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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): Culture and Politics

By Guillaume de Syon

Culture and Politics

To borrow a phrase from the French minister of culture, A. Filipetti, “culture is the hard disk of politics.”  Incorporating all political studies of aviation into this essay would prove difficult.  Still, in relation to tensions caused by nationalism, several new studies show clearly the impact of aeronautics.  In Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy, Jeffrey Engel’s discussion of Cold War culture displays the resulting influence of American diplomacy on British aircraft production.  He finds that another Cold War existed in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, opposing the two allies and demonstrating the importance of aeronautics in defining patriotic discourse.

Related to this matter of ownership, in Who Owns the Sky?: The Struggle to Control Airspace from the Wright Brothers On, legal scholar Stuart Banner surveys the history of airspace control, offering a wonderful narrative of intellectual and political history that raises issues not usually considered in the realm of aeronautics.

The politics surrounding major technology projects have of course become central points of inquiry.  Though this topic goes beyond this essay’s intent, a few examples can help situate the field.  In Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry, F. Robert van der Linden posits that the foundations of the modern American airline industry must be related to the federal initiatives established as part of Theodore Roosevelt’s concept of “new nationalism,” to which liberal Republicans subscribed.  This ideology of “good” government involvement applied to aviation makes clear that the interaction of culture and politics does not have an easily identifiable border.

For example, the 1960s witnessed a series of supersonic transport aircraft developed in the United States, Europe (France and the UK), and the Soviet Union.  The push for speed became an end in itself, even though the American project was eventually canceled.  An early account of the American supersonic transport (SST) cancellation is Mel Horwitch’s Clipped Wings: The American SST Conflict.  Horwitch identified a new cultural trend in the form of environmental opposition as an important factor in the project’s failure.  Eric Conway’s High Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945-1999, goes much further, however, in charting the confluence of economics, politics, and nationalism in the context of Cold War politics to understand the reasons for the government’s funding of such a project.  A dearth of sources exists where the Soviet SST is concerned.  On the Concorde front, though, Kenneth Owen’s Concorde and the Americans: International Politics of the Supersonic Transport, though ostensibly about politics alone, hints at cultural attitudes playing a clear role in the acceptance of the European-built SST.