Welcome to Lift and Drag

Jason Paur
May 20, 2013 · 5 min read

When did flight lose its magic? Not the actual magic that keeps airplanes in the air, that’s still there, because they’re still flying. But what about the magic that surrounds flight?

The ability to fly has fascinated us and filled our imaginations for millennia.The ancient Greeks waxed eloquently of Icarus, and Leonardo da Vinci invented many ways for humans to join the birds. Otto Lillenthal’s gliders of the 1890s gave way to the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903. Eighty-six years ago today in 1927, Charles Lindbergh departed Roosevelt Field in New York bound for Paris. And before Orville Wright died, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. A generation later Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in 1969. The development curve was nearly vertical.

But a generation after that one small step, flight had changed. It was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. People were no longer fascinated by the surreal ability to move through air.

Somewhere during the past few decades the magical coating on flight wore through. Millions still pull out the picnic basket and gaze skyward at air shows every year, and many still pursue the ability to become a pilot themselves. But what’s left for most people is a simple commodity experience to get from point A to point B. Today more people whine and complain about flight than have any sense of wonder. But the wonder is still there, if you simply know where to look for it.

Welcome to Lift and Drag, the opposing forces of flight. One is fascinating and keeps things up, the other is dreaded and holds things back. And it’s a new collection here on Medium covering all aspects of flying, the good and the bad.

We want to write about airplanes and rockets, pilots and passengers. We want to explore the dreams, and commiserate about the nightmares. And we would love to hear from the people who are fascinated by all things air and space, including the pilots who fly them, the geeks who design them and the travelers who dread them.

It’s easy to imagine why everything about flight was magical in the early days. After Orville Wright’s 12 second, 120 foot long, first powered flight in 1903, there were still plenty of people who dismissed the news as fantasy. But within a few years word spread that flying was for real. And for those who actually did get to experience flight by the end of that first decade, it’s unlikely they complained about the lack of inflight food, or that their airplane could only fly for a few minutes, in circles, going nowhere. They were famous if they were simply lucky enough to fly.

The attitude remained for decades. My grandparents talked about the first time they saw an airplane as if it were a life altering event. My parents can tell stories about the first time they flew on an airplane, it was something to brag about.

But me? I grew up in the 1970s and I can’t remember a sky without airplanes. I can’t remember going anywhere that involved crossing more than a few states (west coast states), without hopping aboard an airplane to get there. Am I part of the generation when the coating was starting to wear thin?

In 1981 much of the country still gathered around the TV to watch the launch of STS-1, the first space shuttle. But only tragedy, five, and again 22 years later would put one of the most incredible machines ever created in front of large numbers of public eyes again.

The magic is still there with three- and four-year-old kids today. They announce with excitement when they fly on an airplane, sometimes months in advance. But if they’re lucky enough to fly on occasion, that magic is gone just a few years later. By the time they’re old enough to remember things, they probably won’t remember their first time on an airplane. And they definitely won’t remember the first time they saw one.

There are of course exceptions. Simply adding #avgeek to your Twitter search will introduce you to a group of people who still find magic in everything from the difference between a 777-200LR and a 777-300ER, to the person who just took their first lesson, fulfilling a dream of becoming a pilot. But this magical view of flight isn’t spread across society as it once was.

In the 1950s when the jet age arrived, people marveled at the speeds that could be flown. The “three miles a minute” of the propeller era gave way to ten miles a minute and coast to coast before lunch. “Only the remote sound of air speeding past the cabin,” a brochure for the new Boeing jetliner reads, “blending into the soft ‘music to travel by’ broadcast over the public address system, gives a hint of the 707's speed.”

Kids would hang out at small airports, trading chores for the chance to go on an airplane ride. The rides would evolve into lessons, and they would grow up dreaming of being a professional pilot. These kids still exist, but most of the small airports are gone. And fences surround many that are left.

But what about the rest of us? When was the last time you saw anybody ask to poke their head in the cockpit to gaze at all of the switches, buttons and instruments? Granted, the days of visiting the flight deck while you’re actually in the air are long gone. But it’s still possible to politely ask, and hopefully get the thumbs up to have a look up front while the airplane is at the gate.

Instead we just head straight to our seats. We grumble about the person who doesn’t seem to understand that the announcement to move out of the aisle and let others by while searching for their collar-pillow thing is aimed directly at them. It’s more important to get the kids in their seats than it is to let them stare in wonder.

Nobody finds it magical that it’s possible to convert jet fuel into a time machine by arriving in Los Angeles before you left Tokyo. We only care if that time machine is a little behind and our arrival is 30 minutes late. You just flew over an ocean that my grandparents would have spent days crossing, but it’s frustrating if it takes 11 hours instead of 10 hours and 30 minutes.

When did flight lose its magic? It hasn’t.

A David Bowie cover sung by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station reminded us of the magic of the extreme end of flight last week. This week a pair of pilots continue flying a solar powered albatross across the country, attracting the fascination of people who want to know how an airplane powered by the sun can fly at night. And forget rebuilding a car engine in auto shop class. Today, kids in high schools across the country are building actual airplanes, and some even get to fly in it when they’re done.

We may spend more time quietly fighting over arm rests and whining about pretzels than we do marveling over the fact that we’re at 35,000 feet, traveling 550 miles per hour. But just as the falling tree still makes a sound, the magic of flight is still there.

Lift and Drag

The Ups and Downs of Flight

    Jason Paur

    Written by

    I cover all things aerospace at Wired & Medium. And I occasionally follow diversions wherever my knowledge seeking attention span takes me.@jasonpaur

    Lift and Drag

    The Ups and Downs of Flight

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