Home / Articles / The Ecstasy and the Agony of Our Romance With Flight: A Meditation on the Centennial of the Wright Brothers’ Triumph
I: The Hunger
I believe it was 1979. While researching the history of space technology at the NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., I frequently visited the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum— the most visited museum in the world. It had recently installed a two-story high IMAX movie theater and crowds flocked to view its inaugural film, “To Fly!” A paean to the romance of human flight, the cinematography thrilled. But the magic began for me even before the lights dimmed. Music was played over the speakers while the audience filed in and found seats. Music that did not still the chatter of children, but reduced most adults to silence, then wonder, as if setting the mood for a religious experience. It was the Canon in D Major by the Lutheran organist Johann Pachelbel. Sublime beyond words, its haunting, bittersweet melody put into sound the feelings of a mortal race able to imagine heavenly things, but unable to grasp them. Alas, Hollywood spoiled Pachelbel’s magic the following year by using the Canon for theme music in Ordinary People, whereupon it devolved into Muzak. But I shall always associate Pachelbel with the sweetest of human hungers: To Fly!
The story of human flight is rightly called a romance, both in the sense of a romantic affair full of anguish and joy, and in the grander sense of Romanticism, that cultural mood expressing the human psyche’s disillusionment with its rational efforts to control and give meaning to life itself. Wild Nature, to the Romantic, is a beautiful temptress who beckons mankind to possess her only to turn all of our dreams into nightmares. Our youth is vanquished until we aging dreamers succumb to what Germans called Weltschmerz (world-grief ) and Lebensmuedigkeit (life-weariness). And no part of Nature conjures our hopes and fears more than the sky. Who hasn’t dreamed in their sleep they could fly, cruising like Superman over the houses and trees in the neighborhood? Who hasn’t envied the birds? Who hasn’t imagined that if heaven exists surely we shall be able to fly there, like angels? The dream of breaking the chains of gravity and escaping our two-dimensional life seems to be part of what makes us human.
Our own wistful fairytales tell of magic carpet rides, the pixie dust in Peter Pan, and the plaintive lament of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (“birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I?”). But abundant evidence suggests that all human civilizations have imagined flight a privilege reserved only to the gods whose abodes are in the “high places.” The Greeks placed their pantheon on Mt. Olympus and warned of the hubris mere mortals displayed in attempting to poach on their preserve. Thus, Icarus soared on the waxy wings crafted by Daedalus until he dared to approach the Sun and fell to his death. Thus, Bellerophon was permitted to ride the winged horse Pegasus in order to slay the monster Chimera, but was cast down the moment he tried to fly to the top of Olympus. He should have remembered that Pegasus was born of the blood of the hideous gorgon Medusa and his destiny was to serve as Zeus’s courier, “air-mailing” thunderbolts to him. Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese mythologies contain similar cautionary tales about human efforts to fly. In Hebrew texts the Lord was “up there.” He led His people from the sky as a pillar of cloud or light, met with Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, showed Jacob a vision of angels ascending and descending from heaven, and carried Elijah on high in a flaming, flying chariot. In Christian texts the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon Jesus, who in turn ascended into heaven after the resurrection. Likewise, the Bible offered the sternest of warnings to men who would build a Tower of Babel and attempt to reach heaven through artifice. Wrath— be it divine or evil— invariably came from above. The Chinese version of nemesis was the fire-breathing dragon. Christians named Satan the Prince of the Power of the Air. Many civilizations endowed ravens, cranes, albatrosses, and eagles with transcendent powers. After all, birds can fly and we cannot, hence they must somehow share in the godhead. Finally, the human hunger to fly has often been distinctly erotic. The pagan Romans made that explicit in myths about people abducted or raped by deities disguised as birds. They even sculpted intricate pendants depicting winged penises. To fly! It must be, the ancients imagined, “like sex with gods!”
