Feb 11

Let your soul take flight!

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 1
The greatest invention of the last 1000 years? Sit down, pin your ears back, and let me tell you what it is. (I ought to warn you: you probably won't believe me. You would rather choose the dishwasher or the X-ray machine, perhaps the petrol engine or the iPhone. Or, if your world is defined by more personal considerations, toilet paper, lypsyl, or Cheez Doodles. But you would be wrong…. )






This was a popular game at the end of the 90s. It seemed that no newspaper or scientific institution dared start a new millennium before judgement had been pronounced on the greatest invention of the previous thousand years. There were Top 10 lists everywhere. From the Dallas Morning News (which topped its list with the Gregorian calendar, the mechanical clock, the steam engine) to the Foundation for Finnish Inventions (top 3: printing, steam engine, telephone).

The game was such fun to play, organizations are prone to unpack it from its millennium box when they want to titillate their public. The Science Museum in London marked its centenary in 2009 with a poll, and 50.000 participants voted the top 3 to be the X-ray machine, penicillin, and the discovery of the DNA double helix. (Full list here.)  Right now the periodical The Economist is asking its readers in its Big Question series: What's the greatest invention?  Experts' choices so far: 
internet, the scientific method, the transistor radio, the flush toilet.

The toilet, eh? Not a daft idea: what would you rather give up – the loo or the Gregorian calendar?

Advances in bodily hygiene figured also prominently when Oslo tabloid VG opened up its debate pages to a discussion of the greatest invention of all time. Toilet paper ("just consider the alternative!") and lypsyl are suggested. As are air fresheners ("the room smells as if you've washed the floor, though you haven't bothered") and the nasal spray ("Ever lain in bed struggling to get to sleep with one nostril more plugged than a Dan Brown novel?!). Others couldn't imagine a world without the TV remote controller or Cheez Doodles. (Probably a can of air freshener handy there, too…)

On all these lists I was surprised – no, dumbfounded! – to discover that the invention I had long regarded as the obvious Number One, didn't figure at all. It might get a mention as an honourable "also ran", but was never placed high up. And this, despite the fact that the machine that was invented just 100 years ago allowed people to fulfil a dream that every human has nurtured since the dawn of time: to fly.

Yes, the airplane.

Have we really become so oblivious to the miracle of flight that we take the plane for granted more than the telephone or the Gregorian calendar? Become so blind to its life-changing, dream-fulfilling value that we place it far down a list of inventions, behind the Model T Ford and the toothbrush? Yes, it would seem so.

This week I was again alerted to this alarming attitude while listening to an author I admire, Andrew Martin, give a talk on BBC's Radio 3. In his Essay he goes to war against aircraft noise pollution in the skies above London: "To tangle with the British aviation industry, is to feel oneself shrinking in significance by the day. This has long been a privileged industry, regarded by successful governments as glamorous and prestigious, just as though the novelty of powered aviation has never worn off."

While I can only wish him every success in a worthy campaign for quieter jet engines, the underlying presumption that the awe of flight has vanished with its novelty, become something ridiculous and outmoded, gave me a shock. Yes, indeed, the facts are that we cracked the science a hundred years ago and counting. But for me the wonderment of flight has lost nothing of its jolt of absurdity, its awesome defiance of human parameters. I refresh, every time my plane breaks through cloud cover, a sense of perspective and humility coupled with optimism for the advance of mankind. To me, that seems like a pretty big deal, compared with Cheez Doodles or the iPad. 

Why do we so easily take flight for granted? Perhaps precisely because it was such a deeply longed-for extension of our powers. In a sense we all feel it in our bones that we missed out on wings and feathers just by some fluke of evolution, when we took a right turn at some junction. On a parallel world in another dimension humans took a left turn and are flying like birds or angels above their pollution-free cities (yes, Andrew Martin, also free of the pollution of jet noise).

All the same it seems to me like a perverse quirk of our too-superficial sense of history, that we should so readily forget the ten-thousands of years of longing for flight, when ranking aviation alongside the transistor and the toilet.

The reason these thoughts have grown wings in my head just this week – well, it hasn't actually got much to do with newspaper polls or with Andrew Martin. That the Essay of his I heard was concerned with powered flight, was coincidental. No, I have a personal reason to dwell on this topic right now. On Tuesday my son Magnus travels to Västerås to begin pilot training at the Scandinavian Aviation Academy.

He is also a skilled theatre technician: the inspiration there came I suppose when he was attending rehearsals of my plays in his early teens. He is a talented musician: no denying I've had a hand in that either. But there is absolutely no accounting for his passion for flight apart from his own sense of wonderment. On flights to and from England in the 90s we didn't see Magnus for most of the journey. Even as an eight- or nine-year-old he would charm himself into the cockpit and stay there until the plane was on the ground. (Ah, those innocent days pre-World Trade Center…). Wonderment that now has evolved into a sense of vocation.

Magnus took his small plane licence a year ago and one day in spring I waited by the runway at Torp: he had promised to take me up for the first time, and was flying over from Rakkestad. As I saw him fly in from the fjord, wheel steeply over the airport and come in to land, I was as happy as I can remember being. Happy to know that a child of mine had so resolutely followed his own heart.

It's not difficult today to be cynical about the profession of airplane pilot. Budget airlines have tried to pull down its status almost to that of bus or lorry driver (with added wings); it serves their aims to lower the pilot pedestal. But there are very many who, like me, can still be moved by the spirituality experienced during air travel. In those people there will always be a deep respect for the man or woman who follows that call, who has to renew daily the wonderment of leaving the bounds defined for us by gravity, who has to feel the freedom of flight.

Comments: 1

Dave Hughes

Sep 04
I agree so strongly on flight.I was entranced watching Farnborough in the 50's and 60's and still feel the wonder every time I see a plane. Although not a pilot I have flown gliders and a Tiger Moth and flown in Raf helicopters with mountain rescue for many years. Good luck in his career!
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