The miracle of flight- aviation proves nothing is impossible
March 29, 2017
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“It is…pertinent to notice that people, ever since the beginning of their long and exhausting journeys across the earth’s surface, gazing for days at the rear end of a mule, have fantasized about speeding up the tedious process…the real dream, for thousands of years, involved the envy of the birds…and the yearning to fly,” says noted author Christopher Hitchens in “God is Not Great.”
Before the telling of the ancient Greek myth of Icarus, in which the son of a famous Greek craftsman flies too close to the sun and falls from the sky, human civilization dreamed of the day when sailing the skies would be as easy as sailing the seas. For thousands of years we tried but faltered to make our dream of flying come to life, resigned to being chained to rugged surfaces of land and sea.
Today the chains are gone: ascending the skies became as easy as buying a round trip ticket online. For a few hundred dollars, an average citizen can experience what dozens of powerful kings, hundreds of brilliant intellectuals, thousands of wealthy merchants, and millions of tax-paying commoners have dreamt of doing since our ancestors first painted the walls of their caves.
The discovery of flight has fundamentally changed how members of our civilization interacts with itself and how it thinks about the world; but most of all, it has proved that even the most difficult challenges we face as a species are not insurmountable.
The beginnings of the history of flight can be traced back to the Chinese invention of the kite in 1,000 B.C. Globally, little progress in aerodynamics took place until around 1495, when Leonardo da Vinci designed the human-powered ornithopter (a machine that flaps its wings to fly), along with over 100 other flying machines. This ornithopter was later used as the basis for making modern-day helicopters.
The 18th century saw the launch of the first hot air balloon, while the 19th century saw a variety of steam-powered airships, primitive “aeroplanes” (sometimes called aerodromes) and advanced gliders built largely by relatively rich, backyard tinkerers.
Among these famous “backyard tinkerers” were Sir George Cayley, who conducted a famous glider test in 1849, and Frederick Marriott, an English immigrant to California who built a functioning steam-powered airship in 1869. Cayley was one of the first innovators to fully grasp fundamental principles of flight, while Marriott was the first to use the term “aeroplane” in his designs.
It was men like Cayley and Marriott that the Wright brothers studied before building the world’s first flying machine that was heavier than air, powered by the equivalent of two hand-propelled lawn mower engines, in 1903. After the famous Kitty Hawk experiments, flight evolved and matured quite rapidly.
In 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly across the Atlantic ocean; in 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to do so. The advent of the Second World War greatly increased the development of airplanes, leading to the launch of the first satellite in 1957, the first manned orbit of earth in 1961, and the first manned mission to the moon in 1969. Within 66 years of the Wright Brother’s “airplane”, we had touched the surface of the moon.
This journey to leave our chains from Earth didn’t come without costs. As early as 825 B.C. a king in modern-day England died while attempting to fly. Amelia Earhart died while trying to cross the Pacific Ocean. Countless others died in the hands of their monstrous contraptions, from primitive gliders to rockets bound for space, all in the name of unlocking the heavens for our benefit.
Thanks to the genius of those like Sir Cayley and the courage of those like Amelia Earhart, flight has changed almost every aspect of human civilization. Thanks to flight we have captured images of Earth from space, turned weeks of travel time between major cities into hours, unleashed the destructive power of the atomic bomb, placed the great naval warships of yore into obsolescence, and made the most remote of Earth’s societies (and by extension markets) easily accessible.
Without the tireless work of those like Da Vinci and the anonymous English King, the heavens would be as locked away from us as they were in Plato’s time, and it would take a Saint Anselm student weeks of travel time to be able to study abroad.
“Aeronautics was neither an industry nor a science. It was a miracle,” aviation innovator Igor Sikorsky remarked about the discovery of flight. Surpassing Icarus was a miraculous feat, and one with an important lesson; no dream, no idea, no imagined thing is impossible to achieve if we are willing to use reason, work, and risk-taking to make it come to life.