Seven Miles per Hour

Robert Macfarlane

  • First to Fly: The Unlikely Triumph of Wilbur and Orville Wright by James Tobin
    Murray, 431 pp, £9.99, November 2003, ISBN 0 7195 5738 0
  • The Wright Brothers: The Aviation Pioneers who Changed the World by Ian Mackersey
    Little, Brown, 554 pp, £20.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 316 86144 8
  • Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight by Paul Hoffman
    Fourth Estate, 369 pp, £18.99, June 2003, ISBN 1 84115 368 0
  • Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity to the First World War by Richard Hallion
    Oxford, 531 pp, £20.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 19 516035 5

It’s hard, in our age of budget flights and short hops, to appreciate the glamour of early aviation. Yet for fifteen years or so – from the late 1890s until the opening months of the Great War – powered flight was one of modernity’s greatest romances.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, bicycle makers from Ohio, became famous as the Wright Brothers, but at first it was only Wilbur who had what he called the ‘disease’, the ‘belief that flight is possible to man’. He spent much of 1899, when he was 32, steeping himself in the literature of aeronautics; he scrutinised the flight patterns of hawks, buzzards and pigeons; he assembled and flew kites. And, on a drawing board in the spare room of the family shop, he tackled the three large-scale problems that impeded him: how to build wings of sufficient lift, how to build an engine which reconciled lightness and power, and how to balance and steer the aircraft once it was in motion.

By August 1900, Wilbur had designed and partly built a prototype powered glider, and was eager to test it. What he needed was a suitable laboratory: ideally, a coastal region with steady wind speeds and high dunes to launch from. He settled on a village called Kitty Hawk, in the Kill Devil Hills, a remote stretch of littoral on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In early September he moved there, and wrote a reassuring letter to his father about the experiments he had planned (‘I think the danger much less than in most athletic games’). Orville arrived at Kitty Hawk later that month.

Faced with a history of calamitous aeronautic design stretching back to Icarus, the Wrights took none of the preconceptions about flight on trust. They were equally circumspect in their testing methods. ‘Skill,’ Wilbur observed, ‘comes by the constant repetition of familiar feats rather than by a few over-bold attempts at feats for which the performer is yet poorly prepared.’ This lesson had not been learned by Otto Lilienthal, the author of Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation (1889). On what was intended to be his final glide in 1896, Lilienthal’s unstable apparatus had lost its balance ‘at considerable height’ and he had fallen to his death.

James Tobin’s history of the four remarkable seasons the brothers spent at Kitty Hawk shows their progress to have been marked, like so many technological breakthroughs, by periods of painstaking effort and bursts of inspired improvisation. By scrupulously testing craft after craft, the Wrights were able to solve the remaining problems of rudimentary aeronautics, and their solutions have been intrinsic to aircraft design ever since. Faced with the difficulty of how to stop the craft ‘skidding’ when the pilot tried to change direction, for instance, the brothers realised that the answer was to install a fixed vertical tail. In an attempt to enhance the roll control of his 1901 glider, Wilbur tried warping the leading edges of its wings: if you look along the length of a Boeing 747’s wing you will see that a slight twist appears in the last thirty feet or so. Tobin includes images of the gliders that the Wrights built during those years. They are fragile, aviform constructions of wire, pine and sateen, which resemble in miniature the endoskeletons of modern planes.

Towards the end of 1901, Wilbur constructed a rudimentary wind tunnel, which allowed the brothers to test more wing surfaces at more angles in a single day than would have been possible during an entire season at Kitty Hawk. ‘In a few weeks,’ Tobin writes, ‘they rewrote and vastly extended the store of man’s aerodynamic knowledge.’ They returned to Carolina the following year with a fresh glider and renewed confidence. Eighteen months later, on 17 December 1903, Orville flew 120 feet – roughly half the length of a freighter Boeing 747’s cargo deck – at an airspeed of around seven miles per hour, in a motorised glider optimistically but, as it turned out, correctly named Flyer. Orville Wright was by no means the first man aloft, but he was the first man actually to fly an aeroplane. As he later put it, in characteristically forensic terms, ‘it was the first flight in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.’

As Tobin tells it, the brothers were a pair of modest Midwestern visionaries, whose story – the kitchen-sink improvisation, the dogged determination, the legendary triumph – illustrates the American Dream. Their efforts and achievements seem to belong to a lost era of entrepreneurial innocence.