II: The Hunt
Birds inspired the first technological efforts to realize humanity’s primordial lust. As a boy, Leonardo Da Vinci dreamed that a swooping hawk brushed his mouth with its feathers. (Freud linked such dreams to infantile sexuality). As an adult, Da Vinci observed how birds manipulated their tail and wing feathers to regulate attitude and lift: the basic principle behind rudders and ailerons. But the ornithopters he and later inventors sketched were based on the assumption that a flying machine needed wings that could flap. The source of aerodynamic lift was a mystery until Daniel Bernoulli, an 18th-century Dutch mathematician, discovered the principle of fluid mechanics named after him. As the speed of a liquid or gas moving across a surface increases, the pressure exerted on that surface decreases. The brilliant English scientist Sir George Cayley applied that principle to aerodynamics: a curved and tapered wing (airfoil) would force air to pass more quickly over the top than under the bottom, thus creating a “low-pressure center” that sucked the wing up. By 1800 he identified thrust, lift, drag, and gravity as the forces in need of control and imagined the first true airplane with fuselage, cockpit, wing, and tail. Suffice to say the Wright brothers said “Cayley carried the science of flying to a point which it had never reached before and which it scarcely reached again during the last century.”
By then human beings were already aloft in balloons. In “the astonishing year” of 1783 the paper-making Montgolfier brothers and scientist Jacques A.C. Charles kicked off a frenzy in Paris with their ornately painted egg-shaped balloons inflated with hydrogen. But as thrilling as ballooning could be (Thomas Jefferson wrote of those “endeavoring to learn us the way to heaven on wings of our own”), it was not really flying but rather drifting at the mercy of winds. Not until 1884 did French aeronauts construct the first lighter-than-air “dirigible” boasting a propellor driven by an electric motor and an elevator and sliding weights for steering. That was humanity’s first controlled, powered flight, and it sparked the imagination of the retired general, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin. His LZ-1, a gigantic cigar loaded with 400,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, first flew in 1900, giving birth to the brief and ultimately tragic era of luxurious, earth-circling zeppelins. But “birdmen” believed the future belonged to wings, if someone could just figure out how to keep a heavier-than-air craft aloft and under control.
The most charismatic “birdman” was another German, Otto Lilienthal. Suspended beneath two bowed gossamer wings he leapt from heights and glided for long distances controlling his flight by shifting his weight. He was more of an “aerial gymnast” than a scientist, and even if he had succeeded in perfecting hang-gliding as we know it today, his methods were useless to those trying to design aero-planes. Still, Lilienthal’s Icarus-like death in 1896 inspired others, not least the Wright brothers, to realize his dream through meticulous observation of the behavior of gliders.
No one contributed more technocratic optimism and acumen to the United States than the dapper Parisian-born Octave Chanute. Brought to America by his immigrant father, a history professor, Chanute became a builder of railroads, bridges, and the great stockyards of Chicago and Kansas City. He grew rich, famous, and honored with the presidency of the American Society of Civil Engineers until, in 1883, he gave it all up to pursue his real dream: To fly! He imported all the aeronautical texts he could find over in Europe, consulted with Thomas Edison, physicist Albert F. Zahm, and engine designer F.A. Pratt (later of Pratt & Whitney). He staged conferences to share information and ideas, experimented with trusses to stabilize wings, and taught Americans scientific flight-testing. Scoffers denied the possibility of heavier-than-air flight. But Chanute gave birdmen reason to persevere, above all Samuel Langley. If anyone could conquer the air, he believed, it was he. A distinguished scientist and president of the Smithsonian, he enjoyed the patronage of Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell, and won grants totaling $73,000 (almost $1.5 million today) from the Army, Smithsonian, and private donors. Langley proceeded methodically for seventeen years, experimenting with scale models of flying machines he called aerodromes. He hired crack engineers, expanded his staff, and at length built a full-size fabric-winged flyer powered by a 52 horsepower gasoline engine. Confident of success, Langley launched a publicity campaign that fixed all eyes on his Great Aerodrome moored in the Potomac River. On October 7, 1903, rockets and horns signaled the moment of an apotheosis. Whereupon the machine snagged on its launcher and “slid into the water like a handful of mortar.” So much for big government R&D. But even if Langley had succeeded, his Aerodrome was a turkey. It needed to be catapulted into motion and lacked control mechanisms, landing gear, and a cockpit. Had the plane reached its planned cruising speed of 50 mph, the pilot would have been doomed!
Unbeknownst to the crowds on the Potomac, the venerable Smithsonian Institution housed in its Norman-style “Castle” on Washington’s Mall had already made a far quieter contribution that proved nothing less than decisive. It happened on June 2, 1899, when an invisible bureaucrat named Richard Rathbun perused a letter from a humble citizen asking if the Smithsonian might send him materials to assist his “systematic study” of flight. Rathbun, a paleontologist, might have discarded the letter or considered its author a crank. Instead, he bade his office assemble the best available scholarship for a Mr. Wilbur Wright of Dayton, Ohio.
