Fall 1998

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The Thunderbirds Are Back

A Voice of Dissent


Robert J. Gregory

Most years late in September, when the leaves begin their autumn transformation into purple, red, orange, yellow, and rust, the Chemung County Air Show takes precedence over everything else. Because our family farm is only a couple of miles from the airport, naturally enough, I have a ringside seat. But, over the years, unlike most viewers of one of the more spectacular events in the region, I have mixed feelings about the show.

The other morning, the peaceful, endemic, industry-based air pollution was suddenly invaded by loud and decisive sounds: SEEEAAARRRRPPP, ZZZZSSWWOOOMMMMPP, and EEEEEEEIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRRPPPPPPP. The clouds were a canopy from which and into which these sounds echoed and reverberated. Suddenly four Thunderbirds swooped into view, and then quickly evaded sight by swarming like end-of-the-summer flies back into their hiding places in the heavens.

The sounds returned again and again, so intense and loud that I, like everyone else in the vicinity, had to go outside, search and sweep the skies with my eyes, and marvel at the sudden appearance and reappearance of these precision flyers, clustered closely together. Other Air Force planes too, swooped past, some at amazing speeds, but all at extremely low altitudes, so that the sounds which eventually followed, bounced roughly onto the barn and the house, banged and vibrated against the wood and the ground; their echoes coming from the fluffy-white clouds, to the rainbow-colored trees and the plants of the earth and to all points in between.

My venture outside enabled me to watch the practice runs of the F-16's, flying side by side, then in a wedge of four, next with two larger fighter jets, in a tight group of six. Traveling at hundreds of miles an hour they moved together as if joined by invisible cables, from left to right and right to left, then up and over and around, weaving a fantastic pattern of webbing throughout the skies.

All of us who watched were thrilled at the daring of the Thunderbirds, flying so closely together, and so intricately on and on. Terrific. Their flight paths must resemble the patterns of communications on the World Wide Web!

But as I watched I also saw the exhaust fumes, and then smelled the acrid odor of the burned aviation fuel augmenting the pollution hovering over Northeast United States, the smells combining into a chemical stench. The skies were being filled with white smoke trails; soon I would have even more trouble breathing.

The sounds from the aircraft exceeded the CAW CAWs of the nervous and fearful crows flying between nearby trees. In comparison with the sleek and smart and noisy planes, they looked minuscule and forlorn. Poor crows, utterly replaced in what once was their own private domain.

My woods is a couple hundred yards above and perhaps a half mile distant from the farm house. Thinking that a better view might be available there, I walked uphill to see. The alternate roars and smells continued, rolling forth and fading as the planes approached, then fled, back and forth, up and down. Their turning radius in flight seems to be measurable in feet, not miles, so that their sounds varied in pitch as well as decibels, quite suddenly. Their speed was so great that they were in the east, while the sound rushed around at me from the west.

At the top of the hill, I was able to see the flying machines better and to smell their stinking trails of exhaust. As the Thunderbirds swooped by, I realized that I was looking down on them, for they chose my valley, my own treasured farm land, to traverse at full speed. They were close, so close I could see the pilots in their cockpits, small figures in large planes, moving ever so fast, down through the valley. For what seemed like a couple of seconds, the trailing sound pulled me along into their wild ride. Momentarily, I thought how wonderful, how much fun, and how envious all people must be. What an enormous fantasy to exceed natural controls of time and space!

But then as the sounds banged and boomed, and the ground and I shuddered under that impact, rationality and long-term visions and responsibility returned. How much did those planes (toys?) cost? How much does the fuel and oil and supplies cost? How much do the pilots earn? How long do they train? I heard on television that the total cost to Chemung County was $200,000, but I wonder, what are the real costs beyond dollars spent?

What will be the effect on the people who fly the planes and who watch the show? Who spent their precious time, their wonderful skills on designing and building these airplanes and organizing their support? What will all this thrill flying mean to the viewers, even the performers, just next week? in a few years? Then there will be the environmental costs that may persist for a longer time.

During the afternoon, fly-bys roared past, again and again. All sorts of different planes flew through the sky just overhead, even a vintage B-25 just like in World War II. After a time, I stopped active watching, figuring that they would continue on the next day, after all, today was only practice. There would be two full days of air show.

Practice for the Chemung County Air Show is an important part of assuring that all get their money's worth, that safety standards are met, and that the public within hearing distance, 20 miles in every direction, will hear and therefore know that something is about to happen. "Good for business," I can hear the city leaders say, with smiles on their faces. I can visualize the television presenters stating that local business has become excellent.

My mind wandered back to the nostalgia of my farm. What would my grandfather have done with his flocks of chickens? Why, they would have been frightened right out of laying eggs. What would my dad have done with his herd of dairy cows? Of course, there are not many cows or chickens here anymore, I have only wild animals and birds to admire.

And then in the silence between planes, I heard the return of the call of the crows, then the alarm of a small flock of bluejays, and then as peace and quiet fell, the crickets opened up again. When another plane roared by, the crickets and I both gave up. I went inside, to retreat from the glamour and excitement of the great Chemung County Air Show.

That evening, questions continued to circulate in my mind. They were many, and were for the most part, not the questions often asked. Not the questions most people care about. Of course, there are no answers. Who does care, indeed? And so, I came to feel like an outsider, someone whose values were away from the mainstream, that center line down which the majority tread daily, year after year. I was at the outer edge, having wandered, perhaps too far, away. My values, derived from country living and family farming, have been passed by, too.

Thoreau faced similar problems, as did his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Outsiders travel a different road, encounter different questions and face strange views as compared with the winning and popular majority. In so doing, these aliens gain and offer something important to the victors, namely a vision of alternatives.

The majority ignores those on the fringes, except when some passionate outsider finds "truth" and seeks entry to the magic circle of idea brokers and points a finger to the unpleasant results from staging bewildering spectacles indifferent to peacefulness and private concerns that squander resources and abilities, contaminate the atmosphere, and expend enormous amounts of government tax revenues. On the other hand, The Thunderbirds, and their many supporters (even me when I was in Air Force ROTC long ago), would argue that they are the defenders of freedom, democracy, and justice. Perhaps so, but just perhaps, dissenting views need to be considered.

The Chemung County Air Show played August 15th and 16th this year. Join in some year and see a wonderful display of military and civilian aviation might. Come and bring your children, for they will be paying for this show and similar displays, all their lives long, as will their children and grandchildren. In fact, bring your camera so you can take pictures.

1998, Robert J. Gregory
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