Air Travel in Art, Music and Film


Take a look some time at the famous photograph of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903. The image, captured by bystander John T. Daniels and since reproduced millions of times, is about the most beautiful photograph in all of 20th century iconography.

Daniels had been put in charge of a cloth-draped 5 X 7 glass plate camera stuck into Outer Banks sand by Orville Wright. He was instructed to squeeze the shutter bulb if “anything interesting” happened. The camera was aimed at the space of sky — if a dozen feet of altitude can be called such — where, if things went right, the Wright’s plane, the Flyer, would emerge in its first moments aloft.

Things did go right. The contraption rose into view and Daniels squeezed the bulb. We see Orville, visible as a black slab, more at the mercy of the plane than controlling it. Beneath him Wilbur keeps pace, as if to capture or tame the strange machine should it decide to flail or aim for the ground. You cannot see their faces; much of the photo’s beauty is not needing to. It is, at once, the most richly promising and bottomlessly lonely image. All the potential of flight is encapsulated in that shutter snap; yet we see, at heart, two eager brothers in a seemingly empty world, one flying, the other watching. We see centuries of imagination — the ageless desire to fly — in a desolate, almost completely anonymous fruition.

The world’s first powered flight, 1903, captured by John T. Daniels

I own a lot of airplane books. Aviation publishing is, let’s just say, on a lower aesthetic par than what you’ll find elsewhere among the arts and sciences shelves. The books are loaded with glam shots: sexily angled pics of landing gear, wings and tails. You see this with cars and motorcycles and guns too — the sexualization of mechanical objects. It’s cheap and it’s easy and it misses the point. And unfortunately, for now, respect for aircraft has been unable to make it past this kind of adolescent fetishizing.

What aviation needs, I think, is some crossover cred. The 747, with its erudite melding of left and right brain sensibilities, has taken it close. The nature and travel writer Barry Lopez once authored an essay in which, standing inside the fuselage of an empty 747 freighter, he compares the aircraft to the quintessential symbol of another era — the Gothic cathedral of twelfth-century Europe. “Standing on the main deck,” Lopez writes, “where ‘nave’ meets ‘transept,’ and looking up toward the pilots’ ‘chancel.’ The machine was magnificent, beautiful, complex as an insoluble murmur of quadratic equations.”

Still, you won’t find framed lithographs of airplanes in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones of Boston, hanging alongside romanticized images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. I won’t feel vindicated, maybe, until commercial aviation gets its own ten-part, sepia-toned Ken Burns documentary.

Until then, when it comes to popular culture, movies are the place we look first. One might parallel the 1950’s dawn of the Jet Age with the realized potential of Hollywood — the turbine and Cinemascope as archetypal tools of promise. Decades later there’s till a cordial symbiosis at work: a lot of movies are shown on airplanes, and airplanes are shown in a lot of movies. The crash plot is the easy and obvious device, and more than 30 years later we’re still laughing at Leslie Nielsen’s lines from the movie Airplane. But I’ve never been fond of movies about airplanes. For most of us, airplanes are a means to an end, and often enough the vessels of whatever exciting, ruinous, or otherwise life-changing journeys we embark on. And it’s the furtive, incidental glimpses that best capture this — far more evocatively than any blockbuster disaster script: the propeller plane dropping the spy in some godforsaken battle zone, or taking the ambassador and his family away from one; the beauty of the B-52’s tail snared along the riverbank in Apocalypse Now; the Air Afrique ticket booklet in the hands of a young Jack Nicholson in The Passenger; the Polish Tupolevs roaring in the background of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalog, part IV.


A version of this essay appears in the new book. Click here!


Switching to music, I think of a United Airlines TV ad that ran briefly in the mid 1990s — a plug for their new Latin American destinations. The commercial starred a parrot, who proceeded to peck out several seconds of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on a piano. “Rhapsody” has remained United’s advertising music, and makes a stirring accompaniment to the shot of a 777 set against the sky.

We shouldn’t forget the late Joe Strummer’s reference to the Douglas DC-10 in the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs,” but it’s the Boeing family that’s the more musically inclined. I can think of at least four songs mentioning 747s — Nick Lowe’s “So it Goes” being my favorite:

“…He’s the one with the tired eyes.
Seven-forty-seven put him in that condition…
Flyin’ back from a peace-keepin’ mission.”

Somehow the Airbus brand doesn’t lend itself lyrically, though Kinito Mendez, a merengue songwriter, paid a sadly foreboding tribute to the Airbus A300 with “El Avion,” in 1996. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” sings Mendez, immortalizing American Airlines’ popular morning nonstop between New York and Santo Domingo. In November, 2001, the flight crashed after takeoff from Kennedy airport killing 265 people.

