An Impossible Dream: The History of Flight

For centuries, man has wanted to do lots of things. He has wanted to ride in a wheeled vehicle unpowered by a walking manure-factory. He has wanted to sail the open seas…without sails. He has wanted to communicate long distances without having to travel long distances, he has wanted to invent a form of illumination that won’t set the house on fire and he’s wanted to explore under water without ending up under ground. But of all the dreams that mankind has had, none has been stronger than man’s desire…to fly.

Mr. Wile E. Coyote provides a historically-accurate practical demonstration of mankind’s early experiments with flight

For centuries, flight was considered impossible – the dream and fancy of fools, a pipe-dream, a hallucination, an idiotic fantasy. And yet today, we can fly halfway around the world within twenty-four hours. How? And…Why? This article will explore the history of manmade aircraft – anything that didn’t come with a beak, claws and a feathery lining, from the first experimental aircraft to airliners as we know them today.

Flight of Fancy

Since time immemoriam, man has looked at the skies, and has seen birds. Or maybe bats. Probably even flies. On the off-chance, even a mosquito. He puzzled and fumed and fussed over the fact that all these things could do the one thing that he couldn’t – Fly.

Mankind has had dreams of flight for centuries. Even the famous inventor and painter, Leonardo from Vinci, invented a bloody helicopter before the word had even been thought up! But even with wonderful sketches, ideas, dreams and brainstorming, man couldn’t make a successful flying machine. To many, it was considered impossible. Man did not understand what made something fly and, once it was flying, how to keep it flying and, once it was kept flying, how to make it stop flying!

Leonardo’s fantasmagorical flying machine…would it ever have really worked?

The very first flying machines never left the pages that they were drawn on. Leonardo, who created the world’s first helicopter prototype as well as a primative parachute, never actually manufactured his inventions, although modern reconstructions and testing has shown that, with enough persistance, the right materials and a whole heap of chutzbah, it could be done! So…when did man first take to the air?

Full of Hot Air

The first real flying machines that mankind created out of his own hands which really worked were primative hot-air balloons. Hot air balloons had been known for centuries; they were toys and novelties. Cute little fun displays to be seen at garden parties, a toy for the children to marvel at and something for older people to ponder: “What if…?”

The first unmanned hot-air balloons were introduced into the world centuries ago. Early experimenters realised two things about the air which we breathe: Cold air descends. Hot air rises. By this logic, if you put hot air (produced by a continuous heat-source, say, a candle) inside a sealed compartment (like a paper bag), then the hot air would cause the bag to rise, once it had been filled up enough. This proved to be the case, and the hot air balloon was invented.

The idea of travelling by hot air balloon took a while to ehm…get off the ground, though. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the first experiements by European scientists and inventors were begun. The big problem confronting these early experimenters was weight! For this fancy-schmancy ‘hot air balloon’ gizmo to actually lift anything of value off the ground, it would need a massive envelope (the big ‘balloon’ part) and it would need even more hot air! It was all these scary weight-concerns that kept mankind grounded for so long. For a balloon flight to be successful, weight had to be kept to an absolute minimum!

It wasn’t until November 21, 1783 that the world’s first manned balloon-flight happened. The two lucky fellows in the basket on this historic day were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes, a physics teacher and a soldier, respectively. The balloon being flown was a creation of the famous Montgolfier brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne. One likely reason why it took so long for man to take to the skies in hot air balloons was because of how long these things took to make! Apart from the exhausting testing that the Montgolfier brothers carried out on their balloons, there is also the physical size of the balloons themselve to consider. The historic balloon which took de Rozier and d’Arlandes into the air on that day in November, 1783 was absolutely massive! Here are the technical specifications of that famous balloon, as translated from the original French document:

Height of Globe: 22.7m (75ft).
Weight of Globe: 780kg (1,700lbs).
Diameter: 14.9m (49ft).
Lifting capacity: Max approx 830kg (1,800lbs).
Volume of Globe: 2,000 cubic meters (73,000 cubic feet).
Gallery (a doughnut-shaped basket attached to the envelope): 1m wide (3ft).

Needless to say, getting such a massive balloon into the air was not easy, but when it happened, history was well and truly written and made. The Montgolfier brothers’ success was so amazing that King Louis XVI elevated the entire Montgolfier family to the French nobility as a reward! If the Montgolfiers had known that the French Revolution was just a few years away, they might have decided to take the second prize of a two-door, 4hp carriage with guilded windowframes instead…

The hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers

The Hot Air Balloon was now here to stay, and from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, it dominated flight around the world. Hot air balloons were popular attractions at public events, they were used as observation-posts during warfare and for the first time in history, man could fly over the land he owned and see everything from a bird’s eye view.

