In 1927, a hitherto unknown air mail pilot called Charles Lindbergh became the first man to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic in his fragile plane, The Spirit of St Louis.
For hours, he flew in the most arduous conditions, braving wind, rain and storms. He saw clouds passing below him and distant thunder claps on the horizon. It was one of the profoundest moments of his life. He was awestruck and felt he was becoming, for a time, almost God-like. For most of the twentieth century, his experience remained rare and extremely costly. There was therefore never any danger that the human value of crossing an ocean by air would be overlooked.
This lasted until the arrival of the Boeing 747 and the cheap plane ticket in the summer of 1970. The jumbo fundamentally changed the economics of flying. The experiences of gazing down at clouds and seeing the world spread out stopped being (as it had been for Lindbergh) a life-changing encounter; it started to feel commonplace and even a little boring. It became peculiar to wax lyrical about the red-eye to JFK or a mention of a spectacular column of clouds that one had spotted shortly after the arrival of the chicken lunch. A trip that would have mesmerised Leonardo da Vinci or John Constable was now passed over in silence.
The view from the plane window underwent an economic miracle that led to a psychological catastrophe: its cost dropped and it ceased to matter, though its real value hadn’t changed.
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