My formative years, musically speaking, hail from the underground rock scene covering a span from about 1981 through 1986. This might not seem a particularly rich genre from which to mine out links to flight, but the task proves easier than you’d expect. “Airplanes are fallin’ out of the sky…” sings Grant Hart on a song from Hüsker Dü’s 1984 masterpiece, Zen Arcade, and three albums later his colleague Bob Mould shouts of a man “sucked out of the first class window!” Then we’ve got cover art. The back side of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record shows a Douglas DC-8. The front cover of the English Beat’s 1982 album, Special Beat Service, shows bandmembers walking beneath the wing of British Airways VC-10 (that’s the Vickers VC-10, a ’60s-era jet conspicuous for having four aft-mounted engines, similar to the Russian IL-62), while the Beastie Boys’ 1986 album Licensed to Ill depicts an airbrushed American Airlines 727.

The well-known Congolese painter Cheri Cherin is one of very few artists to commemorate a plane crash on canvas. His “Catastrophe de Ndolo,” seen below, depicts a 1996 incident in Zaire, as it was known at the time, in which an overloaded Antonov freighter careened off the runway at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport and slammed into a market killing an estimated 300 people — only two of whom were on the airplane (a precise fatality count was never determined).

Cheri Cherin's "Catastrophe de Ndolo" (1999)

Cheri Cherin’s “Catastrophe de Ndolo” (1999)

I asked Sister Wendy Beckett what she thought of Cherin’s non-masterpiece. You probably remember Sister Wendy — art historian, critic, and Catholic nun — from the PBS series a few years ago. “A splendidly gory recreation,” she tells us. “We see a bloody, devastated marketplace marked with the hulk of a burning fuselage. Yet the true fury of the event is captured not in the fire and gore, but in the cries and gestures of the people. It’s the apocalyptic landscape of a Bosch painting seen through the anguished psyche of modern African folk art.”

(In reality who knows what Sister Wendy might say. I made that up and, if you can’t tell, I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

Cheri Cherin has nothing on a certain young artist whose pièce de résistance appears below. This work commemorates the horrific, completely fictional three-way collision between Swissair, American Airlines and TWA. I would date this to 1975 or so, when I was nine years-old.

Catastrophe Over Fenley Street. Patrick Smith (c.1975). Colored pencil on paper.

Last but not least, the Columbia Granger’s Index to Poetry registers no fewer than 20 entries under “Airplanes,” 14 more for “Air Travel,” and at least another five under “Airports.” including poems by Frost and Sandburg. John Updike’s Americana and Other Poems was reviewed by Kirkus as, “a rambling paean for airports and big American beauty.” (And while I can’t seem to find it, I specifically recall an Allen Ginsberg poem in which he writes of the blue taxiway lights at an airport somewhere.) Subjecting readers to my own aeropoems is probably a bad idea, though I confess to have written a few. You’re free to Google them at your peril. Maybe it was the cockpit checklists that inspired me, free-verse masterpieces that they are:

Stabilizer trim override, normal
APU generator switch, off
Isolation valve, closed


Closing note:

Looking at that Boeing 727 tail section on the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill album, there are several things that give it away as an American Airlines plane. First is the angled-off tricolor cheatline — red, white, and blue — visible just forward of the engine. Those obviously are AA markings. Then you’ve got the all-silver base — another tradition of that carrier — as well as the whitish, off-color section of cowling over and around the center engine intake. This section of cowling was made of a different material, so they couldn’t use the bare silver here, going with a grayish-white paint instead. This gave the tails of AA’s 727s a mismatched look. Oh, and lastly, notice the black lettering to the lower right of the flag. This is the precise spot where the registration decals went. It would say, for example, “N483AA” Except, in this case it says “3MTA3 DJ.” The DJ part is for Def Jam records. The “3MTA3” means nothing…. until you hold it in front of a mirror.

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16 Responses to “Air Travel in Art, Music and Film”
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  1. Dave Walker says:

    The Beatles: “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (flew into Miami B.O.A.C…)

  2. Dave Walker says:

    Pop Will Eat Itself: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. About a fear of flying.

  3. Ben says:

    The first thing that came to my mind here was the Boeing 747. I don’t know of any other airliner that has become a pop culture icon like it.

  4. Dave M. says:

    I always wondered what you thought of Howard Hawks’ “Only Angels Have Wings.” If you’ve seen it, that is.

    Great arial photography. (specifically, a mountain-top rescue scene) Great foxhole mentality/gallows humor from the assembled team of mail-route flyers.

    It’s always been one of my favorites.

  5. Paddy Free says:

    I’ve always liked this one:

    “Flying North” by Thomas Dolby

    Metal bird dip wing of fire
    whose airlanes comb dark Earth
    the poles are tethers we were born in
    on the brink of a whole new deal
    on the floor of a hotel bar
    I’m staring right into the light
    and I’m drawn in like a moth
    and I’m flying North again…

    Here come the men in suits
    papers waving in the runway glare
    Lincoln streaming in the chilly air of the morning
    at the end of a double day
    at the back of an airport lounge
    I’m staring down into the cold
    and I’m worn out like a cloth
    and I’m flying North again tonight.

