It was once a career defined by romance and glamour, so why do so few children now grow up wanting to be pilots? Sarah Freeman reports.
Like many boys growing up in the 1970s, Rowland White had one true love. Aeroplanes.
Raised on a diet of Airfix models and comics like Warlord and The Victor, by the time he celebrated his 10th birthday he was already a walking encyclopaedia on aviation. White never did become a pilot and while his own love affair with those magnificient men and their flying machines survived the decades, he admits that at some point in those intervening years, the glamour was stripped from the industry.
It’s part of the reason for his latest book, The Big Book of Flight, a celebration of the men (and occasionally women) who took a leap of faith to push forward the boundaries of aviation and who sometimes flew too close to the sun. White also hopes it might just rekindle a little of that early passion.
“Children are inspired by what’s new and exciting and at the moment it’s digital technology that’s advancing dizzyingly fast,” he says. “That used to be true of aviation, when every new design to emerge – and there were scores of them every year – seemed to fly higher and faster than what had come before. It now takes decades to develop a single new aircraft and the advances are all about the computer technology which just simply isn’t very sexy.
“The last World Air Speed Record was set in 1976 and if we don’t know the names of the successors to Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to travel faster than the speed of sound and RAF fighter ace Douglas Bader, then the romance is gone. What’s been lost is aviation’s connection with people. Mainstream military and commercial aviation have had the humanity squeezed out of them.”
Over the last 30 years Rowland believes that, home and abroad, we’ve lost the belief, ambition, national pride and confidence we once had in aviation and he’s embarked on his own one man mission to bring it back.
“It all began a few years ago when I was staying at a friends house. I spotted on a shelf a book called How and Why Wonder which was an illustrated series on everything from dinosaurs to electricity. It reminded me of the many books I had as a child about aeroplanes and flight and I began to wonder whether the time might be right to celebrate the efforts of all those who really wrote the history of aviation.”
White’s book begins in the 11th-century with Oliver of Malmesbury, an English monk and one of long line of amateur birdmen. Jumping from an abbey watch tower having strapped himself into a pair of homemade cloth wings, Malmesbury plummeted 150ft breaking both his legs.
“These days you can test everything on a computer so there’s very little need for grand experiments,” says White. “However, the history of aviation is all about people who dared believe. One of the early pioneers was a German engineer called Otto Lilienthal who became known as the Glider King. In 1896 his glider stalled and as it crashed to the ground he broke his back. He would later die from his injuries, but just before he slipped into unconsciousness for the last time, he whispered to his brother, ‘Sacrifices have to be made’
“It was Lilienthal who had earlier said, ‘To invent an aeroplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything’ and it’s that spirit that I wanted to capture in the book.”
White believes it was partly the era of mass air travel which caused the shine to be lost from aviation, a trend sealed by the proliferation of cheap flights.
“I’ll always remember the first time I got in a plane,” he says. “I was six years old and we flew from Southampton to Guernsey. Not an epic journey perhaps, I’m pretty sure that I spent most of the time running up an down the aisle looking out of the window.
“I doubt it’s possible to recapture those days of real wonder in aviation, but that gap might be filled by space travel. Names like Farnborough, Concorde and Airfix fired the imaginations of generations of schoolboys. Now grown up, boys like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are building spaceplanes and rockets of their own.
“I guess it’s about putting the human element back into the industry and just the idea of being able to fly into space is enough to set the pulse racing. My family might have something to say about it, but should I ever win the lottery I would be right there at the front of the queue.”
The Big Book of Flight by Rowland White is published by Bantam Press priced £20. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.