Interflug: A storied international airline with a distinctive red-and-white livery. Efficient, yet friendly, German service. A full roster of flights to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. The only problem? Interflug ceased to exist more than two decades ago. 

Interflug is the defunct flag-carrier of East Germany.

There are relatively few defunct airlines of defunct countries, and virtually none that were large, international flag carriers. The few that exist can be bounced on technicalities: Sorry, Manchukuo National Airways, you were a paramilitary air force. Out of luck, Rhodesian Air Services, you had one airplane. No dice, Aeroflot, you still exist.

Interflug is a rarity, an artifact of the trappings of contemporary nationalism. Interflug is interesting because it doesn’t fit. It is an echo of a parallel world, a world that flew Ilyushins and Tupolevs instead of Boeings and sang to the gods of communism instead of capitalism. And now it’s gone: its employees absorbed by other companies, its aircraft sold to other airlines or retired or scrapped.

The airline’s forgotten existence speaks to larger ideas about the ways we order reality and the divergent realities birthed by borders, political or natural. Interflug is a perfect example of this parallel world because everything about it—its aircraft, pilots, customers, flight attendants, in-flight meals, timetables, routes—is the same as it would have been in the West, just different. A different landscape for a different mindscape.

In many ways, this goes back to Henry Petroski and his paper clips: “If form does not follow function in any deterministic way, then by what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?” Visions of alternate realities began to press on me last November, as I looked at the grille designs of cars. Interflug is that meditation, writ large: Why do our airlines operate the way they do?

(Having researched the development of American aviation, I have a pretty good idea about domestic carriers, but I’d love to delve in the development of aviation behind the Iron Curtain. National Air and Space Museum, are you listening?) 

If we can see the history of a pattern—an object, a way of doing things—by seeing four-dimensionally, perhaps we can tilt back and forth between alternatives in a fifth dimension. How do we choose the ways in which we want to live? How do we construct our reality? How do we decide on the very specific world we build around ourselves?