The Lure of the Skies

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright became the first to fly a machine that could carry a person, cruise forward at a constant or accelerating speed, and land at a point as high as that from which it started. For approximately twelve seconds that day, he cruised 120 feet over the snow-covered grounds of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Since then, plane flight, of course, has become a part of our everyday lives and has significantly changed the way we live and do business. Over the years, as air travel—and the way we perceive it—has evolved, such changes have been reflected in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly.

In 1950 the magazine published "Miracle at Kitty Hawk," a three-part article (appearing in the May, June, and July issues) by Orville and Wilbur Wright's official biographer, Fred C. Kelly. The article included a number of letters written by the Wrights during the years leading up to and just after their first flight.

A 1900 letter from Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute, a successful Chicago engineer and early experimenter in human flight who was a close friend of both Wrights, reveals the urgency of Wilbur's quest, and the amount he was willing to sacrifice for it.

For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life. I have been trying to arrange my affairs in such a way that I can devote my entire time for a few months to experiment in this field.

The Wrights' early experiments, Fred C. Kelly noted, had left the brothers frustrated and at times skeptical that human flight was possible. But to some extent, he explained, those same failures also strengthened their resolve to rethink the theories and efforts of the past:

Wilbur Wright said, on their way home after the 1901 gliding experiments, that he didn’t think man would fly in a thousand years. In a way, though, as Orville Wright said long afterward, it was encouraging to learn that the work of predecessors could not be relied upon. It meant that more knowledge was needed, rather than that flight was impossible.

The difficulty of coming up with funding for what were then considered to be outlandish experiments was a major obstacle for the Wrights. In 1901, Wilbur Wright wrote to Chanute, telling him that he and Orville had decided to postpone their flying experiments for a while because of their responsibilities to their bicycle business back in Dayton, Ohio. Chanute responded,

I very much regret, in the interest of Science, that you have reached a stopping place, for further experimenting on your part promises important results, yet my judgment cannot but approve of your decision, for I see as yet no money return for the pursuit, save from possible exhibition. If, however, some rich man should give you $10,000 a year to go on, to connect his name with progress, would you do so? I happen to know Carnegie; would you like for me to write to him?

Wilbur Wright, skeptical of Carnegie’s potential interest in human flight, wrote back, "I think it possible that Andrew is too hard-headed a Scotchman to become interested in such a visionary pursuit as flying." He expanded on his thoughts in another letter to Chanute two weeks later:

The relation of men of wealth to the flying problem presents many points of similarity to that of North Pole hunting. It would be folly to back such attempts as a business proposition, or at least it could be considered nothing better than the very rashest speculation…. If wealth is to be interested on a mixed basis of benevolence and hope of pecuniary return, it ought to be made sufficiently clear that the latter could hardly be considered a satisfactory insurance against finally resting in a pauper’s grave.

After word of the Wrights' successful December 1903 flight got out, however, offers of all kinds began to emerge. Orville described the situation to his friend George A. Spratt in a letter dated January 7, 1904:

We are receiving letters of congratulations from people, many of whom we do not know personally, but none please us so much as those from friends who are acquainted with our work and take a personal interest in it….

We have been receiving daily offers of stocking our company for us from … professional promoters, who would like to get the chance to swindle some of the people who think there is an immense fortune in the flying machine. Even our friend Herring has made us a very generous offer, a copy of which I am making for your amusement. We have had requests from a great many of the better magazines and papers for accounts of our experiments, but for the present we desire to keep all the principles and details of our machine strictly secret, and for this reason have had to refuse them all. We are now starting construction of several more of our engines, and hope to have another machine or two ready by early summer. We see nothing to prevent us, with a few minutes of practice, from making flights of considerable distances, though we are not saying this to everybody, as we do not like to blow too much about what we can do before we do it.

In the years following the Wrights' first successful flight, aviation technology improved quickly and dramatically. A little less than twenty years later, Kenneth Chafee McIntosh's "Sudden Greatness" (September 1921) reviewed how far the "air-plane" had come in a very short time, and made predictions for its future. Pilots now achieved fame, he pointed out, by staying airborne "five minutes longer than the hero of the month before" or by making an impressive loop or somersault. Moreover, World War I, he explained, had provided a significant impetus (and a major influx of new funds) for developing aircraft that could be used in battle and for reconnaissance. The progress thus far, and the work still being done, he argued, meant that "aviation … is to-day probably the most far-reaching existing influence on future history."

