Read an Excerpt
AviatorsA Photographic History of Flight
By Michael Taylor
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Michael Taylor
All right reserved.
Flight--the Dream of Ages
'I see that Langley has had his fling and failed. It seems to be our turn to throw now, and I wonder what our luck will be.'
These words were spoken by Wilbur Wright, after Langley--his greatest rival to the number one slot in aviation history--had seen his own powered aeroplane fail to lift and thereafter drop into the Potomac river in 1903. The words contained no prophesy of the success that was to come, but rather a hope that years of careful research and engineering would give him and his brother, Orville, the favourable outcome that had so obviously eluded the elderly Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley. What Wilbur and Orville Wright wanted more than anything else was to be the first people in the world to achieve, in a powered heavier-than-air machine, a flight that was both controllable and of a duration that was more than a mere 'hop' into the air.
It was to be the difference between the 'hops' of others and the Wrights' sustained flights of 17 December 1903 that stole the day, thereby becoming the benchmark of aviation history. Several powered aeroplanes constructed by others in various countries of the world had beaten the Wright Flyer into the air, but none had been properly witnessed and documented to have managed anything other than a brief hop from theground. By the end of that day in 1903 the Wrights had flown three more times, the best lasting nearly a minute: they had fulfilled a dream held sacred by man for thousands of years. But was this the true beginning of aviation?
The concept of human flight is as old as recorded history, and it is within the mythology of ancient times that the story begins. Not surprisingly, several of the myths and legends of flying relate more to man enlisting the help of the natural world than to any genuine attempt on his part to construct machines or contrivances capable of generating lift through totally artificial means. A good example of this is the well-documented flying legend of Alexander the Great, who was said to have attached griffons to a basket or seat, and to have persuaded them to lift him into the air by dangling cooked meat above their heads; to descend, he would lower the meat to coax them downwards.
Similar myths of flight, with men using nothing more technical than tethered eagles, cranes and other birds as power sources, are plentiful. Yet, from among the strange stories of harnessing nature, or adopting magic, can be plucked the odd gem of science: for example, the tales of chariots of fire and of man-carrying clouds and smoke might, for those who are wishing to make the leap of faith, show a primitive connection between the science of flying and the lifting effects of heat. A step too far? Perhaps, but it is well documented that an attempt to understand the atmosphere had been made, whereby it was believed that the atmosphere had three principal levels of air, with a temperate lower level and an excessively hot upper level sandwiching a cold middle area; the different conflicting levels of temperature were separated by violent buffer zones producing the various weather conditions. Beneath the layers of air resided the known areas of earth and water. And so, as ancient and medieval philosophy stated that air, earth, fire and water comprised the elements, it was reasoned that any matter comprising a paramountcy of one element would quite naturally be drawn to the level in which it most belonged. In this way, Aristotle stated that fire would rise upwards, just as earth would demonstrate heaviness and fall.
The ancient Chinese, Greeks and Egyptians are sometimes scorned for not achieving more in aeronautics, given their well-recorded thirst for science and construction. They had the materials, after all: so why had they not even made a simple man-carrying glider or hot-air balloon? The answer is that hindsight is a wonderful thing; and in some civilisations it was believed that flying was for gods and perhaps should not be mimicked by mortal man. But even these explanations tell only half the truth, for there was some genuine research that is so often overlooked by historians, as will be detailed later.
In trying to make a meaningful judgement of ancient writings and engravings with regard to flight, it is not too difficult to separate fact from fiction and to manage to extract some small signs of science from the myths. For example, depictions of Isis from ancient Egypt show her with vulture wings and sacred horns. Although the wings were a symbol of maternal care. Isis is also linked with rising, such as the rising of planets and the coming of dawn, when the earth warmed.
In Europe, the best-known story of all was that of Icarus and Daedalus trying to escape from the Labyrinth in Crete, using wings made from feathers and wax. Only when Icarus foolhardily flew too close to the sun, causing the wax to melt, did he fall to his death, as legend observes. In Greek and Roman iconography there are many images of this father and son double act escaping from imprisonment. Whilst modern science tells us that it is merely myth and that they could not have ascended, some scholars believe that the story was based loosely on true events. If there is any chance of reality, then it could be reasoned that they might have attempted to use, say, home-made hang gliders for descending flight, with partial success, or perhaps they had tried to flap their way to freedom, rather less successfully. Either way, the materials chosen and the methods of construction might have been more justly blamed for failure, rather than any inherent flaw in the concept.
A Chinese myth of flying that dates back well over two millennia, and received considerable notoriety, involved the inhabitants of Ki Kuang, a . . .
Excerpted from Aviators by Michael Taylor Copyright © 2006 by Michael Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.