The Wright brothers were middle-class, Middle West foliage of a family tree nurtured by English, Dutch, and German roots. Their father, in good Yankee fashion, sired seven children, and served as a bishop in the stern, evangelical Church of the United Brethren. The boys Wilbur, born 1867, and Orville (nickname “Bubbo”), born 1871, grew up behaving in ways the next century’s shrinks would term repressed or compulsive. They both stuck close to home, were very shy (especially around females), and displayed obsessive interest in their serial projects. When a fad for bicycle racing swept the nation they went into that business in 1892. Then news of Lilienthal’s death reminded them of a passion kindled way back in 1878 when the bishop gave a toy to his sons. It was a rubber band-driven whirligig that “flew” around the room when released. The boys tried to fashion bigger versions without success. But by 1899, when the Wright brothers took up their quest for powered flight, they were experienced mechanics, self-taught mathematicians and philosophers, residents of one of America’s “highest-tech” towns, and in possession of the best current data by grace of Rathbun. Above all, they adopted the method known today as systems integration. Uppermost in their minds was the challenge of mastering attitude, pitch, and yaw, because getting an airplane into the air would be suicidal if it could not be controlled. That in turn obliged the brothers to mesh several new or improved technologies, including an engine/propellor, handles and pedals, and a sturdy airframe. As any reader of Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance knows, acquiring the “feel” of a complex machine is an art as much as a science. Third, the Wrights engaged in dogged research, development, and testing, first with gliders and models in a makeshift wind tunnel, then prototype flyers. Their temperaments suited them to such careful, repetitive, empirical work. Thanks to the principles established by Cayley, Chanute, and others, the negative examples of Lilienthal and Langley, their own trial-and-error adjustments, and a light 12 horsepower aluminum engine with magneto ignition, the Wrights made remarkable progress in just a few years, spending just $1,000 of their own money.
After the disaster on the Potomac, Orville wrote Chanute, “I see that Langley has had his fling, and failed. It seems to be our turn to throw now, and I wonder what our luck will be.” A month later, the “Whopper Flying Machine,” as the brothers called their minimalist box of fabric and struts, was assembled at breezy Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. On December 12 they positioned the craft on a slight downward slope thinking to help it gain speed. But that only forced Wilbur (who had won a coin toss to go first) to lean too much on the elevator. The craft stalled, then fell gently to the sand. So it was on December 17, a date which would live in ecstasy, that the brothers tried again from a level surface. Orville reclined at the controls, warmed up the engine, then broke the tether holding the airplane in place. The headwind plus the velocity generated by the propellor sufficed to lift the biplane while Orville, learning the pilot’s trade “on the wing,” kept it aloft and stable for 12 seconds and 120 feet. On their fourth trial that morning Wilbur stayed in “thin air” for just under a minute and covered almost three football fields. A small group of locals witnessed the historic event, of whom juvenile Johnny Moore was most eloquent: “They done did it, they done it, damned if they ain’t flew!” The brothers, collected as always, shared a lunch basket then walked casually down to the coastal lifesaving station at Kitty Hawk where they scribbled a telegram to the bishop in Dayton:
“SUCCESS FOUR FLIGHTS THURSDAY MORNING ALL AGAINST TWENTY-ONE MILE WIND STARTED FROM LEVEL WITH ENGINE POWER PLANE AVERAGE SPEED THROUGH AIR THIRTY-ONE MILES LONGEST 57 SECONDS INFORM PRESS HOME CHRISTMAS.”
III: The Honeymoon
Invention of the airplane did not kick off a frenzy. The Wrights did not want it to. Indeed, they spent several years dodging publicity while conducting private test flights and awaiting approval of patents. So most Americans did not know, understand, or believe what had happened at Kitty Hawk until September 1908 when the Army Signal Corps asked Orville to perform at Fort Myer, Virginia. The brass wanted to know if this alleged “aeroplane” might have some military utility. News spread by newspaper and word of mouth until 5,000 civilians crowded the fort on Labor Day in what came to resemble a religious revival. Some people said it was “inhuman” or even “occult” for man to take flight. Most just cried, “My God, my God,” and called it a miracle. The Wrights went on tour, charging $5,000 per exhibition, and performed their wonders before entire towns. They opened a school to train pilots who competed to top each other’s daredevil loops and rolls. Dozens of copycat mechanics and birdmen soon built variations on the Wright flyer and taught themselves to pilot them. William Randolph Hearst put up prize money for the first person to fly across the United States. Calbraith Rodgers did it in 49 days in 1911 and was greeted in Pasadena by 20,000 screaming fans. Women leapt at the chance to soar above the confines of terrestrial society, truly “equal in the eyes of God.” Air races were front page news, as well as each “first” such as the first scheduled passenger service in 1914 and first airmail service in 1918. A new age of limitless, if ineffable potential seemed to have dawned. Aviators were gods; aviation a secular religion.
