In 1903, the Wright brothers flew around 200 feet at Kittyhawk. In 1909, Blériot crossed the English Channel. By 1918, aircraft played a significant role in combat and the RAF was created. Since then, military aircraft have developed at a staggering rate, with fighters now exceeding Mach 2.

Civil aviation’s path to success was rather slower. The 1920s saw the beginnings of the airliner and the 1930s significant expansion. Technological advances of WWII catapulted the industry into the limelight. Look at a behemoth like the A380 and you wonder how several hundred tonnes of aeroplane ever leave the ground.

Covid has dealt savage cuts to air travel. Will it recover to pre-pandemic levels? The dearth of airborne traffic showed a significant cleaning of the atmosphere. With huge pressures to stem global warming, environmental issues are now stacked against flying.

At this moment, high-tech firms are developing low or zero carbon alternatives to fossil-fuelled planes. Thus may the aviation industry rise phoenix-like from the ashes.

What pictures does the aeroplane conjure up for you? Two aces locked in a dogfight over Kentish fields? Getting up before you’ve gone to bed to catch a business flight? Or sipping an iced gin and tonic as you jet into the sunset and the sunshine for a well-earned holiday?

Pens poised?


  1. Aircraft have always been an exciting feature of my travelling life, probably because I never travelled by them so very much. More in recent decades. When I sat to write the first memories that came to mind, I wasn’t expecting to produce much, but the words poured out. Here’s a selection of my aeroplane memories…

    The plane I saw flying, almost invisibly, against a dark cloud, but which then turned so it’s wings caught the light of the sun and blazed out in a flash of white against the dark sky. A flash of hope and aspiration.

    My mother’s story of me sleeping when the plane we were flying in, home to England from Qatar in 1960, landed to refuel in Rome. The stewardesses tiptoeing past. All the other passengers left the plane to stretch their legs, but Mum was allowed to stay because I was asleep. I was 2½. I do not remember this, only as a family story.

    And the excitement of boarding my first plane – the first plane I remember boarding – when we flew to Ghana when I was 6. My first experience of cool, air-conditioned air, which – in an aircraft’s passenger cabin – delights me still.

    The prop engine plane I flew in from Helsinki to a paper company town in deepest Finland when I was working as English language “expert” for Sunds-Defibrator in Sundsvall. The transfer from the regular SAS jet (a DC 9) to the little two-engine turboprop was unexpected. We drove in a bus across the airfield – it seemed like a very long ride – and as we approached the little aircraft we could see it from quite a distance and I kept thinking: Not that one, please, not that one. But it was indeed that one. Aboard and in my seat I could see two seats in front of me out over the pilot’s shoulder. I wasn’t alone, there were a couple of engineers travelling with me, but it felt very empty and very lonely. I suppose we didn’t fly at tree-top height, but that’s what I remember.

    By contrast, the KLM plane (a Boeing 777 I think) that my wife and I flew in 2018 from Amsterdam to Accra was so wide and filled with seats (and people) it was less like an aircraft and put me more in mind of one of the passenger ferries I used to take across the Baltic when I lived in Finland.

  2. Debbie Hubbard

    Due to road travel, only now am I catching up on your pensive, Nigel. And I am poised to embark on my first post-Covid (Are we actually “post” yet?) flight to visit my sister in NJ. A modicum of apprehension accompanies my anticipation. May all my Covid related papers be in order. May the flight not be crowded. May vaccinated me not catch anything in the process. May this pandemic really, truly come to an end soon!

  3. John’s description- “the KLM plane … was so wide and filled with seats (and people) it was less like an aircraft and put me more in mind of one of the passenger ferries I used to take across the Baltic” brought to mind our last flight, which was here in Orkney when we flew from Westray to Papa Westray, the shortest flight in the world.
    In contrast to John’s plane this one takes 8 passengers with a flight time of between 53 seconds and one and a half minutes, so that one is on the ground taxiing for longer than in the air.
    You are meant to be given a certificate to prove that you have flown it, but we could only book an outward flight so there was no building at the Papa Westray end, and no-one to ask for the certificate.
    We had to walk the length of the island to catch a ferry to get back to Westray, (but the Kanp of Howar is well worth seeing).

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