A Flying Aesthetic

Perhaps it was the Wright brothers who first put a stamp of practicality on flying. They were mechanics, empiricists, imminently practical men. Today, most pilots would describe themselves that way — practical, skilled, mechanical — anything but artistic. And if you listened to that self description uncritically, you might believe it. Aviation and aesthetics are at opposite ends of the universe.

Don’t believe it, though. It’s a lie, and it has been from start. At the root of all flying and in the heart of all fliers lies a profound aesthetic. You see it in writings from the earliest days of flight, as well as in in the work of aviation’s iconic authors: Saint-Exupéry, Gann and Bach, among others. That underlying aesthetic bears exploring by pilots and non-pilots alike, because it leads to something beautiful, even profound.

A good starting point is the word itself. What is an aesthetic? One way to get at the word is to relate it to another that we use in every day speech. An anesthetic dulls or disables the senses. Its cousin, aesthetic, relates to something that enlivens and appeals to the senses. The German philosophers — always ones to classify — distinguished degrees of aesthetic appeal, from the merely beautiful, to the sublime, the source of inspiration (literally, breathing in) and awe.

A photograph of a sailplane soaring in mountain wave somewhere in Colorado hangs on the wall of my office, just above my desk. Sometimes when I look up at that photo I imagine a shepherd in ancient Greece lying on his back looking at the clouds and dreaming of flight. What might he have dreamt? That sailplane is as good a representation of such dreams as we are likely to find. Its fuselage swoops back from nose to tail in elegant, sumptuous curves. Its exceptionally long wings sweep out and up, reaching for, embracing the air. The pilot, supine in his cockpit with wings extending directly from his shoulders, seems a kind of god.

None of that, of course, is accidental. Subject to exceptions that prove the rule (like the eminently practical but unsightly Wilga), we make aircraft beautiful as a function of our aesthetic. Indeed, an aircraft design dictum declares that that what looks beautiful will fly well. Grace and beauty are elemental to flying. Our standards change a little over time, to be sure. A 1929 Travel Air 4000 is beautiful in a different way from an 60s-era F-104 or today’s Cessna 400 Corvalis. But the best of them are all extraordinary beauties.

I’m looking out my window now at a group of seagulls casting about for minnows in the water below. They wheel and skid, hover into the wind, then peel off into lazy wing-overs to set up another run at the fish, all of it done with ease and precision. For centuries, millennia, we have looked on gulls and hawks and all the great and graceful birds of the skies with a kind of longing that is also an element of our aesthetic. We are bound to the ground, cursed to struggle along on our two legs, toiling, scrabbling each day, just to live. Oh, to be separated from this toil, our ancestors must have said. Oh, to glide and soar. It was envy and longing that made us fling ourselves into the air and, time and again, fall to earth in a dead heap until one day, ever so briefly, we hung on the wind.

That fierce longing must surely now be worn into our genes, part not just of pilots, but of us all. And that longing is fundamental to the flying aesthetic. We as humans all feel it, dream of it, when we are on the ground and we as pilots exalt in its fulfillment when we are aloft.

Spring and summer are wonderful flying times where I live and I love nothing more than to rise at dawn and go flying before I head off to the city to work. There are as many ways to fly as there are mornings, but one thing I come back to again and again is flight over the villages and towns that are awakening to the workday. Low and slow, with the cockpit opened up, you can see and hear the doors and windows opening, smell the breakfast bacon frying, watch children burst out doors to play or walk to school and, finally, see men and women make their ways down the sidewalks, into their cars and onto the highways that lead to work. From that vantage, life below seems separate and beautiful. Every pilot knows the worries harbored by the people below, knows them too well, probably. But a key element of flight is that you soar above those worries. You can look down on the worries of others and on your own worries with perspective and compassion. That is a fulfillment and that is a reason why we fly.

And then, of course, comes mortality. Whoever says that death and flight are not combined knows nothing of either. Decades ago, I was privileged to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for the first time and to see close at hand the Bell X-1. I was a young man of 18 or 19 then, and had dreamed of flight from my earliest years when, at my father’s knee, I heard of his exploits in Cubs and other magic carpets. As young enthusiasts will, I knew everything about the X-1 and its pilots. I knew everything until, that is, I saw the X-1 it close at hand.

