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Pico Iyer on the Centennial of Flight

In December 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the age of aviation from a beach in North Carolina, blowing open our imaginations and our sense of opportunity.

modern plane taking off, image
Photo caption
Wilbur and Orville Wright would be amazed at today's modern planes.

Not long ago, I got on a plane and flew to Tibet. Not on one plane, to be precise, but on a Japan Airlines jumbo jet that took me from California across the Pacific, and then a smaller China Southern plane that whisked me off to the ancient trading post of Canton, and then a still smaller vessel that propelled me, above the clouds, to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, and then one of the six planes that China Southwest Airlines flies every day in the summer to Lhasa. "California Dreamin'" streamed through the cabin on that final leg; video monitors suspended from the ceiling entertained us all with antic Hong Kong gangster movies; and two hours after taking off from Chengdu we were all stepping out into the high thin air of a plateau two miles above the sea. Up until a quarter of a century ago, fewer than 2,000 Westerners had ever set foot in Tibet, a landlocked, mountainous area known as the Roof of the World.

I didn't think twice about the jet to Lhasa, because planes had taken me, in just the previous two years, to Easter Island and Oman and a mountain airport at 13,000 feet in Bolivia, not to mention many other places that might have seemed extraterrestrial to my parents. Part of the magic of flight is that it has not just transformed our lives, but done so seemingly overnight. On December 17, 1903, the Wright Flyer lifted off the beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and wobbled in the air for all of 12 seconds, traveling 120 feet, or scarcely half the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400. A mere hundred years later, some of us already take for granted what for most humans is still a kind of miracle (mortals in the air, higher than the birds, crossing continents in a matter of hours). TV has brought the world into our homes and telephones have allowed us to speak across oceans, but planes have changed our very sense of time and space. Tibet now is barely a day away, and we can look down on the earth as if we were moonlighting gods.

It's hard at this point to imagine a world in which Orville and Wilbur Wright had not made their small experiment a hundred years ago. In a world without flight, half the people in your neighborhood might not be there. Most of the products in your stores would still be in far-off jungles or on distant continents. You'd receive no airmail, and neither your president nor your next-door neighbor would be flying off to Europe this week and then Asia over the weekend. Most of all, your very sense of possibility, of how and where you live your life, would be radically foreshortened.

Take my life as a somewhat extreme example. When I was a boy in the 1960s, my family moved to California, where my parents were college professors. In those days, it was actually cheaper for me to attend my old school in England and fly back to visit my parents in California three times a year than to go to the local private school. So, from the time I was 9, my "school bus" took me on a 10-hour flight over the North Pole to rejoin my classmates.

Nowadays I live in Japan, half a world away from my dentist, my bank, and my mother; but I know that if my mother falls sick, or if I get a toothache, I can be back in California tomorrow. (Or, as it happens, several hours ago, thanks to the international date line.) At times my job as a journalist requires me to be in Damascus one day, New York the next, California two days later, and Japan the following evening.

Such constant movement remains a flight of fancy for most people on the planet, but even the ones who almost never get a chance to take off have a new sense of openness and space thanks to the mere existence of planes. Today, doctors in the Australian Outback make house calls by taking to the air, and the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels electrify 15 million earthbound spectators each year. Some of our oldest and most cherished myths hardly make sense in the wake of flight—Odysseus could have gotten home from the Trojan War in 10 hours instead of 10 years, and Huck and Jim could have just taken a puddle jumper to get to a Free State in the North.

In certain ways, flight has changed our sense of light and dark. With Faust's frequent flier pass, inevitably, comes Mephistopheles, who has introduced us to hijackings and fighter planes and the indelible image of two passenger jets flying into the World Trade Center towers. In the days after that attack, some of my friends, stranded in New York, had to drive home to California. After spending nearly a day around my local airport, I flew to O'Hare and walked through a terminal that was almost deserted. Men who oppose the very speed, mobility, and rootlessness that planes represent had cunningly used the machines themselves to bring the whole global order to a standstill.

If many of us have a reflexive fear of flying, it may be because we feel there is something unnatural, even hubristic, about floating above the clouds and enjoying an angel's-eye view of the world below. Though traveling on a commercial flight is many times safer than getting in a car to make the same trip, it's not easy for us to put Icarus out of our minds.

Yet for all these anxieties, and for all our nagging sense that our systems weren't set up for circling the globe at 550 miles an hour, the sense of space, of speed, of opportunity the plane has given us has essentially created a brave new world. Commemorating the pioneers of flight for Time magazine, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates wrote, "The Wrights created one of the greatest cultural forces since the development of writing, for their invention effectively became the World Wide Web of that era, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together." In some ways, indeed, they made possible developments like the World Wide Web and biotechnology, by allowing colleagues from across the globe to meet at international conferences, on business trips, or at far-flung universities. Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, for example, met for a midnight snack at a scientific conference in Honolulu and decided to pool their resources; their work resulted in a process for cloning DNA and launched the biotech industry. Though boats were crisscrossing the planet even in Victoria's day, I doubt that the world then felt so available to many: When my parents left their native India to go to college in Britain in the 1950s, the voyage by ship took them almost three weeks.

