Monday, May 09, 2011

A Short History of Flight

Mankind has dreamed of flight from the very dawn of time. Cave paintings and fossilized remains discovered in Croatia prove that sometime around 30,000 B.C., an early tribe of Homo Sapiens designed and began construction on a wood-and-reed aircraft clearly inspired by the wings of eagles. Unfortunately, the project was beset by design flaws, underperforming subcontractors, an overextended supply chain, and certification delays. To offset cost overruns, the village aircraft consortium floated an IPO, but it attracted little interest and share prices plummeted from the very start. The village elders were debating subsidies for the consortium when a competing tribe of Neanderthals snuck into their camp and clubbed everyone to death. Dreams of flight would remain dreams only for thousands of years.

Around 1500 B.C., a Greek communist named Daedalus and his son Icarus wished to return from Crete to Athens for the annual austerity measures riots. King Minos, an early tea party member, forbade it, so Daedalus and Icarus plotted their leave. Daedalus rejected a more traditional seaborne escape; a pleasure cruise on the sunny Mediterranean, he declared, was a bourgeois extravagance of the corrupt middle class. His escape could only be revolutionary, and to that end Daedalus superglued duck feathers onto his and Icarus’ arms and they flew out over the sea. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus rejected the fascist paternalism of the reactionary generation and flew where he damn well pleased. In the process he got a very nasty sunburn, stopped flapping to apply aloe, and plummeted to the sea where the modern laws of physics were already in effect; water tension snapped his spine and liquefied his internal organs. Daedalus torched a bank in Icarus’ honor.

Jack and Joe Montgolfier were French farmers who wished there was a quicker way to get their produce to market. Observing the way that smoke rises from lit fires and orating politicians, Joe deduced that heat rises and built the first hot air balloon in 1783. At first things went swimmingly, for their balloon transported their ducks, sheep, and roosters quite safely and efficiently. But then a rumor sprang up that the balloon was German, and all the Frenchmen started surrendering to it. The brothers Montgolfier solved the problem by sending up a man on all subsequent flights to shout Frenchy things, and human flight was born.

Otto Lilienthal was German, and surrendering Frenchmen were forever impeding his experiments with gliders in the late 1800s. It became such a problem that he built an artificial hill near Berlin, where he could work in peace without Frenchmen surrendering to him. His life was cut tragically short in 1896, when he crashed into a lost Polack. His last words as he lay dying were “Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!,” which means “We should probably just annex them both!”

The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics and visionaries who saw that bikes were clearly on their way out; after all, who in their right mind would toil and sweat and risk getting trampled by horses when they could fire up their trusty 3 horsepower Stanley Steamer and cruise to work in comfort and safety? Instead, the Wright Brothers turned their attention to powered heavier-than-air flight. In 1903 they got Charlie Taylor to build them a light gasoline-powered engine, strapped it to a Lilienthal glider, checked carefully to make sure there were no Frenchmen or Polacks present, and flew into history (actually, into a sand dune 100 feet away). They spent the rest of their lives suing anyone who challenged their assertion that they were the Fathers of Flight, as well as anyone who tried to repeat their feat in a similar aircraft. Among the Wright Brothers’ greatest accomplishments is the creation of the aileron.

In 1914, all of Europe went to war and dragged all their colonies along with them (including the cute ones who naively insisted they were ex-colonies). Two happy side effects were massive depopulation that prevented the world from starving to death by 1972, and a rapid advance in aircraft design. Everyone had a jolly time shooting off their propellers and dropping flour bombs on the trenches. It was so much fun that the French stopped surrendering and joined in heartily. The Red Baron pioneered the first airborne pizza delivery service, and everyone was happy and well fed during their 3-week average lifespan at the front.

A major flaw in World War One aircraft was uncovered at the end of the war, when it was discovered that wood-and-fabric planes could not be easily turned into beer cans. Instead, barnstormers flew them around the country, inspiring thousands to leave the comfort and safety of their Stanley Steamers to take to the air. One of these was Charles Lindbergh, a disgruntled postal worker who decided to fly across the Atlantic. He brilliantly realized that the surest way to find one’s way to Europe is to do so in an airplane without windows, and he did exactly that in 1927, all the way from New York to Paris. There he was mobbed by thousands of surrendering Frenchmen, a traumatic experience that turned him into a lifelong German.

