In Search of the Pilot: Visions of Air Power in English Literature, 1886-1914
Michael Terry | Open University
When we read or watch aerial stories today, the figure of the pilot is almost certainly vital to the story. This was not always so. In the late nineteenth century, a new genre arose in English literature that tried to predict how air power technology would change the world. It told imaginative stories of terrorists, flying citadels, the destruction of cities, efforts to outrace the sun, utopias ruled from the skies and even a world held together by the Post Office. But intriguingly, the figure of the pilot was not predicted at all. In this article, I take a short tour through this fascinating but largely forgotten genre. On the way, I examine the genre’s mythological roots and the role it played in British society, and I consider just why the cultural significance of the pilot was not foreseen.
One of the oldest stories about flight is the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. When I heard this story as a child, the emphasis was on Icarus’ mistake in flying too close to the sun and plummeting to his death. But in the days before flight was a reality, the role of Daedalus in the story was often heavily emphasised. Daedalus’ genius allowed him to unlock the secret of flight and escape the inescapable labyrinth on Crete. The literary historian Laurence Goldstein has traced how, from ancient times all the way up to ‘the eve of aviation’s nativity,’ authors and artists saw this act by Daedalus as promising ‘deliverance from whatever characterises the gravity-bound condition of man.’ Daedalus was seen as a mythic figure representing the ambition of humanity to transcend its limitations via the power of flight. Victorian authors like Andrew Lang lauded Daedalus’ ambition as ‘the expression of an aspiration as old as culture.’ Of course, the role of Icarus in the story could not be forgotten, a reminder that the potential power of the skies could end in disaster if misused.
In the late nineteenth century, with balloons a reality and powered flight coming ever closer, there was a surge of interest in literature about flying, but these new works continued to reflect the essence of the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Take, for example, the 1886 story Robur the Conqueror by the French author Jules Verne. Robur, like Daedalus, is an inventor who unlocks the secret of powered flight and astonishes the world with his flying vessel, the Albatross. ‘The future is for the flying machine!’ he declares. But when others try to steal his secret, he hides it away, declaring that ‘it will belong to you the day you are educated enough to profit by it and wise enough not to abuse it.’ Robur- and Verne- felt that humanity, given flight, would act like Icarus and fly straight to the metaphorical sun. With the story focusing on such grand statements, there is no role for a pilot or any equivalent in the story. Verne shows very little interest in how the Albatross is operated.
In Britain, in particular, there was a significant literary response to Verne’s work. At the time, a genre known as ‘invasion literature’, reflecting contemporary British worries about foreign invasion, was selling well. Air power fitted these worries perfectly, and after Verne came a spate of British books pondering what might happen if air power fell into the wrong hands. Edward Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist (1892) and George Griffith’s The Outlaws of the Air (1895) both depict megalomaniac terrorists- very comparable to James Bond supervillains- gaining control of the skies, with dreadful consequences for the British Empire. The aerial vessels in these books are effectively flying battleships. The titular Hartmann rules from a ‘citadel’ atop the flying ship Attila, eighty yards long, thirty-five wide and thirty high, from where he plans to ‘wreck civilisation’. George Griffith’s villain, Max Renault, is no less confident. He has his own tower atop his ship, the Vengeur- ‘a hundred and fifty feet long from point to point’- from where he declares that ‘The Queen of England in Windsor Castle, or the Tsar surrounded by all his slavish millions, will be no safer from me than the man who is walking along the street.’
In both books, the aerial vessels easily humble surface navies. Hartmann picks off a British battleship without effort, whilst Renault witnesses the destruction of the entire British fleet. These were powerful statements from a time when Britain’s security was almost entirely based on the protection of the Royal Navy. But more shocking still for the contemporary reader were the scenes where Hartmann and Renault lay waste to the heart of the Empire itself- London. These scenes are described with a horrific intensity. The Attila, ‘drunk with slaughter’, causes a mass panic with its bombardment, with sights of ‘women trodden down by men, huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up; house fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell.’ Griffith’s depiction of the Vengeur’s attack is even more visceral: ‘bodies of men and women were hurled up into the air, mingled with limbs and torn fragments of other bodies, and fell back upon the heads of those who thronged the pavement.’ These scenes were not just about horror. They were declaring that air power would upset everything the typical British reader understood about the nature of the world. Max Renault, never afraid to spell things out to the reader via monologue, declares, ' The rule of the world has shifted from the earth to the air!’ It is with such large-scale, evil ambitions- and via orders to their underlings- that Hartmann and Renault drive the plot. It is not a story of individual skill, and once more, the authors pay no attention to who is actually flying these vessels.
The most famous example of this genre is H. G. Wells’ 1908 novel The War in the Air. By this time, the first aeroplanes had been built, and airships were an increasingly common sight. In the same year as Wells’ book, The Times reported that ‘England’s safety as an island will vanish if not ensured against aerial attack’, and the Manchester Guardian reported on the possibility of the ‘unobserved landing of 200,000 Germans in England’ via airship. Wells’ book reflected these worries: the threat in his book comes not from individuals but nations, and not from single airships but entire fleets. Wells depicts the German air fleet- the first to be ready- easily destroying the American surface navy in the Atlantic before going on to depict ‘the massacre of New York’, as the airships ‘smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card.’ The absence of the pilot is particularly noticeable here. Wells actually includes a large number of one-man flying craft in this story, but their role is to attack ground targets or other airships. It never occurs to Wells that such craft might fight each other, and he has no interest in the people flying them. Even if he had, it is hard to see what difference an individual figure like a pilot could have made to his story. Once the war starts, Wells depicts it as having a life of its own, and no one can prevent the eventual fall of civilisation. Humanity fails the test that Robur had set it and inevitably succumbs to the folly of Icarus: self-destruction.
