George Will

WASHINGTON -- The 12-second flight 100 years ago this morning reached a height of just 10 feet, less than the 63-foot height of a Boeing 747, and covered just 120 feet of ground, less than a 747's 195-foot wingspan. But the Wright brothers' fourth and final flight that day in North Carolina lasted 59 seconds and went 852 feet. So by sunset the 20th century's themes -- farther, faster, higher, now -- were, so to speak, in the air.

Almost everything -- commerce, war, art -- would change as aviation began altering, as nothing had ever done, humanity's experience of the most basic things: time and space. Politics, too. The first important politician to campaign by air was a militant modernist, Adolf Hitler. The newsreels screamed: ``Der Fuhrer fliegt uber Deutschland.''

Aviation's infancy was not for the fainthearted. In the early 1920s an airmail pilot named Dean Smith, on the Chicago-to-Omaha route, cabled his superintendent:

``On trip 4 westbound. Flying low. Engine quit. Only place to land on cow. Killed cow. Wrecked plane. Scared me. Smith.''

Airmail was one way government subsidized aviation, which drew government into deep involvement with technology. So, of course, did the great driver of social change, war. In their new book, ``Reconsidering a Century of Flight,'' Roger D. Launius and Janet R. Daley Bednarek note how rapid was the development of the airplane ``from a machine in some ways most lethal to those who used it to a machine of great lethality to those against whom it is directed.''

In 1905 the Wright brothers testified to Congress that airplanes' military uses would be ``scouting and carrying messages.'' Forty years later cities would be laid waste from the air. But city bombing was not as lethal as was feared. In April 1939 the British government, anticipating city bombing, issued to local authorities 1 million burial forms. The actual British casualties from aerial bombardment, 1939-45, were 60,000.

One early theory, refuted by experience, was that strategic bombing might make wars less bloody by bypassing bloody clashes between armies, such as the First World War's trench warfare, and instead quickly inducing an enemy's surrender by disrupting his ``vital center.'' The fallacious assumption was that modern economies and societies are fragile.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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