Monday, December 1, 2003

Faster than the sun


By Mick Moignard

This summer I took the family to Florida for our holidays. We flew over to Orlando from London Gatwick in a fairly new, shiny Virgin B747-400. I tried to get us all into Upper class on my frequent flyer miles, but failed. It's not the first time that my kids -- Daniel, 18 and Victoria, 15, had been across the Atlantic, nor was it the first time they'd been in a B747, but, particularly for Victoria, it was the first long-haul flight on a big plane they could remember properly, rather than the A320s and B737s that I get on nearly every week.

We spent a little while in the viewing gallery at Gatwick watching the planes landing and departing. Victoria questioned "just how does something that big even get off the ground". I'm sure she knows the physics of how it works, (and be bored by the explanation, too), but it still shows the basic incredulity of how something that big, that ponderous and that heavy can actually fly so well.

We've had 100 years of these things, now, and they've gone all the way from the Wright Flyer, a glorified kite with a home-made engine, to Concorde and the Airbus A340, and we still have some disbelief that they actually work. By the way, have you ever looked out of the window during takeoff in a heavily loaded plane, and watched the wingtips starting to fly, bending upwards, just before the whole thing rotates for liftoff?

Planes are just part of modern life, in so much of the world. But that's actually a relatively recent thing in the life of the aeroplane.

My Dad, in his job as a research chemist, once, just once, visited the US from England. That was in 1955, when I was just one, and the aeroplane was 52 years old. He went by sea, both ways. He was away for six weeks, making several visits in the US as far west as Chicago. He and his colleagues travelled in the US by passenger train, many of which were still steam powered. They even travelled on New York Central's 21st Century train, the byword for luxury train travel in those days. A whole day from new York to Chicago.

It took nearly two of the six weeks that they were away just to get across the Atlantic and back. He only visited the US once. For most people, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to go to America.

But a few years back, after Lotusphere 96 I think, I went up to Boston on the Friday for some appointments the following week, and my wife came over to Boston just for the weekend. Over and back in 48 hours, with a day and half sightseeing in Boston as well. My father knew that things had moved on since 1955, but the sense of wonderment in her going to Boston for the weekend, and back, in less time than he had taken just to get to America in 1955 was clear.