Man has always dreamed of flight . . . okay, maybe that’s a cliché, but perhaps it’s because flying is now cramped coach seating, $3 bottled water, and endless TSA lines. It’s easy to forget the romance that was once associated with travel by air. Airplanes were symbols of modernity and often a source of wonder and deep emotional connections. While there are plenty of memoirs by pilots about the adventure of flying, there are also those that go beyond the technology and excitement and speak of flying as an emotional, transcendent experience. Perhaps best known for this kind of writing is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but I want to highlight some other equally enticing choices.
Charles Lindberg’s The Spirit of St. Louis and his wife’s North to the Orient both describe flights of exploration. The first is about Charles’ solo flight from New York to Paris and allows the reader to experience the solitude of flying across the Atlantic. He reflects on life and the nature of flight. He writes, “There are periods when it seems I’m flying through all space, through all eternity” as he battles sleep, space, and time. His wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wrote her own account of flying with Charles in North to the Orient. She provides her own personal insight into the wonder of flying, but because she isn’t the pilot, she solely focused on the sensation of flying rather than the practice of piloting. The feeling of altitude, rushing wind, and speed is strikingly real.
Whereas the Lindberghs captured the awe of flight, Edwards Park speaks of the relationship between man and machine in Nanette. Parks was a WWII fighter pilot and Nanette was his first fighter, a P-39 Airacobra. He writes, “the Airacobra was lazy and slovenly and given to vicious fits of temper. It was a sexy machine, and rotten. Nanette was like that, and I was a little queer for her.” Much more profane than the other books here (Park was a fighter pilot after all), he nevertheless makes very clear the personal connection one could have with an airplane. To him, Nanette had a soul, a personality, and an agenda that did not always match his own, and for that he loved her.
Anne Morrow Lindberg captured something of what draws me to these books in North to the Orient. “It is not in the flying alone, nor in the places alone, nor alone in time; but in a peculiar blending of all three, which resulted in a quality of magic—a quality that belongs to fairy tales.” Flying akin to magic, hmmm. . . I would have liked to experience that.