Coincidentally: Taking Flight


June 1, 2000

In a recent motion picture, computer technology shows the monster Godzilla toppling the Chrysler Building onto my bedroom. Special effects in the film King Kong of 1933, which ended on the nearby Empire State Building, were crude by comparison, but the script had memorable lines, the finest of which was the last: “Oh no, it wasn’t the aeroplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” If Beauty was the formal cause, as moral philosophers might say, the aeroplanes were the material agents. King Kong premiered on the tenth birthday of Charles “Chuck” Yeager. He broke the sound barrier in his Bell X- 1 “Glamorous Glennis” on October 14, 1947, being to the very day the 35th anniversary of Joseph Schrank’s attempt to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to fly.

Orville Wright died 25 years after Yeager’s birth. Five years later, Yeager set a new speed record in a rocket powered plane at 1,600 miles per hour on December 16. In 1951, an airliner crashed into the Elizabeth River in New Jersey killing 56 people, and 134 were killed in a mid-air collision over New York City in 1960 on yet another December 16.

These crashes might have been prevented had aviators been able to use the five patented systems for algorithms now used in aircraft tracking systems to avoid collisions. Their inventor, Kathryn Yearra, was born in the 40th anniversary year of the Kitty Hawk flights, and only three letters differentiate her surname from Chuck’s. There was no difference at all in the instance of Jeana Yeager: with Richard Rutan, she completed a nonstop around-the-world flight without refueling, on December 23, 1986. Their time was nine days, three minutes, and 44 seconds, or a total of 777,824 seconds, the arithmetic sum of which is 35; and in the 35th year of the 20th century, Wiley Post died, having completed the first round-the-world flight in 1933 coincident with the premiere of the film King Kong. When he crashed in Alaska, Will Rogers went with him. William Penn Adair Rogers, as God knew him, launched his career on a national scale when he joined the Ziegfeld Follies, at the age of 35.

“Yeager” means “hunter” in German, as well as “fighter plane” in popular German usage. An early German fighter shot down Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin over Chateau-Thierry on Bastille Day in 1918. Chuck Yeager was a fighter pilot in World War II, flying a B-51 Mustang. Fifty years and one day after Yeager’s jet broke the sound barrier, an automobile broke the barrier, and both used Rolls Royce engines.

Jet propulsion flying is a practical application of Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. That anxious genius (as a youth he threatened to burn his mother and stepfather alive) was born in 1727. Two hundred years later, on May 21, Chuck “Charles” Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget. On May 21, 1878, in Hammondsport, New York, Glenn H. Curtiss, inventor of the hydroplane, was born. It was his invention of the aileron that enabled the Wright brothers to get off the ground.

One day before Chuck Yeager’s first supersonic flight, he fell off a horse and broke a rib. He went on to break the sound barrier unscathed by the jet propulsion, although he was in searing pain from the horse propulsion. There was a certain poetry in that: Hernando de Soto fell off his horse in a coma and died at the mouth of the Arkansas River in 1542, exactly a century before the birth of Newton. This took place on May 21, the date of Lindbergh’s triumph 385 years later. The irony of Yeager’s horse accident was compounded in 1999, on July 8, when Charles “Pete” Conrad, having walked on the moon during the Apollo 12 voyage in 1969, died at the age of 69 in a motorcycle crash.

No quality of rocket machinery can distract us from the horses that carried the human race to the heights of civilization. However fast man flies, he will brag of it in horsepower. Pegasus lives. In mythological accounts, all poetic imagination sprang from the fountain of Hippocrene, which first flowed at a touch from the hoof of the flying horse. Imaginative interpreters may read a clandestine prophesy of the aeroplane into the poetry of Samuel Butler who rode horses:

For, those that fly, may fly again, Which he can never do that’s slain.

And Butler, coincidentally, was born 300 years before the death of Wilbur Wright.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...