A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure
By Alastair Gordon
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2004 Alastair Gordon
All rights reserved.
"Yes, it's definitely an airport ..." — Charles Lindbergh, 1927
Paris, May 21, 1927. At first he was confused. It didn't look like an airport. Charles Lindbergh could see a faintly illuminated perimeter, but there were no approach lights or revolving beacons like the ones they used in the United States, just some floodlights revealing the edge of a field with hardly enough space to land a plane. He wondered if he hadn't overshot his mark, so he circled round to have a closer look. Were those hangars or the buildings of a factory complex? Then there was the odd twinkling along the eastern edge of the darkness. Could that be factory windows? He'd been in the air for over thirty hours. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks. He tried signaling down with his flashlight, but there was no response. He began a slow descent, leaving the line of unidentified lights well to his right. He didn't want to end his 3,610-mile flight by crashing into a smokestack. Then he saw outlines of the hangars. "Yes, it's definitely an airport," he wrote. "I see part of a concrete apron in front of a large half open door.... It's a huge airport. The floodlights show only a small corner. It must be Le Bourget."
Meanwhile, on the ground there was a mood of delirious expectation not seen in Paris since the end of the Great War. Lindbergh's plane had been spotted over Ireland, and then again over the fields of Normandy. Word of his approach was passed on to Paris by telegraph. A crowd of 150,000 people waited impatiently at the aerodrome. More than ten thousand cars pressed down the narrow roads leading to Bourget. Traffic was backed up all the way to the city. The twinkling reflections that Lindbergh had mistaken for factory windows were the headlamps of the cars.
He circled again and came in low to learn the lay of the field. "After the plane stopped rolling I turned it around and started to taxi back...." Thousands of spectators broke through the barriers. They surrounded the plane and pressed their bodies against the fuselage as if it were a holy relic. The mob dragged him from the cockpit and carried him aloft for nearly half an hour. "Speaking was impossible," recalled Lindbergh, "no words could be heard in the uproar."
With his landing at Bourget, the airport became a place of ritualistic transformation. Charles Lindbergh went from an unknown mail pilot to a twentieth-century deity during that eerie night scene. While not the first to fly across the Atlantic, Lindbergh's singular achievement was to do it alone, nonstop, between the new world and the old. His journey marked the beginning of a modern global consciousness, delivered by the mechanical integrity of his Wright Whirlwind engine, by the Pathé cameras positioned on the terminal roof, the radio telegraph, and the other marvels of the age. Lindbergh was made world famous the instant his plane touched down. The lights that had so confused him were, in fact, confirmation of his celebrity.
As early as 1907, Rudyard Kipling, the English author and world traveler, had written about the airplane with remarkable prescience: "The time is near when men will receive their normal impressions of a new country suddenly and in plan, not slowly and in perspective; when the most extreme distances will be brought within the compass of one week's — one hundred and sixty-eight hours' — travel; when the word 'inaccessible,' as applied to any given spot on the surface of the globe, will cease to have any meaning."
Lindbergh realized Kipling's prophecy: he not only linked two hemispheres, he redefined the concept of "arrival." Destinations would no longer be approached in the traditional perspective of Renaissance space, nor from the gradual, ground view of trains, buses, or ships, but rapidly, from the air, with the city appearing oddly splayed in abstraction. The gateways would no longer be harbors and railroad stations. Now it was the airport, a place of blinding lights and unexpected urgency.
If the twentieth century was still in search of allegories, aviation provided them in abundance. Pilots like Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart became heroes for the young. Airline companies provided models of business innovation and the airplanes themselves, with their aerodynamic functionalism, became a source of inspiration for modern designers. At some point in the 1920s, a new kind of public place was beginning to take shape. Depending on where you landed, it might be referred to as an airport, air station, air depot, aerogare, flughafen, stazioni aeroplani, or aeroporto. In some countries it was called an aerodrome, an adaptation of velodrome from the Greek dromos, meaning speed, since many early fields were built as sporting venues. Pilots flew their planes around oval courses as if they were racing automobiles, hoping to set new speed records.
In Britain, early air meets were held at the Hendon Aerodrome outside of London. "On those days when a programme of contests is carried out and racing craft are 'banking' round the pylons," wrote one Hendon enthusiast, "there is so much to be seen that a spectator becomes almost bewildered." The course at Rheims, France, had elaborate grandstands built specially for La Grande Semaine de l'Aviation de la Champagne in 1909. Spectators sat in elegantly appointed seats sipping champagne and watching the action.
