Citizens of the Air: Perceptions of Safety in the Social Imaginary of Flight Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • O'Grady, Julia
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communication
  • Despite technological advances in aviation that have made flying more reliably safe,certain rhetorical practices have also normalized the experience of human flight for the U.S. public and have contributed to the perception of flight's safety in what I identify as the Social Imaginary of Flight. I argue that three iconic stories--that of the Wright brothers and the origin story of human powered flight, the story of Amelia Earhart's aviation career, and the heroic narrative of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II--acknowledged but ultimately downplayed the risks of flying. My project reveals the rhetorical construction of these stories and their circulation in their respective eras and their subsequent recirculation in public memory in order to demonstrate how they each not only generated excitement about flying but also offered reassurance to a public interested in, but a little skittish about, becoming "citizens of the air." In thinking about the "citizens of the air" through a web of discourses related to the sky, I use archival research, critical theoretical frameworks, and discursive analysis. Chapter 2 explores the rhetorical construction and circulation of the Wrights' origin story of flight, which transformed flight from sport and spectacle into a (nascent) form of safe passenger travel, if always provisional. My study considers both the circulating texts related to the story and the public memory of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Chapter 3 revisits the nine-year aviation career of Amelia Earhart, and using such critical frameworks as feminine style and feminist standpoint theory, demonstrates how a public memory is focused on her disappearance has mostly obscured the discourse about flight's safety that she participated in during her career. Chapter 4 considers safety in air combat and the heroic narrative that was retrospectively overlaid on the history of the Tuskegee-trained African-American pilots who served as escorts for white bomber pilots in World War II. Using critical race theory--specifically Kirt Wilson's "rhetoric of place"--I complicate that narrative and reconsider the safety that the pilots famously provided.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Blair, Carole
  • Woods, Julia
  • Watts, Eric
  • Balthrop, V. William
  • Kohn, Richard H.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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