When I was kid, I was obsessed with airplanes. I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since I went on to major in aerospace engineering, but I remember a particular middle-school trip to Washington DC where the highlight for me was, of course, the National Air and Space Museum. Like all museums, you finish at the gift shop, and this gift shop was like a candy store. So many books on cool planes! Bréguet 14, P-38, SR-71, X-15. I bought myself a book about the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.
For someone like me in the 1970s, this was the kind of book that you could only get at the National Air and Space Museum. In a pre-internet world, I was never going to find a book about the F-14 anyplace else. After all, my hometown library stocked only a few shelves on aviation. This book had all kinds of intoxicating details in it: specifications, performance numbers, production variants, squadrons where it was deployed, and lots of pictures. It was perfect catnip for eighth-grade me. I felt like I was learning how to fly an F-14. But really, I was memorizing a lot of zero-context factoids.
For instance, I remember salivating over the cockpit diagrams. I learned the names of the instruments and where they were, but I couldn’t tell you much about what they did. So for instance, I knew the BDH Indicator was in the right instrument panel. But what does BDH stand for? I could guess, but I wasn’t sure.
The original inspiration for this post was a video, a video that reminded me of the gift of the web: bottomless context. These days, you can follow any thread and keep learning more and more. Of course, this means we’ve traded the hazard of too little context for the hazard of never-ending gopher holes. But on balance it’s a much better place to be. It takes no time at all to find a well-labeled F-14 cockpit with every instrument carefully explained. Here’s that BDH Indicator. I mean, that Bearing Distance Heading Indicator
But as much fun as it is to find endless pages of data, what I most value are videos created by experienced practitioners. Here’s the video that inspired this post. It was posted by one Navy pilot, and then commentary was added by another Navy pilot. It’s just a beautiful example of story and data contextualized by experience. Appropriately, it’s called “What Are They Doing?” That’s what I want to know, and this is the guy who can tell me.
I love hearing him talk about the disruptive “burble” that complicates the approach. He calls your attention to exactly what the pilot is doing with his hands, where he is looking, and what radio calls he’s making. He also gives some emotional context. We are informed that the last landing in the video would have been embarrassing for the pilot (“That is most likely a one-wire. It sucks. I’ve been there.”). These are things you’d never know without his help.
What would teen me have made of all this? I really don’t know. But I’m convinced that all this access to information and context (and community, which I didn’t even address here) is going to mean that the obsessed teens of the world are going to be building some incredible things in the coming years. Much more exciting than my crappy eighth-grade science project, I can tell you. I’m looking forward to it.