Reading the French book "Aviation Heroes and Heroines" both delighted and disillusioned me. It covers the period of history from the first plane to the breaking of the sound barrier. [In this regard, it’s like a prologue to the film, "The Right Stuff", (which covers the period of history from the breaking of the sound barrier to the conquest of space)]. After some deep reflection, I experienced a kind of enlightenment which has led to a partial collapse of my passion for airplanes. The result is a new paradigm for viewing aviation progress which is outlined below:
MY NEW VISION
The following examples serve to “Reverse-engineer” aerospace history:
- Late 1960s: During the late 1960s, heroes made “one giant leap for mankind” by walking on the Moon. It was a dangerous mission, the preparation of which killed many heroes. The sacrifice of many lives and billions ($) was justified by the fulfilment of a long-held dream of humanity. But the truth is, walking on the moon served no vital purpose. The real, underlying object may have been to distract the public while investing heavily in rockets with the goal of having nuclear-tipped, intercontinental missiles capable of threatening mass-murder of Russian civilians.
- Late 1940s: During the late 1940s, the heroes who broke the sound barrier (and survived) were glorified. History commends them for having provided the technical basis for reducing the air travel time of tourists and business travelers. But the real purpose may have been to mask the underlying goal of developing unstoppable bombers capable of threatening Russian cities (or Western ones in the opposite direction).
- Early Twentieth Century: During this early period, heroes who took off and performed “sustained, controlled” flight in a heavier-than-air craft, (thereby setting some speed or distance record) are glorified for having vindicated the countless birdmen who died trying to achieve the dream of manned flight. But the truth might be, the hero cult surrounding early flyers served to conceal heavy investment in winged bombers which were less vulnerable to land-based cannons and more manoeuvrable than airships.
How I Arrived at my New Vision CV of an Aerophile:
Around 1970, at age six, my closest uncle was an avionics engineer. (Originally, he’d wanted to become a test pilot. His parents wouldn’t allow it because of the high mortality rate in that profession during the 1950s-60s). He gave aircraft models to his nephews. My older brother failed to build his, however I succeeded with mine... This was the first time I ever surpassed my older brother! I went on to become an enthusiast aviation model-builder. I progressed to becoming an aviation enthusiast when I was given an aviation encyclopedia for Christmas.
From then on, whenever I was asked the proverbial question, ”what would you like to be when you grow up", I would answer “aeronautical design engineer”, or “technician in aircraft construction”. Piloting a plane didn’t interest me at all. It actually even scared me a bit.
In my model collection, there was a Mirage III equipped with guns. I didn’t like any kind of weapons (perhaps because my older brother often “murdered” me with them during play).
There was also a Messerschmitt 262 with swastikas. I didn’t like fascism either (perhaps because of the authoritarian nature of my older brother bossing me around). Then I devoted myself to a medical profession and building de-militarised aircraft models (with roundels and weaponry removed). Enlightenment 2009:
In 2009, I was given a signed copy of the book “Héros et Héroïnes de l’Aviation” ("Aviation Heroes and Heroines"). Its content was very disturbing to me. It caused me to rethink everything and not just passively digest technical data or entertaining aircraft articles and pictures. The book’s author, Bernard Marck, took courageous positions - iconoclastic, in many ways. He attributed the origins of manned flight to the clumsy Clément Ader (1890), although the “grand opening” is normally attributed to the skilful Wright brothers (1903). He admired the ace, von Richthofen, celebrated killer of soldiers who here in France are commemorated annually on Veteran’s Day. He equally praised both the illustrious pilot, Mermoz, and his humble mechanic (and rescuer) Collenot. But for me, an epilogue to the book or an overall summary was lacking. Nowhere in the book was a reason given for why such people were worthy of praise as heroes. This inspired me to write the following epilogue. It’s not an objective summary oriented around the truth of any facts. It’s a subjective “opposing opinion”. It aims to enrich the subject by applying a different context and viewpoint to the same set of facts. While writing the last paragraph of this epilogue, my “enlightenment” occurred:
EPILOGUE (by Tophe): AVIATION HEROISM – AN OPPOSING VIEW
[In the Foreword of Bernard Marck’s book, he describes the various anomalies surrounding heroes. They are often considered mad, are usually quite humble rather than god-like personages, but that they are naturally charismatic, able to get us enthusiastic and encouraging us to dream. However, let’s explore an opposing viewpoint which differs from the usual way of looking at things… it‘s less emotional, more logic-based and is sometimes maligned as the view of an idealist.]
