It was the Morocco part that pushed the envelope. President Clinton, a man not averse to the perquisites of traveling in a customized 747 with the words "United States of America" on the side, traveled Friday to the Kennedy-Bessette Mass in New York City, then returned to Washington, then flew to Cincinnati to drop in on a fund-raiser, then got back in Air Force One and flew to Denver, switched to a C-20 jet for the jump over the mountains to Aspen, conferenced with some Democrats, flew back to Washington, and then--the topper--the thing that really made the weekend--let's take a break here for a carriage return--
--flew across the Atlantic Ocean to Morocco for the funeral of King Hassan II--at this point we're still only on Sunday--and then flew back home Sunday night, across the ocean for the second time that day, arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning.
Political impulsiveness? Attention Deficit Flying? We will leave such judgments to others, and merely note that this is the latest example of a much broader phenomenon: the shrinkage of the world to dimensions that are borderline pathetic.
So small has the world become that the president's there-and-back across the ocean barely registers a mention in the press. Morocco might as well be Fairfax County. The shrinkage is not just dimensional (time and space) but psychological. Oceans are puddles to be jumped. Mountains are speed bumps. Just about the only place without regularly scheduled jetliner service is Antarctica, in winter.
Go down to the local Safeway and notice the fresh crab meat from Thailand. Go to www.horse-ex.com and you can order up a thoroughbred from New Zealand. Your pretty, unwilted flowers may have started to bloom in South America. Call an 800 number and you can have a genuine New York City pizza from a place called Broadway Jerusalem II delivered anywhere in the world. "I hand-delivered a pizza to Japan, and that's going into the Guinness Book of World Records," boasts owner Eddie Fishbaum.
You can send a package in the afternoon from Japan and it will arrive the next morning in Washington. (It's harder the other way around only because when it's the afternoon in Washington it's already tomorrow morning in Japan.) Businesses now engage in what is called "just in time" inventory management, so that instead of sitting in warehouses, the innumerable parts and supplies and widgets and sprockets are always in motion. Federal Express, it might be noted, has a fleet of 600 planes delivering to 210 countries. "FedEx connects 90 percent of the world's gross domestic product in 24 to 48 hours" is how spokesman Jess Bunn puts it.
The planet is 24,901 miles in circumference--a number that simply isn't very impressive anymore. Earth is now sort of . . . cute.
"Time and distance are really no longer barriers. You can get halfway around the world--which of course is as far as you'd want to go--in 12 hours," notes Bob vanderLinden, curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum.
What shrank the world? Everyone is obsessed these days with the Internet, the great wonder of electrical engineering and microprocessing. But we should pay homage, too, to a mechanical wonder, a thing of delicate but brilliantly simple engineering: The jet engine.
Precisely 50 years ago this week (spot the news peg!), the first jet-powered commercial aircraft, a de Havilland Comet, made its inaugural test flight. It was nearly twice as fast as a propeller plane. This was a key step in the process of making air travel an ordinary fact of life, rather than a nutty obsession for adventure addicts, fighter pilots and absurdly rich people wearing white suits and ascots.
Half a century ago, airline travel was still a grueling and exotic proposition. To put Clinton's weekend drive-thru-lane trip to Morocco in perspective, we might recall the first flight of a sitting U.S. president--to Morocco, as it happens.
In 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed to meet secretly with Churchill and other Allied leaders to discuss the war. He certainly didn't have time to take a slow boat across the ocean. Due to wartime hazards he also had to take a circuitous route. First he took a train to Miami. There he boarded a Pan Am flying boat, the Dixie Clipper, which took him to Trinidad. Then he flew to the coast of Brazil, and then across the Atlantic to British Gambia, changing planes for the final flight to Casablanca. The flight time alone on the trip, both ways, was 90 hours. His trip, compared with Clinton's Sunday jaunt, was practically Magellanic.
The basic problem with propeller planes was that they had piston engines with innumerable moving parts, all these spark plugs and magnetos and carburetors and valves and things going whackety-whack and wonka-wonka-wonka and kachug-kachug. Along came the jet engine, and it had a single moving part, a turbine, a thing going ffflurrrrrrrr. The design was devastatingly simpler and more efficient and, most of all, safer. Savvy travelers to this day, hurtling high above the Earth, can reassure themselves that their steed has only a single moving part (even if, as moving parts go, it's a doozy).
The first Comet was an unpainted aircraft, silver (the color, not the metal), with four engines buried in the roots of the wings. Comets had a tragic design flaw that didn't manifest itself immediately: After many trips, they tended to disintegrate in midair. They just broke apart, explosively, and fragments of the plane and all the passengers would rain into the sea. The problem was metal fatigue. No one had flown planes so high, under pressure. After a while the metal wore out as surely as a paper clip bent repeatedly by a fidgeter. The Comets were retooled and strengthened, but among aviation buffs the crashes remain legendary.
The rival Boeing 707 came on line in 1958, just in time to make sensible the move of the Dodgers and Giants to California. Suddenly there were all these metropolises springing up in remote deserts and rain forests and godforsaken cow pastures. Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Portland, Seattle. These are now suburbs of New York City and London and Hong Kong.
In the 1960s, there arose something called the Jet Set. This was the elite, fabulous, orthodontically immaculate, whimsical slice of society that could afford to travel by plane in a time when air fares were exorbitant. The Jet Setters read Ian Fleming novels (which were about Jet Setters) and gambled in Monte Carlo and skied in St. Moritz. No one actually knew anyone in the Jet Set, but they heard about them and saw them in movies and, at the animal level, hated them.
The efflorescence of the Jet Set was brief. Flying became just another way to get around. In 1978 the government deregulated air travel. Discount airlines proliferated. Planes became Greyhound buses. Now, people don't even wear their best clothes when they fly. The sophisticates ask for aisle seats; only children and other people with imagination and wonder would dare be caught looking out the window and marveling at the world below.
The Jet Aircraft Gallery at the National Air and Space Museum is interesting but certainly not the snazziest in the building. Some of the displays look faded. In the context of the museum, the jets are underpowered: They have to compete with spaceships and rockets and Apollo capsules and lunar landers. Still, there were folks milling around the gallery this week, like David Inman, who came from Illinois on a $179 round-trip ticket (Metrojet), and Walter Townsend, a Utah physician, who said, "We're able to see the jet exhibit because we came here on a jet and had affordable tickets." And there was Valya Vozgenikov, a flight attendant for Air Canada, who had in all her years of flying never seen a jet engine up close, and found it strikingly large and simple.
"I find the simplicity of it reassuring. The more involved it is, the more things that can go wrong," she said.
On top of one of the display cases is a model of a Comet 3, from 1959, one of the designs that didn't disintegrate in midair. It's a quaint artifact; Comets are extinct, obviated by newer designs, larger jets, grander aeronautic ambitions. A Boeing 747 is, as the writer Barry Lopez pointed out, twice as long as the distance that Orville Wright flew at Kill Devil Hills in 1903, and can haul 122 tons of cargo, or a single president and his entourage.
For the record, President Clinton plans today to jump the puddle and visit Sarajevo, in the Balkans, and in a spasm of uncharacteristic leisure will spend the night in Europe before speeding home tomorrow.