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No. 1209:
Writing About Flight

Today, we write about flight. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I spoke not long ago to a women's group about early women fliers. As I ran my eyes over old photos, preparing the talk, I was struck by the beauty of the women. Harriet Quenby, Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson ... all lovely.

Now David McCollough writes about early fliers and he speaks of two attributes. They are physically attractive and they write. I go back to look at a photo of my father in his WW-I flier's uniform -- a handsome young man who went on to become a writer.

An odd selection process is at work here. Handsome Charles Lindbergh is a case in point. He wrote books and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (who also flew) created a body of literature quite apart from flight. Saint-Exupéry wasn't much to look at, but he could write! His book The Little Prince was a masterpiece of children's literature. He and the Lindberghs were close friends -- drawn together by words as much as by flight. Anne pointed out that he was a better writer than a flier. He crashed all the time.

Beryl Markham wrote only one book, West with the Night, but it too was a masterpiece. Listen as she tells about leaving an African airport:

We began at the first hour of morning. We began when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and you could see your breath and smell traces of the night. We began every morning at that same hour, using what we were pleased to call the Nairobi Aerodrome, climbing away from it with derisive clamour, while the burghers of the town twitched in their beds and dreamed perhaps of all unpleasant things that drone -- of wings and stings, and corridors of bedlam.

She leaves me asking if such prose is borne of literary genius or the experience of flight. My images of flight were powerfully formed by my father's story-telling. I'd lie in bed while he made up stories -- tales laced with images of turning and wheeling among pillars of clouds, of danger, fear, and walking away from crashed airplanes, of the smell of the engine's castor oil in an early morning takeoff.

And so they wrote. Nevil Shute wrote and Ernie Gann Wrote. Amelia Earhart wrote prose when she wanted to write poetry. Saint-Exupéry wrote, "I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup." Lindbergh said the airplane plunged him into the heart of the mystery of existence.

I think the airplane created the prose. And the physical beauty of the fliers? Maybe that ties into something Abe Lincoln said -- that after a certain age we bear responsibility for our face. Maybe these people accepted that responsibility.

The two things merge when Saint-Exupéry describes the pilot on a night flight falling "into the deeply meditative mood of flight, mellow with inexplicable hopes."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McCullough, D., Brave Companions: Portraits in History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, Chapter 9.

For more on the fliers themselves, see Episodes 110112249289648987988105710621159, and 1193.


Lt. J.H. Lienhard III, WW-I pilot and
subsequent newspaper writer and editor
Photo courtesy of John Lienhard