Some things in life are just quintessentially perfect. You know it instinctively deep-down in your heart without having to ever consciously ask yourself...”do I like this; is this right?” Some experiences like this can be sensed rather than defined, much like spirituality. One item on this list of perfect things for me is that unique scent that all aircraft emit and pervade while either sitting quietly in a hangar, or dancing through the skies.
Even though I often think, tongue-in-cheek of the modified words of Robert Duvall in the 1979 epic Apocalypse Now where he says (and I substitute): “Smell that?..You smell that?..Nothing in the world smells like that...I love the smell of Jet-Fuel in the morning!”; this happens to me every-time that I park my car and get out at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport where my office is.
Coupled with the smell of burnt aviation kerosene, another sensory trigger for me is the noise as well. Unfortunately in this modern age of carbon credit-touting politically correct twits, black-smoke belching-ear splitting jet exhausts have overall been relegated to the past. It is a rare event now when a straight-pipe turbojet flies in and out of my home airport (thankfully we do have several Sabre 60’s that occasionally blast into the skies), but nothing compares to a venerable Stage-Two Gulfstream, or a Viper-powered Hawker, or a Learjet 23. I’m sorry but all three of these birds are music to my ears!
Airshows are about the only places now where you can still joyfully live through and cower under that glorious noise and black smoke. My trigger is tripped when I talk about the type of sonic wave that you get to feel on the inside of your insides. Of course your heart strings are a-twanging and you might have sweaty palms from the adrenaline that is being mainlined directly into your bloodstream so yes you are felling this great noise and spectacle; however I talking about that ribcage thing where you’re largest body cavity, your chest and stomach resonate like a guitar body. That type of cachophany is so great that you experiment to see if the intensity in your guts changes if you open and close your mouth. Without an afterburning jet-pipe available to you, a similar type of resonance can be frequently experienced by bashing on a bass drum that came from a parade band. I guess that gut sounds like those are just instinctual and therefore they race to the core of the many men out there like me.
Jets are all fine and dandy, but real aircraft are constructed from wood, dope and fabric, and the only true path to achieving mental nirvana is in my opinion, the time spent around a flying machine that has a smoke-soot-oil-fire-breathing radial or V12 behemoth bolted to it. Sex doesn’t even start to describe the emotions stirred within by one of these witchy-beauties!
So let’s get back to the premise of this article: ‘that smell thing.’
Most aircraft today are manufactured by the mating of aluminium, steel, copper, plastic, rubber and a touch of leather to complete their creation. Added to these smells is the aroma of hydraulic fluid, engine oil, 100LL or Jet-A. This amalgam of scents produce a heady bouquet that will turn the head of even the most casual observer as they point their eyes and nose towards the emitter of that lovely smell. These smells communicate soul-to-soul as far as I’m concerned.
The true connoisseur however has a demanding nose that won’t get out of bed for this modern- aviation smell as described above. No the only thing to get the died-in-the-wool enthusiast’s Goosebumps raised is the delectable perfume created by the symbiotic relationship created and found in harmony within the structures of a wood and fabric aircraft of the time period between the wars of the 20th century. Forgive me for being rude towards the earlier aircraft of that age, but personally I don’t savour much the smell of castor oil which was predominate in the total-loss oil systems found on many early aero engines.
I have an uncle in England who made a deep impression on me at a young and tender age, one weekend when he and my aunt motored down to our farm in the Westcountry from London in a Porsche. His words were: “Cor I bloody love this car, because it smells just like it would if I was riding inside a lady’s handbag.” Strange words many of you might think, but you know what uncle, I get it!
To make my eyes glaze over just add the following ingredients all mixed together in the shape of a DH82 Tiger-Moth, or DH98 Mosquito:
• Freshly mown grass
• Sitka Spruce
• Mahogany and Birch plywood
• Aerolite resin
• Butyrate doped Mercerized cotton
• Tanned cowskin leather
• Cochineal sozzeled control cables
• Petrol grease
• Mineral hydraulic and engine oils
• High-octane aviation spirit
• Natural India rubber
• Aeroshell 7 grease
• Canvas webbing
• Compass fluid
Oh, that beautiful airplane smell! Who says that machines can never have a soul?
What does your favourite airplane smell like?