In fifteen years aviation has superimposed itself upon civilization. Its future is limitless, not predictable. It is daily demonstrating its ability to extend the scope of our economic fabric to lengths undreamed of, and in ways which were but yesterday fantastic dreams. And it has already proved the power to destroy utterly the world as we have built it; has forced us to take sober and urgent thought as to how this mighty and as yet proportional and yet irresponsible force may be subordinated to the common good. The industrial changes following the introduction of steam and electrical machinery are trifling and infinitesimal compared with those already following in the wake of mankind’s new-found ability to fly.

Several years later, in "The Future of Aerial Transport" (January 1928), a contributor writing under the name "Neon" offered a less sanguine assessment of air travel and its future. Long-distance flights, he argued, would always be at the mercy of unpredictable winds and weather patterns, and limited fuel-carrying capacity would always constrain the distance an aircraft could travel. Charles Lindbergh, he suggested, who had flown across the Atlantic Ocean to great acclaim, had simply been very lucky.

Colonel Lindbergh was fortunate in his weather; and his luck in having the wind over the Atlantic, as he expected, was amazing…. That he came on the Irish coast just three miles from where he expected was 'a pure coincidence,' and a remarkable one.

Despite the sensationalism and excitement surrounding showy flights like Lindbergh's, air travel, Neon argued, did not really have much of a future:

Though subsidies now support aerial transport in every direction, and propaganda seeks to popularize it, eventually civil aviation must be left to fly by itself; and, while economic factors will then determine its scope the aeroplane will remain a vehicle of emergency and quick transport under conditions favorable to its use, reasonably safe for comparatively short distances, perilous on long flights, with freedom of route denied to other vehicles of transport, yet governed in incomings and outgoings by the constant wind. But the force of gravity ever pulling the plane and its load to earth, will ever set a limit to the achievements of aircraft and be an insurmountable barrier to commercial success in the air.

By the early 1940s, however, aviation had progressed in a manner that far surpassed Neon's gloomy forecast. A significant proportion of the nation's mail was now delivered by airplane, and modern passenger airliners, which were now equipped with pressurized cabins and could vary their cruising altitudes to avoid inclement weather and turbulence, had been in existence for a decade. As air travel thus came to seem a more and more integral part of modern life, some commentators began to make dramatic predictions about the ever greater role it would continue to play. In "The Coming Air Age" (September 1942), Igor Sikorsky, an airplane engineer who had developed a multi-motored plane for use in World War II, envisioned a future in which helicopters would replace cars as the family transportation vehicle of choice. The helicopter, he suggested, would make more sense than the airplane for individual travel because it could take off and land with more precision, and thus could take commuters "directly from home to office." He offered a picture of the housewife of the future heading out for a drive in the family helicopter:

Let us peer briefly at 1955 and see how your wife handles a typical family helicopter as she flies fifty miles to spend an hour with a friend. She opens the doors of the helicopter hangar that is only slightly larger and higher than your old two-car garage. She pushes the starter, the motor purrs. Seated in the two-place cabin, she presses a clutch that applies the engine power to the wheels. For this is a roadable model; she does not have to push or pull it to the lawn. The helicopter drives itself out of its garage to a suitable space near your badminton court…. She permits the machine to ascend to 1200 feet…. She turns the machine to the left to pick up the plainly marked air route to her friend's home…. In thirty minutes she sights her friend's house.

Needless to say, 1955 came and went without family helicopters becoming a reality. And by the late 1950s, some aeronautics experts were frustrated with the slow pace of progress. In "American Planes: The Lessons of History" (June 1959), Grover Loening, a prominent aircraft engineer who had received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1952, argued that airplane engineering was developing in an exceedingly inefficient manner. Promising lines of improvement were being abandoned on a whim, advances by engineers in other countries were being ignored, and government bureaucracy was getting in the way:

Right under our noses, today are wrong trends, unrealized and right trends, unappreciated, because we don't think things through…. Many a novel and significant idea or suggestion has lain on our doorstep for years, unappreciated….

