above a cloud layer. Include here the Northern Lights for those lucky enough to have seen them.

​The eerie, special effects of St. Elmo’s fire crackling across the windshield.
Airport lights at night. If you’ve never “parked” and watched the color patterns you’re missing a lot. Do it now, even with your wife or husband.
A Gulfstream landing at night, especially with the wheel-well lights on in addition to all the normal lights.
A Gulfstream takeoff at any time. With the advent of Flex EPR (in which exhaust pressure ratios are set not above the required thrust level) and quiet flying techniques they aren’t quite as exciting as they used to be. Remember though, a temperature-topping takeoff has to be made once a month just to make sure the system is working properly. We always argue about who made the last one and who gets to make this one, and we make them only at locations that are not noise sensitive. The low growl of the engines gathers pitch and then passes through a shriek to a howl that rattles a spot inside you somewhere between your lungs and stomach. The twin plumes of black smoke from the exhausts leave a trail that leads the eye to that strong, proud, arrogant lady lifting easily into the air. Gear up, flaps 10 degrees and her lines clean. She makes a graceful turn on course and is gone in no time. It drives environmentalists nuts, but what a sight.
Runway in sight at minimums.
City lights at night. They are especially beautiful after the long periods of blackness sometimes encountered getting to them. On a clear night, they appear first as a faint glow, seen with your peripheral vision at about 200 nm. The glow intensifies until you can see the individual lights sparkling like diamonds on a black velvet cloth.
The sensation of speed as you whip along the top of a cloud deck. It doesn’t matter what kind of airplane you fly, speed is relative.
The sensual experience of penetrating a smooth, puffy cloud. Something about the propeller up front destroys the effect in a single-engine airplane, but the effect is there if you look for it in anything from a twin engine up.
I admit they’re getting rare, but we can’t overlook grass runways and tail draggers.
Breakfast in London, dinner in Jeddah. Or breakfast in St. Louis and dinner in New Orleans. Or breakfast in Farmington and lunch in Poplar Bluff. Or last, breakfast on earth and dinner in orbit.
Aviation is still rich in romance. Every now and again we have to step back and take a look at it subjectively. Forget the bank and a Congress that seems to have its collective head up and locked. Remember what drew you to this industry in the first place. It’s still there. It’s inside you waiting for the chance to remind you. All you have to do is look. Romance, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.