History of aviation

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When I think of early aviation, my mind only goes back to 1903, when the Wright brothers got their powered and controlled aircraft into flight. They were the first to combine power and control in their aircraft, but, indeed, humans had been creating flying objects for centuries before the Wright brothers came around.

Leonardo da Vinci's drawings for a flying machine

Some of the earliest flying objects were gliders, which were created as far back as the 9th century (the first inventor being a Muslim jack-of-all-trades named Abbas Ibn Firnas from the modern day city of Ronda, Spain). Eiler of Malmesbury, an English monk, created a glider in 1010 AD and flew it out of Malmesbury Abbey. Unfortunately, he broke both of his legs in the flight and his Abbot didn’t allow him to continue in his aviation experiments. In 1783, two French brothers created a lighter-than-air balloon that could carry humans…but it could only go downwind.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. Just a decade after the Wright brothers made their first heavier-than-air flight, airplanes were being used to great effect in WWI. But airplanes were rivaled by a new upstart: airships manufactured by the Zeppelin company. In early days, Zeppelins could fly longer distances than airplanes, such as the Graf Zeppelin which made an around-the-world flight in 1929. However, airplane design quickly outpaced the Zeppelins. The age of airships ended with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 and, though there have been attempts to restore their glory, they remain a fringe interest.

Just a century after the Wright brothers, the aircraft SpaceShipOne made a successful flight into space. Plans are in development for this aircraft’s successors to soon bring commercial passengers into space. Meanwhile, other aircraft designs are encompassing alternative sources of energy such as ethanol, electricity, and solar power. The aviation industry continues to grow in outstanding bounds…just don’t fly those solar planes at night!

Magnificent men in their flying machines

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Thinking about aviation this week brought to mind an old tune that I couldn’t place at first: Those magnificent men in their flying machines, they go up uppity up up…  Google to the rescue. This is the theme song from an old British movie I watched at my grandparents as a kid that I surely never would have remembered otherwise.

The movie’s full title is Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes and features an international flying contest, replete with cliched characters from Italy, France, Britain, the US, Prussia, and Japan who play out in microcosm the tensions of pre-WWI Europe. Now that we have such a standard model for what a plane should look like, it’s fun to see the varied concepts that were featured in this movie:

How to be a pilot


What you’ll need: a cool hat, steady hands

Songlist: Fly by Sugar Ray, Leaving on a Jet Plane by John Denver

Further reading: Alive by Piers Paul Read

On Friday, I mentioned that I’d be getting on a plane to New York shortly after posting. I got to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, read some trashy magazines for a while (will Brad and Angelina wed or won’t they?), and hung out at my gate eating overpriced airport food. And then, ten minutes after we were supposed to board the plane, they announced that my flight to JFK had been canceled. Bad weather in New York. Delta offered me a cocktail of out-of-the-way flights (Minneapolis-St. Louis-Atlanta-New York) that still wouldn’t guarantee my safe arrival Friday night. I opted to fly out Saturday early morning instead.

I was pretty disappointed but, as I was standing in line to get my rebooking, I saw a pilot dash in behind the desk looking quite anxious. Distraught passengers tried to ask him for assistance and he waved them off, saying that he, too, was just trying to figure out how to get to work–he didn’t have any special information to share with us. I began to think how difficult it would be to have a job that is so often affected by rain or snow or volcanic eruptions.

The runway at Virgin Gorda: not big enough for a six-seater plane

But being a pilot is also pretty darn cool. Once, when my family was visiting my grandparents in the Caribbean, we took a day trip over to Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands. We had to take a four-seater airplane over, as the airport at Virgin Gorda is nothing more than a dirt strip on the side of a cliff that drops down into the ocean. Somehow I got the lucky seat of sitting next to our pilot. He took off into the clear, blue day and once we reached our cruising altitude, he asked if I’d like to take the controls. I knew that keeping a plane flying straight in perfect weather is not necessarily difficult, but at the same time I knew that if I pushed or pulled that yoke too quickly I could send us into a tailspin. So I gripped the steering yoke white-knuckled, not daring to breathe too much, as the pilot leaned back to fill out some paperwork.

After several minutes the pilot took control once again, and I was able to exhale. Though flying has become commonplace, the physics that keep a tiny aircraft aloft still boggle my mind. It’s terrifying to realize how vulnerable you are many thousands of feet above land, but also exhilarating. I almost asked to steer again, but it was just about time for the descent and landing, and there was no way I wanted anything to do with that. Our pilot expertly guided the tiny plane down to that sandy runway, and we passed through the one-room airport with our passports (immigration control seems a little foolish when your airport is a wooden shack).

The day at Virgin Gorda was beautiful, but I remember being excited for the flight back just to feel, once again, that fine balance between security and vulnerability.