Thursday, July 3, 2008

What do I collect?

My former boss, a man about whom tact and professionalism demand that I say no more, used to ask me "what do you collect?" The fact that has asked me this question at least three times during our interview process and my short ten month's tenure as his employee should have told me something about how much interest he actually had in his staff's well being, but that's water under the bridge (or whisky down the throat, if you want a more accurate image of that time).
But his question was an interesting one because, in many ways and for all his flaws, he was an astute observer of human nature and had a disturbingly accurate arsenal of stereotypes at his disposal. His question was the product of an assessment that people with my personality inevitable collect something. Typically something obscure or marginalized. So what is it?

Action figures? No, but it fits the type, doesn't it?

Slide rules?  Obscurely enough, I do own to, one a glorious Faber 2/83N arguably the finest slide rule ever produced, but I can't see myself investing in dozens, seeking out obscure models for Deitgzen, Hemi, Pickett, Aristo, or K&E.

Calculators? I thought about that one -- and I do want to get an HP-25 or an HP-67 and I'd gladly give a nut to have an HP-65 in my collection. Space (and budget) permitting, I'd love to have one of the RPN members of the HP-98XX family and an HP-9100 would be amazing... But I don't actually do these things.

Nor have I built my cryptology collection beyond the one NEMA machine. No Enigma, no little Hagelin wheel machines, just the one. There simply isn't enough on the market that is affordable to make it possible.

Books? Sure, I have hundreds, but its not really collecting. There is no purposeful seeking out of missing volumes, pride in obtaining a rare edition, etc. I love and treasure them, but as tools.
Vintage airplanes in a hangar somewhere, smelling vaguely of fuel and paint? No. I wish...but lacking Paul Allen's budget I need to keep my collecting under control. But what'd I'd give to have a half dozen classic aircraft sitting somewhere. I'd spend all my weekends lost in complex fantasies, sitting in the cockpits with a sandwich and a beer, playing with all the knobs and levers.
But wait a second (and my inductive writing style is finally reaching its almost inevitable conclusion), I can do that, only without the cockpit to sit in! I have it, the thing I collect: vintage aircraft manuals. I do carefully seek out missing spots, I genuinely feel a thrill when I get an obscure or rare item to add. I've done it for years, but with the internet, over the past three years the collection has grown from a half dozen to hundreds. Don't ask me how many.
I've got pilot's manuals or other documentation on everything from the obscure (BTD-1 Destroyer) to the pervasive (Boeing 737). From the doomsday (B-52) to the innocent (Cessna Mustang). From the complex (C-17) to the simple (Staggerwing). From the secret (F-117) to the well known (P-51). From the high performance (SR-71) to the mundane (Twin Otter).
They are fascinating for student of technology, tracing the evolution of one particular segment from almost its dawn (I don't think that Orville and Wilbur wrote a lot of documentation...) to its very cutting edge. There is plenty of potential for Walter-Mitty moments of mental digression. There is a chance to really get under the skin of some historic airplanes and, by extension, of those who designed and flew them.

Some of my favorites are from the late 1940's on through the middle 1960's. This era gave us amazing advancement in aviation -- the stimulus of the war pushed the envelope and then then period of consolidation when that amazing surge gathered itself up and pushed the electromechanical, slide rule, vacuum tube, and aluminum stage of engineering artistry to its conclusion.

It was an era when the ballpark sums of the slide rule demanded filtering through the mind of an inspired engineer. It was a time when a single gifted brain (Kelly Johnson, Edgar Schmued, Ed Heineman, Frank Whittle, Werner Von Braun, and a half dozen other titans) could shape a design from intuition and lead a project by sheer force of will. The resulting products were often bedeviled by vices and idiosyncrasies but pushed the state of the art at a pace unequaled since. And they rewarded the deft hands of a skillful pilot (and punished the ham fists of a clumsy one). It was an era when pilots were real pilots, engineers were real engineers (and let's not forget the small furry creatures from Alpha Centuri -- they were real too!).
For a variety of reasons, some of my favorites are not the actual flight manuals, the detailed collections of technical specifics and procedures, but the training manuals provided to introduce pilots to their new mounts during the 2nd World War. Thin on technical details, they never the less provide a wonderful zeitgeist. A smilingly benevolent picture of General Arnold on the inside cover, cheerful anecdotes of field successes, little humorous drawings of wayward Ensigns of Lieutenants who used too much throttle on the runup and the comic fate they suffered, and the pervasive use of all those wartime epithets of "Jap" or "Jerry" or "Hun" or whatever. The writing style is half legitimate indoctrination and half propaganda. Always positive on the friendly side, always optimistic. As I once put it in an email to a fellow collector:I love those training manuals from the 1940's and early 1950's, with their snappy and cheerful style. Phrases like "Your Corsair is a snappy flying bird!" instead of "Your Corsair will have nearly uncontrollable roll characteristics in the landing pattern!" And, if it is an AAF manual, the smiling face of Hap Arnold on the inside cover...kind of fatherly, experienced and stern yet supportive of young 2nd Lieutenants...

The drawings, moving in to the 1950's just got better for a time. The other picture above is from the pilot's manual to an F-89, an obscure 1950's all-weather interceptor. What more could I say? So overtly sexist as to be comical, aimed at the entirely male audience of military aviation. But again, there is a potentially telling look at the era and the community here.

Its not just the irony of that important information stacked buxom brunette. The technology of the late 1950's is also something I enjoy reading about. It was "chunky" in a way that made it easy to understand. You could truly look at a diagram of an airplane's
 flight control system (and the comparatively rare service manuals are the place to go for this) and understand what things did and how they worked.

Eventually things get less interesting. The Navy, in particular, starts to carve the information up into classified and non-classified sections. The aircraft, military and commercial, get sufficiently complex that the reading gets denser and denser. Still fascinating, from the airplane lover standpoint, but no longer the full retro experience on top. Thing hit their nadir, probably, in the Navy's current manual for the F/A-18, a volume so dryly procedural and simultaneously obtuse and neurotically obsessed with minutiae as to read like Tolkien's Silmarillion, only without the elves. Boeing's current commercial offerings are no better -- the 767's and 777's reading more like giant VCR manuals than the sort of in-depth technical examination that I enjoy -- and I tend to believe a qualified pilot needs. It is as if the F/A-18 manual substitutes prepared drills for every contingency for actual understanding and the 767 and 777 manuals are afraid of spilling any corporate secrets.

Part of this is increased complexity. The current generation of aircraft are incredibly complex but largely self monitoring. But, that said, Airbus actually produces significantly more interesting training documentation than Boeing does.