Montagu Curzon

On a wing and a prayer

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The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920–1950

Robert Wohl

Yale, pp. 364, £

Only the short-lived excitement about the Moon missions has given our age a hint of the fervour that aviation inspired in the interwar years. The new access to a whole new element gave that generation a defining identity, a sense of being incontrovertibly different from every one that had gone before, ever. A wonderful delusion that was not lost on the Western imagination.

Robert Wohl charts in fascinating detail the manifold reverberations of flight, literary, political, artistic, intellectual. Much more than a plane-spotter’s feast, this is a thoughtful, wide-ranging, meticulous (as befits a history professor) analysis of arguably the most salient new fact of the time. A brilliant idea, stimulating, packed with incident. This is his second volume on the theme; the first, from the earliest wing-flappings to the end of the first world war, was reviewed here in 1994, and again Yale have done him proud with a beautifully designed and illustrated book that makes it clear they take the subject seriously.

How right they are, because the impact of aviation on every aspect of the Western imagination was profound. How could it have been otherwise? Here was a vast new world to explore, bigger than any America, an infinite canvas, intoxicating, often heroic, following over this period an aerobatic curve up to ethereal heights and down to the depths of horror.

In 1920, Western imagination sorely needed a lift, after trench warfare and epidemic, and aviation provided it, hard as that is for us, paralysed by the boredom of jet-travel and calloused by remote, computerised air warfare, to conceive. It raised eyes metaphorically as well as literally, and hopes, of nation meeting nation, universal brotherhood, etc. It was ‘a sort of social religion’.

The fervour started with the first long-distance flights, such as Alcock and Brown crossing the Atlantic in their Vimy, heroes even if they ended nose-down in an Irish bog. It came to a peak with Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris, 33 hours alone in the air. Wohl does a service in reminding us of the scale of the reaction: 30 million turned out to see his triumphal tour of the USA, a quarter of the entire population, kings and presidents fawned, ladies swooned. Modern celebrities are nothing in comparison: ‘Lucky Lindy’ was half a god, half a figure in a Norman Rockwell painting, simple, direct, confident.

All over the West, young men, and soon young women, were fired by the ideal of flight, and by its quasi-mystical flavour, as if this was a new chivalry. Engineers competed feverishly to be ‘the first’, poets declaimed, aviators variously arrived to wild acclaim or disappeared into Atlantic fogs. Non-romantics were also interested: wouldn’t aviation be a fine means of rekindling the embers of empire, wouldn’t it supply stories and stars for millions of newspapers, and, most dangerous of all, ultimately wouldn’t its discipline and rigour be the perfect model for new ideologies?

The Italians were the most lyrical, from the outpourings of the poet-pilot Gabriele D’Annunzio to the solid feats of Italo Balbo, leading massed squadrons of seaplanes on astonishing cruises round the Mediterranean, then to Rio, then to Chicago: real epics of daring.

The French were the most lastingly poetic: think only of Saint-Exupéry. The saga of the Aéropostale, pushing out its routes down the North African coast, over-flying ferocious tribes, before taking the plunge across a hostile South Atlantic to Brazil, Argentina and over the Andes to Chile, was, and remains, one of the great tales of French bravery, a modern addition to the national myth in which flying is portrayed as ‘a transcendent calling’ and the pilot as a monastic knight on his quest: never mind if it was the unlikely one of delivering the mail.

Many dashing Britons took to the air, such as Alan Cobham and, later, Jean Batten, crossing desert and mountain to India and Australia along the links of empire from one cosy pocket of Englishness to another, with every form of hazard in between. They had vision, but little money, there was no real political push. To the Americans, aviation was a new version of the conquest of the West, opening the hugeness of their continent, with the postal pilots, like Lindbergh, the new riders of the Pony Express. There were dizzying vistas of profit.

The 1920s were aviation’s age of relative innocence, solo heroes and heroines and pleasing mythological parallels. By the 1930s the planes were less solo and it was evident just what humans could do, and so would do, to one another from the air. The spectre of massed bombers obliterating cities was raised, as haunting as would be that of the H-bomber later. The Fascists’ fervour was not only for display and medals but also for phosphorous bombing of Abyssinians. One of the Nazis’ first propaganda coups was their ‘Hitler over Germany’ aerial election tour of the country, and then the film Triumph of the Will, conflating the images of Hitler and the German eagle, swooping to conquer.

That was the downfall of aviation as an idea. It was virile, modern, strong, all qualities extolled by black and brown shirts. It had beauty and, not infrequently, sacrifice. The lone pilot was close to Superman. So, in the violent polarisation of opinion of the time, aviation was inevitably carried to the Right, its spectacle twisted into far-Right propaganda. The Left lost out in the myth-warfare; they were thinking only of the masses, a concept too heavy for take-off. Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was the crystallising image, the artistic response to a corrupted ideal, the old themes of cruelty and suffering expressed in the terms of the new dimension.

More cheerfully, aviation fitted, or shaped, the style of the times. Pure functional lines, flowing, minimal, were the aim of designers and architects as much as of aerodynamicists. Painters could now be in the sky, not just looking up at it like their predecessors. Then there was Hollywood: as Wohl says, ‘aviation and cinema were a marriage made in heaven’, in which case Howard Hughes could be called the Best Man. Hundreds of flying films were churned out by the studios for a public riveted by stunt flying, aerial romance and crashes. All stars fancied themselves in leather helmet, goggles and scarf; it was a genre second only to cowboys-and-indians. Film historians will find much to enjoy here.

Aviation gave writers a new wealth of images: Proust’s narrator wept on seeing a plane over Balbec ‘seeming to surrender to an attraction the opposite of gravity, as if returning to his homeland’. Virginia Woolf used similar imagery in Mrs Dalloway. But it was the Aéropostale story that brought literature and aviation most firmly together, with Saint-Exupéry’s musings and Mermoz as the hero. Both satisfied the final requirements of myth by disappearing without trace (until recently in Saint-Exupéry’s case) into the ocean. Wohl shows that there was a political undercurrent to their fame: their qualities were such a refreshing change from the divisiveness and corruption of the Third Republic. Mermoz, too, flirted with the far-Right, and perhaps disappeared just in time to save his reputation.

By the end of the 1930s the inspirational period of aviation was over. The aircraft were by now so reliable there was no call for heroism, and warfare loomed in a form that would make the Western imagination recoil, not expand. Wohl describes the horrors of the bombing campaigns on all sides, e.g. the US aircrews sickened by the smell of burning flesh carried up the hot updraughts over Tokyo. Nevertheless the theme of spectacle could be maintained: Albert Speer noted that the night-bombing of Berlin did afford a tremendous spectacle: aircraft, searchlights, flak, explosions, fire.

The period also ends as spectacle, the apocalyptic one of the ceaselessly circling nuclear bombers, machines of grace and beauty in themselves threatening ultimate destruction, bringing the Western imagination to a juddering halt, with the demigod of Lindbergh’s and Mermoz’s time degraded into Dr Strangelove.