This dissertation uses postwar private aviation as a case study to explore intersections between technology, expertise, and user identity. Many pilots overtly embraced popular perceptions that personal planes could shrink time and space between distant destinations, and some actually used flying primarily for this reason. However, I argue that the majority of pilots were motivated to fly by social and cultural factors such as technological enthusiasm and the construction of gender, race, and class identity. Using manuscripts, published materials, oral histories, and objects as evidence, I focus on participants’ lived experiences as I explore the constellation of reasons that men and women engaged in this expensive and challenging pursuit.
World War II profoundly shaped the demographics and cultural landscape of postwar private aviation. In 1939, only one in 3,850 Americans knew how to fly. By 1950, nearly one in 270 held a pilot’s license. Most of these new pilots were white men, a direct reflection of who had access to various flight training programs during and after the war. These individuals created a “community of pilots” that celebrated traditional masculine virtues such the use of skill and technology to tame an unforgiving environment.
Flying was expensive, so cost proved a formidable gatekeeper to many who wished to join the community of pilots. But there were other barriers. Acculturation some symbolic, others in the guise of practical lessons – meant to welcome those deemed worthy and screen out those who lacked the “right stuff.”
The private flying experience extended beyond the cockpit to include socializing with like-minded individuals on the ground. “Hangar flying,” or talking about aviation, served as a cornerstone of the community of pilots. Through this activity, pilots exercised unwritten rules that governed who was an “insider” and who was not.
Compared to the significant transformations that swept American society during the postwar era, the demographics and culture of private aviation remained remarkably unchanged. Ultimately, I argue that postwar private pilots embraced modern technology in part in order to create and maintain a subculture rooted in the past.