Flying – from an unbelievable dream to the revealed mystery

Aviation technology

He rode upon the cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind”….. Psalms 18:10

Man’s profound desire to fly is as old as creation.  That burning desire propelled him to try different methods just to lift off the ground.  He imitated birds by strapping feathers and artificial wings around himself in order to achieve his objective, but that method failed. Until the early 1900s, almost nobody on Earth believed that humans would ever be able to fly in heavier-than-air machines.

Historically, the great disappointment that humans couldn’t fly translated into a widespread belief that the sky was reserved for gods.  Aside from excavations of ancient Egypt which revealed gods and goddesses with wings, the annals of ancient Greek, Assyrian and oriental mythology contain various legends of kings, gods, heroes, etc., who tried to tap the power of flight.  In almost all cases, the stories involved men imitating the winged flight of birds.

The Greek philosopher Plato once wrote: “The natural function of the wing is to soar upward and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods”.  And who can forget the famous Greek artist and inventor Daedalus, who lived in 3,000 BC.  He built wings made of feathers, twine and wax so that he and his son Icarus could escape from Crete, where they were being held in exile.  Daedalus is believed to have made the declaration: “Surely the sky is open and that is the way we’ll go”.  Initially, the wings worked perfectly.  But Icarus, fascinated with his ability to soar through the heavens, flew higher and higher until the heat of the sun melted the wax that held the wings in position.  Tragically, the boy plunged to his death in the sea.


Another story is told of the Chinese Emperor Shun, who is believed to have lived around 2,000 BC.  He was said to have been trapped on top of a burning granary but managed to escape by flying when he clothed himself in feathers.

Christian tradition held that angels had wings, and that God stopped Satan from flying by clipping his wings.  Muslims believe that Muhammad was raised to Heaven for a night by a winged horse.

Stories of this kind and many others fired the imagination of philosophers and inventors to work tirelessly in order to achieve true flight.

 Early centuries

Today, travelling by air is just a matter of securing the necessary travelling documents and then the airplane carries you from one point to the other.  But little do we recognise that today’s aviation is riding on the shoulders of the ‘giants’ who started it all.

What was the driving force or the motivation behind this inexplicable desire to fly, since man could only to crawl, walk, run and jump?  How did it start?

It is believed that as early as the third century, the Chinese were building and experimenting with kites.  This helped them to understand certain aeronautical principles long before such attempts ever began in Europe.  A lot of trials and experiments took place between the 10th and 15th centuries.

The 16th century also saw the famous Leonardo da Vinci – a painter, sculptor and skilled mechanical engineer who sketched crude designs for helicopters and parachutes, as well as for gliders with flapping wingtips.  Evidence of these reveal that he built models of some of his proposed flying machines – but none of those designs were practical.

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, there are various accounts of daring men who strapped artificial wings onto their bodies and tried flapping them as they leapt from a high elevation.  One could call these men ‘test pilots’ or ‘birds’, but the fact remains that they were really brave and adventurous.  Unfortunately, they were also unsuccessful.

These failed attempts also buttressed the point made by  Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century Franciscan friar: “It is not necessarily impossible for human beings to fly, but it so happens that God did not give them the knowledge of how to do it.  It follows, therefore, that anyone who claims that he can fly must have sought the aid of the devil. To attempt to fly is therefore sinful”.  Therefore, many prominent scientists proclaimed it impossible and urged aviation researchers to focus instead on more efficient hydrogen-filled balloons to carry passengers from city to city.

The Aircraft Era

Then came the era of fire balloons and ‘inflammable air’ with the objective of achieving the dream of flying.  In 1783, news of an astounding aeronautical breakthrough spread like wildfire throughout France.  Two brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, discovered that if they inflated small paper balloons with hot air they would rise swiftly and smoothly into the sky.  These were unmanned balloons, and the first trials rose to an altitude of more than 1,800m.