The sole sour note was played by motorcyclist Glenn Curtiss, who founded the second U.S. aircraft manufacturing company and viciously challenged the Wrights’ patents. When the courts ruled against him Curtiss conspired with Smithsonian officials to cobble a case suggesting Langley’s aerodrome deserved legal priority! In 1929 the issue became moot when the Curtiss and Wright firms merged. But Wilbur died unvindicated of yellow fever in 1912, and it took the Smithsonian until 1942 to apologize to Orville and display a replica of his flyer in its castle.
Not even World War I troubled the honeymoon of America and the airplane. Aviation advanced rapidly under the impress of war. The Packard auto company designed the V-12 Liberty engine with Delco ignition that powered the Curtiss Jennies on which hundreds of military pilots trained. They returned home eager to own planes and either barnstorm or fly for airlines serving the post office. Even aerial combat seemed pristine and chivalric by comparison to the barbaric slaughter in the trenches below. Hollywood rode the craze with films featuring fighter pilots and stunt men. The public thrilled as the earth shrank. In 1919 the six-man crew of a U.S. Navy “flying boat” crossed the Atlantic. In 1923 two Army pilots made the first nonstop coast-to-coast flight in just 27 hours. In 1924, four Army crews flying Douglas World Cruisers took off from Seattle bound for … Seattle! Clinging to coastlines and hopping islands, two of the aircraft circled the globe in 175 days. A quarter of a million people cheered their return. In 1926 Commander Richard E. Byrd flew over the North Pole.
The federal government promoted aviation, but with a light hand. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1915) was nothing like the NASA behemoth it would become in 1958, but a modest assemblage of scientists with a meager budget and a few wind tunnels. They nonetheless did a great deal to advance airfoil design, avionics, and navigation. The Kelly Air Mail Act (1925) fostered free enterprise by authorizing the Postmaster General to contract with airlines and establish a national grid of lighted airports, emergency runways, and meteorological radio stations. The Air Commerce Act (1926) provided for the licensing of pilots and federal regulation of aircraft for safety. Hence, far from setting up government-owned airlines as most other countries did, the United States subsidized private competition. That is what gave a lease on life to entrepreneurs such as Clement Keys (North American), Malcolm and Allen Loughead (Lockheed), Pop Hanshue (TWA), Juan Trippe (Pan American), Erle Halliburton (Delta), Donald Douglas, William Boeing, Glenn Martin, Jack Northrup, Leroy Grumman, Jerry Vultee, Chance Vought, Tom Braniff, William Piper, Clyde Cessna, Walter and Olive Beech, Curtiss, and Wright.
The only threat to public ownership of airplanes and airlines was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1934 the President, Postmaster General James Farley, and Alabama Senator Hugo Black claimed the former Republican postmasters had been “dictators” whose choice of airmail contracts in “spoils conferences” spelled death for some airlines and windfall profits for others. Roosevelt ordered the Army Air Corps to start delivering mail. But due to penurious budgets the corps’ obsolete aircraft and fledgling pilots were so inadequate to the task that a dozen crewmen and planes were lost in three weeks. Roosevelt repented of socialism. He did, however, press Congress to create the Civil Aeronautics Board to regulate the airlines and approve routes and rates (thereby granting himself the same powers he claimed Republicans had abused).
“Our gaze drew upward— from the skies you taught, Man is divine, and meant by God to soar!” So did a poet express what “air-minded” Americans took on faith in the interwar years. First thousands, then hundreds of thousands of people were born again as disciples of the “winged gospel.” If flying was reserved for gods, then human beings must themselves be, or on the way to becoming, gods. Aviation, said its ecstatic proponents, promised to end war for all time, either by making neighbors and partners of all nations through cultural contact and trade, or by making war so horrible no sane person would wage it. Aviation, said its proponents, promised to liberate people from their sooty cities and tenements, mundane jobs and impediments, indeed from each other. As Henry Ford put an automobile within reach of each working man, soon every family would own its own airplane and commute from rustic retreats. Most of all, the “air-minded” testified to the spiritual high, the almost orgasmic thrill, of soaring through the skies under one’s own control. To look down on the world from high above made instantly clear how base and petty was the earthly rat race for money, power, prestige.