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

Although the hot air balloon allowed mankind its first proper view down on the world, it did have one major drawback – Hot air balloons were slow, hard to navigate and dangerous to fly. They could only move where the wind blew and could only move as fast as the wind allowed. This was deemed unsatisfactory, by some, and it was decided that what mankind really needed was a flying machine that could be completely controlled by man – A machine that could take flight, stay in the air, go where the pilot wanted it to, and land when and where he wanted it to land.

Like the balloon before it, the aeroplane was slow to take off. As Betty Boop says in one of her cartoons, “It was called insane by ‘most every man!”…and it was! The idea of a heavier-than-air flying machine was proposterous! How could such a thing ever work?

At the turn of the last century, mankind was only just beginning to understand aerodynamics, or how airflow affects moving objects. Chief among this group of people who were studying aerodynamics was a pair of brothers named Wilbur and Orville.

Orville and Wilbur Wright, (born 1871 and 1867, respectively) are the two men credited with inventing the world’s first controllable airplane, and it took some doing, too. And it’s proof that you don’t have to have a college education to be a genius…neither of the Wright Brothers attended university!

The Wright Brothers initially led very different lives. In 1885, Wilbur was hit in the face by accident during a game of hockey. There was no significant damage done (although he did lose a few teeth), but the shock of the blow did make him more introverted than he used to be. He spent most of his time at home, reading and looking after Susan Wright, the Wright Brothers’ mother who was by this time, dying of tuberculosis (she did eventually pass away in 1889).

Orville Wright worked as a printer after dropping out of highschool. Wilbur, getting rather bored with sticking around at home all the time, joined his brother in business, and the two boys worked together as editor and publisher respectively, of various small-town newspapers.

In the 1880s, a new machine was invented. It was light, fast, easy to ride and safer to operate than its predecessors, allowing the rider to balance on its frame more easily and control its speed and movement more comfortably.

The bicycle had been introduced to the world.

Wanting to make as much money as they could, the Wrights packed up their printing press and jumped onto the cycling craze, opening a bicycle repair and manufacture-shop in the 1890s. Throughout the 1890s, flight pioneers were constantly making the headlines, with newer, ‘better’ flying machines. All this talk of flying got the brothers thinking. Wilbur was the one who really got interested in flying, and he set about trying to make a flying machine. Orville joined in later, once Wilbur’s work was showing a sufficient degree of promise.

The Wright brothers started out small, practicing their flying first with kites and then with gliders before attempting anything that we’d recognise today as a conventional airplane. Wilbur studied the movements of birds to try and discover the secret ingredient to Lift, the necessary component of flight to compensate for gravity. The Wrights theorised that it was the gliding motion of birds and the movement of air over their wings that allowed them to fly like they did, rather than the actual flapping motion which some inventors had tried for years to reproduce.

The brothers made a breakthrough when they discovered wing-warping, that is, bending or angling a pair of wings to create the correct kind of airflow to provide lift for the aircraft as well as giving it the ability to turn, rise and fall through the air. It was easy enough to bend a wing – just make it out of something light and flexible. The problem was how to control wing-warping. Left to their own devices, early wings would warp of their own accord, depending on wind-conditions. By attaching ropes and pulleys to the edges of their wings, the Wright brothers were able to pull on the cables and affect wing-warp themselves, giving them for the first time, an aspect of control over their aircraft!

Throughout the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers experimented with gliders to give them an idea of how wings and angling these wings affected flight and lift. To aid them with this, they built one of the world’s first wind-tunnels! With wind on demand, the boys were able to test their flyers more and more often and were able to record data more effectively.

Powered Flight

The dream of mankind was to have powered, controlled flight. By the early 1900s, the Wrights were already working on the “control” part, but they still needed to address the issue of power. They knew from their experiements that any power-source onboard an airplane would have to be as light as possible. Fortunately, their experience working on bicycles meant that the Wright Brothers already had some grounding in light and powerful machines.

The world’s first airplane, Wright Flyer I, took to the air in 1903. Using a custom-made internal-combustion engine created in their own bicycle-shop (after no established engine-manufacturers of the time were able to make one small, light and powerful enough for their needs) and propellers made of wood, tested relentlessly in their wind-tunnel, the Wright brothers were ready to fly.