Starting Point, Definitions:
The Larousse French dictionary defines "hero" as:
1 / (mythology) Half-god.
2 / Legendary character who is credited with extraordinary qualities and achievements (especially warriors).
3 / One who is distinguished by brilliant actions, by his magnanimity.
4 / (figuratively) A person who plays the main role in fictitious or real action.
This book implicitly exclude deified heroes (e.g. Icarus) or imaginary ones (e.g. Buck Danny). Heroes, at least as defined in the dictionary, are more like actors (rather than inventors), they perform memorable and historical feats (rather than doing things quietly in the background) and they perform feats which are dangerous and difficult (rather than mundane).
Sometimes, the term “heroic warrior" is used. This causes me to frown. To me, it’s the language of propaganda , i.e. when Hitler is referred to as “the hero of WW2”. It lacks the aspect of "magnanimity". In a conflict, each side has its own heroes which are, of course, often seen as murderers by the other side.
In regard to Marck’s book, I don’t claim the famous aviators presented therein weren’t heroes at all. I just claim it depends on how “hero” is defined. Furthermore, I openly question whether what they did was in any way “wonderful”, even if that’s what the propaganda claims it was.
Objection to heroism in the context of performing dangerous feats:
Using a critical eye, sensationalist propaganda can be seen through to form a considered opinion.
- The war pilot who managed to drop a bomb down a tiny chimney stack, remaining on course until he almost crashed, thereby “successfully” killing one thousand refugee children, is not a hero to me but a horrible monster.
- For me, the hot-shot pilot who first flew inverted under the road span of London’s Tower Bridge (for the press’ cameras), then was unable to recover properly and crashed into a nursery injuring four new-borns, is not a hero but a freak and a public danger.
Voluntary imperilment is not enough to qualify as heroism, for example when committing suicide by crashing a single-seat aeroplane into the landscape. It leaves behind nothing more than a grieving family and a bill for taxpayers who pay for the rescue and clean-up.
Brainless, half-suicidal “heroes” delight some voyeurs (who admire the bravery or are entertained by the stupidity) and horrify others (who condemn the morbid thrill).
Current values require a stunt to be proven safe and all precautions be taken before it can be performed, even if it means accepting a long delay.
One example of admirable heroism is:
- the airborne fire-fighter pilot who faces walls of flames to save a thousand people in extreme peril, thereby risking his own life. However, this is not the subject of Marck’s book.
No, Marck’s selection of historical “memorable heroes” are only characters glorified by the press during their time. He bestows upon them the status of being decisive milestones in a march toward some materially-defined, future, utopia. Seen from here, it may make us smile or sigh, so cheer is by no means automatic.
Objection to heroism in the context of achieving progress:
Major developments in aviation can significantly change the world. But does this require taking unnecessary risks? If we aren’t satisfied with trains, boats and airships, I think the only real justification for more speed would be the intercontinental transport of organs used in transplants to save lives. Hypersonic aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability (for operations on hospital roofs) could fill this role, although this alone was not the justification for past efforts and expenditures (or for the current continuation of the race for speed). Instead, it’s fair to say, the progress of aviation was driven primarily by mercantile interests (i.e. tourists, managers, ambassadors, mail, packages and freight).
America claims to have chosen not to compete in the SST-Concorde race, instead pursuing a cost/benefit compromise without having speed as an end unto itself. However, the same reasoning would have led to the sound barrier never having been broken and no further attempt to improve the performance of airships.
In reality, there are constraints and disadvantages which temper the benefits for users. For example, modern trains can now connect X to Y in 5 hours, whereas modern aircraft travel the same distance in just 1 hour (cruise flight). However, the benefit is often lost because the plane traveller sometimes needs a total of 5 hours to reach his destination (1 hour driving to reach the airport and navigate the vast parking complex; 1 hour of registration and security checks, 2 hours’ boarding, ground time, defrosting, awaiting a departure slot, then circling on hold while awaiting a landing slot, 1 hour waiting for the shuttle bus and reaching the city from the destination airport. Why accept the deaths of so many people just reduce to reduce the cruise time five-fold, when the total travel time is unchanged? Why not simply develop a flying car?
