It had been such a grand romance, America and the airplane.
Contrails and the wild blue yonder.
Lindbergh, the Wrights, Amelia Earhart. The Jenny. The Connie. Window seats. The Blue Angels. The jet set. The sound barrier.
O beautiful, and friendly skies, where "It's a bird, it's a plane....
We were leaving on a jet plane, needed a ticket for an airplane, were 8 miles high, and flying, man, to touch the face of God.
Boeing, Northrop, McDonnell Douglas: We built the best planes, the most planes, the most beautiful planes. And they in turn helped build cities like Miami and Seattle.
For us, the airplane was progress and freedom--especially freedom. "When you think what freedom is," a pilot and aircraft mechanic, Tull Morgan, says, "one of the first things that comes to my mind, is you're free to go flying in this country .... It's one thing that stands Americans apart from the rest of the world."
In our skies, the sun was always bright, the sky azure, the utopian highway always open.
Until, on a perfect morning, in a country whose mainland had rarely seen the airplane used as an intentional tool of death, four airplanes streaked out of the waning summer.
And the romance came to an end.
Suddenly, Americans watched the skies fearfully, as others have in London, Dresden and Hanoi. There were fighters over Washington and New York. No-fly zones went up. Just like in Iraq. Airports closed. Washington's Reagan National gingerly reopened just last week. The government worried about crop dusters--crop dusters!--spraying lethal germs on our cities instead of insecticide over soybeans.
"I think everybody, now, when they see airplanes up in the sky, has a very strong negative association," says James R. Hansen, professor of aerospace history at Auburn University.
Here was madness--a warped, airborne dystopia, one scholar called it. Passenger planes as missiles, not that different from the V-2s the Nazis launched at London. It was a perversion of something more American than the skyscraper, or the Pentagon.
And yet. "We're very innocent," says Kathy Allen, director of the College Park (Md.) Aviation Museum. Technology, by itself, is always neutral. Others have known what airplanes can do, for good or evil.
Perhaps, we should have guessed.
"Night already shadows the eastern sky. To my left, low on the horizon, a thin line of cloud is drawing on its evening sheath of black. A moment ago, it was burning red and gold. I look down over the side of my cockpit at the farm lands of central Illinois .... In a few minutes it will be dark, and I'm still south of Peoria." So Charles Lindbergh began his 1953 book, "The Spirit of St. Louis," about his early life as an airmail pilot and his famous New York-to-Paris flight 26 years before. A lot had changed for Lindbergh, and for aviation, in that quarter-century. He had lost a child, and had become enamored of fascism. The airplane had become one of the most destructive weapons in history.
But Lindbergh was able to go back to the time before war had filled the skies of Europe and Asia with bombers, before his afflicted life of celebrity, and recall, in one of the best books written on flying, the majesty of aviation.
It was a glorious time. The Wright brothers' rickety assemblage of muslin, wire and wood, more winged insect than bird, had evolved from a contraption that simply achieved powered, controlled flight for the first time into an engine for progress.
Now it was: how far, how fast, how high. L.A. to New York. New York to Paris. The North Pole. The South Pole. The air races. Pilots--led by the tall, fair Lindbergh--were gods. And their airplanes were exotic and benevolent.
For some Americans, aviation was messianic, says Stanford historian Joseph J. Corn, a vehicle so beneficent that it that would inevitably lead to human perfection.
Sure the Germans had already bombed London in 1915, but that was across the sea and, anyhow, it was all over now.
What lay ahead was the future. Planes became sleek, aerodynamic, chic. Advertisements showed orderly airline traffic cruising above the metropolis of Tomorrow.
Artists painted portraits of airplanes. Comic books appeared with aviation themes, including "Hall of Fame of the Air," co-authored by famed World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Writers sought to capture that sensation "of perfect peace," as Wilbur Wright called it.
"The thing that has made planes and airports so powerful is the vision of elsewhere and other times," says Hamid Naficy, chairman of the department of art and art history at Rice University.
"They sort of take us somewhere else, wherever we want to go, whether it's Tahiti or whether it's Kilimanjaro, or a new job in L.A."
For aviation's first generation, airplanes represented triumph.
"Why does the whole notion of flight strike such a chord in us?" asks Tom Crouch, biographer of the Wright brothers and a senior aeronautical curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. "Why do we have dreams of flight, and falling, and all that?"