Believers in the “winged gospel” formed myriad clubs and gathered at air shows. They took their air circuses on the road to woo converts. They made shrines of the Wrights’ bicycle shop and Kitty Hawk. The very site chosen by the Wrights— Kill Devil Hills— seemed inspired. They made December 17 into a holy day, a sort of technologists’ Christmas, and gathered to hear the gospel read anew from the Wrights’ journals. Tracts, posters, models, statuary, futuristic artistry depicting the transformation of society through aviation: all were employed to spread the “good news,” especially to children. But evangelization, however pervasive, would not have moved so many American hearts were it not for a lone eagle named Lindbergh.
In 1919 a prize of $25,000 was offered for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. By 1927 aircraft of sufficient size and power were coming on line, and three French aces from the Great War plus three famous American pilots were determined to win. But two of the Frenchmen perished in the attempt, while the other four pilots were thwarted by accidents or injuries. Against all odds, the prize was still up for grabs when Charles “Slim” Lindbergh, a handsome tow-headed barnstormer from Minnesota, arrived in New York in his single-engine Ryan NYP monoplane. When he announced his intention to cross the ocean alone through uncertain weather just days after the Frenchmen disappeared, people called him “The Flying Fool.” But all Americans held their breath when the Spirit of St. Louis took to the air on May 19. The next morning Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget Aerodrome, Paris, exhausted and utterly unaware of what he had become in the hearts and minds of his countrymen. “He is US personified,” wrote The New Republic. “He is the United States.” Lindy “is the dream that is in our hearts,” wrote the North American Review. He taught America “to lift up its eyes to Heaven,” said the New York World. He was Lucky Lindy, the Lone Eagle, the new Daniel Boone calling America back to its pioneer virtues. He was welcomed back to New York by 4 million people, and millions more turned out in all 48 states, which he toured in the Ryan. What did it mean? Did Lindbergh’s solo flight thrill Americans who instinctively felt that modern, industrial, urban life ground down individuals and left no room for heroism? Not quite, because, as President Coolidge noted, Lindy’s “silent partner” was American industry. “I am told that more than 100 separate companies furnished material, parts or service” to the airplane. Lindbergh himself honored his “partner” by naming his memoir WE. We did it: my Ryan and I. What Lindbergh and the winged gospelers hallowed was the marriage of man and machine, rugged individualism and modern science. U.S. Ambassador Myron Herrick, Lindy’s host in Paris, had no doubt as to the source of his luck. “He was the instrument of a great ideal, and one need not be fanatically religious to see in his success the guiding hand of Providence.”
Many more such flights in the 1920s and 1930s rekindled Americans’ new faith. But with the possible exception of Amelia Earhart’s feats all subsequent aerial “firsts” were like routine visits to church by contrast to the thrill of their initial conversions. From the Wright brothers Americans learned Yankee pluck and know-how still trumped big money and organization. From Lindbergh they learned that Ralph Waldo Emerson was wrong when he wrote, “Machines are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Self-reliant Americans were still in the saddle, and through their machines could make magic.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the aviatrix who married Charles, put it exactly that way. Gazing down from 10,000 feet she thought the busy, bothered old earth looked frozen in form, as if a glaze were put over life. “And if flying, like a glass-bottomed bucket, can give you that vision, that seeing eye, which peers down to the still world below the choppy waves, it will always remain magic.” Pilot John Magee, Jr., looked up not down, so to him magic became mystique. “I have slipped the surly bonds of earth …” he wrote, “and touched the face of God.”
