A few years ago, I wrote in this blog about the excitement and trepidation that comes with starting a new project. It was ten years ago when I began my work on the spaces and places of popular music performance as a highly demanding role I had in my university was coming to an end. Starting something new seemed right. Recently I moved to a part-time role, so once again, something new seems right again. My mother-in-law had a great phrase… she would say; ‘what goes around comes around’, and that’s what’s happening to me now as I prepare to start another new project, this time although still strongly connected to my interests and experience in design history and technology, not connected with architecture at all.
This new research project will explore human gliding and soaring flight, not only in terms of the technological advances that have made its development possible, but its impact on human imagination, creativity and society. From Leonardo da Vinci’s prescient designs, via George Cayley’s early experiments, the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk gliders, WWII military gliders, post-war competitive record-breaking, to space adventures with NASA’s Space Shuttle and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, it will examine key events in aviation history, investigating the circumstances that led to the aircrafts’ creation, operation, and their subsequent impact. Crucially, it will also explore human experience, particularly of those individuals directly involved in gliding’s development, but also how it has influenced general perceptions of technology and the environment. This will be my first book to exclusively examine an aviation topic, however, I have a lifetime’s experience and enthusiasm for this area of research. My student undergraduate degree thesis was a gliding club and my diploma thesis an air museum – I have held a private pilots’ licence for more than thirty years, and I have a British Gliding Association pilot’s ‘A’ Certificate.
Gliders are distinct from other aircraft in that they rely on nature and the environment for sustained flight, specifically the movement of air via wind and thermal activity. They are the sailing ships of the atmosphere, though in a much more precarious and complex realm as gliders can never simply ‘float’ – they must always be moving through three-dimensions. Those who design, make and pilot these craft must therefore develop a deep and respectful knowledge of the sky and the topography above which they fly. Gliding has a much longer history than powered flight and without the discoveries regarding the principles of aerodynamics it uncovered, aviation would not have developed at all.
Although today far surpassed in extent by powered flight, gliding is a multi-stranded, global activity, with many different interests, participated in by enthusiasts for recreation and as a competitive sport organised by the International Gliding Commission of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). The design of its aircraft is at the forefront of the development of lightweight, ultra-strong structures for science and aerospace including low-energy consumption aviation, yet simultaneously hang-gliders and paragliders also provide an affordable ‘low-tech’ way to fly. This objective study is needed now in order to draw attention to the importance of gliding as both an essential part of aviation’s history, but also as a part of contemporary human experience. There are 85 gliding sites currently operating in the UK (and many more used for hang-gliding and paragliding), in rural locations such as the Highland Club, Moray, Scotland to those that are almost urban such as the London Gliding Club. However, the activity is now under pressure on the land and in the air. The sites currently used for launching and landing, specially selected for their unique topography, are increasingly being threatened with development for other uses, and the sky in which soaring takes place is shrinking due to ever-expanding controlled airspace restrictions. The cultural history of gliding and soaring deserves to be more widely recognised, and in so doing help defend the increased threats to its existence.
Although there is a substantial library that examines aviation’s history, there is comparatively little that focuses specifically on its cultural impact; how the development and experience of human flight has altered human perception of the world and influenced creative output in other spheres. In this research gliding is generally understood and examined only as an ancestor of powered flight. There are some publications which are dedicated to gliding, however, they are primarily devoted to aircraft technology and flying practice, primarily glider manufacture and pilot knowledge, and the most recent global history of gliding as a distinct aspect of aviation activity (although sport flying only) was published in 1980.
Like my music performance research I feel like I am starting from scratch again. New library research will be necessary, focusing specifically on reviewing historic contemporary accounts of gliding events and experience in books, journals, video and film archives. Specialist aviation journals will have some use, especially, though limited in number, those dedicated to gliding. An aspect of the research I am particularly looking forward to is visits to some key sites that focus on gliding’s technological development: museums and archives in Great Britain, Germany and the USA. I will also visit gliding centres, vintage flying events, and glider factories to interview designers and manufacturers, professional and amateur pilots, and former military and aerospace personnel.
My work has always been about design and technology and I don’t recognise artificial boundaries between different areas of creativity. Every topic I have explored has been about crossing disciplines with the primary driver human experience, shaped by the physical objects and environments we make, whether that’s a building or a vehicle. I’m excited about this new project… but daunted too. There will be a lot to learn and understand on this journey that explores an aspect of human endeavour that is one of dreams and visions, ingenuity and technology, courage and persistence.