To soar into the sky and float aloft in the wind, peering down on the world below, knowing that, if you so wished, you could touch the stars.
Flight, the process of removing oneself from the terra firma of Earth’s surface, is something we perhaps take for granted these days. How easy it is for us to click a few buttons on our computers and then sit, in air-conditioned comfort, whilst a skilled pilot takes us around the world to wherever we like. It’s almost a thoughtless process by this point and as such, instead of taking stock and marvelling at our fortunate position of convenience flying, find gripes in the delay of a flight, or the lack of food service on-board. I am one of the incredibly fortunate few to have hands-on access to something that I can fly, and I also know that each time I launch the drone into the air I take a moment to marvel at the utter magic that is playing out before me. The age of dreaming about taking to the skies and drifting amongst the clouds is now a real prospect, albeit through the medium of ultra high-definition footage and small display screens.
The concept of flight is something that has driven humankind for centuries. Flying beside the birds, seeing the land from above. It’s all been a fascination, and for some a sole reason for existing, since the dawn of the human race. From Greek mythology to the dawn of powered, winged flight in the early 20th century, there has been a slow, inexorable trudge towards getting humans in the air, and it’s this desperation, this unwavering desire to fly, that has inspired the Atlantic.
The most well known, and probably earliest, version of this desire to fly is the story of Daedelus and his Son Icarus. I know of this story from a Commodore-64 game given to me by my uncle in the early 90s. The principle was easy - stab a key each time you want to inject lift upon Icarus, keeping him precisely in the middle of the screen. Too high and his wings will melt from the power of the sun, and he will fall to his death. Too low and he hits the water and, with his feathers soaked through and the potential for lift dramatically reduced, drowns soon after. Pretty simple concept; extremely difficult game! But in researching where the desire to fly started, I realise that the story of Icarus and his waxy wings has an altogether more complex narrative, one which has sent me down a particularly fantastical and surprising rabbit-hole.
The story of Daedelus and Icarus is embedded deep within a larger framework called Metamorphoses, written by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, or Ovid for short. This framework, comprising 15 books each of which contains a number of mythologies, charts the history of the world from the creation of this earth to the present day, as Ovid lived and breathed. In book 8 the poet focuses on Scylla and Minos, the daughter of a ruler called Nisus and the King of Crete respectively. Minos attacks the city of Alcathous, where Nisus rules, and in the process his daughter Scylla falls in love with Minos. As a show of what some might call love, Scylla lops her dad’s scalp off so that she can transfer his power to Minos, but in doing so she upsets Minos; he sees her overly close haircut as an unforgivable betrayal to her father. He leaves the city triumphant but despondent, she chases him in her boat, but before she gets to him the recently bald Dad finds her, in his own new guise as an Osprey, and turns her into a bird too. Shame that. When Minos returns to his homeland of Crete he finds more pressing matters to attend to. At once he orders Daedalus, the chief Architect and craftsman, to construct a labyrinth; a clever maze that Minos would use to conceal what appears to be the by-product of an unlikely “union” between Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, and a bull.
Minos, praying to the god Poseidon for a beautiful white bull to show that he held Poseidon’s favour, received said beautiful white bull and, rather than sacrificing the bull as he had promised to, Minos kept it instead, to admire. Poseidon took umbrage at this and, in his own unique form of retribution, had Daedalus construct a wooden cow, covered in genuine cowhide, so that Pasiphaë, now cursed into lusting for the bull (thanks very much Aphrodite), could satisfy her urges. Sure enough, and with a certain frowning of the brow from onlookers, the grotesque Minotaur was conceived. But as the bullchild grew into a bullman, increasing in size significantly as he did, his appetite grew with it and, owing to the fact he was a human bull hybrid, couldn’t find nourishment other than devouring humans. Minos tried to fix this awkward situation by having Daedalus construct the Labyrinth to conceal the half-bull-half-human and keep it from eating everyone. It seems that Daedalus, and his knowledge of both the labyrinth and the Minotaur’s existence, were too much of a risk for Minos - the blab factor spiralling out of control. The solution was to send both Daedalus and his son, Icarus, to a tower in isolation.
It was in this tower of isolation where Daedalus invented the wings upon which they would both fly out of the tower, and into fresh air freedom.
It is said that the wings represented art and that art, in any of its guises, has both the power to elevate and the power to destroy. In the wrong hands, or those who don’t understand the power and responsibility that the art demands, can cause harm to themselves or harm to others. So it came to be that the wings that sent the two imprisoned men into the skies and towards their freedom, were not fully understood by the young, naive Icarus. In his excitement at soaring in the sky, he flew too close to the sun. The wax that held the feathery wings together melted and he plummeted, with extra super speed, to his watery death. Despite being the master of his art, Daedalus could still be destroyed by it. He saved himself with his art, but in doing so he killed his son. A broken heart is all that remained. Daedalus reached Sicily where he was welcomed by King Cocalus and, knowing Daedalus had a penchant for building things, asked him to build a temple in the name of Apollo. He did so, giving the god of sun and light, music and poetry, healing and plagues, prophecy and knowledge, order and beauty, archery and agriculture his wings too, for the social media posts. Minos, realising that Daedalus and Icarus had escaped, set out on the path to find them and constructed a puzzle that only Daedalus could solve - running a string through a spiral shell. Sure enough, after a long quest, he arrived in Sicily and asked King Cocalus about the puzzle. The King, knowing that Daedalus could sort that puzzle right out, asked him to and sure enough Daedalus attached the string to an ant who wandered effortlessly through the shell. Aha! Minos had him bang to rights. But before he could enact his punishment, the King offered Minos a nice, relaxing bath. Whilst he was luxuriating in his bubbles, the King had his daughters slice Minos a new mouth in his neck, and Minos teetered slowly, painfully to the underworld, where he would set up shop as Judge of the Dead.
