On the Genesee bridges as the planes soared over us on their return to the airport, I wondered if this is what suburban Londoners experienced in 1940 or Berliners in 1943: startled civilians watching Luftwaffe or RAF bombers en route to destroy the heart of their cities. Or when biking the wooded trail, even more horrifically, was this what Vietnam felt like when soldiers or civilians were strafed or napalmed? Or at the airport where you can see Rochester in the distance, I imagined the unimaginable, drone aircraft swooping over the city dropping bombs.
Most of the people I spoke with were thrilled with the spectacle as well they should be. At the same time, I did meet a few who sensed the closeness between the beauty of the spectacle and its closeness to the horrors of war.
When I mentioned my feeling to one man taking pictures from the bridge, he concurred, calling the spectacle terrifying when the image of war is conjured, adding that the roaring of the jets designed for excitement in peacetime is meant to terrorize in wartime. He imagined how magnified the terror would be if the planes were dropping incendiaries.
Two women were awed by the impressive techniques of the airmen and airwomen flying in tight formations. When I mentioned war, they agreed. The women wondered how people with PTSD or refugees from any recent war respond to the airshow. For some, it must be painful. The women wondered if the show could be done with civilian aircraft, akin to the old barnstorming days when daredevils walked on the wings while mid-air, but reasoned none existed able to match the Air Force planes.¹ One of the women also did not like fireworks that scare her dogs (and maybe some people too).
On the wooded path, I met Gagan Deep Singh Ahuja. From India, Gagan was wearing his RIT Class of 2019 shirt, having recently graduated with an MBA. A deeply philosophical man who practices meditation and yoga, Gagan is starting an organization to reform schools. Rather than stunting children with “success” regimens, we should nurture them as if flowers. Gagan was carrying binoculars but no camera; he “loves observing, not capturing.” He spoke of kayaking on the river, stopping to look into a deer’s eyes for 30 minutes.
Gagan came to the show after seeing airplanes from the 1930’s and 1940’s flying over Rochester earlier in the week. His elderly yoga teacher had actually flown in one of the same planes.
When I brought up the comparison with war, Gagan paused, then said that the airshow was not a bad thing. He did note that some of his friends trembled when first hearing and seeing the planes, thinking it was an air raid. Gagan also said people living in Syria experience aircraft in the sky far differently than Rochesterians who have known peace their whole lives.
Fundamentally, Gagan enjoyed the show because it is “the government showing its art and demonstrating a pinnacle of human achievement.” He marveled at how far air travel has come since the 1930’s. Gagan’s term stuck with me. The air show is art, the pilots painting swirling lines on the clouded canvas.
Gagan did have a slight feeling of sadness because the planes are also weapons of war. As he said, nobody likes war and the planes remind us that for all the good technology can do, it is can also be a tool of destruction.
Lt. Colonel Jones explained that the Civilian Air Patrol was formed in WWII, first consisting of men who wanted to be pilots but fell short of physical qualifications. The CAP has expanded ever since. Amongst other activities, Jones’ squadron has tracked downed aircraft, spotted local areas that have lost power, helped with missing persons and assisted aircraft that make hard landings at the airport that trigger emergency signals.
According to the 2018 Civilian Air Patrol FACT SHEET, amongst other activities, the CAP conducts 90 percent of inland search and rescue in the U.S., provides 450 chaplains and 500 character development instructors who minister to youth and adult members and help comfort survivors and victims of disasters, and provides disaster-relief photography and support to local, transports time-sensitive medical materials, bloproducts and body tissues when commercial resources are unavailable.
The CAP reminds me that airplanes can be vehicles of destruction, but also an artistic medium and a force for good.
¹ Adam Montoya researched civilian aerial teams:
“There are actually 4-5 world wide — Patriots Jet Team (US based), Breitling Jet Team (French), Baltic Bees (Latvian), Flying Bulls (Czech) — all flying the low cost Aero L-39. The Aero is still expensive, but can be bought on the used market for less than 400k. For a jet, I think of that as low cost. So my answer to the question (could civilians do this?) is yes. They are doing it now. Perhaps one of these teams could be invited for a second Rochester air show.”
SEE ALSO ON CIVIL WAR REANCTMENTS Bitten by the Civil War bug at the Tinker Homestead Encampment