- Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America by Alan Meyer
Alan Meyer’s clear and articulate prose in Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America argues that “private pilots created and maintained a community and culture that demonstrated and celebrated ideals and behaviors traditionally associated with masculinity in America” (p. 7). Meyer characterizes the postwar American masculine ethos as physical and mental courage, aggression, autonomy, mastery, and technological skill. The central and most interesting idea presented is that technological enthusiasm—the masculine performance and skill over the machine—was more important to pilot identity than consuming the newest and safest technology.
Meyer draws inspiration from two main sources: Joseph J. Corn’s seminal The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950 (1983), which chronicles Americans’ depiction of pilots as “the personification of manliness” as they tamed and democratized the sky, and Technology and Culture’s 1997 special issue on the interconnectedness of gender and technology (p. 9). Meyer’s bottom-up approach to private aviation history is significant because it illuminates how flight acts as a vehicle for understanding culture and focuses on the importance of consumerism in terms of identity and flight technology. It is on this premise that Meyer commences analyzing four decades of flight following World War II. He first deconstructs postwar “Mr. General Aviation”—the white upper-middle-class pilot reigned supreme despite the democratized station wagon [End Page 288] image of flight technology. Meyer uses popular flight magazines, diaries, letters, and advertisements to find that, like The Right Stuff (1979) astronauts, Mr. General Aviation vehemently refused to abandon his masculine space of technological skill, competence, and control as he struggled to self-identify in the ever-changing world of Betty Friedan, C. Wright Mills, and Cessna’s “Family Car of the Air” (p. 96).
Pilots maintained their masculine space by engaging in what was considered masculine behavior. For instance, postwar pilots continued the traditional cutting off the shirttails—a garment typically worn by men—of new pilots and proudly displaying them in airport hangars. Pilots railed against postwar flight instruction guides that admonished teachers who verbally abused their students. The drill sergeant flight instructor turned boys into men and ordinary folks into pilots. In 1949 pilots lambasted the softening of flight after the federal government removed spin training as a requirement to earn a pilot’s license. Controlling a plane as it hurtled toward the ground was a hallmark of masculine performance. Pilots balked at simplified technology that threatened their identity as men and pilots such as the lightweight, “safe” Ercoupe and tricycle landing gear and instead tended to favor the skill and risk involved in a taildragger.
In airport hangars, pilots reminisced and rehashed dangerous feats, had a bite to eat, and relaxed in a masculine space in which outsiders were not welcome. Pilots fought against the beautification of their hangars that might attract new pilots such as women and “sissified” men. Pilots poured letters into AOPA Pilot, Aviation, and Flying arguing that safer technology only led to unqualified people flying and more accidents in the sky. Safer technology and automatic controls meant passivity with technology, and pilots equated passivity with femininity. Flight classes for women simplified the technological aspect of flight, while real men relished in the technological complexity.
Meyer comes full circle in his sixth chapter, “Gendered Communities,” in which he analyzes the language, images, and organizations used to keep women apart from the masculine community of flying. This included scathing editorials that mocked women pilots, dress codes for women’s air races, and sexualized images of women in airport hangars and on flying club websites. Meyer concludes that there was a place for women in postwar flying culture, but it was not at the controls.
While his book is the only history dedicated to the gender culture of private aviation, thus filling a tremendous gap, eager scholars interested in gender and flight can also turn to works such as Debbie Douglas’s American...