Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Planes of Our Lives

[Not an airplane the Idle Historian has flown on]

All the calculations show it can't work. There's only one thing to do: make it work.
~ Pierre Georges Latécoère, French aviation entrepreneur

We who fly do so for the love of flying. We are alive in the air with this miracle that lies in our hands and beneath our feet.
Flying alone! Nothing gives such a sense of mastery over time over mechanism, mastery indeed over space, time, and life itself, as this.
~ Cecil Day Lewis

I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things...
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This final quotation from French aviation legend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no doubt rather ironic today, when flying anywhere is little more than a long litany of "petty things," often culminating in a frustrating experience. We think little about the fact that the airplane represents a truly extraordinary structure that has, alas, become little more than a glorified bus. It is difficult to remember that there was a time when flying was inherently glamourous, dangerous, and filled with awe and adventure. The Idle Historian has recently been writing about flight in its most negative and destructive sense, reflected in the fear of aerial bombing present in the 1930s. Yet even the fears of aerial destruction reflect an awe of the technology and power of the airplane. Though my research is not much concerned with the actual aircraft, it is a subject of personal interest -- perhaps inherited from my father, who worked for over 30 years in the aviation industry.

I now wish I had kept a log of every flight and type of aircraft I have been on -- at least since I was old enough to do so. Though a rather nerdy sort of activity, it would now have proven an interesting experience to note the change in popular aircraft type, or perhaps, a lack thereof. In my lifetime, there are several aircraft models that have thoroughly dominated commercial aviation.

I am partial to the Boeing fleet -- again, a hereditary trait -- though I have certainly flown on many Airbus aircraft and others such as McDonnell Douglas models. For example the DC-10, was at one time a popular model for mid-range North American flights (and, at the time a separate company -- it later merged with Boeing). I never did fly on the Concorde, though I believe its retirement in 2003 was a huge loss to our collective human dream of aviation progress. Boeing is a product of the Pacific Northwest, and its aircraft are iconic symbols of twentieth-century aviation. It produced the first popular jet aircraft in the 1950s, the revolutionary 707 (apparently so named because it was thought to be catchier than "700," though perhaps the actual reasons were more mundane). This started the tradition of the"7-7" naming of Boeing aircraft models, including the famed, 747 (the "Jumbo Jet" -- still in production), the 757, and the ubiquitous 767 -- the long-range twin-engine aircraft that has delivered yours truly on many a trip to the Old World. More recently, Boeing has produced the wide-body 777, the first entirely computer-designed aircraft, which I have flown on several times.

[An early Boeing 707]

I look forward to more flight adventures to come, including one on the new "Dreamliner," the Boeing 787, which is presently in development. If the general experience of air travel has turned abysmal; the mere fact of it is still magical and inspirational. The experience of arriving halfway across the world within hours, and being suddenly immersed into a new environment with no habituating transition at all, never fails to amaze. When something threatens our ability to fly -- adverse weather, terrorist attack, the Icelandic volcano that erupted in April 2010 grounding transatlantic flights for nearly a week -- we feel bereft. Airplanes symbolize the apex of industrialized civilization. For the moment, we can still look out the window and marvel, as the early aviators did, looking down at earth from the sky.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Lucy said...

I lived for a while beside the Concorde flight path and (despite its fuel consumption) would look forward to seeing it every day - it was beautiful in a way other planes aren't.

I am not someone who flies around the world so I've tended to see flying from a utilitarian standpoint. From this post, I catch something of its possibilities.


IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comment, Lucy. I imagine living under a flight path can work in different ways. I myself am fairly near one, though not close enough for it to be annoying -- and I do recall that during the Icelandic volcano eruption, many UK residents were relishing the quiet skies!

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