Song of the Clouds | Shell Historical Film Archive
On a December morning in 1903, the Wright brothers took off at Kitty Hawk. They remained in the air for 12 seconds, at a maximum height of nine feet. The result is this.
This world of air travel, now at everybody's doorstep, has been created in 50 years or less. A world of flashing propellers, shimmering jet streams, gleaming shapes, a world so exciting that it's sometimes hard to get it in focus. Tower, this is 05-Alpha, south of the tower, for landing at the pad. 05-Alpha, this is the tower.
Check the conveyor. Taxiway five. You're cleared to land at the pad. Over. From airports around the globe, passengers are now leaving on regular scheduled flights at a rate of more than 70 millions a year. Some are already old hands in the air. But for many, there is still the thrill of novelty, the bustle of preparations all around. And behind the scenes, too, there are operations.
Who's travelling today? Passenger Margaret Fleming for one, of Kilmarnock, Scotland. Down for Aklavik, Northern Canada, via Montreal. Excess baggage? It's those last-minute presents for the kids. Passenger Kofi Agyemang of West Africa for another, going from Accra upcountry to Tamale on urgent business. And here in Bombay, Sita Desai, with an overnight flight ahead and young Mira in her arms.
Won't be long now. They're loading the baggage. Each passenger gets a free allowance of baggage. On a long-distance flight, it adds up to about two tons in the hold. Then there's the mail, mountains of it.
These days, the air carries the equivalent of 15 million letters around the world every week. Attention, please. The flight at 9:06 to-- -Lufthansa German Airlines, Fight 131 to-- -Bangkok.
And again, who travels? Juan Perez of Caracas, Venezuela, with some routine things to see to in Maturin. Briefcase bulging, and a lot to do en route. Minoru Yamada, aged 18, from Tokyo to California, USA. His first venture into the big world alone. And from Burlington, Vermont, Dorothy Gerstein and Irene Cooper, schoolteachers, with three weeks to see the Middle East, and bring it home.
Who travels? Everybody. It used to be for the first class few. But now, with tourist fares, the air's for all. For the world, his wife and child… and sometimes even his goose. Good bye, good trip, and happy landings. This is the captain speaking to you from the flight deck.
We're about to take off now. Fasten your lab straps, please. And no smoking till we're airborne. Thank you.
And the aircraft herself, what of her? She'll probably be a Douglas, a Boeing, or a Lockheed Constellation, a Convair, or a Vickers Viscount. She'll weigh as much as 60 tons and carry a crew of up to ten. She'll travel at 300 miles an hour, or more, and fly at any height, from five to 30,000 feet. Golf, Foxtrot, November, cleared to Amsterdam. Cross Epsom, 2,000, Sevenoaks, 3,000, to climb under radar and obtain 15,000 feet. Runway 17, the wind south-southwest 5.
Hotel, foxtrot. Your traffic is now on final. And this is leaving outbound, heading for 180 degrees. Over. Clipper 100, you're cleared to taxi to runway 25 left, by taxiway Charlie and runway 13 left. You're cleared to taxi to runway 25 left, by taxiway Charlie and runway 13 left. The wind is southwest at 12. They taxi out from the aprons to the runways, slowly turn, and stop for the final check.
-Before take-off check, please. -Autofeathering. Arm wing light on. -Alternators. -Brakes are on. Normal. -Propeller pitch. -Fully fine.
-Mixture control. -Auto-rich lock on. -Fuel valves. -Checked, tank to engine. -Booster power. -All normal. -The generators. -All on.
-Ignition switches. -Checked. Controls and trim tabs. -Controls are free. -Engines ready for take-off. -Ready for take-off. -Ready for take-off, sir.
Stand by for take-off. Home is suddenly a toy town. It may be Miami or Beirut you leave behind… it may be Cairo or Sydney, or the grandeur of Rome or Rio that's dwindling into space beneath you as you climb.
None of them now, no place on this earth is more than two days' distance from any other. The engines settle to their cruising note, the galley gets down to work. How to keep people occupied through a long, smooth, steady flight across the blue dome of the sky? Books and magazines, of course. Route maps and picture postcards for the aunt you forgot to say goodbye to. How to keep people occupied? This is one way that never fails. And outside, as the hours and distances roll by, what will the clouds reveal? Perhaps it will be this island, dreaming in the Bahamas, San Salvador, where less than five centuries ago, the cry of a lookout on the Pinta's fo'c'sle told Columbus he had found a new world.
