Timandra Harkness, 27 October 2009
Benjamin Franklin, then American Ambassador in Paris, watched through a telescope as Dr Alexandre Charles and his assistant M Robert took off in a hydrogen balloon from the Tuileries gardens. ‘Someone asked me – what’s the use of a balloon?’ he reported later. ‘I replied – what’s the use of a newborn baby?’ (1)
Great crowds of people turned out to watch those early balloon flights, as well they might. For thousands of years human beings had looked enviously at the birds and tried in vain to leave the ground like them. Now it was possible to break free of the earth and look down on the familiar world. Mountains, rivers and deserts that had previously been natural borders, passable only with great effort and ingenuity, could be sailed over like markings on a map.
Writing over 80 years later, astronomer Camille Flammarion was still struck by the symbolic power of flight:
There is in the simple fact of an aerial ascent something so bold and so astonishing, that the human spirit cannot fail to be profoundly stirred by it. And if this is the feeling of men at the present day, when, after having been witnesses of ascents for the last eighty years, they see men confiding themselves in a swinging car into the immensities of space, what must have been the astonishment of those who, for the first time since the commencement of the world, beheld one of their fellow-creatures rolling in space, without any other assurance of safety than what his still dim perception of the laws of nature gave him?’ (2)
However, the early promise of balloons quickly gave way to awareness of their technical limitations. They were hard to control, impossible to steer, and the use of flammable hydrogen gas added to the danger of being at the mercy of the wind. Flammarion’s frustration is palpable:
’It is now eighty-six years since the first aerial journey astonished the world, and yet, in 1870, we are but little more advanced in the science than we were in 1783. Our age is the most renowned for its discoveries of any that the world has seen. Man is borne over the surface of the earth by steam; he is as familiar as the fish with the liquid element; he transmits his words instantaneously from London to New York; he draws pictures without pencil or brush, and has made the sun his slave. The air alone remains to him unsubdued. (3)
Interest had already turned from balloons to what’s called heavier-than-air flight, using wings to ride the air as birds do. In 1799, English aristocrat Sir George Cayley drew a diagram of the forces at work when a wing flies - thrust, and drag, lift and weight. It can still be seen, inscribed on a silver disc, at London’s Science Museum. Cayley combined mathematics, the observation of birds in flight, and his own practical experiments, refining his designs over more than 50 years. He discovered the aerodynamic cambered wing that still provides most of the lifting power of modern aircraft, along with the importance of the tailplane and other crucial design elements. In 1853 he launched a glider that carried its pilot 900 feet. As Cayley was 80 by this time he can perhaps be forgiven for sending his coachman up instead of taking the controls himself.
Of course, others were pursuing the same goals. This was the age of industry, of great faith in the capacity of engineering to provide technical solutions to social problems, as well as creating wealth through the mines, workshops and factories. And as masses of people were concentrated into industrial cities, new forms of transport like bicycles, trams and trains were developing to move them around. It was also the age of Empire, moving not only quantities of goods around the world, but people and information, armies and weapons. The steamship and the telegraph fed the appetite for faster, more reliable connections, but the need for flight was becoming less of a dream and more of a practical demand.
Glider flights helped flight pioneers refine their designs to deal with the problems of stability and control, as well as refining the efficiency of the lifting wing, but the last great barrier to the aeroplane was power. More accurately, power-to-weight, the very thing that made human-powered flight impractical. Our heavy bones and limited muscles could never match a seagull or a pigeon.
Expatriate Texan Hiram Maxim did use two ‘lightweight’ steam engines to lift his enormous biplane off the ground in 1894, making him and his engineers technically the first men to fly under power. His aircraft broke its restraining rails and flew 200 feet before crash-landing, a frightening end to its only flight. But it would take the petrol-driven internal combustion engine to make true powered flight possible.
Respected experimenter and glider pilot Percy Pilcher looked close to success in 1899. With a petrol-engined triplane under development with engineer Water Wilson, he invited an influential audience to Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. He may have been hoping to show off the new triplane, but on 30 September the engine had a broken crankshaft. Unwilling to disappoint his potential funders, Pilcher instead flew his ‘Hawk’ glider, a reliable crowd-pleaser. But it collapsed in midair, and Pilcher later died of his injuries, another pioneer of flight who paid with his life.
Poor Pilcher’s death is one of many anniversaries this year, and a reminder that not all attempts at flight ended in success. From the pre-scientific optimists collectively known as ‘tower-jumpers’ to the serious researchers of the 19th century, an impressive number of would-be pilots were prepared to risk their own necks, and the odds were short. Respected glider designer and experimenter Otto Lilienthal died after falling to the ground, his last words, ‘sacrifices must be made’.
Nevertheless, technological advances and an ever-improving understanding of aerodynamic theory made the aeroplane a reality a few years after Pilcher’s death. Within ten years, Bleriot had flown across the English Channel, landing at Dover in July 1909 to win the Daily Mail’s thousand-pound prize (4).
