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Images from a century of aviation.

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

 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. They recall the old legends of chivalry, not merely by daring individually, but by the Nobility of their spirit'. He spoke of how 'High above the squalor and the mud, so high in the firmament, they are not visible from earth, they fight out the eternal issues of right and wrong'. Raised up to a level where there were only cloudscapes and sunlight, pilots seemed, as William Butler Yeats implied, elevated even above questions of right and wrong.
 Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
 Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
 A lonely impulse of delight
 Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
 I balanced all, brought all to mind,
 The years to come seemed waste of breath,
 A waste of breath the years behind
 In balance with this life, this death.

Even fifty years ago, in the early years of the Jet Age, the well known journalist Sir Philip Gibbs could write:
 I am certain, the time in which we live, this very time of ours,
 will be recorded as our heroic age, for one reason above all--the
 adventure of flight, the annihilation of time and distance by
 supersonic speed.

 We have a new knighthood--those boys who are being trained for
 the R.A.F, and those young men already wearing wings, who are the
 pilots and crews and technicians of this Royal Air Force, and the
 older men tested by experience--terrific experience--who are
 their leaders and instructors. Nothing in history, nothing in the
 romance of human adventure--not even the seamanship which first
 explored the world--can exceed the amazing achievements of this
 Air Age, nor the quality, the spirit, the nerve--they would hate
 me to use the word heroism--of those who take its risks.

But today, as we blithely wing our way to holidays in Thailand or Barbados, we neither see nor wish to see anything glamorous or knight-errantish (let alone nihilistic) in the middle-aged gentlemen with pilot's badges who lock themselves in with the mass of dials and gadgets at the front of the aeroplane and occasionally speak to us about the weather over the cabin PA system. Similarly astronauts, today's counterpart of the pioneer ocean-crossers of yesteryear, seem by no means youthful and tend to have doctorates in the most abstruse subjects.

The glamour of flight did however contribute in its day to the cult of youth, one of the most distinctive features of the twentieth century. A leading expert on aviation medicine argued in 1919 that candidates for flying training should be between eighteen and thirty: 'Under 18 and up to 20 caution and well-balanced judgment may be lacking; 24 is about the best age. Over 33 the candidate, although quite able to learn to fly, does not stand the nerve-strain of air work so well ...'. But even this author had to admit that Colonel Samuel Cody (the American-born aviation pioneer who was the first man to pilot a heavier-than-air machine in Britain) learnt to fly at the age of 47 and was 52 when he died as a result of his plane breaking up in mid-air. The editor of the magazine The Aeroplane thought it an 'idiotic theory' that 'a howling little bounder of twenty is going to make a better officer-aviator than a thoroughly sound sportsman of thirty-one or thirty-two'. During the 1914-1918 War many of the most successful fighter pilots, including three out of five of the leading aces in the Italian Air Service, were in their thirties. Lindbergh however was only 25 when he became the hero of the century in 1927, and in the 1939-45 War, when selection for flying training was better organized than in 1914-18 and professional air arm officers were likely to be promoted to desk duties by their late twenties, heroism in the air became increasingly identified with youth. Admittedly First World War naval ace Theo Osterkamp added six 'kills' to his tally in 1940 at the age of 48 while Kommodore of a Luftwaffe fighter wing. Lieutenant Colonel--later Major General--James Doolittle was 45 when he led the first ever bombing raid on Tokyo on 18 April 1942 and 46 when he commanded the first raid on Rome a little over a year later (his ambition to achieve a hat-trick by leading the first American, and the first daylight, raid on Berlin in 1944 was scotched by Eisenhower, who was afraid he would give away the secret of D-Day if he was shot down and interrogated).

