Today, we write about flight. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I spoke not long ago to a
women's group about early women fliers. As I ran my
eyes over old photos, preparing the talk, I was
struck by the beauty of the women. Harriet Quenby,
Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart, Amy
Johnson ... all lovely.
Now David McCollough writes about early fliers and
he speaks of two attributes. They are physically
attractive and they write. I go back to look at a
photo of my father in his WW-I flier's uniform -- a
handsome young man who went on to become a writer.
An odd selection process is at work here. Handsome
Charles Lindbergh is a case in point. He wrote
books and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (who also
flew) created a body of literature quite apart from
flight. Saint-Exupéry wasn't much to look
at, but he could write! His book The Little
Prince was a masterpiece of children's
literature. He and the Lindberghs were close
friends -- drawn together by words as much as by
flight. Anne pointed out that he was a better
writer than a flier. He crashed all the time.
Beryl Markham wrote only one book, West with
the Night, but it too was a masterpiece.
Listen as she tells about leaving an African
We began at the first hour of morning. We began
when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and
you could see your breath and smell traces of the
night. We began every morning at that same hour,
using what we were pleased to call the Nairobi
Aerodrome, climbing away from it with derisive
clamour, while the burghers of the town twitched in
their beds and dreamed perhaps of all unpleasant
things that drone -- of wings and stings, and
corridors of bedlam.
She leaves me asking if such prose is borne of
literary genius or the experience of flight. My
images of flight were powerfully formed by my
father's story-telling. I'd lie in bed while he
made up stories -- tales laced with images of
turning and wheeling among pillars of clouds, of
danger, fear, and walking away from crashed
airplanes, of the smell of the engine's castor oil
in an early morning takeoff.
And so they wrote. Nevil Shute wrote and Ernie Gann
Wrote. Amelia Earhart wrote prose when she wanted
to write poetry. Saint-Exupéry wrote, "I saw
the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all
my other life, to grains in a cup." Lindbergh said
the airplane plunged him into the heart of the
mystery of existence.
I think the airplane created the prose. And the
physical beauty of the fliers? Maybe that ties into
something Abe Lincoln said -- that after a certain
age we bear responsibility for our face. Maybe
these people accepted that responsibility.
The two things merge when Saint-Exupéry
describes the pilot on a night flight falling "into
the deeply meditative mood of flight, mellow with
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
McCullough, D., Brave Companions: Portraits in
History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992,
For more on the fliers themselves, see Episodes
110, 112, 249,
289, 648, 987,
988, 1057, 1062, 1159, and 1193.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Photo courtesy of John
Lt. J.H. Lienhard III, WW-I pilot and
subsequent newspaper writer and editor
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