- Imagining Flight: Aviation and Popular Culture
Starting with the premise of technology as a captivating power, A. Bowdoin van Riper offers to chart the progress of aviation as reflected in popular culture. The engaging series of vignettes he offers suggests that the fascination aeronautics exercises on humans is due to the combination of god-like power it bestows, the ability to travel fast, and its very symbolism, an end in itself (pp. 4-6). Over six chapters, the author has chosen a thematic approach as a means to synthesize what would otherwise require an encyclopedia. "Imagining the Air Age" surveys the multiple promises and fears early aviation elicited, from women's liberation to war in the air. The culture of flying as embodied in "Pilots as National Heroes" shows how the implicit combination of fear and awe associated with aviation found its expression in the adulation of fliers. In a similar manner, "The Allure of Air Travel" makes clear that airline advertising was essential to convincing average travelers to become air passengers. The irony of turning an adventure, flying, into routine is not lost on van Riper, and he does a nice job of exposing this dichotomy. A similar approach is echoed in his closing chapter on the space program, thus echoing Howard McCurdy's point about the problems with NASA's culture of exceptionalism.
Van Riper's synthesis, although outstanding, is not without problems. For example, the chapter on "Death from Above" offers a good survey of the English literature on the subject. Yet it includes a discussion of 11 September 2001 which only lists military and novelized precedents. It is as if there had never been murder-suicides on commercial flights before, or these had never been covered. This is an unfortunate oversight, for elsewhere in his book, [End Page 261] when discussing plane crashes, van Riper shows convincingly how important a role live coverage has played in raising our awareness of aviation tragedies.
The same wish for deeper analysis stems from his intriguing discussion of plane crash movies. Van Riper rightfully suggests that the stereotype of the passenger saving the flight relates directly to our psychological wish to master our fates. The many films he lists throughout his book tend to confirm this, but only in the conclusion does he touch on the central draw of such material (without specifying it). What attracts spectators is in fact the clichéd train wreck phenomenon: a morbid fascination prevents us from looking away.
Overall then, van Riper's selection of materials from such a wide array of sources is excellent. There are occasional misspellings of proper nouns, which would confuse a lay reader wishing to learn more. The tools of analysis, including the placement of aviation within wider popular cultural frames (from song to political campaigning), are generally limited. Perhaps a somewhat tighter focus would have done a better job of conveying van Riper's factual information. Nonetheless, his final point about aviation being a symbol of power, whether real or imagined, suggests a valuable base from which to teach students the fascination with aviation's technological sublime, or even to pursue advanced inquiry into its many facets.