After watching Wilbur Wright give a demonstration of his flying machine in Paris in 1908, an eyewitness imagined a moment in the near future when every town would possess a port for flying machines. "These ports," he wrote, "will be squares erected in the forms of cones and surrounded by hangars." Soon, visionary planners and modernists began to see the airport as the key to the city of the future. In 1912, the Italian futurist Antonio Sant'Elia proposed a giant airplane station for the center of Milan. His plan was a bold foreshadowing of what an airport might actually look like one day, but Sant'Elia would never see it realized. He joined the Italian army in 1915 and was killed in action a year later.
On the opposite side of the trenches, Erich Mendelsohn huddled in a bunker and, between mortar rounds, sketched a kind of dream city. Among his drawings were plans for a large-scale airport to be built from cast concrete with rounded corners and flowing surfaces over a skeletal steel frame. That same year, Wenzel Hablik, another German visionary, proposed a utopian community that would hover in the sky. His drawings for a "flying settlement" depicted a cylindrical airship encircled by propellers. Within its core were workshops, baths, and storerooms. The upper level contained residential spaces, the lower level a landing platform for smaller planes: "The settlement and a smaller satellite hover high in the clouds above a distant city in the mountains." In "Das Karussell," Bruno Taut proposed a giant aerial theater, a "cosmic-comical aerial amusement in silver," that would be carried aloft by airplanes and rotated by propellers in the wind, while planes disguised as comets would zoom around it.
In the United States, the public imagination was stimulated by science-fiction magazines and movies. Air-minded designers were intoxicated by visions of airplanes and skyscrapers. Cities like New York and Chicago would soon be sprouting glass towers with high- level landing pads. Planes and "autogyros" would flit between towers like bees buzzing around a hive. In 1908, illustrator Moses King depicted airships docking at Manhattan skyscrapers. Hollywood would convey the same suspension of disbelief in films like Metropolis, Just Imagine, and Things to Come. These vertical fantasies were regarded with skepticism from the start. The journal Aerial Age Weekly published a satirical cartoon in 1921 that showed a New York skyscraper hung with a giant net: "The ... net enables the aviator to land upon the roof without the slightest fear of falling off the other side." Meanwhile, real airplanes were landing in muddy cow pastures.
Airport construction was given a boost after World War I when aviation drew a new kind of political map. European borders became more fluid as planes flew directly between capital cities. Airports thus became symbols of progressive thinking and utopian planning. WWI bombers like the Farman Goliath and the Blériot Mammoth were converted for civilian use and fitted out with upholstered chairs. Stripped of its bombing apparatus, the Mammoth could carry twenty-six passengers. Airfields built during the war, like Bourget and Croydon, were converted into civilian aerodromes. The first international service in Europe began on August 25, 1919, at Hounslow Aerodrome in London when Aircraft Transport and Travel Ltd. began regularly scheduled flights to Paris. A one-way fare cost £21. Hounslow had been a training depot during the war, and one of the old air corps hangars was refitted as a customs and passenger shed.
By the time of Lindbergh's flight in 1927, there was a fully established network of airlines flying to all the major capitals of Europe. Air travel was now fashionable, and hundreds of thousands of Europeans had already been aloft. It was also something of the vogue for progressive Americans to come to Europe to fly, a daring and modern thing to do. The American journalist Lowell Thomas and his wife, Frances, set out on an "aëreal jaunt" through Europe in the summer of 1927; the idea was to travel without using train or ship. By the end of the trip, the couple had covered more than twenty-five thousand air miles, crisscrossing the continent and going as far east as Istanbul. With the exception of Moscow, Thomas had nothing but praise for European airports, especially compared to the "cow-pasture aerodromes" he knew in the States, where the entire fleet of airliners consisted of thirty or so passenger planes, and you were lucky to get a seat on a mail sack. Service on the European airlines was courteous and efficient: "The planes in which we have flown," wrote Thomas, "have moved off to the dot more often than the trains we used on previous jaunts ... Instead of arriving late, we have more often been a few minutes ahead of time ..."
Thomas kept notes and published his impressions in European Skyways: The Story of a Tour of Europe by Airplane, which was dedicated to "All Who Have Missed the Joys of Flight." Unabashed propaganda for the airline business, European Skyways makes little mention of bad weather, air sickness, forced landings, or engine failures. But it gives an authentic account of the passenger's perspective at this early stage. "A new visionary world unfolds before the eye of the modern traveler who hurries from cloud to cloud," writes Thomas. "We spiral down past cliffs of glistening mist, turning shell-pink on their edges as they are touched by the setting sun." Between airports, the narrative digresses into mythology, ancient history, and the author's own memories of the Great War, with anecdotes about Dedalus, Hannibal, trench warfare, and flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. "As I speed across the sky, the whole history of the region below me comes rushing to mind," he writes at one point. "I really see a double panorama — one with my eyes, the other with my imagination."
