THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES
By Bill Dobbins
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Leonardo da Vinci
The idea of heavier than air flight, in which men would have the freedom of the air like the birds, is an ancient one. Think of the myth of Icarus, who was destroyed when he flew too close to the sun. Or the designs of Leonardo da Vinci for both a flying machine and a helicopter.
But it took a combination of more modern technology and an understanding of aerodynamics for the earliest versions of powered aircraft to come about. First came the glider, for which inventors learned how a curved wing of a certain design generates lift by directing air across the top of the wing to flow faster than that below, creating a pressure differential and therefore lift.
“I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” — Amelia Earhart
Even the Wright Brothers, the Dayton, Ohio bicycle mechanics who eventually made the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, began by building gliders. In fact, looking at their glider design you can see it is clearly the ancestor of the eventual Wright Flyer. The added element necessary for powered flight was, of course, the power – and engines in those days were so relatively heavy for their horsepower output that the Wrights had to come up with their own design for a motor as well as an airframe
The term aviation, noun of action from stem of Latin avis “bird” with suffix -ation meaning action or progress, was coined in 1863 by French pioneer Guillaume Joseph Gabriel de La Landelle (1812–1886) in “Aviation ou Navigation aérienne sans ballons“. – Wikipedia
The development of the airplane was rapid after that. And photographers were on hand to document this development. Starting with basic designs similar to the Wright Flyer, innovations were added such as ailerons and landing great. More powerful engines were introduced. Aviators, especially in Europe, began undertaking amazing and record-breaking flights.
“Feathers shall raise men even as they do birds towards heaven: That is by letters written with their quills.” — Leonardo da Vinci
On 25 July Louis Blériot won worldwide fame by winning a £1,000 prize offered by the British Daily Mailnewspaper for a flight across the English Channel, and in August around half a million people, including the President of France Armand Fallières and David Lloyd George, attended one of the first aviation meetings, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation at Reims. – Wikipedia
Progress in aviation was so rapid that slightly more than 10 years after the Wright brothers first flight we saw the use in World War I of relatively sophisticated fighter planes and bombers. Aviators like The Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker became popular heroes. But most pilots fighting that war did not survive the conflict. The Red Baron himself was killed, not in combat with another plane, but by gunfire from the ground as he flew at a very low altitude.
However, you didn’t have to be flying in a war to die in an airplane in those days. Flying in airplanes constructed of wood covered by fabric and held together with numerous wires and fragile structs was a dangerous activity. Even as late as the 1930s, when more advanced planes were constructed of more sturdy metal and powered by much more robust engines, the list of pilots of commercial airlines who were killed while flying for airlines is depressingly extensive.
Flying today, even with much more advanced aircraft, electronic instruments, radar, and better weather reporting can still be dangerous. Look at the list of celebrities who have died in air crashes, including Buddy Holly, members of Lynrd Skynrd, Rick Nelson, John Denver, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline, Jim Croce, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There were all crashes by small planes. Thankfully, scheduled flights by the major airlines are relatively safe, with millions of miles flown with very few casualties.
But if flying in small planes today can be hazardous, think of the pioneer aviators in their rickety, privative airplanes, faced with the threat of mechanical catastrophe, changing weather conditions and the ever-present threat of pilot error. This was as dangerous as was driving the earliest race cars. In fact, it is interesting how many early race drivers were also pilots. Obviously, thrill-addicted adrenaline-seekers.
“There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” –Orson Welles
But being able to “fly like a bird” was such an exciting and inviting prospect that many ignored the dangers and took to the air. After WWI there were numerous “barnstormers” who flew all over the United States giving demonstrations and offering rides to the public. Many later pilots report that their first introduction to flying and later decision to become flyers came from seeing or riding with these barnstormers. Added to this, early movies frequently focused on airplane-related subjects so that the public was able to sit in darkened theaters and thrill to the exploits of fighter pilots, pilots flying the mail and other “heroes” of flying. Howard Hughes spent a fortune and many years producing his movie Hell’s Angels, which incidentally resulted in the accidental death of several pilots.
Nowadays, we are so accustomed to the idea of heavier-than-air, powered-flight that it is hard to grasp how revolutionary this was when airplanes were first invented. The sight of an airplane flying overhead caused people to stop, stare and point. Thousands would flock to early air shows and demonstrations. We now take for granted the ability to fly cross-country or to foreign countries in a matter of hours, distances that would formerly take days by train or weeks by boat.
Sometimes, flying feels too God-like to be attained by man. Sometimes, the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.— Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, 1953.
A very humorous perspective on the invention of the airplane was created by comedian Bob Newhart in a routine called Merchandizing The Wright Brothers. Told that the longest flight so far was 105 feet, the sales manager replies, “That’s going to cut our time to the coast.”
The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together.— Bill Gates
Wilbur and Orville Wright could hardly have imagined supersonic flight, space shuttles and rockets to the Moon and Mars. But this kind of technological evolution is an established aspect of modern life.
Meanwhile, those daring young men in their flying machines, many who gave their lives in their zeal to be aviators, were the adventurous pioneers who helped make the future of aviation possible.
If God had really intended men to fly, he’d make it easier to get to the airport.— George Winters
Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)
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