Images from a Century of Aviation

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Images from a Century of Aviation


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


THIS year sees the hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight on 17 December, 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was a breakthrough the world of light engineering had long been gearing up for. The internal combustion engine had been invented by Etienne Lenoir in 1860, improved by Alphonse Beau de Rochas in 1862, further improved, mass-produced and successfully marketed by Nikolaus Otto in the later 1870s, and installed in road vehicles by Karl Benz in the 1880s. Clement Ader, who invented the word the French use for aeroplane--avion--and predicted the establishment of military air forces that would be independent of army and navy, flew his steam-powered Avion No. III, though only with the assistance of a strong wind, in October 1897. After the Wright Brothers' success, progress was rapid. Ten years and eight months after Orville Wright first became airborne under power, a German aeroplane bombed Paris, the first attack on a national capital ever to be carried out by the air force of a hostile power.

'To us the earliest aeroplanes look as crude as does the Rocket when compared with the present-day locomotive', claimed one writer in 1929, and in the same year a popular historian announced:

   Across the Continents in a few hours; over the oceans in a night;
   around the earth in a few days--all nations and races neighbors, with
   distance and time practically eliminated--this is the dictum of
   science.

      We are entering upon a New Epoch, by far the greatest era in all
   human history. The world in which we live is being reconstructed;
   our whole system of civilization re-made, economically, socially,
   politically; our habits, customs, and institutions re-modelled to
   conform with the scientific revolution in the air, man's victory
   over the element after 6,000 years of human struggle.

Today, when there are scheduled passenger flights that go more than a third of the way round the world in fourteen or fifteen hours, we take for granted what three-quarters of a century ago seemed bold prophecy, and it is easy to forget how intoxicating the potential of aviation seemed to a generation which thrilled to the 11,340 mile flight by Ross and Keith Smith from England to Australia in 1919 (135 hours' flying spread over 28 days), Macready and Kelly's non-stop flight coast-to-coast across America in 27 hours in 1923 and Byrd and Bennett's flight over the North Pole in 1926. We in our turn are fascinated by the marvels prormised by IT and biotechnology, but in the wake of the Second World War, the Cold War, the War against Terrorism, the War against Paedophiles etc. our dreams always now merge into nightmares. Part of the excitement of the New Epoch of the Aeroplane belongs to an innocence and hopefulness with regard to technology that we have now lost.

Similarly we have worn out our former ardour for the heroes of the pioneering days of aviation. Charles Lindbergh, after his 331/2 hour flight from St Louis Missouri to Paris in 1927--the first solo crossing of the Atlantic--was described as 'the most admired figure of our time'; one biography of him claimed, 'Judged by the response felt from the readers of hundreds of newspapers, no single figure of our time has so caught the imagination of people everywhere'. Not even the first moon landing 42 years later caused so much excitement. The figure of the young, lone flier, half artist and half technician, hunched at the controls of a machine rushing inexorably forward through infinity became a symbol of the individual's existential struggle with destiny. When in 1931 Antoine de Saint-Exupery made a long-distance aviator the protagonist of his novel Vol de Nuit, one critic suggested, 'The pilot at its centre is the man of the century'. The influential newspaper Le Matin claimed that Saint-Exupery's book 'will relegate all novels of terrestrial chivalry to the nursery'. Earlier, during the 1914-18 War, the British prime minister David Lloyd George had described fighter pilots as 'the knighthood of this War, without fear and without reproach. …

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