Not long after the bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, had taken to the air, Juan Trippe (the name seems propitious) began taking fellow mortals into the clouds in what he regarded as flying boats, or "Clippers." In 1927, Trippe also inaugurated international mail service with a flight from Key West south to Havana. That same year, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh piloted his Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic and was named Time's first Man of the Year.

"In flying I tasted the wine of the gods," Lindbergh ob- served, and before long that nectar was made available to more and more of the rest of us. When Trippe introduced tourist class seats shortly after World War II, British airports were so put out that they refused to accept any planes with tourist seats (leading to the takeoff, as it were, of Ireland's Shannon Airport). Plane travel has always been a force that has reflected and perhaps magnified the gap between the fortunate and the less fortunate on the globe, some of us babbling away in the cryptic new language of LAX and JFK while the vast majority of people have still never seen the world above the clouds. For the privileged, though, planes have created a whole new universe, with frequent flier miles now almost an alternative kind of currency and some of us able to recite in our sleep the postmodern catechism of "stow your tray table in the seat in front of you and fasten your seat belt low and tight across your lap."

I sometimes wonder, indeed, how plane travel has changed our very notion of what family is, and community, and home. Our sense of where we belong is often literally up in the air now because we can be in so many places all at once. Some of us look at modern communications and realize we can live 10,000 miles (or 20 hours) away from the office or our parents or our "home." Many of us know couples who say good-bye at breakfast and find themselves by lunchtime in different time zones. One management consultant friend of mine, long based in Hong Kong, used to go to the airport every morning for his job and then decide whether to fly around the world or take the bus back into the city. I found this so hard to believe that he handed over his passport and I counted 139 border crossings in the previous year. Once every two or three days he was in a different country, just to fulfill his business obligations.

A few years ago, in fact, I looked at the calendar and realized that, just in the ordinary run of things (visiting my mother, going on vacations, or taking care of my job), I spent 40 days of every year either in an airport or in the air: almost six weeks each year, in short, which, extended across a regular lifetime, could come close to a decade of my life. Every day a few more people take to the air, and the lifestyle that is now the condition of a high-flying executive is, slowly, trickling down to the rest of us. If some of the excitement of living today is

that we in the affluent world can be in Tibet—or Turkey—tomorrow, part of the poignancy of it is that people in those countries hope (or fear) that they can be in Las Vegas tonight. Everywhere feels as if it's just around the corner.

A while back, sensing that airports were coming to look more and more like cities (congregations of people from everywhere, on their way to everywhere else), I actually went to live for a week or so at a hotel at Los Angeles International. My feeling was that big global cities were now large thoroughfares, full of the saris and salwar kameez and veils that, as a boy, I'd seen only at the airport. Airports, meanwhile, were sprouting all the amenities of cities. You can find putting greens and microbreweries and adult cinemas in airports; massage parlors and gymnasiums and chapels. Dallas/Fort Worth International is larger than the whole of Manhattan.

Still, I was taken aback at exactly how much of a self-contained universe the airport proved to be. There are 23,000 parking places at LAX. There are fire stations and an urgent care clinic. There are movie coordinators and somewhere around 10 different security agencies patrolling the terminals. In many airports, people have lived full-time—either because they were homeless and found that they could live most comfortably in a climate-controlled terminal full of bewildered, friendly strangers (the homeless have been herded out post-9/11) or because they want to live in a kind of limbo that might be better than life at home. Desperate Nigerians, for example, have boarded Lufthansa planes bound for Frankfurt, swallowed their passports en route, and then, on arrival, been unable (because they have no papers) either to enter Germany or to return to Nigeria. The $6 a day they are given to live in so-called asylum hotels around the airport is more, they feel, than they could ever earn in Lagos.

Staying at the airport also gave me a chance to move among people stranded in that netherworld known as jet lag, a foreign country, as I often think of it, that no humans had visited till 50 years ago. Now more and more of us spend days at a time in this altered state in which we're not quite dreaming but not really on the ground, and all our fears about whether the human body was ever meant for flying above the weather or climbing up to 12,000 feet in less than two hours come to the fore. In 1971, a 74-year-old American woman who flew from New York to Amsterdam and back again, over and over for six months, to protect the grandson who traveled with her from a custody battle, finally expired of what doctors could only diagnose as terminal jet lag.