Perhaps it will be these wild shores of Newfoundland, where the long ships of Leif Ericson scurried through the storms on their way to Vinland. Or it may be the Arctic regions, where caribou thunder across the white world of the furthest north. Or you may glimpse these gleaming snakes of water gliding through the eastern jungles.
Mekong, Chindwin, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy. It may be Lake Tana, in the heart of Ethiopia, where drifting spume and flashing rainbow guard the birthplace of the Blue Nile. Or you may look down into the tremendous mouth of Popocatépetl, towering 18,000 feet above the sea. Crater within crater.
Or it may be some testament to bygone human splendour like Machu Picchu, city of the Incas, lifting its blind walls from the gorges of the Andes to the mansions of the sun. Or, yet again, your path across the sky may lead you through the very summits of the world. Down the painful ages, men have schemed and died to do just this, to lord the hemispheres. What has brought us now this sudden, swift success? The genius of the peoples, all of them.
But as much as the brilliance of the scientists and the daring of the pioneers, it's been the patience of the organisers, patience and collaboration. This is a body of which little is heard - IATA, the International Air Transport Association. Its present director general is Sir William Hildred of Great Britain. IATA's members are the international airlines, about 75 of them, all told. They inherited a world of regulations made for caravans and wagon trains and sailing ships.
Progressively, they freed the sky from this archaic outlook, hammered out a common order, common codes and standards. Argument, competition, cut and thrust. But out of it all, the air has emerged as an outstanding instance of international good sense. Look beyond the conference room at how it works in practice. Look, for example, at this aircraft approaching the shores of the Levant.
They have just three weeks, remember, to see the Middle East. Three weeks and so much to see. "Let's not go here. Let's go there instead." "But what about the tickets? Can we change them?" It's tempting to hold onto all the traffic you can get, especially when your airline's a source of national pride. But the logic of a world moving at 300 miles an hour is a system that gives as much freedom of movement as the sky itself, freedom to change plans in midair, shift from one line to another. The result? A universal agreement to make tickets interchangeable.
And the interline adjustments, compensations, transfers of currency? Passengers shouldn't be bothered with all that. And besides, that's what accountants are for. Or this aircraft, crossing northern Venezuela from Caracas to Maturin.
He set out with a lot to do en route. Export-import business, forms to fill in, cargoes to move, and buyers waiting for them. And just as one ticket takes a passenger around the world, so one airway bill will take a piece of freight to anywhere. And what do the freighters haul? The faithful, plodding cargo planes you don't hear much about. Almost anything these days, from isotopes and oysters to machines and magazines.
Some lines carry more animals than human beings. And there's always the heavy stuff. There's a brisk movement of nylon stockings over the Atlantic, of sausage skins from Iran to the stockyards of Chicago. They say air cargo is in its infancy, but you can see the scale it's moving into. Or this plane, heading out over the Pacific, eastbound from Japan.
His first venture into the big world, and his first visit to a crew in the cockpit. What makes a crew? Training. And above all, training up to standards accepted everywhere. And here, another body makes its contribution.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation, an agency of the United Nations. Concerned with the intergovernmental aspects of flying, one of ICAO's functions is to provide technical assistance to countries becoming air-minded. Where safety is concerned, nationalism has no place.
In training for airline work, you've got to make sure that a Mexican pilot can land an American plane under instructions from an Indian controller using Dutch radio equipment. That's right, young man. Have fun while you can. Soon you'll be under the cold eye of a tight-lipped airline captain who doesn't believe in giving passengers ground for complaint.
Or this Stratocruiser, out in Mid-Atlantic, bound for Montreal. In 1927, the Spirit of St. Louis made the crossing in 33 hours. Margaret Fleming, now in 14, but Lindbergh didn't have the international support behind him that she does today. There are 21 of these ships maintaining nine weather stations in the North Atlantic. They fly the flags of different nations, but they're all doing the same job - finding out, for the aircraft passing overhead, what the weather's going to do. And the ships, in turn, are meshed in with hundreds of weather stations around the world.
It never stops. Observations recorded round the clock, over land and sea, transmitted halfway across the globe, assessed, interpreted, collated through half a dozen languages and passed back to where they're needed, in the cockpit. Or again, this aircraft, heading upcountry from Accra over the hot hills of Africa, going to Tamale on urgent business. Half an hour yet.
Those engines out there, keep it up. A few minutes might make all the difference. Standards again. For behind the steady note of all the engines flying in all the aircraft, there's a common code of maintenance. Visual checks, terminal transit checks, rated checks.
And after every 1,400 hours or so in the air, complete strip down and overhaul to the inmost innards of the plane, nothing left unexamined. All of this, halfway out from Bombay over the Arabian Sea. Time, midnight. Sleep well, Mira, in your cradle in the sky.
