Flight of fancy

“Flying – the dream of man and flightless bird alike.”

Colonel Hap Hapablad in the Simpsons (the one where Sideshow Bob steals a nuclear bomb).

There’s been a lot on about the centenary of powered flight, especially on the history channels. Those few seconds on 17th December, 1903 seem almost amusing to us now. Who would have thought that those tiny flights (120 feet in one, less than the span of many modern airliners’ wings) would alter the world in a way that few inventions have? Secluded and breezy Kittyhawk seemed the ideal place and so it proved on a mildy breezy day. Within 6 years Bleriot had flown the English Channel and not long after the end of the Great War the technological advances it had brought to aviation lead to Alcok and Brown flying the Atlantic. Imagine flying the great and wild expanses of the Atlantic in a biplane, before the invention of proper instrumentation (that wasn’t until 1929) through storms and featureless grey oceans.

Less than 40 years afterwards and the fate of the United Kingdom – and indeed the whole free world – hung on the new aircraft which defended these isles during the Battle of Britain as sturdy Hurricanes and the elegant Spitfires of RJ Mitchell soared in the skies, for the first time in British history our security no longer relying soley on our naval supremacy because flight had changed all the rules, something the Japanese fleet further proved in Pearl Harbour and the Royal Navy proved to the Italian fleet in the Medittaranean. The war ends and Chuck yeager is shoved back into his seat in his Bell X-series rocket plane to break the sound barrier in 1947. Less than 50 years have passed by this point. Only a decade after this my boyhood hero Gagarin makes his astonishing flight into space. Within the following decades Concorde makes her first supersonic flight, Harriers were learnign to lift vertically, hover and fly backwards and Amrstong and Aldarin take the lyrics of the song Fly Me to the Moon literally (taking a small piece of the Wright’s Flyer with them as a mark of respect and of how far we had come).

All of this within seventy years. Think on that – something mankind had tried to do for millennia and within the span of a human lifetime we went from a few seconds of flight a few feet from the ground to Concorde and Apollo. A person who was a child when Orville and Wilbur took to the skies, being told of this stupendous news by an excited father could have been a grandparent recounting the tale to their grandchildren while watching the moon landing on television. Millenia of dreaming and finally we have a century of flight. Most of us have flown, often to foreign countries, covering continents in a few hours’ flight has given us the freedom of our planet on a scale accesible to most people in a way no other humans in history have ever had. Most of our grandparents only a few decades back never had this experience; we take it for granted. We live in a time of casual miracles that we take for granted. Every now and again we stop and marvel at them, but most of the time we don’t think about it. A plane flies overhead and most of us never look up. It takes events like the ending of Concorde or the first flight after the Challenger explosion to make us stop and look and wonder again at the things we can do.

As Beagle II nears it Mars destination I can’t help but dwell on what the next century will bring. There’s a good interactive history of flight on the BBC homepage and more on the webpages of the Smithsonian.