Sudden Greatness

"In fifteen years aviation has superimposed itself upon civilization. Its future is limitless"

A lean quiet man pushed his way through the crowd into the open of the parade-ground at Fort Myer, and perched himself uncomfortably in the midst of bundle of sticks. A weight crashed down from the top of a derrick, and the bundle, with droning, whining propeller, was thrown into the air, and stayed there. Breath was drawn in with sharp. audible gasping, and eyes grew round in upturned faces. The impossible had happened. Orville Wright is proving to the army that he could fly.

When the air-plane had landed clumsily on its two sled-like runners, and the reporters surged around, we have record of the following queries and replies:—

'How fast can you fly?'

'Forty miles an hour.'

'How fast do you think airplanes can be made to fly?'

'Much faster. But, of course, the driver would be blown out of the machine at anything over a hundred miles an hour.'

'How high can you go?'

'High as I want to. But even in war you would never have to go over one thousand feet. No known gun could hit you at that altitude.'

'What uses can you make of your machine?'

'Sport mainly, and scouting in war.'

Of the thousands who saw that afternoon and of the millions who read of the flight next morning, probably not one had the least dim perception that a mighty power was born, a power that is already affecting the lives of every one of us, that is forcing upon us changes as vast as those forecasted when the ape-man first discovered that, by swaying erect on his bent legs, he could see his enemies and his victims farther, and have two arms free for fighting. In the immense development of a aviation forced by the war we are apt to forget the tremendous strides made in the first faltering years. As usual, figures and statistics are deceptive, performances seemed to confirm opinion of those who saw in the plane nothing but a toy and a killer. Three years after the Fort Meyer flight, it was still a remarkable performance to remain in the air for forty-five minutes, or to climb to an altitude of six or seven thousand feet. After 6 years of flying, it was still a dare-devil feat to loop an air-plane three times in one flight; and the first man to fly upside down made his name as well known as that of a champion heavy-weight, and known among much the same classes of people. Pilot after pilot was featured on the sporting pages of the newspapers as he succeeded in remaining aloft five minutes longer than the hero of the month before, reached an altitude fifty feet higher, or somersaulted his vibrating little kite once oftener. And with deadly regularity pilot after pilot was killed—his effort to find out how far he could stretch the capacity of his machine being successful.

During those years, however, clumsy skids gave place to wheels and pontoons, or actual boat-hulls; and, while planes remained rickety toys, the root-idea of every practicable type we have today was discovered and demonstrated, waiting only for some imperative necessity to force its development. Rotary and V-type motors began to appear.

Before the war began, aviation had reached the point where its future could be confidently predicted by the initiated as a matter of improvement of existing types, of betterment of existing design, rather than as a new departure. Then came the World War, with its pressing demands on air-craft designers and pilots, and its almost limitless money for experiment.

Aviation has attained in fifteen years a degree of progress which can hardly be matched by any other epoch-making invention in centuries. One hundred and eighteen years since the Clermont, one hundred and fifty since Franklin's kite, and aviation is already as advanced, relatively, as steam and electricity. John Hawkins and Francis Drake revolutionized naval warfare by fighting broadside instead of head-on, and once for all made the gun the master of surface ships; and the all-big-gun battleship, throwing a heavy broadside, is the legitimate child of Drake's weatherly little Pelican. Three hundred and sixty years were required to produce the modern battleship after Drake had shown the way; and there is yet no more difference visible than already distinguishes the army's new Verville-Packard from the original Wright airplane hanging in the National Museum at Washington. Orville Wright's forty-mile speed has become three miles a minute, and the end is not yet. His one-thousand-feet altitude has become seven miles, and there halts momentarily while we safeguard the gasoline and oil system against the bitter cold of the black upper air. His twenty-two minute, eighteen-mile endurance has become a screaming leap from continent to continent, and air-planes now cross half a world with little comment.

Similarly, the projected uses of aircraft as 'scouts' and for 'sport' have widened as greatly. Well-appointed municipal flying-fields are multiplying rapidly, but the air-plane has far outgrown the present possibilities of a sporting craft. Possible speed has become so great that a private field capable of handling the newest planes is about as inaccessible to man as a private eighteen-hole golf-links; and the only sporting air-craft that are within reach of moderate wealth are small flying boats along lake shores and landlocked bays.

A great future is claimed for airborne commerce, and the claim is, possibly, justified. At present, however, planes and dirigibles are enormously expensive, both in first cost and in upkeep in relation to durability; and the small amount of freight they can carry will for some time keep cargo and passenger rates above the bearing power of the market. The problem of commercial aviation is, nevertheless, plainly stated, and once stated, problems eventually solved. The need if for a weight-carrier of considerable durability, simple of operation and of low fuel-consumption. This is naturally an engineering problem, and the appearance of a lightweight, heavy-duty motor of 'fool-proof' design may be confidently expected sooner or later. Wings and body are already made of light, durable rustproof metal; and the commercial air-plane a generation hence will probably resemble a plump-bodied 'blanket-fish' or 'giant ray,' of slow landing speed and excessive stability—a machine as essentially a worker as a tramp steamer, too clumsy for sport, too helpless for aggressive war. The power-plant problem once solved, air-tramps will probably become as standardized as fabricated ships or Ford cars. Air-fleets will then increase so rapidly that a new difficulty will be encountered—how to spare enough valuable building-space in and around great cities to create ports of call for them. The answer will probably be found in huge high platforms covering warehouses and elevators and docks.

Precisely in the direction where utility and necessity have been found urgent, even imperative, is where we find the most complicated questions to be solved; questions as yet unformulated. Scouting in war remains and will remain a function of air-craft, but it has already been overshadowed by the crying need of them in the battle-line. Were scouting all we need, a single, standardized type would be quickly procurable—a plane of long endurance, reasonable mobility, and complete steadiness. But a machine that answers these requirements we find to be utterly useless in air-battle. It climbs slowly, it maneuvers badly, and it presents an almost unmissable target. We must have such air-planes to direct artillery are afloat and ashore, to drop bombs, to hunt submarines, to scout, to make photograph maps of distant enemy naval bases. To use them to advantage, we must, however, have reasonable certainty that they will be able to fly unmolested.

It is the old sea-problem in a new element—to exploit the air in wartime we must command it. In other words, we must fight for it. Sailors, for five thousand years, have to teach the flyer this lesson, —too often forgotten—that to use our power we must first destroy the enemy's power. An attempt merely to guard against the enemy's blow may, by extreme good fortune, succeed once or twice. Never three times. Delenda est Carthago, and to destroy we must attack, court a battle and fight it to a finish. If the enemy is stronger than we, the attack is more difficult, but more than imperative; and to a battle of weapons is added a battle of wits. We must outwit him, outmaneuver him, outshoot him; but to have even the faintest hope of victory, we must attack him, put him on the defensive—make him do the guessing and take the weight of the first blow.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In