To anyone who has been identified with the aviation industry for as long as three decades, and to anyone who is willing to admit our mistakes, it will seem at times as if our progress … had been less audacious than that of our European competitors, and that despite our initiative we were constantly held back by our consideration for regulations and for models which were already obsolete.

One of the major obstacles to progress, he suggested, was meddlesome regulation in the name of safety:

In 1926, the original Civil Aeronautics Act, reinforced by the later enactment of 1938, put the government in the position of passing judgment on the aircraft that the aviation industry wished to sell to the public and issuing certificates of air-worthiness. We accepted this supervision unthinkingly, largely because of the supposed great risk that a gullible public would be subjected to by having offered to it all kinds of aircraft that would fall apart in the air. And then the bureaucracy really got to work.

Of course, to those who travel by air, the existence of elaborate government safeguards is reassuring. Few kinds of transport accidents are the subject of such horrified fascination as plane crashes. In "The Lessons of ValuJet 592" (March 1998), William Langewiesche, himself a pilot, gave in-depth consideration to one such accident, and arrived at some surprising conclusions.

On May 11, 1996, a ValuJet flight carrying 105 passengers, three flight attendants, and two pilots went down in the Everglades, killing all aboard. Subsequent investigation revealed that containers of oxygen—which should not have been on the flight, and which were not properly sealed—had been put into the cargo hold for transport back to ValuJet headquarters. The oxygen canisters had ignited early in the flight, causing a conflagration that destroyed the plane's electrical system, raged through the cabin, and ultimately brought the plane down.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Langewiesche noted, it was only natural that officials and the public should want to put safeguards in place to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. But the problem, he explained, is that this is a type of accident that cannot be prevented. Whereas an obvious blunder like flying into a major thunderstorm or forgetting to de-ice the wings can be easily identified and avoided in the future, and whereas a piece of equipment that proves to be faulty can simply be recalled, in cases where the accident turns out to have been caused by a series of minor, unforeseeable mistakes, there is no easy remedy. Langewiesche explained that such accidents, known as "system accidents," are caused "by the very functioning of the system or industry within which it occurred."

Flight 592 burned because of its cargo of oxygen generators, yes, but more fundamentally because of a tangle of confusions that will take some entirely different form next time.

It was in part the confusion caused by the complexity of the bureaucracy and paperwork—which existed in part to ensure that safe procedures would be properly followed—that enabled the oxygen canisters to end up on the plane. Thus, Langeweische argued, putting even more layers of regulations into place might only compound the problem.

We may be tempted to invent solutions that, by adding to the obscurity and complexity of the system, may aggravate just those characteristics that led to the accidents in the first place.

Rather, he suggested, we need to learn to live with a certain amount of risk when it comes to flying. "Any dream of a zero-accident future," he concluded, "is probably about as realistic as the old ValuJet promise to put safety first."

Despite persistent fears about what could go wrong, most Americans understand that flying is in fact quite safe, and continue to rely on planes for long-distance travel. In fact, in the eyes of some plane enthusiasts, the extent to which air travel affects our lives now represents only a fraction of its potential.

In "Freedom of the Skies" (June 2001), James Fallows suggested that in the not-too-distant future Americans will no longer need to be routed through major hubs in order to get where they want to go. Instead, small "air taxis"—jets that seat just a few passengers—will transport people, at a fraction of the cost of a major airline ticket, to small airports throughout America's suburbs. When that day comes, Fallows argued, many people will stand to benefit:

People can visit their relatives without trekking hours ahead of time to the airport; salesmen can go from one small city to the next without endless routing through crowded hubs; hospitals can get specimens and supplies from one remote location to another in the same day; and a family in Los Angeles doesn't have to cancel its trip to Kansas City because there was snow in Denver.

Of course, where the future of flight is really headed is anyone's guess. As always, it will require the next visionary to pick up where the previous visionary left off. But on this anniversary of the first flight, we would do well to remember those first visionaries who, pursuing their conviction that human flight just might be possible, enabled the development of all that has followed.