Reaching for the Sky - The Spirit of Kitty Hawk
This article was published in the Radio Times, November 1983
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.