The Thomases began their air odyssey at the Croydon Aerodrome, aerial gateway of the British Empire. Covering more than 330 acres, Croydon was the largest airport in the world at the time. Thomas, an anglophile, had already mythologized another monument to empire, scholar/soldier T. E. Lawrence, in his book With Lawrence in Arabia (1924), and understood the marketing potential of tradition even better than the British: "All earthly roads may lead to Rome," he wrote, "but all celestial roads meet at Croydon, the Liverpool of Britannia's air." The Royal Flying Corps field had been expanded to include new hangars, a fifty-room hotel, and an imposing terminal.
The Handley Page Aircraft Company started a flying service from London to Paris in 1922 using HP-42s that seated twelve to fourteen passengers. The company motto was: "Once you have flown to Paris, you will never go by boat again," but the early flights were still quite primitive. The cabins were chilly, and the engines were deafeningly loud. Passengers were provided with earplugs, lap rugs, and foot muffs. There were also frequent mechanical problems and forced landings due to inclement weather. Conditions improved when the British government sponsored a national airline system. Imperial Airways was formed in 1924 under the chairmanship of Sir Eric Geddes. It was a consolidation of several different companies and was subsidized by the government as an "instrument of Empire."
At Croydon Lowell and Frances Thomas passed through a grandiose passenger station hailed by the British press as a symbol of the new air age. The building was imperious in scale with high windows and a crenelated lookout. It might have been the county seat of an English lord except that the rusticated stone facing was in fact concrete block and the four-story tower contained a modern control room.
The logic of Croydon's terminal lay in its symmetrical plan. Arrivals moved through one part of the terminal while departures moved through the other. Here were the conceptual beginnings of airport circulation. The outer wings of the building were designated for freight. The cavernous Booking and Waiting Hall received natural light through a domed skylight. Check-in counters lined both sides of the hall, and there was a bookshop, a restaurant, a reading lounge, and a buffet counter for fast lunch service. At the center was a "time-kiosk" raised on an octagonal plinth where a series of clocks displayed the times of different world cities. At one end of the hall an attendant ran back and forth on a raised platform updating weather and arrival information on a giant map of Europe.
Thomas took note of the people waiting in the lounge and was reassured that they came from the "best classes." The plane's three mighty Jaguar engines were warmed, at a distance from the terminal, so as not to disturb these privileged passengers. Not until the time of departure was the HP-42 towed to the boarding area for loading. An Imperial Airways employee, dressed like a naval officer, called out the flight number and led the group up a corridor and out to the apron.
But who were the people willing to pay the extra price and take the risk of flying? It was true, some were the affluent, titled type — the "best classes" admired by Thomas — but there were also movie stars, journalists on deadline, statesmen, businessmen, many of them American, as well as the occasional jazz-age flapper looking for a thrill. You had to have money to fly. Airfares were anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent more expensive than first-class travel by train or ship. One aviation journal profiled the new breed of passengers as: "exceptional businessmen, clever tourists, romantic honeymoon couples, fast-moving directors, modern lawyers, anxious motorists, attractive mannequins, fresh oysters and crabs...."
Imperial Airways carried one such group of "exceptional businessmen" on a junket across the continent in 1928, flying them to Paris, Cologne, Hannover, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Basel, and London — "all in fourteen days," according to the airline, "a trip impossible by any other form of transport." Thomas had an easy time picking out the Americans by their "ubiquitous horn-rimmed glasses" and the patronizing tone they used when addressing airline staff.
Thomas had covered the battles of World War I from the backseat of a biplane and was an experienced flier, but his wife was a novice. So it was with trepidation that Frances boarded Imperial's "City of New York." "The wind created by the whirling propellers almost blows my hatbox out of my hand," Thomas wrote, switching to his wife's point of view. Once aboard, a man known as a "rigger" came down the aisle rearranging passengers and baggage so that the plane would be evenly balanced during take-off. They were advised to fasten their safety belts, "a wide strip of leather attached to the chair," noted Frances, which only made her more anxious. "Mentally I review all the horrid smash-ups that might happen between Croydon and Amsterdam," she observed, but she seemed even more concerned about her attire: "If I ever live through this day, I am wondering if the little silk dress and lone evening gown in our joint suit-case will stand the wear and tear of every capital in Europe." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Naked Airport by Alastair Gordon. Copyright © 2004 Alastair Gordon. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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