The Wright Brothers were heavily researched even before the recent centenary. In his preface, Ian Mackersey mentions that there are more than a hundred other books on them, and a host of ancillary volumes ‘affectionately devoted to such specifics as their bicycle business, the life of their mechanic . . . and the recipes of the meals they enjoyed’. Mackersey has read too widely in this literature, and his narrative is so laden down with extraneous detail that it never gets off the ground. He claims, for example, that he wants to enlarge ‘our understanding of the family of flight’ by revealing that Orville didn’t talk to his sister, Katherine, for the last three years of her life. This is, Mackersey writes, an episode over which history has ‘drawn a kindly veil’. It’s unclear what benefit derives from having it lifted.

The Wright Brothers, treated with such conscientious reverence by Tobin and Mackersey, are the off-stage villains in Paul Hoffman’s book. He depicts them in his introduction as mercenary monomaniacs who had no interest in ‘aerial spirituality’ but were ‘intent on building flying machines for financial gain’. It is a crass moment in an otherwise subtle book. As Tobin makes clear, the Wrights were not only pragmatists – as their background had taught them to be – but also aerial romantics, even if they were not so flamboyant as Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Santos-Dumont was 5'4" and weighed 100 lbs: vital statistics for a man who had always wanted to be a bird. Growing up on his father’s coffee plantation in Brazil, he had watched eagles ‘flying so high and soaring on their great outstretched wings’, and had fallen in love with the ideals of ‘space and freedom’. In 1891, the family moved to Paris. When Santos-Dumont’s father died shortly afterwards, he left his son with more than enough money to pursue his avian dreams. Between 1897 and 1912, Santos-Dumont launched more than twenty airships – or ‘gasbags’, as Tobin sniffily calls them – and achieved brief but global fame.

What he brought to aeronautics was style. This was the heyday of the dandy, and he flew in immaculately tailored clothes – high-collared shirts and vertically striped dark suits – and a panama hat. One of his favourite tricks was to step, unperturbed, from the wreckage of his most recent flying machine, and repair to the nearest aristocrat’s house for champagne. He held ‘aerial dinner-parties’, to which he invited Louis Cartier, Gustave Eiffel, the Empress Eugénie and ‘assorted kings, queens, dukes and duchesses too numerous to mention’, and at which guests had to climb stepladders to reach their chairs. In the summer of 1909, he made his Parisian social calls in a diminutive silk-winged plane named Demoiselle. Like any good dandy, he had a gift for a neat phrase: on his first full day in New York, he admired the city’s skyscrapers as being ‘much taller than any building I ever crashed into in Paris’. He was a finely ironic self-dramatist, too, scheduling the first trial of Airship No. 2 for 11 May 1899 – the Feast of the Ascension.

Paris, unsurprisingly, adored him. In 1901, at the height of his fame, a newspaper described him as the city’s ‘god’, and noted the homophony between his name and those of Porthos and Athos. Milliners created a ‘Santos-Dumont veil’, adorned with ‘small velvety appliqués which had the shape of his dirigible balloons’. Pâtissiers baked ‘le Santos’, a gingerbread likeness of the man himself. And toy-makers devised a table-top dirigible, ‘le Santos-Dumont’, which could be flown by filling it with coal gas.

Now he is virtually unknown, except in Brazil where, according to Hoffman, he is a household name, and the Wright Brothers are regarded as a pair of thunder-stealers. The main reason Santos-Dumont has been forgotten, of course, is that the lighter-than-air flight he pioneered turned out to be an aeronautical cul-de-sac. Yet neither his bravery nor his seriousness as an aeronaut should be underestimated.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, writing in 1939, exulted at the ‘discretion’ of his aeroplane: the way, as he put it, that ‘it dissembled its own existence’, allowing the pilot the purest of aerial experiences. It’s tempting to think of airship flight as even more discreet – a prolonged adventure in what T.S. Eliot, referring to the promise of an uncorseted female bosom, calls ‘pneumatic bliss’. In the early days of the airship, however, this was not the case. Most of Santos-Dumont’s flights were physically arduous, and continual vigilance was required to avoid catastrophe. At the altitude at which Santos-Dumont flew, the airscapes over Paris don’t feature the tropospheric riptides that modern passenger aircraft have to negotiate, but they are sufficiently complex to have caused him frequent difficulties. And while his docile, elegant craft appeared more stable than the Wrights’ gliders, they had their own vulnerabilities. His hydrogen-filled bags relied on calm surrounding air to keep their form, and could be punched out of shape by a gust of wind, folding up and slipping from the sky.

