In 1912 Franz Reichelt, an Austrian-born daredevil, jumped from the Eiffel Tower wearing homemade wings. He was the latest in a long line of men who had conducted similar experiments over the centuries. Medieval tower-jumpers believed God could help them. Reichelt believed in science, but the fabric he was wearing was not as lightweight as today’s wingsuits and he plummeted to his death before a crowd of horrified onlookers. The moment was caught by Pathé News, in footage that can be seen on YouTube.
Experiments in flying always drew large crowds, as Lily Ford describes in her book “Taking to the Air: An Illustrated History Of Flight” (British Library). The balloonists of the 19th century – the first generation of real flyers – would often wait for a sufficient number of spectators to turn up before launching their hot-air or hydrogen-filled balloons. Ford, a cultural historian, says that crowds were especially interested in observing balloon landings, possibly in hope of seeing a spectacular crash.
She takes us through the flying craze in the 1920s, when light aircraft were relatively cheap and amateur pilots were encouraged, through the early days of passenger flights, to the start of the Apollo program, where the book ends. She traces the development of a celebrity culture around pilots, from Wilbur Wright (who was mobbed by fans despite his lack of charisma) to Charles Lindbergh. We also learn about people’s fears for what the technology could lead to. In 1908 H.G. Wells published a book, “The War in the Air”, which prophesised that aircraft would be used to drop bombs on civilians during warfare. He was so convinced that this would come to pass that he predicted his epitaph would read “I told you so, you fools”.
Plate from Francis Godwin, “The Man in the Moone” (1638)
“The Man in the Moone” by the British author Francis Goodwin (published posthumously in 1638) was the first novel to imagine flight, featuring a Spanish adventurer who harnessed wild swans to carry him to the moon. Goodwin was Bishop of Llandaff and Hereford, and the great-uncle of Jonathan Swift, who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels”. His proto-science-fiction approach seems to have grown out of an interest in astronomy – he was an early believer in the Copernican system which placed the sun rather than the earth at the centre of the solar system. His book influenced writers including Cyrano de Bergerac (the real-life basis for Edmund Rostand’s big-nosed, romantic poet and swordsman), whose posthumously published novels “Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon” (1657) and “The States and Empires of the Sun” (1662) are about travellers who visit space in rockets powered by firecrackers. Another fan was Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century lexicographer, whose single novel, “Abissinia: A Tale” (1759), includes an attempted – but ultimately unsuccessful – escape from prison in an airship.
Launch at Versailles of the Montgolfière (1783)
The Montgolfière was the first true flying machine. It was launched from Versailles in September 1783, carrying a sheep, a duck and a cockerel. Two months later, the first balloonists to fly themselves, John François Pîlatre de Rozier and François Laurent, took to the air, observed by a euphoric crowd which – after the pair landed – seized Pîlatre’s bright green coat and ripped it apart for souvenirs. Pîlatre died attempting the first crossing of the English Channel by balloon in 1785.
Advertisement for a night flight by Mrs Graham (1850)
Margaret Graham became the first British woman to make a solo balloon flight in 1826. Graham was spectacularly accident-prone, and her flights were usually accompanied by a spine-tingling snag – to the horrified delight of her many spectators. In 1836, while pregnant, she flew with a German duke as a passenger. Towards the end of the flight the duke panicked and jumped out of the basket. In the confusion, Graham lost control of the balloon and it crashed. The duke survived but the accident knocked Graham unconscious and brought on a miscarriage.
In 1850 a hydrogen-filled balloon she was flying crashed in north London and caught fire, but she was unhurt and the following year became the first female pilot to make a night-time ascent. A savvy media manipulator, Graham issued statements to the press following her exploits and accidents, which enabled journalists to quote her even if they had not been present.
The London to Manchester air race (1910)
Claude Graham-White, a British aviator, won the 1910 London to Manchester air race, sponsored by the Daily Mail, despite having to delay his take-off. His plane could not get through the large numbers of spectators who had gathered at Wormwood Scrubs to see him off. In 1912 Graham-White had the slogan “Wake up Britain” painted onto a seaplane and flew over 121 towns on the south coast as part of a campaign for greater government spending on air power in the run-up to the first world war. There was concern that Britain’s enemies would overtake it in flight technology. After serving in the war, Graham-White was the pilot for H.G. Wells’s first flight.
The front cover of Airways magazine (1928)
Early airlines were keen to promote the idea that flight shrank the world. It took over a month to reach Australia by ship. By air, it was half the time. Airways magazine advised female passengers that “it is easier to look charming after an air journey than by any other form of travel”, and advertised special air-travel outfits. Fur coats were de rigueur for wealthy female passengers because of the aeroplanes’ unheated interiors. As well as being cold, passenger flight in its early days was dirty, noisy and uncomfortable, as well as extremely expensive. In 1935 flying from Brisbane to London involved stopping 20 times and taking the train from the Italian city of Brindisi to Paris. Adjusted for inflation, the fare would have been over £15,000.
Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis on the Atlantic crossing. Illustration by Manning de V. Lee in “Historic Airships” by R. Holland (1928)
Charles Lindbergh achieved huge fame by becoming the first pilot to cross the Atlantic, flying from New York to Paris in his monoplane, Spirit of St Louis, in 1927. Lindbergh tried to land at Croydon Aerodrome on his way back from Paris, but was initially unable to because 100,000 spectators surged onto the field. It took two more attempts before he could land. On arriving back in New York, he was driven past an estimated 4m onlookers; the city had a population of around 5m at the time. Lindbergh’s life took a darker turn when he got back. In an infamous crime, his baby son, also called Charles, was kidnapped and murdered in 1932. Later in the 1930s Lindberg was publicly supportive of the Nazi regime and opposed America entering the second world war.
Taking to the Air: An Illustrated History Of Flight by Lily Ford (British Library)