On November 21, 1783, two passengers were carried for a 25-minute ride over Paris on the balloon.  In the same year, another inventor, Jacques Charles, introduced the first gas-filled balloon – which was inflated with hydrogen, or ‘inflammable air’ as it was known at the time.  It is important to note that balloon technology really revolutionised the aviation industry, and the flyers – known by the public as aeronauts – ‘opened’ the skies to other forms of flying techniques.

By 1784, balloons were climbing very high to altitudes of over 3,400 metres.  It came as no surprise when a year later Jean-Pierre-Francois Blanchard successfully crossed the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon – carrying the world’s first airmail letters. By 1862, aeronauts had made voyages across Europe and throughout the United States.

At this point, one can deduce from the efforts made by all these die-hard aviators that one failure to reach a certain altitude and distance in an aircraft probably challenged or spurred the next person on to achieve greater success.  This self-belief was a major driving force.

Aviation technology

However, despite all these breakthroughs, there was still one major handicap; there was no way the direction or speed of balloon flights could be controlled. This made navigation rather difficult.  A new approach was therefore required if man was to “raise himself into the air and move from place to place” as da Fontana had predicted.

 Era of Wright Flyers

So how did designers finally achieve success with fixed-wing, heavier-than-air flying machines?  Man had to turn his attention back to the true masters of flight: birds.

In 1889, a German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, published the book ‘Bird Flight as the Basis of Aviation’ and followed it two years later with the invention of a simple glider.  Unfortunately, in 1896 Lilienthal was killed while practicing with a monoplane after almost 2,000 glider flights.  The world was really sad to have lost him, because it is believed that through him experimenting with aircraft would soon give birth to the airplane.

Later Octave Chanute, a French-born American engineer, improved on Lilienthal’s design and developed a double-winged glider that represented a significant advance in the design of airplanes.

Now crossing over to a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, USA, the Wright brothers – Wilbur and Orville – also began gliding experiments in 1900.  They built on the accomplishments of Lilienthal and Chanute.

Wilbur and Orville worked slowly and methodically over the next three years, making repeated experimental flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, until their new invention rose off its wooden launching track for the first time and stayed aloft for three and half seconds!

The Wrights flew it again three days later; and this time, it remained airborne for nearly one minute – covering a distance of 260 metres.  This was a major breakthrough!

Surprisingly, this landmark accomplishment was given little attention by the rest of the world.  Eventually, the New York Times finally carried a story about the Wright brothers in January 1906.  It said that their ‘flying machine’ had been developed in strict secrecy, and the brothers had obtained only “some slight success in flying through the air” in 1903.  But in reality Orville had sent a telegram to their father on the night of that historic flight, urging him to inform the press.  However, only three newspapers in the US bothered to publish the story at the time.

It might interest readers to know that there is another claim that, in 1901, Gustave Whitehead – a German immigrant living in Connecticut, USA – also flew the airplane that he had invented.  Unfortunately, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.

Aviation technology advanced rapidly in the years following the Wrights’ first flight.  Within five years, Wilbur and Orville built a biplane that could speed along at 71kmphr and cruise at an altitude of 43 metres.

In 1911, the American aviator Calbraith P. Rodgers completed the first transcontinental flight across the United States – from New York City to Long Beach, California. He left Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, on September 17, 1911 using a Wright machine, and landed at his goal on December 10, 1911 – 84 days later.  Can you imagine that?  His actual flying time was 3 days, 10hrs and 14 min.

The War Years

World War I expedited developments in aviation technology, with the Americans, Germans, French and English particularly inventing aircraft with different speeds of over 230kmphr and soaring to altitudes of 9,000 metres.

world war

These significant achievements in aviation continued to attract headlines. Notable flights following World War I included a non-stop flight of 1,170 km (727miles) from Chicago to New York City in 1919 by Captain E. F. White of the U.S. Army. Then in 1920, Major Quintin Brand and Captain Pierre Van Ryneveld of England flew from Cairo to Cape Town, South Africa. In the same year, five U.S. Army Air Service planes – each carrying a pilot and a copilot-mechanic – with Captain St. Clair Streett in command, flew from New York City to Nome, Alaska, and returned.