Santos-Dumont crashed many times and, on at least two occasions, was lucky not to die. His ecstatically written memoir, My Air-Ships (1904), shows him to have been fastidiously sensitive to the beauties of the ‘aerial ocean’, but also smitten with its hazards. One of his greatest thrills was navigating through a storm over France in 1898: ‘On, on I went, tearing in the blackness. I knew I must be going with great speed, yet felt no motion.’ He wrote on several occasions of the ‘fierce kind of joy’ which the simultaneous serenity of altitude and proximity of danger inspired in him.

He was a technological utopian, and his aeronautical dream was, despite his carefully cultivated aristocratic hauteur, a democratic one. He did not patent any of the blueprints for his machines, as he felt that they ought to be publicly available. According to Hoffman, he saw the flying machine ‘as a chariot of peace, bringing estranged cultures into contact with one another’. Other early aeronauts were not so naive. Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Bostonian astrophysicist who raced the Wright Brothers to their prize, exulted in the military potential of flight, announcing that it would ‘change the whole conditions of warfare’. Langley’s close friend Alexander Bell agreed, remarking in 1896 that ‘the flying ship will make armies a jest, and our four-million-dollar prize battleship so much worthless junk.’

The militarisation of flight occurred with remarkable speed. In October 1911, an Italian pilot flew on a reconnaissance mission over Ottoman Libya. Heavier-than-air craft were used as offensive weapons only eight days later. By the beginning of the First World War, all the major combatant nations had some kind of air force: Germany and Russia each had as many as 250 craft. In the autumn of 1914, resting in a trench outside Antwerp, Rupert Brooke jotted down in his notebook that a ‘lovely glittering aeroplane’ had passed overhead. Around the same time, an anonymous French soldier saw an artillery-spotting German Taube puttering past. ‘There is that wretched bird which haunts us,’ he noted. No longer could aircraft be uncomplicatedly adored.

Both Hoffman and Tobin glide over the details of the role of aircraft in the First World War. This omission is made good by Richard Hallion, whose superb Taking Flight tracks the ‘human desire to fly’ from Leonardo da Vinci onwards. According to Hallion, aviation first proved its military worth at the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914, when the Germans, using aerial reconnaissance, were able to crush the Russian Second Army as it advanced into East Prussia. Since Tannenberg, the aeroplane has ‘excelled in furthering both the causes of darkness and of light’.

The romance of flight persisted during the war, however: the combat airmen, fighting their lonely duels high above the trenches, became legends, and Lloyd George described them as the ‘knighthood of the war’. The statistics were less glamorous. By the time of the Armistice, 15,000 British, French and German airmen had died in combat. Among them was Major Robert Gregory, about whom Yeats wrote ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, a poem more than half in love with the tragic joy of flight (‘I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above’).

Wilbur Wright died of typhus in 1912, but Orville, who lived through the war, seems to have felt no particular sense of responsibility. When questioned on the subject, he said that, as deterrent peacekeepers, aeroplanes would save more lives than they claimed. The effects of the war on Santos-Dumont were profound. In the early 1920s, he lobbied most of the governments of Europe to demilitarise flying machines. Subsequently he lapsed into depression, holding himself ‘personally responsible for every fatality caused by a flying machine’, whether civilian or military. To punish himself, he ‘read as much as he could about the gory details of the deaths’. A friend, the writer Martin du Gard, noted in 1926 that ‘he now believes that he is more infamous than the devil . . . A feeling of repentance invades him, and leaves him in a flood of tears.’ This was in part a solipsistic reaction from a man who felt his aeronautic achievements had been forgotten: guilt of such magnitude enabled him to reclaim responsibility for the technology he felt he had pioneered. He was depressed for most of the 1920s, checking himself into various European sanatoria. One day he ‘glued feathers to his arms, and strapped on wings powered by a small motor in a backpack’ – only the intervention of a nurse stopped him from jumping out of a window.

By the end of 1928, he felt well enough to return to Brazil.

As he sailed into the Bay of Rio on 3 December, a dozen of the country’s top scientists and intellectuals boarded a hydroplane christened Santos-Dumont and flew out to greet him. He stood on the deck, smiling, delighted that his countrymen still remembered him. As the hydroplane dipped to drop balloons and confetti, it exploded, killing everyone on board . . . Santos-Dumont checked into a Copacabana hotel and committed to memory all of the obituaries. Over the next week he attended the 12 funerals.

Four years later, in the middle of the Brazilian civil war, during which government planes bombed rebel positions, he hanged himself from a hook on his bathroom door in a hotel in São Paulo. Symbolic to the last, he used for a noose two bright red ties from his flying days in Paris. His funeral took place six months after his death, and ‘at the very moment pallbearers lowered his body into the grave . . . thousands of pilots around the world tipped the wings of their planes in a final gesture of respect.’