For obvious reasons, this milestone was fraught with danger. Steering a glider, launching a glider and landing a glider was relatively safe – there were no moving parts. But with their new airplane, the boys had to be careful of the rotating propellers, which were literally revolutionary at the time, since nobody had yet figured out how an airplane’s propeller actually worked!

The historic first flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903.

Actually, more than one flight took place on the 17th of December, 1903, on the beaches near Kittyhawk, South Carolina. Four flights in total were conducted. A number of people came out to witness this historic event: Adam Etheridge, Will Dough, W. C. Brinkley, Johnny Moore, a local lad who was on the scene at the time, and John T. Daniels, a member of a nearby lifesaving station.

Of the four flights taken, the first, third and fourth were photographed. The famous “First Flight” photograph (With Orville at the controls and Wilbur jogging alongside) was taken by John T. Daniels, the lifesaver, and a man who had never operated a camera before (or since!). Daniels had been given instructions by Orville to take the shot when he saw the machine move in front of the camera. Daniels, too excited by what was going on around him, nearly forgot to take the photograph! At the last minute, he tripped the shutter and history was made…

The Airplane Takes Off

If the Wright Brothers thought that their newfangled “flying machine” (Oh what an absurd notion!) was ever going to be a wonderful, amazing, popular, attention-grabbing, imagination-stimulating, sought-after and life-changing machine!…They were wrong.

In fact they were so wrong they probably wondered why the hell they started in the first place. The truth was that very few people were actually interested in their new flying-machine. It didn’t make the headlines that they’d expected it to (probably because so many other flying-machines had done so, and they’d all failed!) and the military was not in the least bit interested. The planes were too light, too flimsy, too dangerous to fly. What possible military application could they have?

The Rise of the Airplane

Just like early anythings, planes were not seen as having much application in the world of the time. Cars were slow, tempermental things, new on the scene, expensive and prone to breakdowns. Similarly, planes were seen as expensive, rich, playboy toys which could never have any practical application in the real world. This changed during the years of the First World War when armies soon discovered the advantages of having an aerial wing which could fly over battlefields, bombing and strafing the enemy, which could take photographs and which could report on enemy troops and movements. By 1918, the airplane had proven itself as a practical and important machine in warfare.

If the 1900s were the experimental stages of airplane-operation, then the 1910s and the 1920s became the era of aircraft endurance-testing. All kinds of famous airplane-related events took place in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which are still fondly remembered today. Here’s a list of them:

1912 – April 16th. Harriet Quimby is the first woman to fly across the English Channel (Dover-Calais, in 59 minutes). Unfortunately, her moment in the sun and her chances of making the front pages were dashed when a little-known watercraft called the R.M.S. Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean the night before…

1927 – May 20-21. Charles Lindbergh flies the Spirit of St. Louis from New York City to Paris, France, in the world’s first solo nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

1928 – 31st May-9th June. Sir Charles Kingsford Smith & Co make the first crossing of the Pacific Ocean in a three-leg journey from California, USA, to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji, Fiji to Brisbane, in Australia.

The 1920s also saw the founding of several famous commercial airline companies. United Airlines is founded in 1926 as Boeing Air Transport. The famous Australian airline company Quantas is founded in 1920. The German airline company Lufthansa is founded in 1926. Pan Am, the American airline is founded as Pan-American Airways in 1927.

Luxury Travel

From the second half of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, luxury long-distance travel was to be had in only one way. That one way was in an amazingly grand and luxurious ocean-liner, which would transport you across vast stretches of water from England to America, America to Australia, Australia to Asia, Asia to Europe and so-on. The largely experimental status of aircraft in the early 20th century meant that the ocean-liner trade was still going strong well into the 1950s, but things were all about to change.

The 1920s showed everyone that airplanes, just like steamships, could safely travel amazing distances, and what’s more, they could do it in significantly more comfort and at faster speeds! This led to the 1930s boom of the airline industry.

Sometimes we like to kid ourselves that airline travel today is really luxurious…little personal TV screens, computer-games, telephone and internet access, luxurious onboard dining and crayons and those cheap, crappy plastic model-airplanes for the kiddies are all the luxury that we need.

In the 1930s, though, there was a whole new kind of luxury…the airship!