Back home in the 1920s, Accra Airport (aka Kotoka International Airport, KIA) recorded a number of flights.  It is on record that the Royal Air Force of England flew its planes into the then Gold Coast and used Accra and Takoradi as major bases within the sub-region.

In other army exploits, Lieutenant James Harold Doolittle, in 1922, made a one-stop flight from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego, California.; Lieutenant Oakley Kelly and Lieutenant John A. Macready made the first non-stop transcontinental flight, May 2-3, 1923, from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to Rockwell Field, San Diego, California – and the first flight completely around the world was made from April 6 to September 28, 1924. Four Liberty-engine Douglas Cruisers, each with two men, left Seattle, Washington, and two returned. One plane had been lost in Alaska, the other in the North Sea; there were no fatalities.

Spirit of St. Louis

Then came May 21, 1927 when Charles Lindbergh won instant fame by flying non-stop from New York to Paris in an 8.5m (28-ft) monoplane named the Spirit of St. Louis in 33 hours and 20 minutes.  This event drew public attention to aviation and convinced many that the industry had a bright future. The feat catapulted Lindbergh into instant fame as a folk hero, and helped attract millions of investment dollars into aviation.  Charles’ flight actually transformed the world, and the fledgling commercial airline industry began to attract customers. Indeed, those pioneers were really ‘giants’ whose achievements we are benefitting from today, as far as air transport is concerned.

By the end of 1939, air travel had caught on so well – to the point that US airlines were serving nearly three million passengers annually.

After World War II, commercial airplanes grew much larger and more powerful, with varying speed of over 480km/hr.

The British introduced a commercial turbo-jet service in 1952; and in 1970 the jumbo-jet, Boeing B747 designed and assembled in the US with a 400 seating capacity, made its debut on the aviation scene.

In 1976, a team of French and British engineers made another breakthrough when they introduced the Concorde – a delta-winged jetliner capable of carrying 100 passengers at twice the speed of sound: 2,300km/hr.  Amazing indeed!

Dimensions of Flying

Since the introduction of these different types and shapes of airplanes, there has been an emergence of more sophisticated models.  Some have been made with materials that cannot be detected by radar when they are airborne.

It is logical to ask, with these developments, how has aviation shaped the world?  One does not have to fly on an airplane to know that these rapid technological advances have considerably changed his life.

There is no denying the fact that airfreight operations span the globe.  It is established that the food we eat, clothes we wear, and machinery we use at work and at home are flown across the ocean from one country to another. Letters, packages are also transported via aircargo.  The world these days relies on fast delivery-courier services, and this is done by means of air transport.  Goods and services and the prices we pay for them are all influenced by man’s ability to fly.

Aviation has over the years had a profound social impact on the lives of people.  The airport and its environs is the nerve centre for a host of commercial activities.  Revenue accruing from these activities is quite appreciable compared to that generated elsewhere, simply because the aviation industry operates at a very high cost.  It might interest readers to know that this particular industry handles all manner of people in terms of race, sex, colour and creed.

Aviation has turned the world into a small village; hence globalisation.  Within a few hours, one can be at anywhere in the world if only he can afford the price.

However, in the face these developments, the world has a price to pay for the tremendous progress aviation has made.  As the skies continue to open with air traffic increasing, there is this growing fear that it is becoming dangerous.  Each year crashes involving private, military and commercial planes claim precious lives.  Air travel has attracted bad publicity in recent times.

On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in Indonesia, killing 189 people. Then on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, killing 157 people.  Both flights not only crashed shortly after take-off but were also operating the same plane: the Boeing 737 Max 8.  So far, both reports point to one design flaw – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which we are reliably informed is being fixed.

These accidents have somehow dented the hard-earned achievements and admiration of flying that have spanned more than a century.  So, will these accidents urge man to greater heights or kill that ‘dream’ suddenly?

At the same time, a growing number of environmentalists are alarmed by the increase in air and noise pollution that results from aircraft engines. These problems are compounded by the fact that aircraft fleets are getting older.  In 1990, one of every four airplanes of any major world carrier was found to be more than 20 years old – and that a third of them had been used beyond their prescribed ‘objectives for useful life’ as originally set by the manufacturer(s).

