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Tumult in the Clouds


American publishers and aviation institutions such as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum were not caught off their guard by the centennial of the Wright brothers’ first flight. Two ambitious histories were waiting in the wings. Some two dozen books related to flying have appeared in the past few years. Most of those I shall discuss here deal with early aviation before 1909.

Richard P. Hallion, a distinguished historian of flying, has written what aspires to be the standard reference work on the subject. Taking Flight opens disconcertingly with a challenge to the reader. Hallion lists six standard items of “common knowledge,” mostly exaggerations of the Wrights’ role, all of which he calls false. He then moves back to ancient mythology and goes on to examine why heavier-than-air flight developed in the post-medieval West, with its learned academics and scientific societies, rather than in China or during the flourishing of Islam.

Hallion’s five-hundred-page history quite properly waits until chapter ten to introduce the Wright brothers and gives them four exciting chapters. The last half of the book carries the story of flying through World War I. Though Hallion documents the havoc wrought by destructive uses of flying, including the delivery of nuclear weapons and the World Trade Center attacks, in the last paragraph he embraces flight as a “product of our most noble qualities.” Not without ponderous moments, Taking Flight represents the best-informed, most balanced aviation history now available in English. Hallion overlooks no important figure in Europe or the United States and deals expertly with key technical puzzlers like wing-warping.

In To Conquer the Air, James Tobin, a prize-winning journalist and historian, limits himself to twentieth-century aviation history and restages that sequence of events as a “great race” for the first manned and powered flight. Or rather he envisions two races. The first, lasting from 1899 to 1903, pitted the imposing figure of Langley against the unknown Wright brothers. The second race, from about 1905 to World War I, presents the Wrights as uneasy businessmen competing against everyone else including the American Glenn Curtiss (speed king and gifted mechanic backed by Alexander Graham Bell) and the French Aero Club, the oldest and most active aeronautical organization in the world.

Tobin’s first race inspires a swift narrative with a High Noon finish in December 1903. The second race for profitable airplane construction orders had too many participants and settings to shape into high drama. But Tobin captures the near mass hysteria provoked by the first major international air meet in Rheims, in August 1909, soon after Blériot’s first Channel crossing and by Wilbur’s unhurried thirty-three-minute public flight in October across New York Harbor and up the Hudson around Grant’s Tomb. The exploit was watched and cheered by millions in Manhattan and New Jersey. Despite such triumphs, the Wrights lost the second race. Reliable aircraft were put on the market first by the French and then by the Germans and the British before the Americans, par- alyzed by the patent litigation initi-ated by the Wrights, could pool their resources.

Tobin pulls together his wide-ranging narrative of the second race by quoting from an interview with Wilbur by the celebrated architect Cass Gilbert the day after the glorious New York Harbor flight. “There is absolutely nothing romantic or distinguished in his dress, appearance or manner,” Gilbert told his readers. In leaving, Gilbert found appropriate words to say to the famous aviator: “We are proud of you and of what you have accomplished and the way you have gone about it…. The real men are glad that you don’t make an acrobatic or circus performance out of the machine as some others seem inclined to do.”

Both Hallion and Tobin take full advantage of the wealth of illustrative materials available on early flying. Their publishers have not stinted.

Anyone genuinely interested in primary sources in history should have a long look at the Dover unabridged re-publication of Octave Chanute’s illustrated landmark compilation Progress in Flying Machines (1894). It became the source book for all pioneer flyers, including the Wright brothers. Working out of Chicago, Chanute acted as a one-man clearinghouse for aviation research in a profession that openly shared its discoveries. He wrote the epitaph for ornithopters that flap their wings like birds. His is the only book to mention Nadar, the successful French balloonist, photographer, and publicist for the Impressionist painters.

A refreshing broad European perspective on aviation history can be found in the eighty-page illustrated guide to the thirty-six early airplanes on display in the central hall of the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget Airport north of Paris. The guide’s commentary and captions in French furnish a succinct account of aviation from hot-air balloons to early military models.

The centennial has also added to an already long shelf of books on the Wright brothers two outstanding and very different monographs. Every element—its sponsorship (Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic), its two authors (each has written a major earlier study on the Wrights), and its lavish production—establishes The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age as the standard, even the official, version of their accomplishments. Crouch and Jakab keep their writing lively and straightforward and reproduce the best prints of the most revealing photographs. This is the handsome book I shall give to my grandchildren.