Ten years later the first commercial daily international service departed from Hounslow, London, to Paris le Bourget. The return fare in 1919 was 42 guineas – just over £44 - equivalent to three months’ wages for a working man (5). Today you can fly London to Paris return for less than £50, now about a day’s work at the UK minimum wage.
This is possible not just because we’ve all got richer in the past 90 years, but because today’s aircraft are faster, safer, and carry far more passengers than the early propeller planes. The first jet-powered aircraft flew in 1939, and the first commercial passenger jet, the De Havilland Comet, in 1949. Even then, international air travel remained a luxury for the few, but it grew rapidly throughout the fifties and sixties.
The first flight of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet in 1969 really opened the skies to mass air travel, and in the next thirty years UK air travel continued to grow faster than GDP, reflecting the huge appetite for international travel. In 1970, 32 million passengers flew through UK airports. In 2006, that figure was 235 million. Only in the last couple of recession-hit years has that growth slowed to a standstill and passenger numbers fallen slightly.
Clearly, people fly for a reason, or for different reasons. Millions of us are simply escaping the UK for a holiday. One in eight passengers is flying on business (6), reflecting the simple fact that if you’re paying for somebody’s time, you don’t want them to spend more of it travelling than they have to.
Visiting friends and relatives accounted for one in five UK-based flyers in 2007, but more than a third of passengers flying into the UK. In fact, this has been the fastest-growing group of air passengers since 2002, and seems to have bucked the trend for less flying (7). As we become more mobile generally, studying or working abroad, our social networks spread wider. Thanks to flight, you can now live thousands of miles from your loved ones but see them, touch them, spend time with them, many times a year.
But now that Flammarion’s ‘aerial ascent’ is within the reach of most of us in the developed world, we regard it without wonder. For most of us, the act of flying has become routine, and any excitement we feel is more about the destination than the journey. Indeed, most of modern commercial aviation seems designed to make us forget the remarkable engineering that enables a 160-ton plane to leave the ground with us, our luggage, and our lunches. Unlike the early passengers in flimsy, open aircraft, we don’t need special protective clothing. We embark through an airport like every other airport, insulated from the airside workings. We drink, sleep, work or watch a movie. Then, as if by magic, we walk back through the same door to find ourselves in a different country, climate, time zone.
But in a way, the very lack of drama involved in modern flight is the fruition of its early promise. The limitations of geography that the first balloonists dreamed of overcoming are no longer an issue to us. We may not even bother to look down at the impassable mountains far below. Oceans and deserts unroll, swiftly and safely, beneath us. Passing over vast, icy wastes doesn’t even require a coat; they’re no colder after all than the thin air outside our pressurised cabin.
But we’ve gone still further. So fast do today’s aircraft fly in their direct, efficient curves around the globe, that we are conquering time as well as space. In a year, a busy traveller can cross more miles, visit more countries, than our grandparents could have seen in a lifetime. Journeys that would take days or weeks over land or sea are measured out in meals and movies. Jetlag is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve travelled faster than the planet you were born on can turn, making the sun fly forward or roll backward in its course. By the solar clock, you travel through time.
So perhaps the very ordinariness of flight is its triumph. We can visit friends for the weekend regardless of whether they live in Essex or Estonia. A long weekend isn’t limited to places you could drive to, or get to by train. If you want to collaborate with a scholar on another continent, or trade with a faraway country, you don’t have to set aside six months to get there. For no stronger reason than personal pleasure, you can pay a brief visit to another season; summer in midwinter, bright spring in the darkest month of autumn. Flying has made it all commonplace.
So yes, flying is still bold, still astonishing, when you consider the ingenuity with which we defy gravity, distance, the limits of our own lifespan. But the boldest way to defy Nature is perhaps to take flight completely for granted.
Formerly director of FameLab, Cheltenham Science Festival’s search for new talent in Science Communication, and of engaging cogs, a forum for public discussion around engineering, Timandra now works as a consultant and trainer in sharing science and engineering with the public. She hosts and facilitates events for organisations including the Wellcome Collection and the British Council. Science writing work includes writing scripts and text for interactive exhibitions in the UK and abroad.
1) Quoted in Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder’Harper Press 2009, London
2) Writing as Fulgence Marion, Wonderful Balloon Ascents, Hard Press, 2006
4) 100 years after Bleriot first flew across the Channel, an identical plane repeats the feat, Daily Mail, 26 July 2009
5) Up, up and away… back to 1919, Evening Standard, 25 August 2009
6) Trends in UK air passenger traffic, CAA, 11 January 2008
"It alerts me to new areas of debate, and gives thought-provoking new angles on topics I thought I already knew well. Altogether it's a wonderful intellectual tonic, which cheers up the dog days of November."
Ivan Hewett, music critic, Daily Telegraph