On the other hand the fighter pilots who won the Battle of Britain were, as so often proclaimed, mere 'boys' of twenty-one and twenty-two, and Major Erich Hartmann was still aged only twenty-three when he was despatched to a Soviet labour camp, after shooting down 345 Russian (and seven American) aircraft in thirty months. The strain of combat aviation had been observed as far back as the Turco-Italian War in Libya in 1911, in which the Italians had employed aircraft both for reconnaissance and (not very successfully) for bombing: as one Italian pilot reported, 'After two months the aviator is obsessed by a morbid sensibility and the very sight of the aeroplane which is waiting for him fills him with infinite repugnance. Then you must seize your heart with a hand of iron, drag it on to the seat, and there nail it'. Only a young man in peak physical condition could have kept this up, as Hartmann did, for 1,405 missions, 825 involving actual combat. For their time such men were what sports idols and popstars were for a later generation--with the additional advantages that they were 'officers and gentleman' and, according at least to the newspapers, were saving civilization almost single-handed.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as war planes became vastly more complicated and exponentially more expensive, the age of their pilots began to creep up. They took much longer to train and were being put in charge of larger percentages of national defence budgets. By the time of the Falklands War, British fighter pilots were in their thirties and of a rank that required 96 per cent of their fellow servicemen to salute them: and the rules of their profession prevented the incessant media attention which makes household names of soap stars and footballers.

One aspect of combat aviation has however retained a special glamour: the phenomenon of the fighter ace. One 1914-18 veteran noted:
 Any men who have ever flown on the Western Front have been asked
 one question at least one hundred times. Few of them will answer.
 Few of them can answer, for the simple reason that few men able to
 answer in the affirmative are alive today. And those who say 'no'
 are never certain whether they are telling the truth, anyway.

 The question is: 'Did you ever meet or fight that German ace--that
 Baron yon Richthofen--the Red Knight of Germany?'

With the qualified exception of Hitler, Richthofen--known to the Germans not as the Red Baron but as the Red Battle Pilot--is the only individual combatant of the two twentieth-century world wars whose name is likely to remain current till the twenty-second century: but the idea of the fighter ace diffuses a persistent charm.

Sceptics wonder if leading scorers really could have shot down as many aircraft as they claimed. Richthofen's record of eight aircraft shot down in five days is exceeded by the Royal Air Force's Captain Donald MacLaren's eight in three days and by the Royal Navy's Raymond Collishaw's six on a single mission. In the 1939-45 War, Luftwaffe pilots, fighting generally against great odds--i.e. with more potential targets--over periods of two or three or even four years clocked up vast scores. Admittedly the seventeen Royal Air Force and South African Air Force fighters claimed as shot down over Libya by Luftwaffe ace Hans-Joachim Marseille on 1 September 1942 include eight Curtiss P-40s from a formation that in fact consisted of only six aircraft, all of which returned home safely; nevertheless a good case can be made for supposing that fewer than one per cent of fighter pilots accounted for more than a third, perhaps more than a half, of all the aircraft downed in air-to-air combat between 1939 and 1945. It should also be noted that while serendipity might count a lot in catching an enemy fighter with a short but lethal burst of 20 mm cannon fire, radar interceptions of RAF night bombers or close quarters attacks on USAAF Boeing B-17 Fortresses flying in a mutual-defence formation could not be successfully carried out without the utmost skill and determination: and the record for success against night bombers is 121 destroyed, in 164 missions, by Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, and against American four-engined bomber formations 36, by both Walther Dahl and Georg-Peter Eder--all confirmed by the inspection of the bombers' shattered remains where they crashed on German soil. (And Eder, incidentally, was himself shot down seventeen times, being wounded on twelve separate occasions.)

Unusually, German ace Erich Hartmann's 352 aerial victories, Austrian ace Walter Nowotny's 258, even Finnish ace Eino Juutilainen's 94, have so far outshone American top-scorer Richard Bong's tally of only 40 that the latter remains, among top rankers in American league tables, relatively unknown. (If a Green politician in the Vienna City Council has his way, Nowotny will soon be removed from his 'Hero's Grave' in the city cemetary.) The absence since 1953 of prolonged wars between nations that were equally well-equipped has meant that the really high scoring fighter ace is now a thing of the past: but the commercial success of the 1986 movie Top Gun, with Tom Cruise, testifies to the enduring allure of the ace concept, even in the context of supersonic warfare.

