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My First Flight

(EASTBOURNE, August 5, 1912--three years later.)


Hitherto my only flights have been flights of imagination but this
morning I flew. I spent about ten or fifteen minutes in the air; we went
out to sea, soared up, came back over the land, circled higher, planed
steeply down to the water, and I landed with the conviction that I had
had only the foretaste of a great store of hitherto unsuspected
pleasures. At the first chance I will go up again, and I will go higher
and further.

This experience has restored all the keenness of my ancient interest in
flying, which had become a little fagged and flat by too much hearing
and reading about the thing and not enough participation. Sixteen years
ago, in the days of Langley and Lilienthal, I was one of the few
journalists who believed and wrote that flying was possible; it affected
my reputation unfavourably, and produced in the few discouraged pioneers
of those days a quite touching gratitude. Over my mantel as I write
hangs a very blurred and bad but interesting photograph that Professor
Langley sent me sixteen years ago. It shows the flight of the first
piece of human machinery heavier than air that ever kept itself up for
any length of time. It was a model, a little affair that would not have
lifted a cat; it went up in a spiral and came down unsmashed, bringing
back, like Noah's dove, the promise of tremendous things.

That was only sixteen years ago, and it is amusing to recall how
cautiously even we out-and-out believers did our prophesying. I was
quite a desperate fellow; I said outright that in my lifetime we should
see men flying. But I qualified that by repeating that for many years to
come it would be an enterprise only for quite fantastic daring and
skill. We conjured up stupendous difficulties and risks. I was deeply
impressed and greatly discouraged by a paper a distinguished Cambridge
mathematician produced to show that a flying machine was bound to pitch
fearfully, that as it flew on its pitching _must_ increase until up went
its nose, down went its tail, and it fell like a knife. We exaggerated
every possibility of instability. We imagined that when the aeroplane
wasn't "kicking up ahind and afore" it would be heeling over to the
lightest side wind. A sneeze might upset it. We contrasted our poor
human equipment with the instinctive balance of a bird, which has had
ten million years of evolution by way of a start....

The waterplane in which I soared over Eastbourne this morning with Mr.
Grahame-White was as steady as a motor-car running on asphalt.

Then we went on from those anticipations of swaying insecurity to
speculations about the psychological and physiological effects of
flying. Most people who look down from the top of a cliff or high tower
feel some slight qualms of dread, many feel a quite sickening dread.
Even if men struggled high into the air, we asked, wouldn't they be
smitten up there by such a lonely and reeling dismay as to lose all
self-control? And, above all, wouldn't the pitching and tossing make
them quite horribly sea-sick?

I have always been a little haunted by that last dread. It gave a little
undertow of funk to the mood of lively curiosity with which I got
aboard the waterplane this morning--that sort of faint, thin funk that
so readily invades one on the verge of any new experience; when one
tries one's first dive, for example, or pushes off for the first time
down an ice run. I thought I should very probably be sea-sick--or, to be
more precise, air-sick; I thought also that I might be very giddy, and
that I might get thoroughly cold and uncomfortable None of those things
happened.

I am still in a state of amazement at the smooth steadfastness of the
motion. There is nothing on earth to compare with that, unless--and that
I can't judge--it is an ice yacht travelling on perfect ice. The finest
motor-car in the world on the best road would be a joggling, quivering
thing beside it.

To begin with, we went out to sea before the wind, and the plane would
not readily rise. We went with an undulating movement, leaping with a
light splashing pat upon the water, from wave to wave. Then we came
about into the wind and rose, and looking over I saw that there were no
longer those periodic flashes of white foam. I was flying. And it was as
still and steady as dreaming. I watched the widening distance between
our floats and the waves. It wasn't by any means a windless day; there
was a brisk, fluctuating breeze blowing out of the north over the downs.
It seemed hardly to affect our flight at all.

And as for the giddiness of looking down, one does not feel it at all.
It is difficult to explain why this should be so, but it is so. I
suppose in such matters I am neither exceptionally steady-headed nor is
my head exceptionally given to swimming. I can stand on the edge of
cliffs of a thousand feet or so and look down, but I can never bring
myself right up to the edge nor crane over to look to the very bottom. I
should want to lie down to do that. And the other day I was on that
Belvedere place at the top of the Rotterdam sky-scraper, a rather high
wind was blowing, and one looks down through the chinks between the
boards one stands on upon the heads of the people in the streets below;
I didn't like it. But this morning I looked directly down on a little
fleet of fishing boats over which we passed, and on the crowds
assembling on the beach, and on the bathers who stared up at us from the
breaking surf, with an entirely agreeable exaltation. And Eastbourne, in
the early morning sunshine, had all the brightly detailed littleness of
a town viewed from high up on the side of a great mountain.

