I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Take Flight: The Wonder of Air Travel In Context

by Joe DeMartino
Jan. 13, 2013
As planets go, this one isn’t awfully big. We’ve already found several rocky planets in other solar systems that dwarf Earth, and really, it’s due to simple hubris that we place it in the same rough category as something like Jupiter. Still, getting around it has been a humongous pain in the ass for very nearly our entire existence. Though we possess a surprising amount of stamina*, human beings aren’t particularly fast, and we prefer to stay in place, for the most part. Wanderlust is an admirable quality, but it’s also one that will get you eaten by a lion or murdered by bandits if you’re not careful. You can see this caution in graphs of human expansion -- movement between areas taking hundreds or thousands of years of careful, gradual migration. 

*You can actually hunt deer with nothing more than a big rock or stick or something. Most mammals are a lot quicker than we are, but over long distances, our average speed is actually quite a bit higher, because they’re all designed for quick bursts of speed, whereas we are perfectly capable of jogging for hours on end without stopping. So long as you can keep the deer more or less in sight, you and a few friends can simply slowly chase it until it’s too tired to move, in which case you hit in the head a few times and start cooking.

We’ve got pretty big brains, fortunately, so in time, we’ve been able to make up for our plodding pace. Horses and other pack animals, first off, although not everyone had them to start with, and they only shrunk the world slightly. Later, we managed to make ships that could travel across the ocean, which brought the whole of the globe within reach of any civilization with the wherewithal to strap enough sail to enough planks. Ship travel is dangerous and slow, however -- countries sent out ships with the implicit understanding that they might not ever see them again or learn what happened to them. Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain in 1519 with five ships and more than 250 men -- three years later, only one ship returned, with 18 survivors, none of whom was Magellan. They’d completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, but at the cost of dashing themselves to pieces.

Even after sea travel became relatively safe, it was still slow, and fairly expensive. The families of Irish immigrants to America would throw “American wakes” for their departing relatives, because the time and money involved meant that it was, in essence, a one-way trip. Even the Titanic, steaming along at a fatal speed, would have taken about a week to get from Europe to America. It shrunk the world in one way, but there was still a darkness to the whole process -- a cost in the only currency any of us really has.

The history of air travel is notable for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most astonishing thing about it was the rapidity in which airplane technology advanced. The Wright Brothers’ first flight, in 1903, saw their primitive Wright Flyer trundle along for 120 feet at about 30 miles per hour. Within 25 years, Charles Lindbergh had crossed 3,600 miles of Atlantic in an airplane; within 45 years, Chuck Yeager had pushed the first aircraft past the speed of sound at 768 miles per hour. Within the space of a century, we went from a barely-airworthy single-man craft to mighty jets that could carry hundreds. A single 747 can transport over 500 people at about 600 miles an hour for up to 8,000 miles before it needs to refuel.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact this must have had on human mobility. Suddenly, crossing the ocean wasn’t a struggle -- board your plane, stare at the clouds for a few hours, and you’ve been transported, as if by magic, from New York to Paris. You could make Magellan’s journey, were you so inclined, in a little more than a day, and save for a surprisingly rare accident, you’d make that trip without losing anyone.

You get the impression, from watching some of these early airline commercials, that nobody had quite gotten over exactly what they were able to do with this new technology. Even the airlines themselves can’t seem to believe the product they’re selling -- there’s a gee-whiz quality to the whole thing, particularly in the gleeful listing of destination after destination. Indeed, the destinations themselves seem to be the main focus. Luxury was certainly important, but secondary to the pure elation of simply being able to just go. One would almost think that, sans borders and politics, we’d collectively conquered this planet by air.

There’s a certain banality to the process now. Remarkably, air travel is something people are more likely to complain about than wonder at. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily -- widespread adoption of a beneficial technology is nearly always beneficial -- but it does lead to a kind of malaise. We’re the same species that became bored of going to the moon, remember. The comedian Louis CK made the point that complaining about something like flying is patently absurd -- when you’re “on a chair, in the sky”, it’s one of the only real situations in which the word “amazing” really applies. He’s right. It is amazing. We can fly, guys!

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.