For long-distance flights, it's different, but the Concorde's competitors have told the tourists: "Mach 2 is useless: instead of travelling 5 hours to get home and spend 5 hours watching TV, it is better to spend 10 hours flying with our onboard TV (and this is much cheaper)"... For Business Class, it’s different again according to biz-jet commercials which say "rather than wait 5 to 12 hours for a supersonic aircraft which can bring you there as part of a crowd within 5 hours, simply buy our corporate jet which will take you there right away within 10 hours". Modern communications experts go one step further. They say, "stay where you are and communicate via teleconferencing, without any risk to your life."
If we’d invested in electronics and computers instead of wasting too much money on unsafe aircraft prototypes during the 1960s, danger and many deaths would have been avoided because it would have all been done safely using computer simulation. In hindsight, a headlong rush cheering heroes all along the way, was not the wiser choice. If it would have required killing 1,000 "heroes" to get the refrigerator thermostat working in 1881 instead of 1893, we would now say: it was silly, almost criminal, to proceed that way, killing enthusiastic innocents along the way.
In the same vein, one could cite the example of race car drivers or rocket cars (setting speed records on salt lakes). They may be cheered in a sporting sense, but they engage in useless danger, with no benefit for mankind simply because there is no need for a supersonic car for everyday use (operating in the vacuum of an underground tunnel). The assumption, material progress somehow justifies men’s deaths is highly questionable. Without the technical race, the world would have remained frugal, with less over-consumption, pollution, toxic chemicals, depletion of non-renewable resources and overpopulation. In the overall context of ecology, the race for speed is just as questionable as increasing agricultural yields so that fields sizes can be reduced to small squares surrounded by car parking? The technical generation of young kids aren’t much happier but simply much more demanding. They take for granted what was seen as a fabulous opportunity by their ancestors. The suicide rate is not lower in luxury than in frugality.
”Heroic” soldiers, missionaries and educators violate the isolation of primitive, Amazonian tribes who live peacefully and happily despite their life expectancy of forty years, to impose a hectic lifestyle and obesity entailing many years in motorised wheelchairs and dextrose tubing?
The distribution of the world’s resources remains very unequal. Over-nutrition for some is juxtaposed by famine for others who were born on the “wrong” side of militarily secured borders. (At home in the West, all religions offer easy forgiveness - and for non-believers: it’s enough to have local solidarity and a tiny distant charity). The "heroes" who worked to attain these exclusive privileges don’t deserve admiration, even though the pursuit of comfort seems to be an almost universal instinct. I believe it’s better to think and doubt than run and cheer the ”heroes”.
Objection to heroism in the context of achieving greatness:
The modesty of a hero seems to be a major point defining what a hero is, because pretentious people can be hated rather than heroised or admired. This has been a recurring theme in aviation as it is in sport today. The person who is first, i.e. the winner, is both cheered and despised - since “winning” means causing others to lose, defeating and humiliating them. This can be embarrassing in our otherwise egalitarian society. A sporting hero who prevails over adversity is generally acclaimed, but if he also beats and kills his wife, there’s a guilty silence. Defeating others is a common principle in the animal kingdom: fighting for the position of dominant “alpha” male in a herd (or sometimes dominant female (matriarch)) is less an expression of “greatness” than it is of basic, bestial instinct.
An important part of the psychology of both sports’ and other realms of heroes is that their cheering fans triumph by proxy. This is a popular phenomenon, (in some cases spontaneous; in others, encouraged by propaganda), but another view might reach the conclusion that the average human being is hardly different than a wild beast.
For at least a thousand years, ancient Mediterranean civilisations venerated warriors and mythical “supermen”. However, those cultures were superseded by the current Western (Christian) ethic. The new philosophy glorified the meek rather than the strong. Salvation was suddenly acquired by acts of generosity, not by acts of domination. However, since then, society appears to have regressed to its earlier origins and ideals. Our current philosophy now idolises the “old” ethic once again, albeit in a veiled context. The reference here is to the current concept of “the humble hero” whose humility makes him doubly meritorious.
Nietzsche’s Antichrist maintained that Jesus is weak for preferring the crippled over the healthy, the stupid over the genius, the poor over the rich, the low over the high and the loser over the winner. Arguably, society’s current values - most apparent in North America (where illiterate football heroes receive salaries in excess of the budget for entire school districts) – are the most active proponents of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
I prefer the humble, not the hero.