From a distance, from a magazine photo, the X-1 is an archetype of flight — ballistic, futuristic, invoking all of Buck Rogers and Jules Verne in its streamlined insistence on speed. When I saw it up close, however, I was stunned. It seemed made, very nearly, of paper. The pilot sits in a sling of webbing and tube that invokes nothing so much as a lawn chair. It was so…fragile.

How we must want to fly to launch ourselves in such delicate creations. Were it not for our overpowering imaginations, were it not for that essential longing to fly, we would wait for flying machines made of stouter stuff.

Young pilots and bold pilots forget about their craft. They forget that those aircraft are little more than ideas — fabric or aluminum skin over a simple frame, worked and worked to squeeze out every ounce but what little is required for the mission. So it was with the X-1, so it is with every aircraft. They are impossibilities we have made only just real enough to fulfill this extraordinary need we have to lift ourselves up above the earth. It is the fragility of our craft, the necessary fragility, that invokes another aesthetic. You may not fly for long unless you are careful — very, very careful — and in such care lies great beauty.

That beauty manifests in so many ways. Coming back to earth is, we know, fraught with peril. It must be done well to be done at all, and of course it is done well every day by thousands of pilots. A friend, a superbly skilled pilot, once told me that before each landing he performs a simple breathing exercise, something he learned in yoga. He breathes and calms himself so that he can focus utterly and solely on landing.

We all in our own ways take such steps in recognition that landing is one of the crucial moments of flight. We practice touch-and-goes and crosswind landings ostensibly to shake the rust out and to make more likely the elusive roll-on landing — the one so smooth it leaves you wondering whether you are down at all. Those are our announced reasons.

But we take those pains for greater reasons too. Each time we ease ourselves out of the sky, each time the ground looms up, we face ourselves. We assess our skills, we take our measure while so close to something we fear. We cultivate such moments precisely for their mortality and, when they work out as we wish, nothing is so rich.

Instrument flight and aerobatic flight extend the aesthetic we encounter so briefly in landing. Both regimes were invented out of necessity, the first for reliable transport in all weather, the second for combat. As with landing, experience has taught that done poorly these modes of flight can be deadly. Done well, however, they are a kind of exaltation.

Night instrument flight has drawn more than a few writers because it adds solitude to ever-present risk. Night and clouds close in until living is just an abstraction executed in the dials, gauges and indicators on the panel. Miss a waypoint over the ocean and you may find yourself far from land and low on fuel. Lose concentration on an approach, get behind in your thinking, and the ground will rise up and strike you.

In the best, the most careful, instrument pilots, there is a kind of self-possession that approaches mysticism, something akin perhaps to Zen consciousness. The pilot, in solitude, foresees each event in calm contemplation, long before it becomes a necessity. A radio frequency change? Done long since. An approach chart? Not only at hand, but already well in mind. In this way, instrument flight is a path not only to dominion over the skies, but dominion over the self and, by extension, over our own mortality.

Aerobatic flight involves a different, but related aesthetic. The terror and exhilaration of a first aerobatic maneuver become the framework in which this aesthetic blossoms. Airplanes are not supposed to do that, our minds and senses tell us. It is enough that we are above the ground. Be content in that. But aerobatic pilots are not content. They seek another kind of self-possession — one that reads changes in attitude, altitude and airspeed with calm neutrality. Each degree of pitch, yaw and roll is monitored and controlled with precision. Out of that calm comes forethought. A vertical down maneuver is flown both to create a pleasing line and to arrive at the correct airspeed for the next figure. The ground looms up with alarming speed, but the best aerobatic pilots accept that rushing ground as information stripped of alarm, as the preface to something about to be beautiful.

Here again is the face of mortality rushing up. As a risk, it may be of no more consequence than a semi tractor trailer closing on your car from the opposite lane at 120 miles per hour. As a symbol, however, aerobatic flight surpasses all ground-bound intimations of mortality.

The Wright brothers were mechanics alright, but practical? How practical is it to launch yourself into the skies for no other reason than to do so. Underneath that guise of practicality, the great German thinkers would have found something else. Something sublime.


Activist, writer, lawyer, technologist, rower, paddler, mariner, aviator, gearhead…curious as can be.

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John Alber

Activist, writer, lawyer, technologist, rower, paddler, mariner, aviator, gearhead…curious as can be.