In 1939, failed Bruno Ganz impersonator Adolf Hitler said “Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” and annexed both Poland and France. All of Europe went to war and dragged all their colonies along with them (including the cutes ones who pretended to be neutral for a few years to prove their independence). Two happy side effects were massive depopulation that prevented the world from starving to death until 2086, and a rapid advance in aircraft design. The French sat this one out, but everyone else had a marvelous time. Many people joined flying clubs and warbird associations, for such classics as the P-51, Spitfire, Bf 109, and B-17 were readily available then. Airshows were held almost daily. Fly-ins were held at prime holiday destinations like Italy, the French coast, and the South Pacific. Eventually the Germans insisted on all events being held in Germany, which made it all rather dull, so everyone went home (the Americans by way of Japan for one last airshow). This time everyone had the foresight to build their airplanes of aluminum for easy beer-can conversion.

After the war, the Americans turned their undivided attention to making peaceful technological advances for the betterment of humankind. They invented jet engines and installed them on supersonic fighters to keep the peace. They built massive bombers to pulverize any troublemaking cities quickly and humanely. They developed bigger and better nuclear weapons to wipe out whole countries of miscreants with the least pain and inconvenience to the recipients possible, and invented giant rockets to deliver this humanitarian assistance in mere minutes at the press of a button. Contrary to all hopes and expectations, massive depopulation did not result, and mankind was doomed to eventual starvation. More happily, the new technology was readily transferred to the realm of space exploration, where great strides were being made. In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. He memorialized the occasion by exclaiming “Holy [redacted], I’m [redacted] walking on the mother-[redacted] moon! Can you [redacted] believe it!?” NASA deemed these remarks unsuitable for television audiences and substituted moon landing footage that had been pre-recorded on a Hollywood sound stage.

Meanwhile, ordinary Americans were doing what Americans did best: bilking other Americans out of their hard-earned money. Legendary men like Eddie Rickenbacker, Juan Trippe, and Howard Hughes built airlines like Eastern, PanAm, and TWA into global powerhouses that would stand forever as immortal testaments to the inherent goodness, wisdom, and morality of American Capitalism. In 1958 Boeing launched the jet age with the 707, an airplane that whisked passengers to their destinations in half the time and half the comfort of the old propliners. Suddenly there was no place in the world that Americans could not quickly and easily go to loudly complain about how inferior everything was to America.

In 1978, everyman Edward Kennedy and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter lamented the fact that commercial flying was still too expensive for the Average Joe. Failing to see any way to decrease the inherent cost of using a finite fuel source to accelerate an object weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds and consisting of thousands of intricate parts painstakingly assembled by skilled craftsman to near-supersonic speeds and loft it to altitudes at the outer reaches of the atmosphere and do so with great reliability and safety, Kennedy and Carter hit on a plan to simply transfer the costs. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 indeed made flying much cheaper for passengers, and much more expensive for airlines, their employees, their suppliers, and their shareholders. It was wildly successful. By 2000, so many people were flying that nobody could fly anywhere without a three hour delay.

Saudi bad boy Osama bin Laden graciously lent a helping hand in 2001, the newly created Transportation Security Administration did its part, and soon traffic was humming right along with nary a delay. The airlines took advantage of the breather to rid themselves of all their old, nasty, polluting narrow body aircraft and replace them with comfortable, efficient Canadian Regional Jets. These aircraft were flown by pilots so experienced that they met or exceeded FAA minimums, and their crews were paid near or sometimes even at the federal minimum wage. Any remaining gaps in the system were gamely filled in by Southwest Airlines, which seemed to come out of nowhere with an audacious business plan that involved young, attractive stewardesses in gogo boots serving free booze (who could’ve anticipated that working, especially in Texas!?!).

