It Starts as Legend…
The 3400-year-old legend of flight tells how Daedalus fashioned wings of feathers and wax so he and his son Icarus could fly from prison on Crete to safety in Sicily. When Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax melted, the feathers blew away, and he fell to his death. Daedalus’s flight and Icarus’s fall have touched our minds ever since. Most ancient legends have some basis in history, and, I suspect, this one does as well.
But as we go forward in time, legend slowly takes on the apparatus of history. A ninth-century Moorish inventor named Ibn Firnas built wings and, like Daedalus, covered them with feathers. Firnas crashed and hurt his back. Later, he said he hadn’t noticed how birds landed on their tails. He hadn’t built a tail to help him land. And here the plot thickens. About that same time, the Vikings told a story with echoes of both Daedalus and Firnas, but with a new insight. Their hero, Wayland, made feathered wings to escape an island prison.
When his brother Egil tested them he crashed — this time because he’d failed to launch himself into the wind. These insights converge in a story told by the 12th-century English historian William of Malmesbury. He writes about an Anglo-Saxon monk, Eilmer, of Wiltshire Abbey:
“Eilmer … was a man learned for those times … and in his youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze on the summit of a tower, (That means launching himself into the wind.) he flew for more than the distance of a furlong. But, agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by awareness of his rashness, he fell, broke his legs, and was lame ever after. He himself used to say that the cause of his failure was forgetting to put a tail on the back part.”William of Malmesbury
Bits and pieces of the older legends seem to litter Eilmer’s story. And he adds his own new bit of knowledge. If Firnas failed because he didn’t have himself a tail to land on, Eilmer crashed because he didn’t have a tail to provide lateral stability. So, you see, legend gains flesh and blood as experience accumulates.
The Wright Brothers
Finally the Wright Brothers added their chapter. This time, photos and documents backed up the legend. It seems clear at last that the old legends really had to’ve been more than flights of mere fancy.
Now: All these legendary pioneers of flight were male. So I stopped my friend Ted Estess, Dean of our UH Honors College, on campus one day. I asked if all his studies had ever revealed a woman in flight. He looked up at the trees and thought. Finally he said that in Phaedra, Plato created the following image of the human lot: At first all men and women alike were endowed with feathered wings and flight. Then Vice gradually pulled us down until our wings were no longer feathered and we could no longer fly. (He also told me that Plato had called Love “the feathers of our souls.”)
But flight (whether in legend or fact) has been reported as an all-male thing through most of history. Even angels were male until the 19th century. The situation began changing only when flight turned from a dream into reality.
The Montgolfier brothers made the first manned hot-air balloon ascent on November 21st, 1783. Eleven days later, Alexandre Charles tested a manned hydrogen-filled balloon. Soon everyone was flying balloons, and they were reaching altitudes limited only by the fliers’ ability to breathe the air. The first women flew within months, but only as passengers.
A few days after the Montgolfier flight, hydrogen balloons began flying as well. One hydrogen balloonist, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, was an experimenter and barnstormer. He was first to drop animals in parachutes, first to try to control his flights with sails and rudders, first to cross the English Channel, and first to fly in America.
When Blanchard finally suffered a fall and died in Paris, his wife, Sophie Blanchard, continued the family business. She’d taken up flying in 1805. She was the first woman we know to’ve flown on her own, and she made 59 ascents before she was done. But she decided to improve her act by flying at night and putting on a fireworks display. Of course hydrogen is ferociously flammable.
It caught fire and burned off. The balloon lost buoyancy and fell to a high rooftop. At that point Sophie might yet have survived, but wind caught the deflated cloth and dragged her off the edge, where she fell to her death.
Even before Sophie Blanchard women had been putting themselves on display in the sky. No sooner did people go up in balloons than they also began parachuting back to earth. André Garnerin first parachuted from a balloon in 1797. He talked his wife into making one jump, and that was enough for her. But his niece took up parachuting for a living. From then on women kept on parachuting.
The same year the Wright Brothers flew, Buffalo Bill Cody took his wild West show to London. Cody had trouble there. When he put on a blindfold to shoot a plaster egg from his wife’s head, the bullet creased her scalp. A 16-year-old girl, Dolly Shepherd, came out of the audience to take her place. To thank her, Cody took her to an aeronaut’s workshop.
There Dolly found work as a parachutist and soon became the star of the troupe — heady and dangerous work for a young girl. She saw her first fatality when a girl in the troupe landed on a factory roof and, like Sophie Blanchard, was dragged over the edge. Others died. Dolly herself was almost killed several times.
In a typical jump, two girls got ready. They opened a vent hole in their balloon so it would start down. Then they jumped. One day, after Dolly had vented the balloon, she found the other girl’s ripcord was jammed. The two had to jump together from 11,000 feet using Dolly’s small parachute. Dolly was badly shaken up. While she was getting her strength back, her mother secretly jumped in her place. Dolly jumped again, but she began seeing the face of Death in all this and gave it up. Two years later she took up safer work; she joined the war in France as a driver-mechanic.
She was 96 when she died in 1983. She lived to see people on the moon and a rocket circling Saturn. She lived to see women in rockets that were just as new and primitive as the parachutes she’d used 80 years before.
So this was more than just a matter of women being pushed over the edge as a source of cheap excitement. Flight was also a means by which many women, tied down by the social climate of a century ago, looked for a way to slip the all-too-surly bonds of Earth.