A Window in Time

Step into history with pilot and author Lane Wallace as she recounts her experiences with
 the nine historic aircraft featured in A Century of Flight.

Wright Flyer   Curtiss "Jenny" Vickers Vimy
Spirit Of St. Louis  Ford Tri-Motor Lockheed Vega
de Havilland Comet  Douglas DC-3 Piper Cub


The night is dark, and clouds obscure any sight of the cold North Atlantic waters that lie some 37,000 feet below us. I give up trying to figure out exactly how far it still is to the coast of Ireland and settle back into my cushioned seat, which is equipped with a personal entertainment screen for endless movie watching and an airphone I can use to call home, check email or send faxes during our six-hour flight from New York to Paris.

Ah, if Charles Lindbergh could see me now! I picture him, struggling through thunderstorms, sleet and cold in an unruly, uncomfortable airplane that didn't even want to fly. It's a sobering image. I look around at my fellow passengers, most of whom are sound asleep, and wonder how many people ever give a thought to exactly how we came to have such well-equipped airliners zipping around the world at almost the speed of sound…to how many men and women gave of their blood, sweat and tears in order to advance this magical, practical, and demanding feat called flight?

December 17, 1903: The first moments of
 powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

We have come an astounding distance in the span of little more than a single person's lifetime. Only 30 years after the Wright Flyer first managed to achieve 12 seconds of wobbly flight over a distance of 120 feet, the Douglas DC–3 was turning airline travel into a reliable, comfortable, and profitable proposition. A mere 30 years after World War I pilots first coaxed their reluctant Curtiss JN "Jenny" biplanes off crude and muddy airfields, the first American jet fighter took to the skies. And just 32 years after the tiny, 65-horsepower Piper Cub hit the market, accounting for one-third of all United States aircraft sold in 1937, Boeing 747 jetliners began rolling off the production line.

February 9, 1969: The first Boeing 747 thunders into
the skies over Everett, Washington.

All of these advances didn't just appear as single leaps of technology, of course. They were achieved in incremental steps through a century of experimentation and effort, as designers slowly and painfully developed better control mechanisms, more reliable and capable engines, better fuels, a greater understanding of aerodynamics, and more advanced materials and instrumentation.

The pioneering Wright Flyer gave way to the more stable and maneuverable Curtiss Jenny, which was soon eclipsed by reliable transportation aircraft like the Ford Tri-Motor and the Vega, built by Lockheed. At the same time, aircraft began proving that longer routes were first possible, and then practical. Lindbergh's flight to Paris might be the most famous pioneering long-distance flight, but other trailblazing efforts were equally important to the advance of air travel. A Vickers Vimy proved it was possible to fly between London and Australia in 1919, but it took the pilots almost a month to accomplish the trip. In 1934, a de Havilland DH–88 Comet covered the same distance in a mere 70 hours.

The 1930s also saw the introduction of practical aircraft like the DC–3 and the Piper Cub, aircraft that were produced in such numbers that flying began to be seen as an everyday occurrence by the general public. Slowly but surely, aviation evolved from a novelty thrill into a responsible, practical industry, with airplanes that were progressively faster, safer, and more reliable, capable and efficient. But the path was far from straight, simple, comfortable, or safe.

To learn the facts about aviation's milestones or progress is a relatively easy task. But the facts don't convey the true depth of the story. For in the end, any technological progress is really a story about people. "Aviation records don't fall," Amelia Earhart once said, "until someone is willing to mortgage the present for the future." If we can jet unthinkingly around the world now, it's because somewhere in the dark mornings of our past, there were pilots who braved the morning chill, swallowed their fear and climbed into untested aircraft to try to fly a machine, a route, or in a manner that no one had flown before.

Now 50, 70, or 100 years later, it's impossible to know exactly what all those early pilots thought, felt, or experienced. But the historical aircraft included in this Century of Flight simulation offer the opportunity to step through a window in time and taste a little of those same pioneering adventures and flights, as the original pilots would have lived them. For the best way to understand pilots—even pilots who lived 75 years ago—is to fly with them.

"The pilots are now gone, but their planes—and their
adventures—can live on through your own hands and imagination."

A journey back in time requires a little imagination, of course. It may help to first read how poorly the "Spirit of St. Louis" really flew, or about Arthur Brown's adventures climbing out of his Vimy's frozen cockpit to clear critical instruments over the Atlantic in 1919, or about the simple pleasure of flying a Piper Cub low over a summer countryside with the door open and children waving to you from the river's edge below. Then take the controls and step into the world of adventure that paved the way for every airplane we know and rely upon today. Put yourself in in the Wright Flyer as it rolled off the launch rail at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and see if you can control the highly unstable, kite-like aircraft. Then try to find your way from London to Australia in a 1919 bomber or a 1934 racer without modern navigation tools. Relive the challenging flights of Lindbergh and Earhart, and retrace the adventures and flights that blazed the trail from the first barnstormers to the first transcontinental airliners.

As you gain a better understanding of what it was like to be one of those historic pilots, you may wonder how they ever dared to take on such challenges with such limited equipment. The answer, of course, is because they didn't have anything better at their disposal. The airplanes included here may seem antiquated and crude by today's standards, but they were all the state of the art in their day.

The pilots are now gone, but their planes—and their adventures—can live on through your own hands and imagination. You may not quite feel all of Lindbergh's fatigue, or feel the sting of the sleet, snow, and blistering heat that the various Vimy pilots experienced during their rugged adventures of 1919. But as you struggle to navigate your own Ryan monoplane across the dark Atlantic skies, or thread your Vimy through the punishing mountains of Africa, don't be surprised if you sense one of those early pilots looking over your shoulder, or giving you an encouraging wink. For a pilot's spirit never strays far from an airplane he or she has known, flown, or loved. And anyone who shares an understanding of what it was like to fly that plane understands more about what stirred that pilot's heart and soul—and made the sacrifice of all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile—than any history book could convey...or even the pilots themselves could ever have found words to express.