‘We are drawn back to where we came from’
SOMEWHERE in the latter half of the 20th century, air travel and the
aviation industry lost their way — not technologically nor economically, but in
the sense that the wonder and the spirituality of flying disappeared.
Air travel has become a victim of its own success. It has developed so
rapidly within 100 years that it is impossible to recapture the exhilaration
that must have characterised those early flights, and the fear of divine
retribution that the pioneers, like the mythical Icarus before them, would
surely have felt for daring to approach the realm of the gods.
Now, a century after the Wright brothers first kept a contraption of wood
and canvas in the air for a few seconds (pictured above), air travel
is to take another leap forward. The Airbus A380, capable of ferrying no fewer
than 800 passengers at great speed, has arrived.
This is the culmination of a revolution that began 15 years ago. Low-cost
air journeys were made possible by the introduction of large aircraft powered
by fuel-efficient engines in 1989, when the Boeing 747 Jumbo was introduced.
Since then, air transport has become a bland part of daily life for millions of
One might have social or environmental reservations about the impact of
cheap flights, but one can’t condemn outright a development that has enabled,
for example, hundreds of thousands of Christians to fulfill their dreams of
making pilgrimages to the Holy Land — a journey that would have been impossible
for most of them only a decade or two ago.
But so routine has flying become that, as with rail travel, we tend only to
comment when things go wrong. Many people this summer will return with horror
stories of cancelled flights, overcrowded departure lounges, and rude or
indifferent cabin staff. Few, I suspect, will be moved to comment on the
excitement of that moment when the wheels leave the runway and the plane soars
Fewer still will give much thought to the spiritual dimension of their
journey — that they have entered the realm that, for thousands of years, men
believed literally occupied to be by angels. Mark Twain wrote at the end of the
19th century: “The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing
and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? It is the same the angels breathe.”
Nor are travellers encouraged to notice and be inspired by such experiences.
Departure lounges have become supermarkets and fast-food emporia. On board
wide-bodied aircraft, only a small number of passengers sit close to windows,
and few of them, in my experience, bother to look out of the windows. Instead,
the focus is on activity within the cabin: eating and drinking, on-screen
entertainment, and yet more shopping opportunities. So overwhelming are these
distractions that the flight itself is hardly noticed.
FLYING is a modern technological miracle. Our ability to take to the skies
is the fulfilment of a dream nurtured by mankind for thousands of years. “O
that I had wings like a dove: for then I would flee away, and be at rest,” we
read in Psalm 55.
Socrates believed that “man must rise above the earth — to the top of the
universe and beyond — for only thus will he fully understand the world in which
he lives.” Plato wrote: “The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards
and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods.”
Even if one does not believe that God and the angels are literally up in the
sky — “Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God
somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. We are drawn back to where we
came from, ” wrote Eric Hoffer in the New York Times in 1969 — we must
acknowledge that flying enables us to view the world from a perspective that
was not possible a century ago.
All this describes the process of transcending the stresses and strains of
daily life, of a distancing from the mundane in order to facilitate
contemplation. Paradoxically, now that we have the technical ability to soar
physically to the heavens, we are determined to bring with us as much of the
noise and babble of daily life as we can.
But I would argue that flying can be a spiritually uplifting experience even
today. When you are next on an airliner, press your face against the window,
and reflect on mankind’s yearning to reach the sky. You may soon be able to
shut out the babble as you gaze on the vast emptiness above and around you, or
on the ever-changing clouds, or the world below.
You may discover a new perspective on the universe and the earth: “You
haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky,” wrote Amelia
Earhart. And for those precious moments you may feel the isolation and enjoy
the inner peace of the recluse in a remote desert retreat, forced by the very
simplicity of your environment to focus on the inner self.
CYNICS might say that by deliberately downplaying the miracle of flight,
airlines today could be trying to deflect criticism from environmentalists over
the pollution caused by aero-engines.
“I don’t see how the glory of flying can be celebrated when, paradoxically,
it increases our ecological footprint so dramatically,” said the Editor of the
Church Times when I suggested this article to him.
It is true that the aviation and aerospace industries have been slow to
appreciate public concern over the environmental impact of engine emissions.
But they are finally responding. In June, the industries launched a
comprehensive programme for long-term emissions reductions, in response to a
growing campaign against the rapid growth in air travel.
Beryl Markham, who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic
Ocean from London, said in 1942: “I think that all the science of flying has
been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of
it.” Offering the chance to restore the spirituality — if not the religion — of
flying should be a challenge for the aviation industry in the 21st century,
even as it strives for bigger and faster planes.