IV: The Heartbreak
When and why did the honeymoon end and heartbreak ensue? The answer most likely to leap to mind is December 7, 1941, when Americans awoke to the truth of what many Jeremiahs and Cassandras had prophesied about fire and death from above. As early as 1908 H. G. Wells predicted in The War in the Air that the 20th century would witness urban conflagrations of Biblical proportions. The Allied powers’ Spring 1919 offensive against Germany would have inaugurated massive, if primitive bombing behind enemy lines had the Armistice not intervened. In the 1920s, Italian strategist Giulio Douhet wrote in The Command of the Air that future wars would be won in a matter of days by whichever side boasted the superior air force. America’s own Cassandra was Army pilot and war hero Billy Mitchell. He lectured incessantly on the potentially decisive impact of air power and proved it in 1921 by demonstrating how a few flimsy biplanes could sink a Dreadnought-class battleship. In 1924 he even described in a secret report how the Japanese were planning to build aircraft carriers and inaugurate the war they considered inevitable by launching aerial attacks at first light on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Mitchell was ignored, derided, and reprimanded to the point that he accused the War and Navy departments of “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration.” That earned him a court martial.
By the 1930s, the dictators made abundantly clear how the winged gospel might be perverted. Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin all patronized aviation to prove their regimes were futuristic, scientific, and mobilized by contrast to democracies enervated by the Depression. Italian designers and pilots won numerous air races. Hitler made the Luftwaffe a showpiece of Nazism commanded by his henchman Hermann Goering. Visitors such as Lindbergh were impressed, if not cowed, by the evident superiority of fascist regimes to promote air power. The Soviets called their pilots “Stalin’s Eagles” and plastered cities with placards crowing over their international triumphs. The most terrified nation was Britain since aviation promised to nullify her traditional naval defenses. Even before the Nazis took power Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin lamented, “Whatever people may tell , the bomber will always get through.” By 1935, when Hitler lied that the Luftwaffe already enjoyed superiority, Englishmen feared London might be destroyed on the first day of a war. Baldwin confessed, “I wish for many reasons flying had never been invented…. Somehow we have got to Christianize it.” Evidently, the winged gospel needed the old gospel to realize its promise. When war did come, in Spain, China, and Europe, Americans shuddered at newsreel footage of Guernica, Shanghai, and the London Blitz. Still, the horror seemed oceans away until Pearl Harbor “brought it home” to Americans. Right?
Wrong. Americans’ romance with flight continued in spite and because of the war. The principal reason was undoubtedly the fact that the American mainland was spared any attack, much less the carpet bombing that flattened cities in the other belligerent nations. Aerial war did not poison the whole enterprise of flight. Rather, the Germans and especially the Japanese had sinned against the dreams of mankind by perverting technology to their evil purposes. Hence, the Allies, led by the U.S. Army Air Corps, had the right, duty, and necessity to pay the enemy back, many times over, in their own coin. Meanwhile, of course, World War II was the greatest opportunity yet to educate average Americans about the wonders of flight. Millions of servicemen got their first ride on an airplane during the war. Tens of thousands of male pilots were trained plus thousands of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), who ferried aircraft and supplies around the world. The technology leapt forward, from the Lockheed P-38 Lightning to the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress to North American’s B-25 Mitchell to the B-29 Superfortress. No airplane was more beloved than the sturdy Douglas DC-3 (C-47 transport), whose production run surpassed 13,000. Far from repenting of what aviation had come to, Americans honored their brave bomber crews, undisturbed by the napalm-lit firestorms that consumed Hamburg and Dresden, Tokyo and Yokohama. Walt Disney Studios promised “Victory Through Air Power” in a stunning animation in which armadas of American bombers crossed the Pacific then morphed into angry eagles tearing at Japan’s vitals with their talons. The climactic events, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were greeted as godsends by the million servicemen poised for a bloody invasion of Japan and their tens of millions of family members back home. The atomic bomb, not the airplane, was the horrific invention, and in any case the United States had a monopoly. By 1945 Americans’ industrial might and technological supremacy seemed to ensure they would enjoy air superiority, even invulnerability, forever and ever. World War II, far from disillusioning the “air-minded,” seemed only to have hastened the day when the full promise of aviation would be fulfilled.
Polls conducted near the end of World War II showed hopes far outpacing fears. No less than 85 percent of Army Air Force pilots said they intended to own their own planes after the war. Some 43 percent of businessmen and professionals expected their firms to own planes after the war. Almost a third of all American civilians confessed to wanting a private plane, while 39 percent of the readers of Women’s Home Companion intended to take flying lessons! In 1946 alone, civilians purchased 33,254 private planes and back ordered so many more that new manufacturers leaped into business. Even Macy’s department store peddled a line of aircraft.
