Wings of the Navy

Technology can exalt as well as dwarf the individual. The Great War's machine guns staged a chattering pageant of impersonal slaughter; yet its warplanes brought forth paladins such as Frank Luke, Billy Bishop, and Baron von Richtofen, their decidedly individualistic exploits providing civilian newspaper readers with a pleasant contrast to the muddy anonymity of trench warfare. While the technology of flight has changed—awesomely so—the Lone Warrior mystique endures. Gallant, Anglophilic Argentine jet pilots pummeled British ships while rejoicing in nicknames and mannerisms lifted from old RAF movies, and in the film of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, Sam Shepard played test pilot Chuck Yeager as a retrofitted, laconic Westerner (the real hero's subsequent commercial endorsements were a letdown best reserved for mere "celebrities"). Computers and jet-age refinements, far from reducing combat pilots to the dreaded passivity of "Spam in a can"—a fate anticipated by the test pilots chosen to follow a chimpanzee as Mercury astronauts—simply underline their elite status in dealing with ever more complicated machinery and split-second decisions.

In the world of fiction, it's the reader who often finds himself swamped by hi-tech. In the first Naval Institute Press megabit, Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, many characters were purest plastic—mere...

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