Travel: December 2003 Archives

Flight's 100th


I observed today's centenary of controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight by flying, and passing through the world's busiest (and nicest) airport. In an era when air travel is in decline -- ever more inconvenient and uncomfortable -- it was nice that my centennial flights were relatively comfortable and trouble-free. No one in the next seat on both flights, and lots of leg room on the A319. There were the usual annoyances with flying a segment on a commuter airline -- gate-checking the rollaboard, then waiting in the cold for it to be returned, walking 100 yards in the cold from the plane to the gate. I find I have to reorganize my carry-on bags three times -- once to smooth passage through security (laptop out and ready to inspect), once for the commuter jet flight (no valuables or fragile items -- the laptop specifically -- in the gate-checked bag), and once for the big jet flight (stuff I wanted handy under the seat, the rest in the overhead bin).

I flew United for the first time in ages. Service was great. The ticket agent saw that the delay of the first leg of the flight might prevent me making the connection, so he reserved a spot for me on a later backup flight. Boarding was smooth. The A319 had good music on the headsets, or I could watch a Frasier episode. The seats have adjustable headrests.

Funny that both my flights on this centennial day were on foreign-built aircraft -- a Canadair Regional Jet and an Airbus A319, made in French-speaking Canada and in France, respectively.

I refer to O'Hare as the world's best airport. When my wife worked for Sabre, then part of American Airlines, we did a lot of standby travel and spent a lot of time waiting for flights in airports all over the country. O'Hare's tree layout makes it quicker to go from one gate to another. The semi-circular layout used at DFW guarantees a long walk for most passengers. In algorithmic terms, the time to go between any two gates at ORD is O(log n), at DFW it's O(n).

If I had to pick a place to get stuck, I'd pick O'Hare any time. It seems more spacious, less crowded, even when it's busy. Atlanta is crazy, especially near the nodes where the terminals connect with the interterminal train. Getting around DFW is all about dodging the carts, which have to be made available because it is so far between gates. DFW always seems to have spillover into the main corridor -- seldom see that at ORD.

ORD has more amusements. The Chicago Children's Museum has an exhibit and play area in Terminal 2 that is a great place to take the kids to while away hours and burn energy between missed standby flights -- lots of steps to climb, slides to slide on, big vinyl-covered foam blocks to stack (pretend cargo), knobs to turn, and buttons to push. (But they seem to have gotten rid of the cool Sears Tower made of Legos.) In the United terminal (Terminal 1), there is a replica life-size brachiosaurus skeleton.

ORD has made their restrooms the envy of the airport industry. I remember during my student days, flying through ORD, that the restrooms were tiny, crowded, and smelly. Over time they've opened things up, gotten rid of the entrance doors, to make it easier to navigate with luggage, and installed all manner of automatic conveniences. With the exception of shutting the stall door, you could get through a visit to the restroom without touching anything other than your own person, which is a good thing with all the wild viruses that must pass through O'Hare from all corners of the globe. What genius came up with automatic toilet seat covers?

Of course, airport comforts don't have much to do with aviation per se, but isn't it amazing that flying is so reliable and so routine that we can afford to be more worried about whether the seatback fully reclines than whether a part will fall off the plane.

We descended from bright sunshine through a thick layer of clouds, emerging a few thousand feet above the ground as fat snowflakes blew past. In the dim late afternoon, the woods were monochromatic -- black leafless trees, adorned with white snow, not a splash of color to disturb the view. Then suddenly, there's the airport. 100 years after Kill Devil Hill, I thank God for the Wright Brothers and how their invention brought the world closer together. I also thank God for whoever invented ILS and anti-icing systems and made it possible to land a plane safely in a snow storm.

P.S. The Smithsonian, from 1914 to 1942, tried to discredit the Wright Brothers as the first flyers, in favor of the Smithsonian's own Samuel Langley. In 1914, they went so far as to reconstruct Langley's failed machine of October 1903, modify it significantly, and flew the modified aircraft, allowing the Smithsonian to make this claim:

In 1918, Zahm had Langley's Aerodrome restored to its 1903 condition and put on display in the museum with the label: "The first man-carrying aeroplane in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight. Invented, built, and tested over the Potomac River by Samuel Pierpont Langley in 1903. Successfully flown at Hammondsport, N.Y., June 2, 1914." An audacious claim, to say the least. Indeed, "it was a lie pure and simple," writes Fred Howard in "Wilbur and Orville." "But it bore the imprimatur of the venerable Smithsonian and over the years would find its way into magazines, history books, and encyclopedias, much to the annoyance of those familiar with the facts." The lie lasted 25 years. Angered at the Smithsonian's refusal to retract its statements even in the face of published articles describing Curtiss's modification of the Aerodrome, Orville Wright sent the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London in 1928. In 1942, a new Smithsonian regime finally retracted its Aerodrome claims and privately acknowledged wronging the Wrights.

It's a fascinating story.

UPDATE: In honor of the day, here is the FAA-annotated version of "High Flight".

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This page is a archive of entries in the Travel category from December 2003.

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