656. The arousing (VII)
In 1986, a twenty-one-year-old aircraft mechanic, Howard Foote, decided to borrow the A-4 Skyhawk, a jet fighter, he had been assigned to work on. Foote had wanted to be a pilot himself, but he had been washed out because he had a medical condition. The lure was too strong for him: so he took the Skyhawk for a 45-minute joyride, performed a few acrobatic stunts—and paid for it with 4 months in the brig. “The Howard Foote Story”, to give it its full daytime TV title, had a happy conclusion: Foote later became a test pilot, an independent contractor for NASA—so he ended up with what he always wanted.
Roughly 30 years, two generations, later Richard Russell—a twenty-nine-year-old ground service agent, a fancy name for someone who tows aircraft about the runway—flitched an empty Bombardier Q400, a medium-sized passenger jet, and took it for a flight over Seattle. As with Foote, he performed a number of stunts—and these stunts included a barrel roll that concluded a mere ten feet from the water. The antics impressed the military F-15 pilots who had been scrambled to intercept the errant jet. Although Russell knew how to land the aircraft, he concluded his flight with a crash into an island.
The two incidents are the difference between a joy ride and a death ride, and the difference also illustrates the change in expectations in America two generations apart. Although both men had junior roles at their respective airfields, I suspect Foote always had more raw potential than Russell—even so, since Russell managed to fly an aircraft, thanks to what he learned via flight simulators, we can say that while he might never have become a test pilot like Foote he had above-average potential; perhaps he could have been an ordinary commercial pilot. If he had hung around and worked diligently, he would have been more than the guy with the tractor who is a glorified tow-truck driver for glamorous pilots.
Russell was immediately dubbed “Sky King” by the Internet, specifically by 4chan; he was taken, as with the “virgin spree-killer” Elliott Rodger, as emblematic for ennui in the modern West—particularly for young white men. The “Sky King” designation emerged, ironically, from the mid-2010s slang designation for “a winner” or “a mate”—“You’re all my kings.” “Keep winning, kings.”; the term is usually self-deprecatory and ironic and also recalls the slogan by the mid-1930s Louisiana demagogue Huey Long, “Every man a king.”
Russell seems to have been somewhat a sad sack; nominally, in flight, he chalked up his actions to the airport’s minimum wage, but no one carries out such a stunt over money—the real motivation was the desire for recognition, thumos. Russell appealed to 4chan for several reasons, not least an iconic shot that captured the Bombardier as it flew into the sunset—the general feel was synthwave, melancholic, romantic. When Russell asked air traffic control if he could be a pilot if he landed the plane successfully, ATC—in an attempt to placate him—replied in the affirmative; Russell then replied, “Nah, I’m a white guy.” Rather self-pitying—partly prompted by ATC’s blatantly insincere manipulation—yet in keeping with his general character; he was reputed to be a quiet, diligent Christian—he failed to be sufficiently assertive with other people. His “niceness” led to self-hatred and self-pity; eventually, the anger burst out in an enormous stunt to demonstrate to people that he was a “terror of the earth”, to express his unrealised potential.
The “white guy” comment merely reflected the current propaganda environment in the West where straight white males are endlessly denigrated: the pusillanimous Russell then used this general media environment to account for his own actions, for his “Meh, whatever—I guess” drift through life—a generally comfortable life. The difference between these two amateur aerobatic events is the difference between the general confidence in America at the societal level; the barometer has changed, it now reads: despair, hopelessness.