T.A. Heppenheimer’s First Flight retells the Wrights’ story with exceptionally good treatment of the historical background on other flyers, particularly Chanute and Curtiss. Heppen- heimer lamely fictionalizes a few major scenes and cannot avoid falling into the invention fallacy.

The most welcome fruit of the centennial for anyone strongly drawn to the Wrights’ saga lies in the three hundred packed pages of The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright. The book’s four parts cast a wide net: The Wrights Tell Their Own Story; Technical Articles and Talks; The Wrights Assess Their Contemporaries; The Wrights on the Future of Aviation. Even tight-lipped Wilbur spoke and wrote fluently; Orville became almost loquacious. In these writings the brothers maintain a strong sense of other people’s and their own priority in the development of aviation. The most surprising and neglected article is “What Clément Ader Did,” written in 1912 by Wilbur for the Aero Club of America Bulletin. After closely examining and rejecting the Frenchman’s claim to have flown with steam power in 1897, Wilbur devotes a page to a remarkably frank discussion of secrecy and openness in dealing with aviation discoveries. He comes out strongly in favor of all flyers contributing their discoveries to “the final success” of human flight. But on the following page he undercuts his position by stating incorrectly that the Wright brothers’ wing-warping technique was “given to the world.” Wilbur may not have been totally at peace with his self-protective past.

I find these pages absorbing in great part because they record the formation of a special vocabulary of flight at a moment when the French language was contributing as much as if not more than English.


Near the beginning of the effervescent Offenbach-Massine ballet Gaieté Pa-risienne, set in a Gay Nineties Paris night spot, a white-suited character comes bouncing on stage dragging two valises stuffed with money. He is the Peruvian, who flirts with the flower girl and the glove seller and stumbles into assorted scrapes with other pleasure seekers until everyone in sight is swept up into a raucous cancan. At the end the Peruvian is left skulking under a table.

The high-profile feats of early aviators belonged very much to the Belle Époque in France. When the world of aviation produced its own exotic mascot, he was nearly Peruvian. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a dandified coffee heir, arrived in Paris from Brazil with enough money to buy his way first into ballooning and then into heavier-than-air flying machines. He also had enough talent to avoid disaster and to publicize himself as belonging to a new air-borne entrepreneurial aristocracy.

From Wings of Madness, Santos-Dumont’s biography by Paul Hoffman, an unabashed lark of a book, we learn more about turn-of-the-century antics in Paris than about the early history of flight. Hoffman has listened too often to the platitude that eccentricity signifies genius.

Seth Shulman’s Unlocking the Sky, covering the career of Glenn Curtiss, seeks to deflate exaggerated legends about the Wright brothers and to rehabilitate Glenn Curtiss as a major figure in aviation history. Shulman has some wonderful scenes to describe—Curtiss winning the speed race against Blériot (the Wrights stayed away) at the August 1909 Rheims air meet with an average speed of 46.5 mph, and Curtiss winning a $10,000 Pulitzer Prize in 1910 for the first intercity flight from Albany to New York at an average speed of 55 mph over 137 miles. Curtiss belongs securely among the second generation of American pioneers. Shulman presses too hard to place him ahead of the Wright brothers.

Everything you have read so far rests on the supposition that in the past century human beings have conquered the air and learned to fly. Yet the most uplifting modern poem about human flight, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” concerns not an airplane but the poet’s near-total self-projection into the flight of a falcon, a passionate lunge of the imagination. In the second scene of Goethe’s romantic drama, Faust’s celebrated “Sunset Speech” yearns for flight specifically in the form of a freely soaring bird propelled by its own flesh-and-blood wings. Instead, what we have invented is a rasping malodorous machine which serves as an elaborate prosthetic device to transport us through the air. It flies us as much as we fly it. Flying now belongs to our long love affair with machinery, to the Toys-R-Us syndrome, not to a bird-like liberation. Only the silent art of gliding begins to simulate free flight under natural conditions.

Why in the face of such limitations are many intelligent people drawn to heavier-than-air, engine-powered flying machines? The books on aviation history so far discussed provide a less satisfying answer than the occasional reflective memoir by a literate pilot.

The current centennial has facilitated publication of three memoirs that contribute to our understanding of the rewards of powered flight. In very different books, William Langewiesche and Bob Buck insist that “flying blind” was an accomplishment equal in importance to lifting off the ground. The feat is essentially based on the pilot’s learning to trust not his physical sensations but his instruments—an added prosthesis. The psychological achievement of instrument flying led both Langewiesche and Buck to the dangerous sport of storm-chasing in order to explore and master the worst possible flying conditions. Lange-wiesche’s loosely connected essays in Inside the Sky have pungent comments on the mystery of aviation accidents. Reading Buck’s book, North Star over My Shoulder, is like talking with an old pilot who has known everyone, gone everywhere, and remembered the best stories. In chapter five, “Apprentice Time,” Buck writes of his early cross-country flights as if he has just been reading Mark Twain on his days as a cub pilot on the Mississippi.

