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Reaching for the Sky - The Spirit of Kitty Hawk

This article was published in the Radio Times, November 1983
The irresistible rise of the aeroplane this century has been made possible by the daring exploits and bold explorations of the men and women celebrated in The Spirit of Kitty Hawk. Ivan Rendall, the deviser and presenter of this six-part series, gets it off to a flying start.

This year marks a milestone in the history of  aviation:   it is  200  years  since  the  Montgolfier brothers flew their hot­ air balloon over Paris and just 80 since  the Wright brothers’ flights at Kitty Hawk heralded the age of  powered  flight.

It’s  almost  unbelievable,   but the  development   of   the  practical  aeroplane  has  taken  place within the lifetime of the Queen Mother.    At the turn of  the century, powered flight was a bigger fantasy than flying to the planets is today.

The   Spirit   of   Kitty   Hawk marks  this anniversary by looking at some of  the people who made   this   short  but   dazzling story possible,  starting with Orville and Wilbur Wright and their  determination  to  conquer the  air.  That  rare  combination of scientific         inquisitiveness, practical imagination and engineering skill, coupled with their intellectual   and  physical  cour­age, can be found  at  the frontiers of aviation throughout those 80 years.

For the first programme  I went to Dayton, Ohio, to meet Mrs Ivonette Wright  Miller, who was a seven-year-old schoolgirl when  her  uncles made those first flights: her recollections  brought  Orville and Wilbur alive. In the BBC Sound Archives I  found  tapes of Louis Bleriot,  the first  pilot to fly  across  the  Channel,  and of an  eye-witness  account  of his crash landing in 1909. Re· corded impressions   of  those early days are  also left by the son of Samuel F. Cody, a real Wild West cowboy and the first man to fly in England.

Making  these   programmes has been a  tour  through  my own boyhood heroes: Cecil Lewis, who wrote Sagittarius Rising, a classic account of flying in the First  World  War, whkh fast year \he  read  for radio, went with me to the RAF Museum to see some of the aircraft he flew and  fought  in. He greeted the SE5 and Sopwith Camel like old friends.

He is a man of tremendous diversity: he flew in both world wars, winning a Military Cross over the Somme. He  was  a flying instructor in China; was one of the founders  of  the BBC; adapted Shaw’s plays for the screen; farmed sheep in South Africa, and also  worked for  the  United  Nations.

I met two other First World War pilots: Karl August von Schoenebeck, who fought on the German side with von Ricih’tiho· fen, and ‘ Clem ‘ Clements who, sadly, died shortly after our meeting. He was ‘ Mick ‘ Man­ nock’s  wingman. Mannock  was a complex man: a thinker, a socialist, a fine leader and the highest-scoring pilot in  the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed  in  action  in  1918.

After the First World War, the man who did most to popu· larise aviation, by giving joy­ rides to the public, was Sir Alan Cobham. This year we asked if any RADIO TIMES readers had ever flown with him. We re­ceived hundreds of replies and some of the tales they told will be broadcast along with Sir Alan’s own stories of his route­ proving flights to Cape Town and Australia.

But not all the long-distance pilots were  men: Amy Johnson did more than pilot her Moth from England to Australia in 1930, she was a licensed engi­neer as well. For her  exploit, she was treated like a pop star would be today.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, just 36 years after the Wright brothers’ wood, wire and muslin Flyer, the  state  of the art in fighters and aero· dynamic excellence was the Spitfire. With it, commanders like Dowding and pilots like Richard Hillary and Douglas Bader fought the Battle of Britain.

Wars could no longer be fought without air superiority. On the offensive side, bomber pilots like Leonard Cheshire developed methods of hitting targets with pinpoint accuracy; later he witnessed the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki.

The war produced great advances in aircraft, and  by 1944 the jet engine had changed the shape and sound of aircraft yet again. It also produced a generation of highly skilled test pilots such as John Derry, Neville Duke and John Cun­ningham in Britain, who were challenging the  sound  barrier and   probing   the   frontiers   of aeronautical knowledge . John Cunningham started flying in the 1930s and only gave  up his job as a Chief Test Pilot a few years ago after testing jets like the Comet and Trident.

Charles Yeager, an American test  pilot,  was   the   first  man to fly faster than sound – in a rocket-powered aircraft. He still flies supersonic aircraft today, and when  I  interviewed  him the  full,  afterburner  blast  of his personality came through loud and  clear. General Charles Yeager, USAF, is the mine where Tom Wolfe dug out the original material for The Right Stuff , his story of the first US astronauts, now a film.

In  the  1960s the  frontiers  of aviation moved into space. John Glenn,   the   first   American   to orbit  the Earth,  is now  running for  President  and  the  question in   America    is   whether    that right   stuff ,  which   he   has   in plenty   as  pilot   and   astronaut, is the right stuff to be President. The Space Shuttle symbolises the  sheer  scale  of  aeronautical development   since   1903.   One man whose name is most closely associated   with   the  Shuttle  is John Young, Commander of the first  test  flight  and   scheduled to  fly the  next  mission . At  53, he   is   America’s   most   senior active   astronaut.  There is in him  the  same  quiet  and  dedi­cated approach that the Wrights   had – the same com­bination of engineering,  intel­lectual and practical skills, the pent-up energy wanting to fly.


For more, see the full  Radio Times article.