Design Features: The Flighter

(This page revised June 22, 2012)

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Kenneth G. Parker was fascinated by flight. His interest in airplanes began in his childhood and continued all his life. He saw air travel as the coming thing, especially for business executives in a world that was moving faster by the minute. After the Second World War, the Parker Pen Company, of which Kenneth was CEO, bought a new airplane. The choice fell to the sleek, shiny aluminum Beechcraft D-18S, and on March 6, 1946, Parker took delivery of this airplane:

Parker Beechcraft D-18S
Parker Pen Company’s Beechcraft D-18S, at the Janesville,Wisconsin, airport

As early as 1943, Kenneth Parker had been pushing the company toward development of a fountain pen that would work better — especially in terms of resisting leakage — at high altitudes. In a memo during that year, he said that Parker should never produce another pen design that was not flight safe. His vision came to full fruition in 1949; in October of that year, the company introduced one of the most attractive and advanced pen designs of all time, the Parker “51” Flighter.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen
Parker “51” Flighter, the pen that started it all

(If there is a magnifying-glass symbol (Magnifying glass) next to an image, click the magnifying glass to view a zoomed version for more detail.)

What’s a Flighter?

It is pretty easy to see, by looking at the photo above, that the “51” Flighter was more than a pen designed to work at altitude. It was a pen inspired by, and modeled after, the shiny metal planes that roared through America’s skies. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Parker’s corporate airplane, shiny silver decorated with golden furniture. (Just in front of the airplane’s tail you can see a diagonal-stripe motif that can only be interpreted as representing the “feathers” on a “51” clip.)

But there was more to the “51” Flighter than a bright silvery exterior of brushed stainless steel. The company’s work on flight-safe pens had been incorporated into the new Foto-Fill (Aero-metric) filling system, introduced in 1948 on the “51” Demi (later renamed the Slender). The Aero-metric filler included a sterling silver breather tube extending almost the entire length of the sac, with a tiny hole in the tube’s side about 1/4" from the back end of the feed. It has always been considered best to fly with a pen that is completely empty or, if you intend to use it in flight, completely filled. The longer breather tube allowed for a very complete fill, so that there would be less air in the sac to expand as an airplane’s cabin pressure fell during the craft’s ascent to its flight altitude, and the small hole provided a path to bleed air from the reservoir so that it would not push ink up the breather tube. The Flighter, then, simply added to this pre-existing filling system an appropriately styled exterior.

As time went on and costs inevitably rose, Parker’s Flighter lost some of the classic good looks that it had been born with. By the 1960s, Flighter versions of the company’s lesser models such as the “21” Super and 45 were appearing without the gold-hued cap band. By the 1970s, this trend had made its way to the “51” and 61 Flighters. Chrome-plated furniture reduced costs further (while at the same time creating a new look of its own), and Parker eventually created a “Deluxe” designation for its 75 Flighter with gold-plated furniture and an elegant recessed gold-plated “band.” More recently, the company has offered several models in versions with both gold- and chrome-plated furniture.

Flighters, Flighters, and More Flighters!

For a while, the “51” was the only pen model offered in Flighter trim. But it wasn’t long before others began appearing, and although Parker has produced more brushed stainless steel designs than any other company, there are certainly enough to go around. (Note, however, that other companies did not call their pens Flighters; to do so would have incurred the wrath of Parker’s legal department.) But is a pen dressed up in brushed stainless steel necessarily a true Flighter? Not if by “Flighter” we mean a pen that was specifically designed to be flight safe, or if we restrict the Flighter name (as we properly should) to Parker’s own pens. Even Parker’s later Flighters are not different internally from the standard versions of their respective models. But if we take Kenneth Parker’s philosophy as the philosophy of the company, then we should assume that all Parker fountain pens designed after the Second World War were designed to be flight safe; and that makes them all truly Flighters. And because modern pens without breather tubes generally have excellent buffering capacity and little or no tendency to eject ink under pressure changes, the need for specific flight-safety features is essentially moot.

The original “51” Flighter, in addition to its brushed stainless body, featured gold-filled furniture for aesthetic contrast. Some other brushed stainless-steel pens, even some made by Parker, have chrome-plated furniture. Are these pens really Flighters? For collecting purposes, yes, at least the Parkers are. The distinguishing mark of a Flighter, as the term is recognized by collectors, is its brushed stainless body, not the color of its furniture.

The photos that follow are not an exhaustive album of Flighters; they are at best a representative sampling. First, here are a selection of Flighters from the Parker stable:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker “21” Super Flighter, 1960s
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 45 Flighter, 1960s
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 61 Flighter, cartridge/converter, after 1975
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 65 Flighter, cartridge/converter, English
 
Fountain pen
Experimental Parker 75 Flighter, tagged B-03328
(from the collection of Lee Chait)
Fountain pen
Parker 75 Deluxe Flighter, French
(from the collection of Lee Chait)
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 15 Flighter, French
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 25 Flighter, English
 
Fountain pen
Parker 180 Flighter
 
Fountain pen
Parker 180 Flighter
(from the collection of Lee Chait)
 
Fountain pen
Parker 105 Flighter with unusual
brushed stainless section
(from the collection of Lee Chait)
 
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker Arrow Flighter
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker Arrow Deluxe Flighter
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker 95 Deluxe Flighter
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker Frontier Flighter
Fountain pen
Parker Frontier Flighter Deluxe
(lent by Sherrell Tyree)
 

The following five pens offer a brief look at Flighter-styled pens that don’t wear the official “Flighters” moniker:

Fountain pen
Pilot MYU, brushed stainless with chrome-plated
furniture, by Pilot of Japan. Also has an integral
nib, further setting off its stainless-steel styling
Fountain pen
Targa by Sheaffer, brushed stainless with gold-plated furniture
 
Fountain pen
Targa by Sheaffer, brushed stainless with chrome-plated furniture
 
Fountain pen
Montblanc CS, brushed stainless with gold-plated furniture
Fountain pen
Hero 100, brushed stainless with chrome-plated furniture

Flighters That Aren’t Flighters, for Sure!

How can a Flighter not be a Flighter? The oft-accepted rule, if it can be termed thus, is that a Flighter is made of brushed stainless steel. Therefore, a pen is not a true Flighter if it is made of any other material. The usual alternate material is brushed chrome, generally brass that is finished with a brushed surface and then chrome plated. One such nonFlighter, made in about 1967, is this Sheaffer Stylist:

Fountain pen
Sheaffer Stylist, brushed chrome
 
Notes:
  1. The Beechcraft photo is the copyrighted property of Geoffrey S. Parker. Richard Binder colorized the original black-and-white image. Used with permission.  Return to text

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