But the early British aerial genre also reflected the promise of Daedalus, the idea that flight might bring new possibilities to humanity. In The Outlaws of the Air, Renault is eventually defeated when a group of scientists and thinkers form the ‘Aerial Navigation Syndicate’. Having stopped Renault with their air power, the Syndicate forms a new aerial utopia, run along rational lines rather than the whims of governments. As utopias go, it gets off to an interesting start- the Syndicate destroys Strasbourg because the French government refuses to accede to their demand for world peace. Griffith depicts this as a price worth paying to achieve humanity’s new aerial age.
Several famous authors also considered the idea that aviation might create a better world. Rudyard Kipling’s 1905 short story With the Night Mail is a vision of the year 2000, where the world is run by the Aerial Board of Control. Like Griffith’s Syndicate, this is a body of technocrats that controls the world from the skies. Kipling describes in detail this wondrous world of air power, where civilisation is connected by large numbers of airships running mail and freight between a global network of giant mail towers. It is a very ordered and efficient civilisation, and, in a very British touch, Kipling depicts the General Post Office as now being one of the most powerful organisations in the world. For Kipling, British values could survive into this new world- if the British could embrace the power of the air.
For me, the most interesting writing in this genre came from E. M. Forster. In his 1909 work The Machine Stops, Forster depicts a world where humanity has retreated to an underground civilisation that is doomed to collapse. He connects its demise to the rejection of flight. He describes how, at first, ‘the greatest intellects of the epoch’ attempted to ‘defeat the sun’ by creating flying machines that could outrace the dawn. But because of the dangers of high-speed flying, the endeavour was abandoned. Forster depicts this as a crucial turning point, with air power having been ‘the last common interest that our race experienced about the heavenly bodies, or indeed about anything.’ In the wake of this failure, humanity retreated to its slow end underground. This is a powerful reversal of the myth of Icarus. Forster is telling the reader that humanity must not be afraid to push its limits, to fly towards the sun- and that to cower away will leave humanity condemned, as Daedalus would otherwise have been, to the labyrinth below.
But just as in the apocalyptic stories, Kipling and Forster made no predictions about the role of the pilot. Is it really the case that none of these authors had the imagination to predict either the practical or cultural value of the pilot? Personally, I do not think imagination is the issue, particularly when there is so much of it on display in these stories. The absence of the pilot makes sense when we consider the role that these tales had in British society. These were stories on the grand scale – giant flying vessels, the whole of humanity at stake, air power causing either mass destruction or a utopian future. The main characters are inventors, scientists, politicians- and supervillains – that make the choices that determine the future of the world. There was no role in these stories for the pilot or any similar figure. The idea that an individual operator of a machine, no matter how skilled, could make a difference in these great, mythological tales of humanity’s destiny would make no sense. So even if the pilot had been predicted by one of these authors, their stories would have had no place for him.
Change, however, came quickly. In the early 1910s, public interest was already shifting away from inventors of aeroplanes towards the skills of the pilots flying them. Then came the First World War and the dramatic appearance of the figure of the fighter pilot. By 1918, aerial stories were less concerned about the grand destiny of mankind and became far more interested in the exploits of individual flying heroes. In the Interwar years, utopian visions of an aerial future gave way to more personal tales of the likes of Biggles and his gallant efforts at war. Fears of aerial destruction continued in other forms, but it is worth noting how in later stories where air power brings destruction, like Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1962) or Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), pilots are given considerable agency over the narrative. The old aerial genre and the way it reflected Daedalus and Icarus, effectively died in the war.
All of these stories form a record of the way in which British society used to feel about how airpower. I find reading them fascinating, and I highly recommend you try out some of these tales of terrorists, wars, aerial empires and the Post Office. I think Forster made the most significant predictions in The Machine Stops. Humanity eventually met Forster’s challenge when it went on to build flying machines that could indeed ‘defeat the sun.’ I think Forster was onto something when he implied that people had been getting it wrong about Icarus all along. We had to dare to fly.
Forster, Edward M., The Eternal Moment: And Other Stories (New York: Thomson Learning, 1970)
Goldstein, Laurence, The Flying Machine & Modern Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)
Griffith, George Chetwynd, The Outlaws of the Air, Kindle Edition (Fountain Valley: Rising Star Visionary Press, 2011)
Wells, Herbert G., The War in the Air, Kindle Edition (London: Arcadia Books, 2016)
Wohl, Robert, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)
Michael Terry is an English Literature graduate and early career researcher at the Open University, where he is currently in the final year of writing a PhD thesis on the Representation of First World War Aerial Combat in Literature. He specialises in the analysis of all forms of literature created by First World War airmen, from memoirs to combat reports, and examining the mythology that resulted from these writings. His work is cross-disciplinary with History, and over the last two years he has presented a series of lectures for the British Commission for Military History and the Royal Air Force Museum examining the link between literature, mythology and the memory of the first air war.