Up ahead, there are men on the flight deck listening to the unseen sounding beacons of the dark, charting your pathway through the stars. Sleep well in your cradle in the sky. Beneath you, a continent astern, an ocean ahead, men are watching your progress through the arch of night. Up there, four miles above the turning Earth… you're not alone. This might be almost anywhere.
It happens to be a village called Pucallpa, miles from anywhere, in the heart of Peru. You wouldn't think Pucallpa and the air had much in common, but you'd be wrong. Three times a week, the plane brings in the mail and papers, humps the groceries and hardware, doesn't forget old Manuel's medicine.
On the return trip, it takes the local produce out to market. And these days, Pucallpa's typical. Millions of people who have never flown themselves are looking to the sky for life and livelihood.
Move to Brussels, London or New York and see the same thing, only more so. Over the big cities, just as in the far-off outback, people are taking the air for granted, using it to commute to the office, keep an urgent business date. And this alone poses one of the biggest problems for the future, for the air is filling up, getting crowded, almost like the roads.
Here's one way they're tackling the problem. A traffic school of the sky. Indianapolis ATC, this is Eastern 747… The operators are feeding information on the speed and direction of imaginary planes to a central plotting room. ATC, this is Eastern 747, over Maxwell intersection at 2-5, 10,000, estimate Indianapolis at 3-3. Request change of flight plan to land at Indianapolis. Over.
The plotters sort out the approaching aircraft. One receives instructions to stack and circle, another is given the green light to come in and land. And the aircraft of tomorrow, their power and performance, speeds and shapes, what does the future hold for them? They say that no man has enough imagination to predict the flying of a generation hence. But ideas are on the wing. Vertical take-off.
One way of freeing aircraft from the weight of landing gear, of abolishing the runway altogether. A model, this, but the real thing's taking off already. Direct lift, then forward, perhaps faster than the spin of the Earth, for real, as well, are speeds of over a thousand miles an hour. Are the ideas outstripping what is feasible? Only patient tests can show. Leave France after breakfast, arrive in America before dawn? Not yet, perhaps.
But the aircraft of the next few years will take a long step forward. Some are in production, others in the air right now. From America, the Boeing 707.
From Britain, a sleek new Comet 4. A turboprop Britannia. And again from America, the graceful DC-7C. Planes like these are raising commercial speeds to over 500 miles an hour, reducing the Atlantic to a six-hour jaunt. And down below, the airports extend and multiply their concrete networks.
The future in the making, and the present on its doorstep, its voices from the clouds calling for instructions, approaching journey's end. United DC-7, you are now cleared number one to land runway 28 left. The wind is still west-northwest 17. Hello, San Francisco Tower. This is United DC-7.
Three minutes northwest. OK, United DC-7. I have you in sight, three minutes northwest. Japan Air 002, clear to runway 15. Come in, Foxtrot. You are cleared for landing on runway 34. Surface wind 320 at eight knots. Call Darwin. Over.
Trans-Canada 230, Montreal Tower, runway 10, wind 110 degrees, 11 MPH, cleared. A direct approach, altimeter 30.1. Clear to enter traffic for runway 16. A few hours back, they were taking off from all the airports everywhere. They've levelled the mountains, telescoped the oceans, shrivelled the prairies and the deserts. Now, one every five seconds, they're coming in.
We come down the gangways in our thousands every day. And whatever we've come here to do, to buy some cattle maybe, or to pay a family visit, to sign a contract, seal a treaty, leave no avenue unexplored, to make a picture or to win some prizes, or perhaps to see an old man for the first time, the air is ours, to serve our purposes. Seventy millions of us every year already, for whom the patience and the planning, the exacting standards set in common have made a third dimension real. To whom, for the first time, or the hundredth, the clouds have sung their song of wonder. And then, we've gone. And there's a moment's pause for the ground crews to refuel, to inspect and check, to see to all the host of things that complete the turnaround.
In the air, it's been a day like any other. But what has it meant for just a few among the thousands who have passed it in the sky? It has taken Kilmarnock halfway to the Arctic Ocean. It has brought Caracas to Maturin, made a man's business easier, fulfilled his promise to deliver. It has sent Accra to Tamale, and in the sending, saved just one more life. It has set down Burlington in Baalbek, to realise a dream and take it home.
It has put Tokyo on the threshold of San Francisco, opened a horizon wider than the oceans. And it has simply brought together, for no two people living now are more than two days from each other. And who knows how soon the time may come when it will be… two hours?