    Down with the landing gear
    up goes the useless prayer
    the poles are tethers we were born in
    now I’m back in the London night
    on a bench in a launderette
    I’m staring right into my face
    and I’m drawn out like a plot
    and I’m flying North again tonight.

  6. Simon says:

    Songs about flying… Airplanes… Airports…

    A few that spring into my mind;

    The Beach Boys, Airplane, from The Beach Boys Love You album in 1977.

    Over the city in an airplane
    I can see everything below
    The houses they look so tiny
    The cars look like dots
    We’ve only got fifteen minutes to go

    The clouds in the sky caress my mind so tenderly
    The sun shines down on the great big beautiful scene

    The sound of the engine fills my ears up
    I’m hopin’ this rainy weather clears up
    My lover is waiting at the airport
    Soon she’ll be kissing me hello

    The woman sitting next to me tells me ’bout her guy
    And I tell her all about you and I

    Airplane, airplane
    Carry me back to her side
    Airplane, airplane
    I need God as my guide
    Down, down on the ground
    Can’t wait to see her face

    There is also an interesting song from a mexican band called Kinky, from their Atlas album (2003). It depicts the steps before boarding a plane. It is a very interesting one (!):

    From a line at the counter
    boarding pass always with you
    now this is your gate number welcome aboard

    fasten seatbelt while seated
    turn off everything with your
    electronic devices welcome aboard

    i’ve got these airport feelings
    all over you i’m ready for landing
    i’m ready to lose

    this is your captain speaking
    thirty three thousand feet high
    now your skin is my runway welcome aboard

    i’ve got these airport feelings
    all over you i’m ready for landing
    i’m ready to lose

    now your skin is my runway i’m ready to lose.

    And another one comes to mind; John Denver’s 1966 classic that everyone knows….

    But, I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
    Don’t know when I’ll be back again
    Oh babe, I hate to go…

  7. TXC says:

    I thought immediately of “Suzie Lightning” by Warren Zevon, with its opening line: “She only sleeps on planes … ”

  8. Clark says:

    One of my favourite airplane songs, when I’m on a long-haul night flight back to London, is from Tom Petty’s under-rated 1982 album “Long After Dark”:

    I remember flying out to London
    I remember the feeling at the time
    Out the window of the 747
    Man there was nothin’, only black sky

    We went Straight Into Darkness…

  9. Ad aburdum per aspera says:

    I’d take a wild guess that pretty much every jet in “Calvin and Hobbes” is a 727. (Well rendered, too. The strips can have a deceptive simplicity, but Bill Watterson can just flat-out draw when the situation calls for it.)

    Music? Tons of ’em. Gordon Lightfoot namechecks the 707 in “Early Morning Rain”. Te late Henson Cargill reveals why he’s a songwriter rather than a pilot in “Some Old California Memory” (unless in some parallel universe the 747 has two engines and was called the Whisperjet; but it’s a good song anyway). The Learjet had enough pop-cultural range to make it from Carly Simon to Sheryl Crow nonstop.

    For air travel as extended metaphor, it’s hard to outdo

    And though it isn’t exactly about air *travel,* I’ll put this out there in parting because listening to it, especially in a drought year, always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Bonus points for its being a pretty darned faithful step-by step poetic rendering of the 1940s part, as opposed to the modern-day detective-work part, of the book Young Men and Fire. Songwriter James Keelaghan’s own version is on the Web too.

  10. Alex says:

    “Still, you won’t find framed lithographs of airplanes in the lofts of SoHo or the brownstones of Boston, hanging alongside romanticized images of the Chrysler Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.”

    I’m not so sure about that. I know they’re not really lithographs, but still, I have a poster of Georgia O’Keefe’s Brooklyn Bridge in close proximity this wonderful 1937 (when design mattered, I guess) poster celebrating NYC’s municipal airports:

    Well, to be fair, I don’t live in either SoHo or Boston (but I kind of wish I did).

  11. Alex says:

    The first song that comes to mind for me is “Jet Airliner,” by Paul Pena, made famous by the Steve Miller Band: “But my heart keeps calling me backwards/As I get on the seven-oh-seven.”

    (As a side note, I highly recommend the documentary “Ghengis Blues” to learn more about Paul Pena — and Tuvan throat-singing.)

  12. Simon says:

    I find it interesting that the artist managed to combine two SR liveries into one in his famous 1975 oeuvre. The red cheatline is reminiscent of their original livery. However, in that livery the flag only covered the upper part of the tail fin and the company name was printed all-caps above the wing. The artist, however, chose to show the tail fin as it later appeared in SR’s 1980s livery using the black & brown cheatline and lowercase brand name (the artist chose all caps here) in the front section of the aircraft. Considering the artist’s young age, the foresight and creativity that went into this work are astounding.

  13. GS test says: