At any one time hundreds of thousands of us are cocooned in pressurised cabins scything through the cold upper reaches of the troposphere. Soon enough, this figure will rise to a million: a million passengers, flown safely, if not always comfortably, across countries and continents, and with little call for comment.
Before engines could lift heavier-than-air machines convincingly off the ground, any attempt at flight had been dangerous, and yet for hundreds of years, adventurers strapped wings to their arms, and leapt off hilltops and towers in the vain hope of flying. Even when a part of the science of flight had been understood, men like Otto Lilienthal, a 19th Century German pioneer who experimented with gliders, were doomed, their contraptions too heavy and too unresponsive to allow their brave pilots to chase birds or even to get much above ground.
Sacrifices were made in great numbers in the early days of powered flight. Aeroplanes suffered a catalogue of catastrophic construction and engineering failures compounded by bad weather and pilot error. These tragedies were part of a long and fraught process that helped make flying as safe as it is today.
Today, the Rolls-Royce logo on the engines of an airliner is taken as a guarantee of smooth-spinning and reliable power; yet, 32-year-old Charles Rolls himself was killed at Bournemouth in July 1910 when the tail of his Wright Flyer fell off. He was the first to die in a British air accident. Roy Chadwick, the designer who gave us the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered Lancaster and the striking Vulcan V-bomber died in August 1947 when his prototype Avro Tudor airliner crashed in the Lake District, the result of a maintenance error.
Chadwick crashed and died at the very time a new post-war aviation industry was taking flight. Before the Second World War, civil aviation was strictly the realm of the wealthy, adventurers, government officials and lucky journalists. Airliners had been small, if charmingly fitted out at their best like first class ship’s cabins or Pullman railway carriages. Now, the industry was to expand rapidly, its future looking towards carrying untold numbers of passengers and prodigious amounts of freight worldwide. This new chapter was to be told by jet airliners, by those who designed and tested them, and those fare-paying passengers who took to the air in these new and unproven machines.