It is obvious therefore that one would expect in this 21st century more and more of such fleets will grow older.  This is not wholly true – since day in day out, parts of most jets are being replaced for new ones; and where the need be, passenger jets are being converted to cargo carriers.  All the same, the responsibility lies heavily on aeronautical engineers.  They must devise safer, less noisy, low-on-fuel and less expensive ways to carry more passengers – notwithstanding the rising operating costs and increase in environmental concerns.

Designers and manufacturers continue to introduce different types of commercial passenger airplane to meet diverse needs.  The Airbus A350 XWB is shaping the future of medium-to-long haul airline operations by overcoming the challenges of volatile fuel prices, matching rising passenger expectations and also addressing increasing environmental concerns.

Among a number of key elements that help the A350 deliver a more relaxing flight are high-precision air management system, exterior noise levels that are as much as 21 EPNdB (Effective Perceived Noise Decibel) below International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Chapter 4 requirements, and its fourth-generation in-flight entertainment system.

There are other aircraft models that have chalked up various successes but the most astonishing airplane type is the Airbus A380. It is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine jet airliner manufactured by the European aircraft company Airbus. Initially named Airbus A3XX, the A380 is the world’s largest passenger airliner; and the airports at which it operates, including our own KIA Terminal 3, have upgraded facilities to accommodate it.

It was designed to challenge Boeing‘s monopoly in the large-aircraft market. The A380 made its first flight on 27 April 2005, and entered commercial service in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines.  In an all-economy class configuration, it can carry up to 853 passengers and has a design range of 8,500 nautical miles (15,700 km), sufficient to fly non-stop from Dallas, USA, to Sydney, Australia, and a cruising speed of Mach 0.85 (about 900 km/h, 560mph or 490kn at cruising altitude).

There have been growing concerns that many airports are getting congested – to the extent that if one flies into a heavy-traffic pattern, he could be held up for some time before being cleared to land or take off.  In response to the overcrowded traffic conditions, some industry visionaries have proposed a new generation of giant commuter helicopters – each capable of carrying 100 passengers.  These aircraft, it is believed, could one day handle much of the short-haul air traffic currently being operated by conventional fixed-wing aircraft.


Revealed Mystery

On the other hand, flying offers more than a method of travel and a bucket of worries; flying has offered a whole new perspective on our planet and an entirely new way of living our lives.  Early pilots noticed that while in flight they could see patterns on the ground that were previously hidden – patterns that revealed secrets.  During the First World War, pilots found evidence of old Mesopotamian (now part of Iraq) ruins from the air – and that gave birth to the field of aerial archaeology.  Similarly, it was only through the use of airplanes that modern geologists, meteorologists and geographers have been able to map and explain many aspects of our planet.

Today, any passenger can look out of an airplane window and discover patterns that no preflight human ever saw.  Across the countryside, one can see aerial views of striking features like twisting and snake-like rivers and ravines. There is also the high desert displaying its glory in 100-mile-long stripes of orange iridescence, and the sharp teeth of mountaintops poke through the shimmering early morning clouds. Breathtaking features!!

Flying also provides a new perspective on our civilisation. Grand skyscrapers are surprisingly small when seen from an airplane, and their rooftops are often sadly mundane.  Conversely, farmlands that seem boring from the ground have suddenly become amazing checkerboard patterns from the sky.  As an airplane ascends, leaving everything behind, everyday objects like cars and houses begin to appear like toys.  Then at higher altitudes, they become so small that whole cities appear like pieces of a patchwork quilt scattered across the land.  Photographs of the Earth taken from space reveal the ultimate pattern that powered flight offers us: We are all one.

Even in the face of any unforeseen adversity, such as the recent global pandemic, will these significant developments which have resulted in supersonic planes; safer, fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft meet the urgent needs of the aviation industry in the years to come?  Only time will tell as man presses on in his quest to ‘open and expand the skies’ to human flight.

The writer is a Snr. Aviation Safety Inspector – GCAA & ICAO Instructor and AVSIAG member


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