In the mid-aughts, airline executives courageously declared that they would not allow such stirring success to go unrewarded. Convinced of the justness of their cause, they took their companies to court, where some of the bravest judges in the free world did the right thing and transferred more of the cost of flying onto airline employees, suppliers, and shareholders. At long last, airline executives were able to share in the bounty of all they had wrought through the force of their blood, sweat, and tears. After striking such a blow for freedom one might expect the executives to rest on their laurels, but they were relentless in their pursuit of justice. With hardly a pause, they embarked on a crusade against the rapacious work rules that kept them toiling night and day. In short time they had merged six airlines into three, thus emancipating countless executives from the tyranny of their duties and freeing them to enjoy the fruits of their labors with such middle-class pastimes as yachting, mansion decoration, and making love to the secretaries of their Vice-Presidents’ Executive Assistants’ Assistants’ Assistants to the Assistant Executive Assistants.

The remaining executives, meanwhile, were finding their obligations much less taxing as they had discovered they could run an airline without actually running an airline. Through the magic of codeshares and global alliances they could sell tickets and take in revenue while poor executives still enslaved on the dark shores of Europe and Asia did the hard work of actually flying the passengers. Whatever could not be done offshore was subcontracted to regional airlines, whose executives still worked very hard flying so many legs every day but didn’t seem to mind so long as wads of cash were being constantly stuffed in their suits.

Boeing executives took note of airline management’s stirring example and threw off their own chains by shutting down production of every airliner except the most dated one, which Southwest bribed Boeing to keep building with gogo-booted stewardesses and free booze. Meanwhile they designed a revolutionary new airliner clearly inspired by the wings of eagles and built with advanced wood and reed composites, but the project was beset by design flaws, underperforming subcontractors, an overextended supply chain, and certification delays. None of this bothered the executives much, for all the hard work was being done overseas, freeing them to enjoy such middle-class pastimes as yachting, mansion decoration, and making love to the Secretary of the Air Force.

As the second decade of the twenty-first century dawns, America stands triumphant in the field of aerospace, as in most other things. We have the biggest airlines, who are burdened with very little flying. We have the best airplane manufacturers, who only need do very little building. Our marvelous aviation industry, in short, has achieved the American Dream, so succinctly summed up by that philosopher of the mother country, Mark Knopfler: “Money for nothing, and chicks for free.” Let the Canadians, the Brazilians, the Japanese do the hard work. We will have a jolly time yachting and mansion decorating and mocking those blinkered Airbus executives working hard shouting Frenchy things at their Polack workers and surrendering wheelbarrows full of cash to their German bankers. The future is bright!


Tim G in MN said...

ROFLMAO!! I think there's a Mel Brooks movie in there somewhere...

Radu said...

Funny! I enjoyed the post. Just a correction, the jet engine was invented much earlier by several contributors, Henri Coanda comes to mind. The Germans perfected it bu the end of WWII, but it was too late, the French had already surrendered...

Anonymous said...

Most excellent. If your day job doesn't work out you definitely have a future as a comedy writer!

Sam said...

There may have been a few other errors in there, too. For one, Daedalus was not a communist. He was a radical anarcho-syndicalist. He hated communists almost as much as he hated social democrats.

Anonymous said...

Great, great post. As a half-French, Seattle-residing, previously Dayton, OH-residing, Kitty Hawk-vacationing, Medallion status-achieving, aerospace engineer employed by the service whose secretary you name-drop, I can relate to much of what's in your post.

Didn't Samuel Langley invent the "modern" aileron because the Wright Brothers had a patent on the wing-warping approach?

Sam said...

Nope, not Langley. He died in 1906, before ailerons came into widespread usage. Henri Farman used aileron-type surfaces in 1907, and more influentially, Glenn Curtiss in 1908. He used ailerons specifically to get around the Wright Bros patent, although the courts later held that ailerons were also covered by the patent. That's why I joked that the creation of the aileron was one of the Wright Bros greatest accomplishments.

zb said...


