Taking flight


German aviator Otto Linnekogel with camera operator on a Rumpler Taube, from Flight 15 May 1914

While the growth in digitised historic newspaper collections has proved a huge boon for the silent film researcher, there are specialist journals now being digitised and made available online which hold valuable material that one might not immediately suspect was there. A model example has recently been made available, Flight.

Flightglobal has put up the entirety of Flight magazine, from 1909 to 2005. Every issue has been scanned and is fully searchable in PDF format. There are save and print options, and you can copy and paste the uncorrected OCR text from the PDFs. Searching is by keyword or you can browse by year, and with each search result it is easy to browse back and forth from page to page, handily visible in thumbnail form. The term you have search for is highlighted on the PDF. Search can be limited by date range, so it is easy to narrow things down to our era. It’s a model service, and it’s all free.

And there is plenty there on motion pictures. Film and flight grew up together, with some of the pioneers of sequence photography being closely allied to those experimenting with powered flight towards the end of the nineteenth century, and as each made its appearance on the public stage they fed off each other (an essay I wrote on this subject is available from my personal site, here). For many people, the first sight they had of an aeroplane was not in the sky but on a cinema screen, when newsfilms such as those of the influential Rheims airshow of 1909 (the first gathering of the world’s aviators) amazed audiences everywhere. Films recorded the great aviators of those heroic times, they promoted air races and air meetings, they created exciting dramas in which aviators and their machines served as natural heroes. In return, aviation revelled in the attention the cinema brought to the field, used the cinematograph as demonstration of the feats aviators could achieve, equipped planes with cameras, and planes were used as speedy means of transporting films.

All of this can be traced through the pages of Flight. Useful search terms to use include ‘cinematograph’, ‘cinemato’ (often the fuller word is broken up), ‘bioscope’, ‘kinematograph’, ‘cinema’, ‘films’ and ‘Pathe’. For example, searching under ‘bioscope’ gives you this report from 25 April 1914 of aviator B.C. Hucks and unnamed newsreel operator filming the Royal Yacht in the English channel:

On Tuesday morning after a trial flight with the operator to get him used to his peculiar position—he faced towards the tail—I started off across the Channel at exactly 11 a.m. in brilliant sunshine and very little wind, exactly half an hour after the departure of the Royal Yacht from Dover. It took me some time to pick up the Royal Yacht as there was a considerable mist on the surface of the sea, but after about fifteen minutes’ flying, I noticed a haze of smoke and as this was the only sign of activity in the neighbourhood I made for it and discovered my quarry. The French cruisers had already joined the escort, and to give my operator every facility I dived down to about 400 ft. and enabled him to get a fine picture of the mid-Channel scene.

I circled the fleet completely on three occasions, being then right out of sight of land. As we were nearing Calais I hovered about and flew over Calais Harbour at the precise moment of the entry of Their Majesties’ Yacht, when my photographer obtained what turned out to be a most magnificent and novel film. I then made direct for the Calais Aerodrome, flying over the town at 800 ft, I landed at 12 noon, when I was presented with a bouquet from the Mayor of Calais and also learnt that I was the first English airman to land at Calais.

The operator then extracted the exposed film which I fixed in the passenger seat of my machine together with the bouquet, and at 1.45 I started off for Hendon. I struck the English coast at the exact point of my departure, followed the railway line to Ashford, and on reaching the outskirts of London, I took last year’s Aerial Derby course to Hendon, where I arrived at 2.35. I had covered the 125 miles in 110 minutes. The journey overland was a very bumpy one, there being a terrible lot of remous owing to the extreme heat of the sun.

On landing, the film was handed to a representative of the Warwick Bioscope Chronicle Film, and rushed off to Charing Cross Road, where it was developed, a print made, and a complete record of the King’s journey from London to Calais was shown at the matinee performance at the Coliseum at 5.20. Actually, the film was delivered to the Coliseum at 4.45.

Flight and film were both equated with speed and modernity – the one recorded the instant moment, the other could deliver it to you before it had lost any freshness. Aviation clearly revelled in its association with film. It enjoyed asserting its superiority by telling tales of nervous cameramen filming stunts while on board, but also emphasised the cinematograph’s value as documentary record. There was commercial sense involved as well, as some of the long-distance flights such as those undertaken by Alan Cobham in the 1920s were part-financed by the filming rights. There is also interest in aviation as the subject of film drama, as in this report from 18 December 1914, which concerns British aviator Claude Grahame-White:

I was greatly interested in a “trial run” of a new Imp cinematograph drama produced for the Trans-Atlantic Film Co. Ltd., entitled, “The Secret of the Air.” It will be “released” on January 21st, 1915, and should appeal to a number of FLIGHT readers, since it shows, incidentally to the “story,” several scenes from Hendon at its best in bright sunlight as we all like to remember it. It would not be fair to reveal the plot, but it is sufficient to state that the airman’s part is played by Claude Grahame-White, who, in those days, before the war claimed his services in a more serious capacity, revealed himself as an amateur film actor of no mean order. Among the other scenes witnessed on this film, and only indirectly connected with the “story,” is a very exciting start by the late Gustav Hamel on his 50 h.p. Bleriot in a nasty side wind, and an equally fine landing showing Hamel in his best form. As a reminiscence of Hendon’s great days, “The Secret of the Air” is well worth seeing, apart from the interest attached to the “plot.”

There is much to be discovered, though little that I have found so far in the way of handy illustration – just the one photograph, reproduced above, of a camera on board a plane, plus several images from the air taken from films. Anyway, a very welcome new resource, and my thanks to Nick Hiley for drawing it to my attention. Go explore.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Airminded · Claude Grahame-White

  2. Luke: Imagine my surprise. Minutes ago I posted on my blog a 1911 photo of a flier with a motor-driven movie camera on his hydroaeroplane (great word) and then went to visit the Bioscope and saw this article. Synchronocity.

    Joe Thompson ;0)

  3. Synchronicitous indeed. Here’s the link for those who want to see it. Think I might do a post some time on early filming from the air. It’s quite a challenge trying to track down who was the first to do so, as it became a common boast among a number of cameramen and firms.

  4. Pingback: First flight « The Bioscope

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