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Flights of fancy: air travel over the decades

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A new book has shed a light on how flying has changed over the decades.

The Art of Flying – Flying Chic: The golden decades of air travel, By Josh Gordon is out next month.

It tracks air travel from a time when people donned their best clothes and lounged in bars when flying to the high-end planes of the present day.


In July 1919, a London businessman named W. H. Pilkington boarded a plane to Paris. He was traveling, as millions of people now do every day, to attend a meeting. However, Mr. Pilkington’s maiden voyage—indeed, one of the first passenger-fare plane rides in Europe—was not quite as comfortable as the modern traveler would expect. He was required to don an Air Force–style flying suit, helmet, and protective goggles, because the single- passenger plane, a converted World War I–era RAF aircraft operated by London’s Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited, had an open cockpit. The pilot, in an effort to avoid the weather at higher altitudes, skimmed the English Channel just dozens of feet above its surface. Mr. Pilkington, en route to his Paris meeting, contended with wind, turbulence, and bursts of salty ocean spray. For this, he paid forty-two English pounds, or about two thousand pounds in today’s currency. According to his own diary entry recounting the trip, Mr. Pilkington was quite pleased with the experience and flew often throughout the rest of his life.

All forms of travel are born of a particular calculus of necessity, adventure, and convenience. No one bundles himself against the snowy impasse of a mountaintop or attempts to breach the dark menace of a forest or faces the vast unknown of the ocean in a small wooden boat without some overwhelming, driving force. The advent of passenger air travel, which offers a combination of speed and power still unsurpassed by humankind, both democratized and rarefied unprecedented access to the larger world. By the 1960s, the average person could leave the geographic confines of his or her home to discover, in person, a world previously available only through literature, radio, or films.
Meanwhile, the elite group of wealthy business leaders, diplomats, royalty, actors, rock stars, and famous athletes, for whom the world had always been available, could now rocket around the globe at a tremendous pace to close a deal in Geneva, watch a polo match in England, attend a Broadway show or Hollywood premiere, or lounge with friends on the beaches of the Côte d’Azur.

Mr. Pilkington, an executive for a London glass firm and an adventurer at heart, who booked his airfare out of necessity after missing an evening commuter boat to Paris, could be considered the father of the jet set, that exalted group of illustrious travelers for whom the world is instantly accessible, and who continue to fascinate us today.


Extract and photographs courtesy assouline.com


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