Note to self, read more Greek Mythology.
The Journey to Flight
It’s with a not-small sigh of relief that we move on, following the journey towards flight as we know it today. It includes no mention of lady-bull frissons, bald Osprey dads or labyrinths. The next step in the chart of flight is kites, with the Chinese creating these airborne follies; entertaining pastimes that captured the imagination of people around the world. Of course it’s a natural extension, upon seeing this fabric square fluttering high above the ground, that the men thought “wouldn’t it be ace to attach someone to that kite and see what happens?” - one suspects nothing good. The Chinese again, from ancient times, had understood that hot air rises and had invented the paper lantern as a way of scaring the enemy when in battle. It’s also said that the Chinese had managed to invent the balloon, as we roughly understand it, hundreds of years before the 18th Century. It is widely documented that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, performed an experiment that tested whether or not one could harness the electricity from the rumbling skies above, using a kite in 1752.
We head into the Renaissance and Abbas ibn Firnas, an Andalusian polymath. He is said to have made good progress in the human-carrying-glider and managed, according to “eyewitnesses”, to fly for a good distance before doing his back in. He neglected to give himself an undercarriage, an oversight obviously. It’s also widely believed that Leonardo Da Vinci was a pioneer in flight and contributed to the development of this human endeavour. Alas, it’s not true. Whilst Da Vinci certainly had some groundbreaking concepts that turned out to be relatively successful, when produced in the modern age and tested, his drawings and engineering prowess was not discovered until 1797, a few years after the two pioneering French brothers, Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Ètienne Montgolfier, invented the “globe aérostatique”, or by any other words the very first hot air balloon.
Not satisfied with his early attempts with parachutes, it was a chance observation of some laundry drying over a fire that Joseph realised that he could use this miraculous invisible force to assist him in his quest to fly. At that time the siege of the fortress in Gibraltar was hot news and he was trying to devise ways to get into this impenetrable place. Originally he assumed it was the smoke or the embers which created this billowing of the sheets on his washing line, and set about understanding this magical new force. Sure enough, within weeks, he had discovered a means to propel a small model, made from fabric and wood, rapidly into his ceiling. With this triumph in hand, he made a larger human scale model which, upon lighting the wool and hay beneath, shot so rapidly into the air that they lost control of it, and it flew for 2 miles before coming down abruptly. Over the course of the intervening years the brothers developed this method of flight and with it the advent of man’s focus on flying with the birds.
A man named Henri Giffard took the Montgolfier brother’s concept and applied the principles of steam engines to the method of lifting the balloon into the air, and in doing so created the first known, reliable, manned, powered flying contraption, or as it became known, the Dirigible. Many attribute the Wright Brothers with achieving the first known “powered flight”, but as history shows, it was indeed Giffard that should be known for this feat.
It is here though that the myriad grades to which powered, manned flight, is split into. Giffard’s balloon is deemed to be “lighter than air” powered flight, owing to the hydrogen sacks that filled his contraption. The balloon weighs less than the air surrounding it and thus it is lifted, rather than thrust, into the air. The method of lifting a structure into the air and moving it around with engines and control surfaces was to welcome the arrival of the Airship. Over the convening two decades from Giffard’s invention to the early 20th Century, these “non-rigid” dirigibles were developed into realistic methods of transportation. The designation of being non-rigid was due to the balloon having no internal structure - just an inflated skin. It was with the arrival of the Luftschiff Zeppelin LZ1 in 1900, which saw the meteoric rise of the “Rigid” dirigibles, or as they were referred to at the time, the Zeppelins. The more test flights carried out, the more these Aeronauts learned, and the development of these Airships was quick and permanent. Bigger, more powerful designs emerged and the possibility of controlled, directional, non-wind influenced vehicles was now a reality. The airship went on to be deployed in both World Wars as means of reconnaissance and offense, as well as leisurely pursuits.
At the same time as the non-rigid dirigible was being developed into rigid dirigibles, there was a second path being formed called the “heavier than air” methods of flight. The Wright Brothers are attributed as the first people to ever achieve heavier than air, powered, manned flight, with their Wright Flyer in 1903. This invention, the result of many iterations, failures, successes and glider prototypes constructed by the Wright Brothers over the course of 4 years, was to welcome the advent of flight as a method of transport over long distances. Little did the two brothers know that their efforts in the early 20th Century would go on to inspire both flying within our spherical confinements of earth, but also the ability to leave our planet, set human feet on the Moon and, much to my eternal delight, allow me to fly by proxy and film in 4K resolutions from heights up to 400ft (follow the drone code people), effortlessly from the comfort of my back garden.
Think about that for a second. It took humans well over 2000 years to get from walking on the ground to flying in the air with the shoogly, often unreliable Wright Flyer. Two thousand years. It has taken thereafter 100 years from that point to enjoy convenient, comfortable, safe transatlantic flight, not so comfortable, not so safe space travel, recreational flight and arrive at a means of reliable, renewably powered, remote controlled flight in an envelope smaller than a shoebox, that is deployable anywhere, free to move independently in all 5 axis, at any time with anyone controlling it. One hundred years. When I head outside to send my little drone up into the blue skies above I contemplate not just my incredible fortune to be able to do this so easily, but also now, with this research in mind, the path through which this has all been possible. What an incredible world we live in.