Sunday, July 12, 2009

Flying in America (L'aviation aux Etats-Unis)

Some French believe that France was the country that brought aviation into the world. "What about the Wright Brothers," people ask, incredulously. "Ah, an accident of history," is their reply.

And while I am not a chauvinist (a word derived from the possibly apocryphal story of French soldier Nicolas Chauvin), I would like to see America get its due. Plus, if you are obsessed like I am, everything is related to aviation, and aviation is related to everything.

For the record, I really like France. I have been there twice. I speak French well enough that I never hesitate to converse with people. I have never faced the arrogance other American francophones report. Both trips involved mathematical conferences, but once I did manage an hour of flying an Archer above les Callanques, the cliffs of the Mediterranean coast.

Many years ago, I read Jules Verne's De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon). Verne was French, of course. One of the book's premises stuck with me: when you want to have something built, ask an American, because Americans can build everything. This corresponded to my observation of the American tendency to solve problems by building machines to do so. This perspective informs everything from the Grand Coullee Dam to Chicago politics ("the machine") to the Boeing 777. Not that Americans have a monopoly; I've made several flights on Air France's A340s, as a passenger, of course.

I was reminded of all this by a remark by Lexington in this week's Economist. The Economist has no masthead, and none of the columnists are known by personal name. Each uses a nom de plume (another French phrase): Bagehot writes about England, Charlemagne writes about Europe, Lexington writes about the USA, and so forth. This was the last column for the current Lexington, and he compared his time in America with Alexis de Tocqueville's visit in 1831. de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, had noted that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” and Lexington praised this same virtue.

What does all this have to do with aviation? de Tocqueville's remark reminds me of my philosophy that "all pilots make mistakes, but good pilots detect them sooner and fix them better." The greatness of society, its "ability to repair [its] faults" echoes the greatness of a superior PIC.

So, a French author highlights America's greatness at building machines. Another sees the essence of good piloting in the nature of American society. No, the Wright Brothers were not an accident of history; the French themselves acknowledge America's superiority in aviation as a consequence of the American personality.

This is not to malign France's contribution, going back to the Montgolfier Brothers' first manned flight, the airship triumphs of Alberto Santos Dumont (although, strictly speaking, he was from Brazil), and Blériot's first crossing of the English Channel. France brought us the Comet, and the beautiful Falcon jets from Dassault Aviation.

Being magnanimous, I would offer to share the glory. But Verne and de Tocqueville have declined that honor. It's ours.

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