Stubborn Facts: Technology in the Jet Age

Stephanie Turnbull, Jeremy Rossen, and Lauren Reinhalter

To writer E. B. White in 1949, New York was, for the first time, destructible. In his travel essay entitled Here is New York, he writes, “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

By the mid-20th century, Americans were becoming accustomed to the presence of aircrafts in both commercial and wartime functions. Technological advances in general aviation during the 1930’s led to the development of the lightweight Douglas DC-3, the first profitable passenger aircraft in the U.S. market. By 1950 45 million passengers were enjoying the convenience of air travel on lightweight jets like the Boeing 707. Once the stuff of science fiction, flight technology was now available to the middle class: It was the beginning of the Jet Age.

In 1950, it was no mistake that airplanes were machines of amazing convenience but also had the capacity for unprecedented devastation. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the use of aircraft as a mechanism of war was at the forefront of recent memory. Of course air armadas and strategic bombardment were factors in the First World War, but WWII further realized the potential of military aircraft technology: Pilot guided missiles known as Kamikazes were used by the Japanese empire in aerial attacks against Allied ships. In August of 1945, two Boeing B-29 Superfortresses– the Enola Gay and Bockscar– dropped the first and only two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing approximately 200,000 people and destroying 60% of those city’s infrastructure. The same machines that had delivered ultimate annihilation to two Japanese cities, ending the war, were re-purposed as machines of commercial air travel in post-war America.

The increasing presence of air traffic was felt keenly by New Yorkers since the opening of Mayor LaGuardia’s New York Municipal Airport in 1939. The demand for air travel grew so rapidly that the new airport reached flight capacity almost immediately. In 1943 construction began on the Idlewild Airport, now known as JFK International airport. According to the Office of Aviation Analysis, JFK is the busiest international airport in the United States, having handled almost 48 million passengers in 2011.

With eerie foresight, E.B. White concludes: “All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority.” Today, in post-9/11 New York, E.B. White’s “stubborn fact” remains an everyday reality.

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P. 54 “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese could quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.”


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