Then reality sank in. The novelty wore off. Other consumer goals ranging from homes to automobiles and appliances soaked up Americans’ cash. Not least, the Soviets tested an A-bomb in 1949 and boasted they would soon deploy transcontinental bombers. So if one had to pick a date and say, with the country song, “that’s when the heartaches begin,” the year 1950 is as good as any. The Cold War turned hot in Korea where North American’s F-86 Sabre jet fighters dueled Soviet MIG-15s nearly equal in prowess. The military again monopolized aviation technology and personnel. The most symbolic of sad events may have been the recall of baseball star Ted Williams to duty as a fighter pilot despite his having lost four years already to World War II. In the mid-1950s Congress investigated an alleged “bomber gap,” suggesting the sort of armageddons visited upon other continents might next time touch North America. The Eisenhower administration built the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line of radar stations in Canada and convened secret scientific committees predicting imminent Soviet parity in strategic weapons. Most shocking of all, the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 seemed to prove the Soviet Union had grabbed the lead for control of outer space and possessed ICBM’s able to hurtle nuclear weapons on to America’s cities. Suddenly the sky became as scary as it had been to the ancients. Men could fly, perhaps even rocket in space, but they were still men: some evil, all flawed, and none gods.
Aviation’s progress continued by leaps, in good part because of the Cold War arms race. Americans might have exulted when test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, but it was kept a secret. They put on their Sunday best when boarding commercial airliners in the 1950s, assured by elegant stewardesses there was nothing to fear. But even the advent of jet travel with the Boeing 707 and DC-8 airliners in 1957 only postponed disillusionment for a time. If anything, the very success of routine mass transport by air helped to kill the nation’s excitement about flying. Anne Morrow Lindbergh foresaw it all in her 1938 memoir Listen! The Wind. “As time passes,” she prophesied, “the perfection of machinery tends to insulate man from contact with the elements in which he lives. The ’stratosphere’ planes of the future will cross the ocean without any sense of the water below. Like a train tunneling through a mountain, they will be aloof from both the problems and beauty of the earth’s surface. Only the vibration of the engines will impress the senses of the traveler with his movement through the air. Wind and heat and moonlight take-offs will be of no concern to the transatlantic passenger. His only contact with these elements will lie in accounts such as this book contains.”
Once upon a time people dreamed of flying by themselves, free as birds. But the experience of late 20th-century travelers made sense of poet Bob Dylan’s query: “Are birds free from the chains of the skyways?” Instead of a liberating, almost sexual thrill, passengers had to beat their way by car or smelly bus through traffic to a distant airport, then stand in lines to get ticketed and check baggage, then allow themselves to be crammed into a seat to remain immobile for hours. Pressurization made the cabin a stale, artificial environment. Even those with window seats might see nothing but clouds. Far from being in control, white-knuckled customers felt thoroughly out of control as they trusted the pilots to take off and land safely. Airplanes were surely much faster than railroads or cars, but their speed annihilated the romance of distance.
The magic died for manufacturers and airlines as well. Individual engineers and pilots might still take pride in an elegant new design, a problem solved, or a feather-like landing on instruments in a cross wind. But the truth was, aerospace and airlines were very tough industries in which to make an honest dollar. The Pentagon and NASA— Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex”— dominated the R&D market, forcing aerospace firms to underestimate costs, overpromise results, and lobby hard in order to win government contracts. Firms that failed to gorge at the public trough disappeared, while the survivors merged into ever larger conglomerates or diversified, thereby shedding their mystique. The federal aviation bureaucracy became ever larger and more opaque, especially after Lyndon Johnson subsumed it into the new Department of Transportation in 1967. Then deregulation cut the legs out from under marginal carriers. Grand old airlines went bankrupt, while those still in business pushed fares into the stratosphere or else offered cut-rate fares subject to endless penalties and restrictions. Airlines routinely over-booked, thus ensuring a certain number of outraged customers every flight. The “once in a lifetime” thrill turned into an all too frequent annoyance, not least for those who suffered from air sickness, jet lag, and inner ear disequilibrium.
For a few nervous years, the Space Race kept alive the memory of men and machines braving the unknown, while spaceflight enthusiasts dusted off the utopian or calamitous projections applied earlier to aviation. Americans were ecstatic with relief when John Glenn matched Yuri Gagarin’s feat by orbiting the earth in 1962. A United States rent asunder by race riots and Vietnam War protests managed to pull together for a week in July 1969 when Apollo 11 touched the Moon and returned safely to earth. Then even Moon missions grew boring. The Nixon administration canceled the final Apollo missions. Even more tellingly, it canceled the U.S. program for a Supersonic Transport (SST) plane. For the first time in the air age Americans surrendered “faster, higher, longer” technology on the grounds it was too expensive, noisy, and polluting. Aviation was no longer “sexy.” The romance was gone.
