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.

It was nearly a century after Kitty Hawk, and due less to developments of aircraft than of munitions, that military aircraft really became lethal for targets smaller than whole cities. Until recently, the question about bombing was how many sorties it would take to destroy a target. Suddenly, because of precision munitions, the question is how many targets one sortie can strike. In World War II about one bomb in 400 landed close enough to affect -- not necessarily destroy -- its target. Now nine out of 10 do.

The most astonishing consequence of aviation is not its military applications or their civilian echoes. (After World War II, Harley J. Earl, General Motors' chief stylist, turned his fascination with the twin tails of the P-38 fighter into automobile tail fins that defined the chrome-plated 1950s.) Rather, the amazing consequence was the banality of flight -- the routinization of mobility -- especially after 1958, when Boeing's 707 speeded the democratization of air travel. Unfortunately, this had some negative public health consequences because viruses -- HIV, for one -- also became mobile.

From the first, flight expressed the essence of the modernist movement -- freedom understood as the absence of limits, and a future of infinite possibilities. While developing cubism, Pablo Picasso sometimes painted wearing aviator's gear. His response to the April 26, 1937, bombing by Germans of Guernica during Spain's civil war -- a rehearsal, or overture, for what was soon to come from Europe's skies -- moved Picasso to produce what may be the 20th century's iconic painting.

Cubism itself was influenced by a perspective no previous generation knew, that of the earth -- the geometry of its urban grids and rural plots -- seen from above. The Eiffel Tower had provided Europeans their first downward vision of their environment. Robert Hughes, the art critic, says that what was spectacular was not the view of the tower from the ground but the view of the ground from the tower. Until then, almost everybody lived their entire lives no more than 40 feet -- the height of an ordinary apartment building -- above the ground.

Modernism shaped another expressive activity that flourished in tandem with aviation, the competition to build the tallest skyscraper. In Manhattan, epicenter of the competition, the race was eventually won by the twin towers of the World Trade Center, where 98 years after Kitty Hawk the histories of aviation and architecture intersected.


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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