Today, we fly down to Rio. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The movie Flying Down to
Rio came out in 1933. In it, we first saw Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers together. They were still
secondary characters, but after they did their
exciting Carioca, we knew we'd see them
again. The movie not only launched Astaire and
Rogers; it also honed the surrealistic
song-and-dance pieces that would become a movie
staple for the next two decades.
Carioca may've been the best number in the
movie, but the most startling one was the title
song, Flying Down to Rio. The characters
weren't allowed to do a hotel floorshow, so they
decided to take their show into the sky. In a
wildly impossible scene, scantily-clad dancers
performed on the wings of airplanes in flight.
Flight is everywhere in the picture: dancers in the
sky; a balloon landing in an outdoor nightclub; a
marriage on a seaplane; a rejected lover exiting by
parachute; and so on.
Two years later, Douglas Aircraft would finally
produce its DC-3,
and safe, reliable commercial flight would become
the norm. But, for the moment, those dancers linked
air travel to county-fair wing-walking -- a
hair-raising stunt we'd all seen.
It was a gloriously confused message. Airplanes
were dangerous. They were safe. They were
adventure. To understand it, we need to go back to
the beginning of WW-I. Our military had spent next
to nothing on aircraft compared with England,
France, Germany, and Russia. Yet our Wright
brothers and Glenn Curtiss had been primary
creators of the airplane. Something seems askew
Look more closely: America's aerial visionaries had
all been cut from the fabric of the daredevil
entrepreneur. Even the staid Wilbur Wright, when
asked what his new airplanes would be good for,
replied, "Sport, first of all."
When the American government finally did
get into the business of mass-producing airplanes,
they adapted the British deHavilland-4. Our
DH-4 was a big solid airplane with very
little daredevil inspiration. It was of little use
in combat, and, when the war ended, we were left
with thousands of them. It turns out we were able
to use them in our new airmail service.
But our first major transport plane was our
Ford Trimotor. It was a more substantial
version of another European airplane, the
Fokker Trimotor. We kept looking over our
shoulder at Europe, while we barnstormed.
Flying Down to Rio, with dancing girls on
airplane wings, celebrated air travel, but it kept
the connection with daredevilry. We badly needed to
leave childhood behind and become adults.
Two years later we produced the DC-3, the
greatest airliner of any age. And I suspect that
that leap occurred just because of our Flying
Down to Rio impulses -- our special intimacy
with the sky. Our childhood had lasted a long time.
But when we finally left childhood, we were ready
to bring flight to maturity very rapidly.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the movie Flying Down to Rio,
For more on the DH-4, see Episode 1309.
For information about the evolution of Civilian
aircraft, see: Angelucci, E., World
Encyclopedia of Civil Aircraft: from Leonardo da
Vinci to the Present. (English language
edition supervised by John Stroud) New York: Crown
Publishers, Inc. 1982.