Joshua Cooper Ramo, a foreign news editor and pilot still in his thirties, subtitles No Horizon, his short collection of sketches, “Surviving the World’s Most Dangerous Sport.” He is referring to competitive aerobatics or acrobatics, a high-tech form of self-punishment in which he willingly and compulsively participates. Ramo has no story to tell, and only one subject: Ramo testing himself and his plane to the utmost limit of extreme conditions. Possible death lurks in every scene. The subject justifies and encourages overwriting, and Ramo loves the lingo. “I’d be pushing the nose under into a maneuver needing high negative g’s and I’d hear myself beginning to whimper from the pain.” The self-induced intensity sometimes cloys.

When he comes to the question “Why do I fly?” Ramo answers with a word he has used too many times already: “It’s about faith.” Faith in what, he doesn’t say. He begins to sound like Joseph Campbell. But Ramo’s faith is in himself. All this remarkable material about extreme flying needs better shaping and a more tempered style.

Any one of these three books by Langewiesche, Buck, and Ramo will carry the reader very close to the immediate yet prosthetic experience of piloting an airplane and provide a good complement to the aviation histories I have discussed earlier.



I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
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.

—W.B. Yeats

More than law and duty, this very poem, read when I was seventeen, led me to volunteer for the Army Air Corps in late 1942 in search of my own “lonely impulse.” After a year of pilot training in Texas and Kansas, I was assigned for nearly two years to a Combat Cargo squadron that advanced gradually from New Guinea to the Philippines to South Korea. After sixty years, the traumatic episodes that remain seared into my memory from flight training concern learning to perform precision spins on both sides in an ornery basic trainer, and struggling with instrument flying first under a hood and then in the eerie virtual reality of a Link trainer. In order to train large numbers of pilots rapidly, the Army relied heavily and effectively on rigorous procedures. We began by memorizing GUMP, the takeoff and landing checklist. It stands for gas, undercarriage, mixture, props. There was little room for romantic dreams. We learned to fly by the book.

In the Pacific theater, routinely and with few losses, we flew huge distances on a compass heading over open water with no landmarks, no navigator, and no radio aids. Most of us barely twenty, we learned to hit a pinpoint call Palau after four hours of clueless flying out of Biak in a Curtiss Commando. After the war, few pilots stayed in for another hitch.

This limited flying background provides me with a pair of tinted glasses through which I have read these mostly celebratory books marking the centennial of human flight. That tinge of skepticism has helped me to identify the implicit claims made by many aviation historians and professional pilots about the status of flying as a human activity. Such claims should not go unexamined.

  1. Because it transcends the earth and affords us a godlike view from above, flying approaches the spiritual.

  2. The element of risk, particularly in extreme forms of flying, requires courage of a kind that contributes to character building.

  3. A rewarding sense of direct personal power arises from piloting a large aircraft into the air and setting it back down safely on a designated spot of ground.

  4. From the beginning no one could fail to respond to the aesthetic side of flying. Chanute quotes Cayley writing in 1810 about a glider. “It was beautiful to see this noble white bird sail majestically from the top of a hill.” Especially in their early writings, the Wright brothers expressed a distinct elation about venturing into the air. In 1905, Wilbur wrote to an Italian pilot, “…is not flying real poetry?” Both brothers signed a sentence affirming “the extraordinary charm and…beauties of sailing through the air on fixed wings.”

Without hesitation I can confirm the aesthetic appeal of flying and the way it trains one to assert control over a recalcitrant machine. Ramo, Langewiesche, and Buck have not convinced me, however, that flying builds character better than do many other sports, from rugby to cycling to rowing. Moreover, I came back from two years of grueling flying in the Pacific having lost a fairly devout Christian faith.

Several authors identify “enlargement of vision” or “the view from above” as the source of the spiritual experience of flying. But the thrill of looking down on the world spread out beneath us is not inherently spiritual. We have the myth of Daedalus to disenchant us. On the other hand, the extension of consciousness offered by the best pages of Tolstoy and Proust and Conrad transports us convincingly out of ourselves toward other beings and other minds. An airplane fails at that task. For many of us flying occupies a privileged status. But it does not trump literature.

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