The increasing speed at which aircraft fly, and their increasing range, has been perhaps the most obvious feature of the air age, though here again the heroic days are now more than a third of a century behind us. A Douglas Skyrocket experimental aircraft reached 1238 m.p.h. (just under 2000km/h) in 1951 and a Lockheed YF-12A fighter exceeded 2000 m.p.h, in 1965. A SR-71A reconnaissance plane (a variant of the same Lockheed design) passed over London one hour and 55 minutes after passing over New York in a test flight in September 1974; but the Boeing 747 in which most of us travel on long distance flights goes at only 600 m.p.h., and has now been operating on scheduled services for more than thirty years.

Similarly, despite astonishing advances in the detail of electronic devices and in engine design, the basic shape of aircraft has changed little in recent years. The biplane, though employed by early pioneers like the Wright Brothers and Cody, only really established its dominance at the expense of the monoplane on the eve of the 1914-18 War, following a number of air crashes that indicated structural weakness in the monoplane format: in fact the first machine-gun armed single-seat fighter aircraft in both the French and the German Air Services were monoplane types, though soon replaced by more powerful and more manoeuvrable biplanes. The monoplane only began to come back into favour in the 1930s: nevertheless the biplane has to be seen as belonging to the transitional early phase of flying, when little was known of aerodynamics and 'the accomplished horseman' with 'good heart, good hands and a quick eye', or a yachtsman, or at least someone 'used to playing games and leading an outdoor life' was thought more likely to make a good pilot than someone who merely possessed an aptitude for machinery--even experienced racing motorists, it was claimed, often failed to make the grade as aviators. Many 1914-18 War pilots had had almost nothing to do with machinery of any kind till they began training to fly: some, like Richthofen (a former cavalry officer) freely admitted that they never did manage to learn how to fly very well. But by the time the biplane went out of fashion in the late 1930s the young men choosing to go into aviation belonged to a generation that had grown up with machines, and the talk of machinery, and popular books about machinery, since earliest boyhood: the Battle of Britain was fought by men who had graduated to 350 m.p.h, fighters from Meccano and model aeroplanes. With the development of the turbojet flight assumed a special association with a type of machine that had almost no application outside aircraft technology. The swept-wing monoplane jet with air-intakes on either side of the fuselage on a level with or just behind the pilot's cockpit belongs to a design tradition evolved in the 1940s. It is still standard today for smaller, faster warplanes, having exceeded the two decades of the biplane's dominance two and a half times.

The all-wing aircraft (i.e. an aeroplane with only a short nacelle containing pilot's cockpit and engine, no rear fuselage, and a single swept wing bearing all control surfaces) was pioneered with the Westland Pterodactyl in the mid-1920s. The delta-wing concept, known to schoolboy makers of paper darts from circa 1914, was adapted for manned flight by Alexander Lippisch in Germany in the 1930s, and the project that eventually became the Vulcan delta-wing bomber was accepted by the Air Ministry in 1947. The first delta-winged jet, the experimental Avro 707, first flew in September 1949; but the format that seemed so thrillingly advanced in its day is now outmoded, and the delta-winged Concordes that at the time of writing are still the only supersonic passenger aircraft operating on scheduled flights are in fact an ageing anachronism.

It is arguable that the pace of innovation in flight has been slowing down for decades and that most of what is familiar today will remain standard until such a time as a practical technology is developed for the exploration of space. Air speeds of a few thousand miles an hour are of little use in the exploration of planets scores of million miles away, let alone solar systems light years beyond our own. Neil Armstrong's words as he stepped on to the surface of the moon in 1969--'one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind'--seemed stagey at the time and now have a ring of bathos, reminding us of how essentially earthbound (or earth-gravity-bound) the Apollo moon missions really were. It is seventy or eighty years since the aeroplane replaced the steam locomotive and the ocean liner as the key symbol of man's mastery over distance and the physics of power: it will be at least another seventy or eighty years before the exponential leap in technology that will take man into Outer Space. For the foreseeable future we remain in the Air Age rather than the Space Age, with the idea of air travel and the sound overhead of jets and helicopters routine ingredients of everyday life: but we should remember that there was a time not so long ago when human flight was only a dream, and a time only a little more recent when it had the magical glow of a dream newly come true.

A. D. Harvey's books include Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793-1945 (1992), A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War (1998) and Amhem (2001).
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Author:Harvey, A.D.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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