Saturday, November 14, 2009

Balloons, Gliders, many airplanes, so little time

Learning to fly is an exhilarating experience and one that is recent in human history. Hundreds of years ago, people like me could look at the birds and think of Icarus and that was more or less all you could do. If you liked the idea of flying, climbing onto a tall object and leaping off was really the only was to experience it. A few madmen tried it, and while I am sure it was thrilling, it was usually also terminal. Not the best way to enjoy a flight.

Then, in the late 1700s, came the Montgolfiers in Paris. Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster into the sky in the basket of the first hot-air balloon. My history text notes that the animals were, in the words of a witness, "to say the least, highly astonished." Around the same time Jacques Charles, another French inventor, demonstrated his hydrogen-filled balloon, a good idea that would be shown to have a fatal flaw when Hindenburg violently exploded several decades later.

Mere weeks after the exhibitions of these rival balloons, on November 21 1783, the first successful manned flight in history would take place when Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes would balloon over Paris and drift several miles in the wind.

Aviation has come a long, long way since then. The Montgolfiers and Messieurs de Rozier and d'Arlandes would probably be astonished at the marvels of modern flight: the SR-71 capable of flying from California to the East Coast in just over an hour, the supersonic Concorde flying between Paris and New York, the unlikely behemoths such as the 747 drifting along at 450 knots over the Atlantic. Not only can we putt along in a Piper Cub at 60 miles an hour, we can also fly far and we can fly fast.

SR-71 image stolen from

But even today as NASA launches rockets into orbit, Ballooning is still going on. People routinely take to the sky in hot-air balloons. A woman I work with flies with her husband in a Boeing Stearman, a classic Biplane used to train many military pilots long ago. Gliders are still used extensively in many parts of the country, and new developments in powered gliders have added a new dimension to soaring. Hang gliding remains a popular thrill activity. Thousands of people fly around in Cessna 150's and old Piper Cherokees even as the latest and greatest Airbuses zip through the atmosphere 30,000 feet above us.

The upshot of all this: there is a lot of flying to be done. There are so many unique and fascinating ways to fly, and there are thousands and thousands of different airplanes out there to be flown in. What little airtime I have so far comes mostly from classic trainers, the Cessna 152's and 172's I flew in years ago. But though I have few hours, I have a lot of time before me, and I hope to experience as many different methods of flying as I can, from going up in a hot-air balloon to pushing forward the throttles in a jet to cutting the tow rope on a glider and soaring around the clouds.

I don't know yet when my next flying lesson will be. There are details to sort out and people to talk to, but with any luck, I can be flying again in a few short weeks. I'll be sure to let you know.

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