Ironically, the mistresses that replaced aviation in Americans’ hearts, that provided the kicks they craved, were computers (a high-tech industry spawned in part by the needs of modern air war) and Hollywood (which had done so much in the past to promote the romance of flight). How could NASA’s routine Space Shuttle missions compete with the titillations and virtual omnipotence served up by Star Wars movies and video games? That they weren’t real experiences didn’t matter: the winged gospel wasn’t real either except for the intrepid birdmen and women themselves.
V: The Horror
The good Doctor Samuel Johnson wrote a fantasy satire in 1759 called Rasselas. It told of an Abyssinian savant who learned the secret of flight. His king was elated until told by the sage that the secret could never be shared. “If men were all virtuous,” he explained, “I should with great alacrity teach them all to fly. But what would be the security of the good if the bad could at pleasure invade them from the sky?”
Heartbreak turned to horror on September 11, 2001. None of us will ever purge those television images from our memory banks. They cannot be consigned to our “Recycle Bin,” then deleted. Recently, in my seminar called “In Search of the American Civil Religion” at Penn, I showed the students a Ken Burns’ video on the Statue of Liberty. They enjoyed it and learned a good deal. But they all confessed to being disturbed by the program. Why? Because it was shot in 1985, the Twin Towers loomed behind the Statue, and Burns repeatedly employed footage in which airplanes soared in the background. The very image of Liberty was spoiled for them, spoiled by the sight of routine takeoffs from JFK International.
In the latest American war, the one against Terror, aviation has played as large a role as it did in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Gulf War of 1991. American dominance of air and space is greater than ever, making ours the most powerful military machine in history. Some smart (at least in their own eyes) strategists suggest air power can trump all other sources of coercion and somehow erase centuries of history and hatred in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet over the same decades when U.S. technology surpassed all rivals, the airplane became a weapon of choice in the hands of primitives. Beginning in the late 1960s terrorists hijacked airliners in search of asylum, ransom, or hostages. Later they managed, on a few dreadful occasions, to blow up crowded planes in mid-air with missiles or bombs smuggled on board. Finally, they seized on the diabolical notion of taking over the pilots’ controls and steering giant jets into buildings.
We pray it may not happen again. But the cost we bear after 9/11 is still more annoyance and tedium due to security checks, still worse service and amenities from the financially-strapped carriers, and still less pleasure in flying. It calls to mind the memoir of an old Vietcong soldier. Captured by the French around 1950, he survived cruel imprisonment by focusing on his dream of a free and united Vietnam. After 24 more years of war and privation he thought his dream realized only to witness how Hanoi’s Communist conquerors shunted the Viet Cong aside and ruled the South with an iron fist. I wish, he confessed in old age, I could somehow be transported back to that French prison. Were Wilbur and Orville Wright alive today, doubtless they would wish to be transported back to Kitty Hawk, where they hungered only: To Fly!
The author thanks his “air-minded” brother Prof. Duncan McDougall for valuable suggestions and corrections, and Orbis managing editor Trudy Kuehner for editorial assistance.
Many books and articles read over many years contributed to this essay, but those I consulted directly and from which the quotes are drawn include these excellent works:
Joe Christy, American Aviation: An Illustrated History, 2 ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Penna.: McGraw-Hill AERO, 1994.
Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance With Aviation, 1900-1950. New York: Oxford University, 1983.
Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
Tom D. Crouch, A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane 1875–1905. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.
Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age From Antiquity Through the First World War. New York: Oxford University, 2003.
Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey, Amelia Earhart’s Daughters. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Peter L. Jakab and Rick Young, eds., The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2000.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Listen! The Wind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh, North to the Orient. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.
Charles Lindbergh, We. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927.
Walter A. McDougall, …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Alex Roland, Model Research: A History of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958. Washington, D.C.: NASA, 1985.
Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: the Creation of Armageddon. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Bayla Singer, Like Sex With Gods: An Unorthodox History of Flying. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2003.
John William Ward, “The Meaning of Lindbergh’s Flight,” American Quarterly 10:1 (Spring 1958): 3–16.
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