When Mr. Grahame-White told me we were going to plane down I will
confess I tightened my hold on the sides of the car and prepared for
something like the down-going sensation of a switchback railway on a
larger scale. Just for a moment there was that familiar feeling of
something pressing one's heart up towards one's shoulders, and one's
lower jaw up into its socket and of grinding one's lower teeth against
the upper, and then it passed. The nose of the car and all the machine
was slanting downwards, we were gliding quickly down, and yet there was
no feeling that one rushed, not even as one rushes in coasting a hill on
a bicycle. It wasn't a tithe of the thrill of those three descents one
gets on the great mountain railway in the White City. There one gets a
disagreeable quiver up one's backbone from the wheels, and a real sense
of falling.

It is quite peculiar to flying that one is incredulous of any
collision. Some time ago I was in a motor-car that ran over and killed a
small dog, and this wretched little incident has left an open wound upon
my nerves. I am never quite happy in a car now; I can't help keeping an
apprehensive eye ahead. But you fly with an exhilarating assurance that
you cannot possibly run over anything or run into anything--except the
land or the sea, and even those large essentials seem a beautifully safe
distance away.

I had heard a great deal of talk about the deafening uproar of the
engine. I counted a headache among my chances. There again reason
reinforced conjecture. When in the early morning Mr. Travers came from
Brighton in this Farman in which I flew I could hear the hum of the
great insect when it still seemed abreast of Beachy Head, and a good two
miles away. If one can hear a thing at two miles, how much the more will
one not hear it at a distance of two yards? But at the risk of seeming
too contented for anything I will assert I heard that noise no more than
one hears the drone of an electric ventilator upon one's table. It was
only when I came to speak to Mr. Grahame-White, or he to me, that I
discovered that our voices had become almost infinitesimally small.

And so it was I went up into the air at Eastbourne with the impression
that flying was still an uncomfortable experimental, and slightly heroic
thing to do, and came down to the cheerful gathering crowd upon the
sands again with the knowledge that it is a thing achieved for everyone.
It will get much cheaper, no doubt, and much swifter, and be improved in
a dozen ways--we _must_ get self-starting engines, for example, for both
our aeroplanes and motor-cars--but it is available to-day for anyone
who can reach it. An invalid lady of seventy could have enjoyed all that
I did if only one could have got her into the passenger's seat. Getting
there was a little difficult, it is true; the waterplane was out in the
surf, and I was carried to it on a boatman's back, and then had to
clamber carefully through the wires, but that is a matter of detail.
This flying is indeed so certain to become a general experience that I
am sure that this description will in a few years seem almost as quaint
as if I had set myself to record the fears and sensations of my First
Ride in a Wheeled Vehicle. And I suspect that learning to control a
Farman waterplane now is probably not much more difficult than, let us
say, twice the difficulty in learning the control and management of a
motor-bicycle. I cannot understand the sort of young man who won't learn
how to do it if he gets half a chance.

The development of these waterplanes is an important step towards the
huge and swarming popularisation of flying which is now certainly
imminent. We ancient survivors of those who believed in and wrote about
flying before there was any flying used to make a great fuss about the
dangers and difficulties of landing and getting up. We wrote with vast
gravity about "starting rails" and "landing stages," and it is still
true that landing an aeroplane, except upon a well-known and quite level
expanse, is a risky and uncomfortable business. But getting up and
landing upon fairly smooth water is easier than getting into bed. This
alone is likely to determine the aeroplane routes along the line of the
world's coastlines and lake groups and waterways. The airmen will go to
and fro over water as the midges do. Wherever there is a square mile of
water the waterplanes will come and go like hornets at the mouth of
their nest. But there are much stronger reasons than this convenience
for keeping over water. Over water the air, it seems, lies in great
level expanses; even when there are gales it moves in uniform masses
like the swift, still rush of a deep river. The airman, in Mr.
Grahame-White's phrase, can go to sleep on it. But over the land, and
for thousands of feet up into the sky, the air is more irregular than a
torrent among rocks; it is--if only we could see it--a waving, whirling,
eddying, flamboyant confusion. A slight hill, a ploughed field, the
streets of a town, create riotous, rolling, invisible streams and
cataracts of air that catch the airman unawares, make him drop
disconcertingly, try his nerves. With a powerful enough engine he climbs
at once again, but these sudden downfalls are the least pleasant and
most dangerous experience in aviation. They exact a tiring vigilance.

Over lake or sea, in sunshine, within sight of land, this is the perfect
way of the flying tourist. Gladly would I have set out for France this
morning instead of returning to Eastbourne. And then coasted round to
Spain and into the Mediterranean. And so by leisurely stages to India.
And the East Indies....

I find my study unattractive to-day.

H.G. Wells