Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

Speakeasy: Up in the Air

Two stories tell us something about the future of flying

Flight or Fright, Stephen King, Bev Vincent, The Flying Machine, The projection of airborne force has changed the contours of conflict, and the very idea of security. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Flight or Fright, the new anthology edited by Stephen King with Bev Vincent, is calculated to inspire the fear of flying. These “17 turbulent tales” include a rare coincidence, two classics of the genre with the same title: ‘The Flying Machine’. They were published at a separation of six decades, and it is interesting to observe the change of attitudes to human flight that they represent.

Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Flying Machine’ was published in 1891 in Fantastic Fables, and took a dim view of the prospects of flying. The story is barely half a page long, bitterly humorous in the Bierce tradition, and suggests that Bierce had not flown, had no plans to do so, and would not dream of investing in the yet-unborn aircraft industry. An early precursor of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, it tells a story which was commonplace in real life in the late 19th century. An ‘Ingenious Man’ builds a flying machine, invites a crowd to the demonstration, and it sinks into the ground on its maiden flight. The Man dismisses it as a technical fault, and people are happy to raise subscriptions to build a second machine.

Ray Bradbury published his story of the same title in 1953, the year after the world’s first jet passenger route opened, with a BOAC de Havilland Comet flying between London and Johannesburg. Human flight was no longer an improbable affair, and mass rapid transit by air had become a reality. But Bradbury’s story is not concerned with the happy story of the post-war civil aviation boom, but the darker period of World War II. The shadow of World War I hangs over it.

Set in 400 BC, a Chinese emperor is told that a man in a beautiful flying machine made of bright papers and reeds has been spotted. He commands the flyer to be brought to him, and summarily terminates his flying career. Because while the emperor had been admiring the man in the air, the mists had lifted to reveal the Great Wall of China, and he understood that a flying machine rendered traditional defences worthless. He was not worried about the man in the air, who had made something of beauty to realise humankind’s most enduring dream. But he was afraid of others, with darker intentions, who might emulate him.

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The deployment of slow, propeller-powered aircraft in World War I had signalled the end of trench warfare. What use was a Maginot Line when a single RAF Sopwith with a machine gun and four grenades on a crude hardpoint could depopulate a trench in seconds?

World War II deepened that reality with the development of rockets, pulse-jets like the doodlebugs used in the London Blitz, and actual jet fighters. The Gloster Meteor was the only jet fighter to be deployed by the Allies in World War II, and was regarded as the only credible defence against Nazi pulse-jet weapons like the V1 flying bomb. But with the benefit of scientific superiority — some of the talent that the US picked up after the war in Operation Paperclip, to guarantee its technical superiority in the early decades of the Cold War — German air power pioneered military jets like the Messerschmitt 262.

By the end of the war, Nakajima in Japan, Lockheed in the US and de Havilland in the UK had put more warbirds in the air. The development of jet weapons platforms, especially long-range strategic bombers and deep penetration strike aircraft, in the US and the USSR through the Cold War ended the traditional format of conflict. Bradbury’s emperor was right, and the projection of airborne force has changed the contours of conflict, and the very idea of security.


Let us project these two stories from a bygone age forwards to the present, and we shall find that the situations that they depict persist. Today, there are many who would invest in the Ingenious Man of Ambrose Bierce’s story, whose faith survives every crash. His name is Elon Musk, and he has peers like Jeff Bezos. At the same time, there is enormous scepticism about the practical aspects of the missions they propose — it would take more than the GDP of a single nation to make Mars liveable. And there are enormous anxieties about what we may meet out there, in the unknown.

In his last years, Stephen Hawking repeatedly warned about the dangers of alien contact, on the premise that we cannot trust a civilisation that is more evolved than ours. But, of course, that is a very Western fear, feeding on the fears of Western civilisation about itself, and its role in decimating the native populations of the continents that it ‘discovered’, like the Americas and Australia. There could be a better outcome if, like the pioneering but doomed pilot in Bradbury’s story, a man in search of the beauty of flight rather than the brute power of air superiority, the aliens prove to be interested in higher things.

First published on: 02-12-2018 at 06:00:17 am
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