I’m always charmed by the enthusiastic, quasi-mass marketing of aircraft in the 1920s. If the manufacturers had had their way, the average family would have had a Travel Air or a Cessna or a Stearman tied down in the backyard just to keep up with the Joneses. Not all that wild a notion in the Wichita of the time, a city where you couldn’t swing a torque wrench without smacking a student pilot on his way to one of the dozen flight schools thriving here. And the schools probably had as much to do with the marketing enthusiasm as the OEMs. There’s no shortage of “Daring Young Men” pilot instruction ads from the period.

Marketing evolves with the product

This sunny optimism survived into the ’50s, with its futuristic dreams of a flying car in every drive. And I kind of miss it. (I always wondered, though, at the term “flying cars:” if it has wings and a propeller, even if it’s parked in your garage, isn’t it simply an airplane? Of course, anybody who makes cracks like that needs to be directed to Terrafugia’s Transition® with its trademark theme, Driven to Fly™. Well, hush my mouth.) Early on, though, our flying forebears had developed a down-to-earth and keen sense of competitive product difference. Jazz Age fliers were still iffy enough about monoplanes that the biplane clung to its market share. Power, speed and range were going to be the product discriminators for a long time before comfort entered the messaging. It would have taken some real advertising chutzpah to tout the comfort of flying in anything with an open cockpit. But marketing, like the machinery, quickly grew in sophistication.

Where’s the competition?

A day spent at the static exhibit at the upcoming NBAA convention will have your head spinning in vertical take-off mode. Not only will you get an eyeful of the dizzyingly competitive field of aircraft in the general aviation market, you’ll get the 50,000-foot view of the marketing and messaging challenge. All in one place. You can almost feel the OEMs jockeying for position at the starting post. (I can tell you that the monoplane is enjoying a healthy market share.) Cabin space, of course, can make the difference when power, speed and range are roughly equal. But those are all numbers. I like to think we’re still touching on the same childlike love of flight used as the appeal in those earlier, anything-is-possible days.