Two weeks ago today, on the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, workaday life in downtown Washington came to a momentary halt during a dramatic flyover by World War II-era aircraft right along the National Mall. It was surprisingly moving to see wave after wave of these large, ungainly-but-graceful antique aircraft lumber through the capital’s skies.
I was not in range to hear any of the official announcer’s commentary, but with no sound except the deep throb of the huge, old piston engines it was impossible not to think of the young men who had flown these planes over Europe and the Pacific, the women and men of all ages who had built them in huge arsenal-of-democracy quantities during the war — nearly 100,000 airplanes coming out of U.S. factories in 1944 alone — and of the people on the ground, combatants and civilians, who would have seen them fill the skies.
Now, a moment of real-time rather than retrospective drama. It’s a gripping, annotated video by the pilot of a World War II TBM Avenger torpedo plane, as the cockpit filled with smoke and the passenger in the backseat said “Fire!” Here is the video so you can see for yourself:
What strikes me here is, first, the beauty of the first 90+ seconds of the video, in which you see something very rare in modern life: a low-level aerial perspective on the heart of official Washington.
In the pre-9/11 era, the airspace over Washington was “normal” enough that you could take training flights down the Potomac or Anacostia rivers, fly over D.C. National airport, and (while obviously staying clear of the forbidden zones of the White House, Capitol, etc and staying in touch with air traffic controllers) generally observe the city from above, as the airplane is doing here. If I squint hard enough I even get a glimpse of our house, just before the plane passes the Georgetown Reservoir on MacArthur Boulevard.
Then starting around time 1:40 comes a minute of video that is moving in an entirely different way. This plane, which has been in the air for about an hour, is just making its left turn to fly past the Lincoln Memorial and over the crowds along the Mall, when the trouble begins. Smoke obscures the view from the cockpit; the pilot looks over his shoulder to see what appears to be a slumped-down figure in the rear seat; and he takes the next steps. I marvel at the immediate, calm decisiveness of the pilot, and the matching calm, utterly unflapped competence of the air traffic controllers. We’d all like to think we’d handle surprises this smoothly. These people really did.
The rest of the video consists of replays of the crucial moments, and long text-annotations (which you can hit Pause to read) of “lessons learned” from the air-safety people. All involved deserve respect. And for one more retrospectively moving angle, you can’t help but think of the young people people who coped with similar emergencies during real missions long ago.
While I’m at it, let me mention a related, beautiful aviation video. It’s produced by a D.C.-area pilot and former finance-world figure named Thomas Rege, whom you see here.
Rege has started the Rege Aviation Foundation, to involve more women and minority-group Americans in professional and amateur aviation. He is also the narrator and main figure in this Vimeo feature, which is designed to convey some of the wonder of the process of flight.
For most of human history, the possibility of flight was confined to myths and nighttime dreams. A century-plus past the Wright Brothers, flight now conveys either jam-packed discomfort among the (statistically very safe) airlines, privilege for the private-jet world, or danger for other kinds of small planes. Rege’s video is meant to illustrate some of the beauty of the process — as the Avenger clip does in a different way.
Notes for specialists: the airplane Rege is flying is a new Cirrus SR-20. It is made by Cirrus Aircraft in Duluth, the company I’ve written about for years, and is one of the famous “planes with a parachute” that can be lowered safely to the ground by a parachute in the event of an impending crash. I bought an original-mode SR-20 when they first came on the market 15 years ago; I sold that when we moved to China; and now I have a used 2006-vintage SR-22.
The airport shown in Rege’s takeoff is Bay Bridge airport, W29, which is just beneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge east of Baltimore and Washington. The dramatic mountain scenes later in the video were shot in Virginia and from a drone rather than a very low-flying airplane.
Before any aviation-world people write in to point this out: Yes, early in the video Rege is getting into the cockpit even though a towbar is still attached to the plane’s front wheel. That was just for the film; he wasn’t planning to start the engine or taxi around with the towbar still there. And, yes, the grounding wire used to prevent static-electricity sparks while refueling Cirrus airplanes is usually attached to the exhaust pipe, rather than to the tiedown ring as you see here. This is for-the-record fine print about a beautiful video presentation.