On a wing and a prayer

02 November 2006

‘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 people.

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 skywards.

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.

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