"wheelbarrows full of cash to their German bankers," ... who join their sexist, communist-hating, beer-loving Bavarian politicians in making love to sexist, communist-hating, wine-loving Austrian politicians and bankers and happily dump the cash surrendered by the Amis into bankrupt financial institutes in Austria while getting bribed with go-go dancers sponsored by the Formula 1 executives. Since the Austrians have no clue about beer, they use the aluminum recycled from American planes for Formula 1 cars and for cans containing Gummibären-flavored, caffeinated drinks and champaign.

For advertising the caffeinated stuff in cans, the communist-hating Austrians pay the last remaining pilots on earth to fly vintage planes under bridges and between ancient church towers, and for advertising the canned champaign, they pay a Blonde named after a big hotel in the French capital. The latter is done just because they have the money, damn it, and because it's totally, like, funny, to, like, pflanzen the French by (a) putting tasteless champaign in cans and (b) advertising the product by paying someone named after the French capital for it, bist-du-narrisch!

Pilot Supplies said...

Interesting post - I have always been interested in early fight, ever since I got my first flying book from a friend who purchased it at the local pilot shop about learning to fly.

I love the old airplanes, in particular the round piston engine powered kind.

zb said...

Hi -- apologies if this is unwanted, but I've heard blogger had a problem and some comments got lost, so I'm trying this again, guessing it has not been considered unwanted spam the first time I have posted the comment.

Information I keep getting from reading my local German newspaper makes me want to add some ideas to the end of your story:

"... and surrendering wheelbarrows full of cash to their German bankers."

The German bankers, however, made love to the sexist, communist-hating and beer-loving politicians governing the southern state of Bavaria, who, in turn, made love to sexist, communist-hating and wine-loving politicians and bankers in Austria and to the go-go dancers the bosses of the Formula 1 paid to bribe the German decision-makers. This made the Germans feel so lucky that they transferred all the money surrendered by the Amis into bankrupt Austrian banks.

It is a known fact that the Austrians have no clue about beer, so they used all the aluminum recycled from American planes to produce cans for Gummibären-flavored, caffeinated soft drinks and for tasteless champaign.

To advertise for these two types of canned beverage, they now do two things: The last remaining pilots on earth risk their lives flying vintage planes painted in the colors of the caffeinated soft-drinks under bridges and between ancient church-towers, because, as the claim goes, consuming this particular soft drink makes people have wings. To make the tasteless champaign in aluminum cans more popular, they pay a blonde named after a big hotel in the French capital to go appear at places where she is photographed by as many paparazzi as possible. The prime reason for this type of publicity campaign is not the cheap glamor that might fit the cheap champaign in cans - it is rather a brainless combination of just having no better use for too much money and too much aluminum recycled from transport category aircraft, and because it is just too funny to pay an American celebrity named after the French capital to, like, pflanzen the French by, like, doing stuff, like, with, like, a trashy version of what used to be, like, the most special and expensive drink ever invented by the French.

"The future is bright!"

flightless bird said...

Very witty and funny! Love it.

However although when I was younger I always thought Mark Knopfler sang "chicks for free" apparently it is "get your money for nothing and checks (cheques) for free". I know I'd rather have free chicks than free cheques!

Sam said...

It is "chicks for free." I checked a couple of different lyrics sites and they all show it as that. If you can show me some liner notes that say "cheques for free" it will make great party trivia!

"La Vida de Perro" Rich's Excellent Adventure in Paradise said...

As a retired controller, I take umbrage to your failure to mention the momentous contributions of ATC in your otherwise excellent history.

In 1929 at St. Louis Lambert Field, Archie League set up a wheelbarrow that held a beach chair, lunch pail, water bottle, a note pad and a pair of signal flags to direct the aircraft.

Due to our God-given Yankee ingenuity, the system evolved from that quaint beach chair to the marvelous temperature controlled Stratoloungers, ergonomically designed high-tech foam pillows and warm, fluffy blankies used in modern Air Traffic Control.

I think they may have replaced the signal flags too, but that’s not important now.

Harrison said...

Too funny. Well written and entertaining. I think you have too much layover time:0)