A deeper fear, which most of us confront every time we take the airplane to Puerto Vallarta or St. Thomas, is that flight changes all the places it goes to, so that even Bora-Bora now looks in parts like a suburb of Los Angeles. When you touch down in Tibet, the land that inspired Shangri-La, you are greeted by an unattractive "Airport Hotel," by a whole makeshift community built in the middle of the otherwise deserted plateau, and by large numbers of other Americans—and Japanese and Germans—who've come here to get a break from Americans or Japanese or Germans. Whole airplane economies grow up that seem to unsettle the rhythms of communities that had remained unchanged for centuries (until well into the 20th century, Tibet had not even seen wheeled transport).

Flight has a strange effect on our priorities, too, just by opening up our sense of possibility: When I came back from Tibet, I realized I'd been more often to the Forbidden Kingdom than to the pretty town of Santa Maria, only an hour or so by car from my "hometown" of Santa Barbara. Flight can make faraway places seem very close, and close ones very far away (further intensifying the gap between the haves and the have-nots). And it can also place a great emphasis on the destination, at the expense of the excitement of the journey: When we get on a plane in Salt Lake City and arrive in Philadelphia the same day, we can wonder if we've really left home at all.

Yet the first rule of the modern world is that nothing, once invented, can be uninvented, and now that flight is a part of many lives, our best response is to make the most responsible and enjoyable use of it. In James Fallows's 2001 book Free Flight, for example, the respected journalist foresees a day, not very long from now, when some of our frustration in getting from A to B can be solved through a "nationwide air-taxi fleet" of five-seater planes that will be able to get us anywhere we want to go, within reason, very quickly. At the moment, because of the hub-and-spoke system favored by the major airlines—and especially because of the congestion that has built up in and around airports—taking a plane can actually be as time-consuming as driving. Officials at NASA have noted that cars are just as effective as planes for most trips of up to 400 miles. But if we implement small planes, Fallows suggests, we can truly expand our horizons. Some enthusiasts speak of 35,000 small planes crisscrossing the skies and 30 million trips a year within the next decade. Already, they point out, there are more than 600,000 licensed pilots in America and 10,000 companies have their own private planes. Plane travel, in fact, is one of life's opportunities that, relatively speaking, has grown cheaper over the years instead of more expensive.

A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers blew open our imaginations by daring to put their dreams to the test; now, a California businessman like Dennis Tito can pay $20 million to the Russians and find himself spending eight days in space. Flights to Mars, or other places, seem as possible now as flights to the moon—or to Lhasa, in fact—might have seemed a hundred years ago. We have to remake our thinking, our proverbs, and our language to keep up with our expanding and accelerating sense of possibility. In some ways, what the early aviators showed us is that the sky is no longer the limit.

Aviation Museums: The Wright Stuff
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum unveiled its centennial exhibit The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age on October 11. Devoted to the earliest days of flight, it includes the original Wright plane—displayed at eye level for the first time in decades—and many other Wright-related artifacts. The museum is at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. (202) 357-2700, The Smithsonian opens the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport on December 15. Eventually, the center will display 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft, among them the Enola Gay and the space shuttle Enterprise. Information: The West has been prominent in aviation development for the better part of a century; you can see many historic aircraft, dating from the earliest days of flight to the present, in local museums. Here's a selection:

Castle Air Museum 5050 Santa Fe Dr., Atwater. Castle has many really big planes on its roster of 40-odd craft. Among them are a B-52 Stratofortress and a B-36 Peacemaker, with huge swept wings that support six prop and four jet engines. Information: (209) 723-2178,

Hiller Aviation Museum 601 Skyway Rd., San Carlos. Founded by helicopter pioneer Stanley Hiller, the museum focuses on Northern California's contributions to flight, with many examples of early Hiller machines as well as craft like the Beachey Little Looper and a Curtiss pusher. Information: (650) 654-0200,

San Diego Aerospace Museum Balboa Park, San Diego. Housed in the building that was the Ford pavilion at the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exhibition, the museum boasts everything from World War I era machines, such as an Albatross, a Nieuport, and a Jenny, to an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane capable of Mach 3.2. Information: (619) 234-8291,

Hill Aerospace Museum Hill Air Force Base, Interstate 15 at Exit 341, Roy. Hill's mission is to display historically significant U.S. Air Force artifacts and it delivers with such standouts as the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, and B-52 Stratofortress. Information: (801) 777-6818,

Evergreen Aviation Museum Just off Highway 18, one mile east of McMinnville. The centerpiece is Howard Hughes's giant Spruce Goose. Other planes include a Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109, and Ford TriMotor. Information: (503) 434-4180,

Tillamook Air Museum 6030 Hangar Rd., Tillamook. Housed in a 1943 blimp hangar, the museum displays a Spad fighter from World War I, a P-51 Mustang, and a PBY-5A Catalina. Information: (503) 842-1130,

Museum of Flight 9404 East Marginal Way S., Seattle. The dozens of planes include the first jet-powered Air Force One and a Gee Bee, the quintessential chunky 1930s air racer. Information: (206) 764-5720,

Photography courtesy of Jonathan/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.