To be enchanted is to find a purpose for your life
Powered flight is magic. That's why it's so seductive
“There’s a death of enchantment in our culture”
The quote above, from culture critic Ted Gioia, stopped me cold when I read it earlier this week. It immediately struck me as not only true, but also a sharp assessment of what so many people are missing in their lives these days.
Gioia was specifically referring to the rituals of romantic courtship and the role music plays in our lives. His essay is about whether jazz should be considered ‘romantic’. Although it may seem off-topic from flying airplanes in the First World War, I felt the relevance immediately.
Ever since I started researching the men who flew in the war, I’ve asked myself a question: Why am I so interested in this? Yes, I have a direct family connection. My great-grandfather was a pilot and I wanted to know more about what he experienced. But I didn’t know him personally, as he died shortly before I was born. I had no previous interest in military or aviation history. I knew the basics of what happened in the First World War, and I knew the Wright brothers were the first to fly an airplane in 1903, but my knowledge at the start of this project wasn’t much more comprehensive than that. I’m also not a pilot.
But as soon as I started reading stories about the earliest days of powered flight, what I encountered was a sense of enchantment.
For the men who took an interest in flying in those first years of the 20th century, it was an act of seduction. Whether you think of airplanes as the siren song of the Odyssey that lures men to their deaths, or as a romantic lover that leaves men hopelessly in thrall to their every wish, the magic of it was irresistible.
Among a certain group of men, the idea of flying spread like a contagion through society. Mostly they were wealthy, or at least didn’t have to work hard to make a living. They didn’t toil for 12 hours a day in a factory just to survive. They had time, and often money.
They also had broad interests. You’d easily find one who had built bicycles (like the Wrights), knew about ballooning and auto racing, but was also a painter. Some had engineering and science backgrounds, but it would be more accurate to call these men artists.
Artists don’t just take what others have done and improve on it. They create something from nothing. They come up with ideas that no one has ever thought of before. If they’re good at it, those ideas seep into society and help others see the world differently.
The artist John Baldessari said any great artist, “must be possessed, which you cannot will.” You can’t force yourself to be obsessed with something. But to reach the level of creativity and originality that great art requires, you have to be possessed.
If you’re looking for a list of men most possessed by the idea of airplane flight in the early days, a good place to start is the Aero Club of France. In 1909, it issued its first pilots’ certificates. The group consisted of eight men, all of whom were famous, and included the Wright brothers (the others were Léon Delagrange, Alberto Santos Dumont, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, Henri Farman, Captain Ferdinand Ferber, and Louis Blériot).
All of them designed their own airplanes and it appears they all thought of little else. Their artistry is evident in the debate over how many wings an airplane should have. Many of these pioneers were advocates of monoplanes, the general concept that all modern aircraft employ. Admittedly they were ahead of their time, since the First World War was dominated by biplanes and even triplanes (like that of the Red Barron).
They saw the future, but also the beauty
Full credit to the Wright brothers for being first, but their airplane was ugly. What most of these men wanted was an airplane with one wing on either side, like how birds fly (and a propeller at the front of the plane, not the back). Everyone knew that the prettiest birds were also the best fliers. They had sleek, uninterrupted lines, were at one with the air they were flying through, and they used their energy efficiently. This was technical brilliance and pure beauty.
No wonder it was enchanting. Solving the design and technical problems of flight was no small thing, but that was part of the allure as well. The goal was obvious: give humans the ability to soar through the air like the most beautiful and powerful birds on earth. Eventually, the same concepts that make birds so admirable would be applied to airplanes. The pioneers threw themselves into the challenge. They would work from morning until night for years, sometimes alone, sometimes in collaboration.
It paid off. Improvements happened fast, then faster.
In September 1908, Henri Farman flew 27 km from Châlons to Rheims in France, a first. Three days later he made another flight of about 40 km. These flying distances were previously unheard of.
In October, Louis Blériot flew from Toury to Artenay and back. The turning required, as well as the landing and taking off again, were notable achievements. The technical innovation required to make an airplane turn in midair took years to figure out.
By 1910, newspapers were offering prizes for record flights. Blériot won a thousand pounds the Daily Mail offered for a first flight across the English Channel.
The idea of travelling from northern France across open water to the south coast of England in 40 minutes seems unremarkable now. But at the time it was mind-blowing. Even in the 21st century, a modern ferry from Dover to Calais takes 2.5 hours to make the crossing.
Soaring above the clouds is pure magic
Yes, powered flight is fully explainable by science and is not literally magic. But it sure feels that way. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
As records were broken and the seemingly impossible became reality, these early aviators needed to seduce the public. Festivals of flight started happening, including Champagne Week at Rheims. Tens of thousands of people showed up to watch pilots compete with one another and do amazing things. Henri Farman would win one prize for the longest flight (three hours). Glenn Curtiss, an American who had been the first to fly from New York to Albany, won a race against Blériot. Pilots took passengers on flights to demonstrate it was possible.
The enchantment of the multitudes was underway.
But it could kill you
Let’s also acknowledge that risk, danger and death are part of being enchanted with something. If flying had been an entirely safe activity, with sure outcomes every time, it would have been harder to lure the early innovators. They were risk takers, and they wanted to do meaningful things with their lives. Achieving something that no human had done before was not going to happen in relative safety and comfort.
One of the most famous names in aviation these days is Rolls-Royce. Known also as a luxury car name, if you’ve flown in a modern commercial airplane, you’ve probably been propelled through the air with Rolls-Royce jet engines. Charles Rolls was an early aviation enthusiast and was the first to make a double crossing of the English Channel. He also became the first British person to be killed in an airplane crash. While flying a plane in 1910, it fell apart in midair and that was the end of him.
The list of other prominent aviation pioneers killed like this could fill volumes. The price for innovation was high. Many novel ideas ended the lives of men who tested them. But as deaths mounted, so did the successes.
For those who could join, the aviation game offered the chance to be involved in something bigger than yourself. You might die in the process, but you knew that the dream wouldn’t die with you. Others would keep it alive and work as hard as you did to realize it. For as long as you did survive, it required all of your skills and then some, and demanded your time and energy like nothing else. And for what? To achieve the seemingly impossible with grace, beauty, and artistry.
This is what enchantment is really about. An awful lot of things in our modern world have been rationalized to the point of absurdity (like dating, as Ted Gioia notes in his essay that I mentioned at the beginning). Our society increasingly places value only on things that are practical and can be measured financially.
The practical, the rational, the spreadsheet, the financial statement are all useful things. But they don’t contain the magic that stirs the soul. The pioneers of flight were not seduced merely by the promise of shorter travel times or the more efficient movement of people and goods. They dedicated their lives to this for something bigger, less tangible, more worthwhile.
It’s easy to see why.
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