Objection to heroism in the context of patriotism:
I reject nationalist propaganda. Its heroes are phoney and its counterparts, whether real or imagined, are often far more enlightening. Here are some examples;
* In 1909, the 15th female pilot, the first Belgian woman to fly was heroised. (This caught Flemish and Wallonian secessionists off-guard and dismayed Europeanists – all political, really and unrelated to any real achievement.) I contend, nationality should be of no consequence in the overall context of aviation progress. Rather, only personal actions should be considered when it comes to issues of heroism or greatness. Belonging to a certain group is of no consequence, unless it’s hyped that way by proponents of nationalist interests (usually journalists). [Personally, I would prefer a fictitious heroine who makes the first dead-stick-landing in 1909 and goes on to instruct others about what to do in case of engine-failure. I then picture her rejecting any public idolisation, including rejecting playing of the French National Anthem in her honour because it commands the killing of foreigners. I then picture her being martyred by an angry – journalist-incited – mob because of her perceived unpatriotic views. Now, that’s a hero!]
* Instead of celebrating the dogfighting aces of 1914-18, who killed shy or inexperienced enemy pilots, I would glorify an imaginary civilian pilot who refused induction into an organisation devoted to killing other human beings (the Army) who had been declared “enemies” by some distant authority. This imaginary pilot, enlisted under threat of death, would fraternise across the border before being shot down for desertion. If there had been many such visionaries (heroes) questioning the group-logic some fifty years before the current French-German friendship, WWI and WWII and all its consequences (i.e. Holocaust, Israel, Nakba, and arguably many current “terrorist”/freedom-fighting organisations etc.) could have been avoided, thereby saving millions of lives, casualties and averting much bitter suffering. Such a hero could have preserved peace for a Century or more! Celebrating this imaginary hero would be extremely worthwhile and deserving of widespread admiration. Instead, society celebrates the most effective killers (aces) who obeyed orders to hate. (This is most prevalent on the winning side.) It exasperates me to constantly hear, our poor French soldiers and pilots died for freedom. Which freedom, I ask? Sure, if France had lost WWI, I would now be speaking German. But as it is, Corsicans, Basques, South Occitans and Western Brittons (all regions in present-day France), are now all required to speak French, which they do discarding their own languages. Is it that freedom? Many people claim the French Republic is a dictatorship (the French Republic, however, claims it champions freedom!): doubting official History is punishable by a large fine with a 2-year prison sentence, and if someone actually wants to come and live in France and embrace the culture and language, they’re usually turned away for not having the necessary, arbitrary, administrative approvals.
* Instead of glorifying the daring French Aéropostale pilots who competed against German pilots in a dangerous commercial rivalry to conquer the lucrative Europe/South-America route one month before the Germans, I instead imagine a fictitious hero-pilot who braves the route and dies due to an unfortunate language-misunderstanding while trying to promote intercultural harmony and co-operation in the context of a bi-national challenge with the aim of helping others.
Yes, I’m a dreamer, at least in the context of the current zeitgeist. The ongoing hero-based propaganda of sporting (or cultural) chauvinism – widespread among journalists and politicians – disgusts me. (These days, Europeans pretend to have overcome patriotic nationalism. However, the national paradigm here has merely shifted to creating a “European identity” based on “European values”, in many cases by excluding non-Europeans, i.e. Turks, Africans and Asians. Consider this: with only 5% of the world’s population, Europe holds 60% of UN veto rights).
Nationalistic heroes are perhaps the most pervasive theme in Marck’s book, which intellectually, socially and morally, I find deeply shocking.
Objection to heroism in the context of glorification of pilots:
If human flight had been prohibited for safety or religious reasons, the history of aviation would have turned out very differently. From the firework-rockets and hang-glider-kites of ancient China, it would have progressed to the first, controlled model aircraft of the 1850s (which are completely absent in Marck’s book) and then proceeded to trans-oceanic flights with onboard cameras, leading to remote warplanes (UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles), helicopters with articulated arms, remotely controlled rockets putting satellites into orbit, and unmanned space-probes. In terms of utility, the same work would have been done. The timeframe might have been a bit different. Most importantly, pilots would have been superfluous. Subjecting them to mortal danger – many of them having actually died – wouldn’t have been necessary. The main characters would have been inventors and developers; The history of aviation would have been as exciting as the history of washing machines (where few firey deaths have been reported – but hey, you never know!).
