‘Performing Flight’: UW drama professor Scott Magelssen’s book research aviation by way of perspective of efficiency research
Arts & Entertainment Profiles | Research | UW and the community | UW notebook
December 2, 2020
Scott Magelssen, Professor of Drama at the University of Washington, examines American aviation from a performance studies perspective in his new book, Performing Flight: From the Barnstormers to Space Tourism, published this summer by the University of Michigan Press.
In the introduction, Magelssen writes from long-standing knowledge that performance is central to the “aesthetics of the space age” in art and culture, but that he learned a little more from research visits to aviation and space museums.
“I began to see the important role of performance in legitimizing the huge spending on developing space exploration in this country to American lawmakers and taxpayers. The idea for the book came from there. “
“Performing Flight”, he writes, “examines how aviation and space travel are fundamentally connected to the images, gestures, narrative tropes and performative actions that have shaped the business of flying in public perception and awareness.”
UW Notebook spoke to Magelssen about the book and how it comments on American culture.
They weave personal stories into the research narrative, from the love of airplanes and space as a child to visiting exhibits and almost weightlessness. What was the benefit of this more personal approach?
Scott Magelssen: My approach has long been that of a participant-observer. I use archival research and in-person interviews for much of my material, but when it comes to a zero gravity flight, or how a museum visitor experiences America’s history and the flight in a museum, there is no substitute for going through it firsthand – and then not only to share about what I learned, but also how it felt.
While working on the book, I saw that my own experiences could serve as a case study. From the perspective of a relatively common American child, I was able to tell a story of how ideas about America were shaped by airplanes and spaceships, and pilots and astronauts.
Our history as a nation is wrapped in aviation – technology, ingenuity, exploration, and the space race. Those things defined who we are as Americans and have been projected back on us in films like Star Wars and Top Gun. Some of our major tragedies also affect spaceships and airplanes, like the Challenger disaster and the hijacker attacks of September 11, 2001. In many ways, the most authentic way to talk about these things from my own point of view could be thinking of doing it .
The book deals with the performance aspects of flight, from the seedy early Barnstormers – the name comes from theater troupes – to today’s elite space tourists. They are so different but do they share a lot from a performance standpoint?
SM: You are right that they are so unique to each other. The early Barnstormers, most of whom never made the history books, scratched the income they generated from air travel or air shows, and sometimes slept overnight in fields under the wings of their planes.
Space tourists, on the other hand, are millionaires. They play astronauts but they become real astronauts by doing all the training and taking part in the missions.
Both were driven by the desire to push the limits, the exhilaration of flying, to see the world from a different perspective. They must have a certain kind of fearlessness, and because of this, pilots and astronauts, regardless of origin or income, are in our eyes a special kind of people, like our ambassadors in the sky.
You are writing from Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola gaywho dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in 1945, and how he starred in a live reenactment of the bombing in 1976 – complete with mushroom-cloud-like pyrotechnics – for a Texas aviation group It is said about our culture that such an event and others who like it, would be popular or even tolerated.
SM: We Americans have a long cultural history of war reenactment. Think of the popularity of civil war reenactment events. There are also war re-enactment groups and even hobbyists who re-enact recent conflicts, such as the war in Iraq.
For the Texan audience, the simulation of the bombing of Hiroshima celebrated a decisive victory that guaranteed the freedom and triumph of American ideals. The reenactment made this type of narrative possible. It was easy. Any account of the death of 80,000 Japanese victims and the burning and poisoning of 60,000 other victims was also omitted.
But even while the Texan audience cheered, many Americans found the re-enactment uncomfortable and inappropriate, and plans to resume it the following year were abandoned. That’s probably one of the greatest things this event shows us about our culture: as a nation, we can be pretty divided about how we view history and what events are worth celebrating.
They discuss the “pilot’s voice”, the steadfast tone of flight captains and astronauts, which was partially traced back by author Tom Wolfe to test the pilot Chuck Yeager. What are their other origins? And is the pilot voice evolving away from its exclusively white male origins?
SM: This cool, male captain’s voice, often with a kind of southern or western flair, has been heard by many of us on commercial flights and in depictions of pilots from popular culture from the cockpit via the PA system. The voice was famously attributed to Yeager von Wolfe in his book “The Right Stuff”. But I’ve found in my research and interviews that this is only part of the story. There are other theories as well.
One of my favorites is one I heard from talking to classic car volunteers at the Museum of Flight here in Seattle. They explained how most pilots learned to fly in the mid-late 20th century during World War II in Texas, where virtually all of our air force bases were at that time. The bases brought busloads of young women to dance, and the young pilots fell in love with them and married them, and moved near their wives’ families after the war. So they all gradually picked up Texan accents from their wives and in-laws. This is definitely a counter-narrative to the train coming from a male source like Chuck Yeager!
Many of the pilots I spoke to spoke of only taking on as co-pilots when flying with more experienced pilots on commercial passenger flights. It’s subconscious – something they’re not even aware of.
But yes, that is definitely changing. Not so much because the pilots are becoming less white and less manly. Women still make up only about 6% or 7% of all US commercial pilots, and even fewer are not white. I’m writing the change back to a generation change, and because a lot more pilots are trained commercially now than they are trained in the military.
You write that you understandably found it difficult to write about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you felt that the book required it. What did you learn?
SM: It was disheartening indeed, both because it was such a traumatic event and because I knew the idea of viewing the attacks as an achievement would be offensive to some people. However, my background in performance studies is based on the approach that we can view all aspects of human behavior and action as performance, and if I were to turn this lens for performance studies on Barnstormers and pilot voices as well as Paul Tibbets’ bombing of Hiroshima, then I could cannot avoid asking how a performance study approach could help us rethink the 9/11 attacks.
The use of jet planes in the attacks was particularly surprising and shocking to the Americans precisely because planes and pilots had become an integral part of American culture, and because the pilot’s cool, steadfast voice instilled the idea of that plane in us – travel was safe – it was about sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the flight.
For more information, please contact Magelssen at [email protected]
Day (s): Drama School • Scott Magelssen