Ever since the first human saw her first bird, we have longed for wings. Until the Wright brothers came along, however, all efforts to get airborne seemed doomed to failure. The ancient Greeks put this down to the hubristic nature of the enterprise, but the real obstacle was mechanical: sustained flight needs a lightweight power-plant. As soon as the internal combustion engine was invented, manned flight became inevitable.
The Wright brothers' story was a Boy's Own dream. Two young men, clergymen's sons from the middle of nowhere (or Dayton, Ohio, which in 1899 came to much the same thing) work out the aerodynamics, build their glider, take it to the most godforsaken spot they can find, set up camp on the North Carolina beach, and within three years, by dint of dogged hard work, brilliant calculation and genial flashes of originality, produce a controllable, powered aeroplane, complete with propellers, airframe and motor. The story's got everything: complex emotional interactions that almost lead to disaster, suspense - will they really achieve their goal? Will someone steal their ideas before they can be patented? - dastardly villains, hurricanes, international arms dealers. Then there's the little matter of the machine itself, and the sheer thrill of the enterprise. Who needs fiction when real life provides stuff like this?
Of course, we know the end of the story. The brothers achieved their aim on 17 December 1903, beat the opposition and are now recognised as flight's great pioneers. Hence the publication of Ian Mackersey's book, one of a slew marking the centenary of that first thrilling hop at Kitty Hawk.
Mackersey, an excellent writer as well as a keen flyer, handles his subject with the assurance of long familiarity, painlessly easing the tyro into basic aerodynamics and the history of early flight. He's also very good on the brothers' bizarre family. Sons of a bishop in a strict Protestant sect, they lived all their lives in a close and happy union with their father and younger sister until, aged 55, she fell unexpectedly in love, and married. Some of her love-letters are here printed for the first time, and this find is typically seized upon by the publishers as one of this book's central attractions - something new, and, crucially, about sex.
Wilbur had a brilliant mind, though a traumatic accident meant he never went to college. Orville, like his brother an outstandingly able engineer, remained emotionally rather childlike. Their happiest moments were undoubtedly those spent camping, through hurricanes, deluges and searing heat, on the Kitty Hawk beach. They never let their standards slip, keeping their tent just so, observing a day of rest on Sundays, and dressing every morning in formal city clothes, including clean celluloid collar and tie.
Though they were extremely shy, the brothers' natural inclinations were towards generosity and openness: everyone who visited the family was charmed by its warmth and simplicity. But their early willingness to share their experiences ("We do not think the class of people interested in aeronautics would naturally be of a character to act unfairly," wrote Wilbur in 1901) was transmuted, after 1903, into a secretiveness that, though seemingly paranoiac, was probably justified. For that heart-stopping moment of success, when Orville took off from a sand dune and made the first ever flight in a true aeroplane, put the brothers into an impossible position. They knew they were onto something huge and potentially lucrative, but had not yet succeeded in patenting their invention - it would not be covered until 1906.
Until then, their ideas were stealable, and could not even be discussed, since any publication risked voiding patent rights. If they gave a demonstration, or showed a photograph, how could they be sure some interested party would not note down their innovations and skedaddle? But who would believe, without some proof that they had really succeeded where others had failed? The answer, for many years, was - nobody.
As they realised, their most likely potential customers were the military. All their discussions were with governments, with the exception of one arms dealer. The attraction was clear: once you were up in the air you could not only spy on enemies but bomb them from above. This is the subject of Stephen Budiansky's book, Air Power.
If Mackersey's book reads like a particularly exciting novel by, say, Dreiser, Budiansky's is every war story you ever read, rolled into one. Here are Biggles and the Red Baron ("I am having an absolutely ripping time here and I absolutely love flying"); the flip, self-conscious cool of cravated Fighter Command chaps; the decades of Mutually Assured Destruction, when Curtis LeMay, impatient to set the world alight, declared that "All conventional forces do is delay the inevitable nuclear confrontation'; the dubious triumphs of Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Here is Colin Powell, in the first Gulf War, declaring that all he's interested in is "smoking tanks at kilometer posts all the way to Baghdad".
Repellent stuff, except, presumably, to military historians. But it could be interesting and, in bits, it is: well-written, well-informed, full of lively detail. Why, then, is the book so unreadable?
Partly, I think, because of its one-dimensional world-view. Here is war as a tale of endless technical progress, each conflict leading onwards and upwards to the next. But of course war - even air war - is not simply a technical affair. For example, Budiansky does not discuss, except incidentally and by implication, air power's fundamental transformation of warfare. Psychologically, it introduced complete depersonalisation: death, dealt from far enough away, ceases to register. Tactically, it destroyed the notion of war confined to a "theatre", transforming it into something that involves civilians and military alike. Air Power ignores all this. It is a sort of Jane's Book of Death: an inherently unreadable form.
How long can all this go on? This is another question Budiansky doesn't ask, and it involves more than mere speculation about when we're finally going to blow ourselves up. The last century, of the automobile and the aeroplane, was the century of oil. Any time now - perhaps as soon as 2004, probably before 2015 - oil production is going to peak. At the same time, consumption is rising, at around 2 per cent per year. Soon the moment will come when demand outstrips supply. At that point, everything will change.
Oil is densely-packed with energy to a unique degree: unlike cars and trucks, for which the end of oil will simply (simply!) mean the end of cheap fuel, it's hard to see planes, in which weight matters so much, adapting to any other fuel at all. First to go will be those cheap civilian flights that currently have our government feverishly scrabbling to cover every last inch of countryside with runways. When things really get tight, it is clear that the military will commandeer whatever stocks remain. In the end, as in their beginning, planes will mean war. For the rest of us, it's back to airships, and the train to Southend.
Ruth Brandon's books include 'Automobile: how the car changed life' (Macmillan)Reuse content