Masters of flight

2010-09-01 00:00

IN this rather thrilling dash through the history of flight, well-known businessman, entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson (who says his own interest in aeronautics was sparked by a youthful encounter­ with the legendary World War 2 fighter pilot Douglas Bader) shows how a handful of pioneers­ and visionaries, including the famous­ Montgolfiers and Wright brothers risked everything to make their dream of flying a reality.

Writing in a light, breezy, easy-to-read style Branson begins his search into people’s fascination with flying back in ancient Greek mythology­ by telling the familiar story of Icarus who, wearing wings made of feathers and wax, flew too close to the sun and came to a sorry end in the Aegean Sea.

Although history is chock-full of projects for full-scale, people-carrying flying machines, the mechanics of flight were not to be completely mastered until the 1700s with the launch of the first hot-air balloon, with aeroplanes and then space rockets eventually following in their wake

The problem with balloons, as Branson points out, is that they have no means of propulsion but this did not stop one early aviator from insisting that he would be able to steer his balloon by using oars to row it through the air.

Branson delights in this sort of detail, mixing tales of derring-do and miraculous escapes with accounts of his own exploits as a record- breaking balloonist, airline owner and sponsor of research into space travel.

He concludes the book on a cautionary note by showing how images from space have helped sustain our rising numbers, but have also shown the damage we are doing to the planet.

As he points out, Stephen Hawking’s reason for joining Virgin Galactic is to promote the idea of space colonisation as one possible solution to the problems posed by global warming and overpopulation.

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