Ironically, nowadays, most combat and space missions are performed by unmanned aircraft! Arguably, current progress is largely devoid of aviation heroes, unless a way of idolising groups of backroom, computer programmers is found. Occasionally, a Space Shuttle blows up, invariably leading to attempts to portray its occupants as “heroes”. And the ad hoc billionaire occasionally attempts to break an obscure (and mostly irrelevant) aviation record. That’s pretty much it. Have we reached an enlightened age devoid of heroes, finally enabling us to objectively assess the underlying issues of real aviation progress? Don’t hold your breath!
The original “dream of flight” is often personified by the “birdman”, a ridiculed figure who strapped on some wings and jumped off high objects.
The logical progression from this would have included the “VTOL rocket belt” (1958) and the popular sports of hang-gliding and paragliding. (All are absent from Marck’s book – possibly for lack of “heroes” who killed someone, got rich or furthered national interests.). In my view, a “myth” or dream – heroic or otherwise – should never “justify killing” people or risking death for it to be attained. Calling people who imitate birds “heroes” is like calling people who imitate horses (i.e. Centaurs) heroes. It’s a ridiculous concept.
The evolution of manned flight began with 1/ kites and parasails, 2/ balloons and airships, 3/ gliders and aeroplanes, 4/ helicopters and rockets, all of which have various sub-categories. There are no monopolies in any one area. Everything is subject to the constant march of progress, for example, aircraft have replaced airships for most uses. But being "heavier than air" is not and end unto itself. It’s just another paradigm which may change in accordance with future fuel prices, weather patterns, etc.. It’s all relative. Assuming gravity remains a constant, the only universal truth regarding a flying machine is: in still air (devoid of downdraughts), it climbs if it has an upward force greater than its weight, no matter if this force is static (light gas, vacuum) or dynamic (lift, thrust). This simple fact gives no cause for jubilation or idolisation of heroes.
Airships are fuel-efficient but slow and highly susceptible to wind. The main impetus for their replacement however, was their susceptibility to ground-fire in times of war. Upon analysis, it appears to this commentator that military considerations seem to have provided the initial impetus for most developments in aviation. The various “heroes” and “milestones” celebrated along the way amount to nothing more than “chatter” at best and “cynical, diversionary propaganda” at worst. Putting a man on the moon can be portrayed either as a “great, heroic adventure” or the “culmination of a Cold-War quest for ballistic missiles and space domination”. I now tend strongly toward the latter view.
In short, Marck’s book can be viewed in at least two paradigms: It’s ostensibly a history of the illustrious personalities associated with aviation progress or a documentation of the brainwashing and propaganda which has accompanied its development. The reader can form his/her own view. This commentator has reached the conclusion that it’s distracting and disturbing, not impressive. In my opinion, the "real" heroes of aviation do not exist (or are ignored and dead, like the self-sacrificing fire-fighter pilot). Of course, my critics will contend any history book can’t rely on such a cynical perspective or “abnormal” point of view. Rather, they will contend, such a book should simply recount the glories of old times. Perhaps my view could gain legitimacy by pitying the exploitation of those “poor” heroes by scheming propagandists. But that would be just another form of manipulative hero-cult.
I accept that my humanist pacifism will be portrayed as a ridiculous anachronism. In a way, it’s like Christians who follow Christ (rather than the official doctrines of the Church and its “saints”) or Marxists who follow Marx (rather than the official platform of the Communist party and its perennial “great leaders”) or like democrats who follow the principles of democracy (rather than the institutions of the state and its politicians) or like lawyers who follow the law (rather than the interests of a client, hoping for exoneration). It’s not always easy to separate truth from the trappings of self-ingratiating propaganda. Unfortunately, in a supposedly scientific field like the short, 100-year history of aviation progress, I often feel like a pariah rubbishing sacred truths rather than a neutral commentator, wading through the bull-sh…
Crowds clapping a touted achievement doesn’t make it an actual achievement. Jubilant, momentary consensus can never replace independent thinking. Even if this is what has happened in the past, there’s no reason for us to continue down this wayward path in future. Instead, intelligent, critical readers are encouraged to view all “heroism” in the context of what has been written here. In this context, the current “War on Terror” and perhaps a future “War against (upcoming) Asia” gains new perspective. Certainly, a book about “aviation heroes” can be entertaining. But mostly, it’s so far removed from objectivity that it’s more like a fairy-tale for children only.
Understanding this underlying truth disillusioned me. Now I keep aviation drawings and models only as a childish innocent hobby, what-if unreal dreamy side mainly, even if I try to complete properly my collection of real twin-boom projects.