The airship was like a hybrid between the airplane and the hot air balloon. Invented in the 1900s, the airship had its golden age from the 1910s-1930s. Less noisy, larger and capable of carrying more passengers than early conventional, fixed-wing airplanes, the airship became the way to travel in style, comfort and most importantly…speed, in the early 1900s. A number of countries operated airship lines, from the United Kingdom, the United States and most notably of all…Germany.

Although large and amazing, airships were dangerous machines. The hydrogen gas which inflated the huge envelopes of many airships was highly explosive and extensive precautions were taken to prevent fires – in Germany, for example, you couldn’t take your camera or your cigarette-lighter onboard an airship – They were confiscated by the crew and locked in a special cargo-area, to be returned by the crew when the ship had reached its destination. The sparking of a cigarette-lighter or the burning flash from early, magnesium flash-bulb cameras was seen as a fire-hazard.

Due to their large size, airships could be difficult to control in bad weather. When the weather was fine, flying in an airship was an exciting and wonderful experience, but when there was a storm, heavy rains or lightning around, the experience could become quite frightening. Winds could rip at the cloth covering of the airship’s enevelope, dangerous static-electric charges could build up on the airship’s frame (although this could also create a spectacular display of ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ to dazzle and awe passengers!) and heavy winds and rain could affect handling and manuverablity. The airship USS Akron crashed in April of 1933 due to flying in a storm after spending only 18 months in civilian service. Of the 76 passengers and crew onboard, only three people survived and were picked up by US. Coastguard watercraft after the crash.

The most famous airship crash is, of course, that of the Hindenburg, which spectacularly erupted into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey in early 1937 and crashed and burned to the ground in a matter of seconds! Of the 97 passengers and crew onboard, roughly one third (36 people) of them died, including one member of the ground-staff. Destroyed after just over a year in service, the Hindenburg’s demise saw the end of grand airship travel, which was written off as just being far too dangerous.

The Hindenburg Crash. The structure on the right is the airship mooring-tower

To understand why the public was so drawn to airships, these flying death-traps, one has to see what they were really like and what they meant to people at the time. Airplanes are faster, but they’re smaller, more cramped, more uncomfortable.

The interiors of German commercial airships that flew through the air during the 1920s and 30s were bright, modern, luxurious, airy and with plenty of space to move around and stretch your legs. Passengers even slept in their own cabins, instead of trying to sleep strapped into their chairs like we have to do these days. Add to this the fact that travelling by airship was so much faster than travelling by…ship-ship. Steaming from England to America took at least five days using the fastest and most modern ocean-liners in the 1930s. Flying from Germany to America by airship in the 1930s took two or at a stretch, three days. For speed and convenience, the airship certainly won out here.

A period airship advertisement from the 1930s boasting a two-day crossing from America to Europe, which was three times faster than a similar crossing by ocean-liner

The risks of airship travel and the spectacular crashes that involved airships soon spelt an end to their aerial dominance, though. They were seen as just being far too risky a thing to use. Why speed up your trip by a few days when you risked crashing, falling from the sky and being killed when you could cross the ocean in a week by ship? And even if the ship was to sink, you could still get into a lifeboat and radio for help! By the late 1930s, the glory days of the airship were over.

Postwar Boom

The 1950s saw many things – the emergence of the Cold War, television, rock and roll and do-wop music. But it also saw the downfall of many things, such as the gradual dying-out of the transatlantic passenger-ship industry and the end of the airship industry. But from the ashes of the airship industry, a new form of transport was to emerge…

…the modern airliner.

Capable of transporting more people to more places with more speed, airliners were the thing of the future. Although the airliner of today probably shares several characteristics with the airliners of the past, early airliners had various perks such as the ability to smoke onboard planes (thank god that’s over with!) and being served meals with real cutlery, chinaware and glassware (something that doesn’t happen today!) and being able to listen to live piano-music! Yes, believe it or not, but early airliners used to have (specially made) pianos onboard them, usually in First Class, where passengers could listen to live music!

An airliner’s piano-bar in the 1960s

Continued safety-concerns and space-restrictions mean that spaces reserved for piano-bars, cocktail lounges, drinks bars and other public-seating areas on airplanes where passengers could mingle and chat, are now a thing of the past, leaving us with nothing but tantilising images of what is, what was, and what might have been…


One thought on “An Impossible Dream: The History of Flight

  1. Bertie says:

    Excellent Shangas, once again.


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