Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation

By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere.[1] Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations.

Aviation was then a very new thing—practically the embodiment of modernity. The famous first flights of the Wright brothers in the United States took place only at the end of 1903, and it took several years for their feats to be emulated in Europe. In Britain, the first airplane flight took place in 1908. Flying boomed in the years thereafter, as brave and perhaps foolhardy enthusiasts took to the skies in flimsy aircraft, sometimes of their own design and manufacture. Aviation itself was clearly in a state of flux, and the optimal forms and uses of aircraft were in the process of being determined.

Colonel Cody as a popular hero. Last page of “Aeroplane Waltzes” by Ezra Read (1910), which was dedicated to this famous aviator. Source: Internet Archive, Smithsonian Collection.
What constituted an aviation authority in this period was similarly unstable. Enthusiasm and daring were as important as technical knowledge or even flight experience, perhaps more so. But other, less obvious factors could also help build a reputation as an aviation expert, such as a talent for spectacle, useful for impressing politicians and voters alike. Military connections were also valuable, given the possibility that aviation might be useful for national or imperial defence, but also because of the common (if sometimes unwarranted) associations of martial vigour and professional competence that went with an officer’s rank. Foreign fliers had some cachet, particular the French, who were Europe’s leading aviators at this time, but also Americans, borrowing theirs from the Wrights (themselves fêted as heroes when they visited London in 1909).

There was one aviator who exemplified all of these factors to some degree: Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody, the first person to fly in Britain.[2] Although he was by no means the most important or the most influential aviation expert in this period, Cody’s career illustrates how it was possible to accumulate authority in the field of aviation without any formal qualifications at all. An American, he started out as a Wild West showman—having borrowed the surname of the more famous “Buffalo Bill” Cody—and became interested in ballooning while on the entertainment circuit in London. He soon turned to developing kites capable of lifting a person off the ground, which he demonstrated successfully to the public and attempted to sell to the British armed forces. By 1906, Cody was employed by the British Army to develop his “man-lifting kites” and his further experiments led to British Army Aeroplane No. 1, in which he carried out the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight in Britain on October 16, 1908.
“I hope at no very distant date to play an important part in the complete conquest of the air.” A 1904 pamphlet produced by Cody to promote his war kite to potential buyers and investors, drawing heavily on his prominence in the press and emphasizing his demonstrations for the military. Via “Kiting,” RAF Museum
Cody adjusting a wheel on an aircraft in 1909 while a crowd looked on.
© IWM (RAE-O 305)

Cody had established his reputation as an aeronautical expert even before the arrival of the airplane—he was already patenting his war kites by 1901—and he managed to maintain that authority in the new and very different era of heavier-than-air aviation. Others in this category included the expatriate American, Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the eponymous machine gun and a serious contributor to the understanding of aerodynamics, and Colonel Baden Baden-Powell, the younger brother of the founder of the Boy Scout movement and an advocate of the use of ballooning in military reconnaissance. Such figures were prominent in the first years of heavier-than-air flight in Britain, but they were unable to capitalise on this position as they largely remained wedded to older technologies. Cody was the great exception, until his aviation career ended along with his life in August 1913, when his latest design, the Cody Floatplane, crashed. His funeral with full military honors was attended by tens of thousands from the general public.

Cody’s funeral procession, August 11, 1913. © IWM (RAE-O 1004).

The ever-changing and forward-looking nature of aviation meant that authority needed to be kept up to date. Most importantly, the coming of the Great War in 1914 eventually transformed the airplane from a frail assemblage of wood and wire into a sturdy and capable machine. By 1918, technology had moved on, and prewar aviation experts like Claude Grahame-White, the most famous flier in prewar Britain, now found it difficult to maintain the appearance of being fully up to date. The war also created a large class of men with experience not only in flying aircraft but also in making, repairing, and commanding them. The pool of potential experts was much larger. Precisely because there were now so many trained pilots, however, being able to fly was no longer in itself enough. Some of the new experts produced by the war thus drew their authority from new institutions, like the Air Ministry and the Royal Air Force. For example, Brigadier-General P. R. C. Groves had little actual flying experience, and for that matter little technical knowledge. But as a senior RAF staff officer by the end of the war and later a British delegate on aviation matters at the Paris Peace Conference and then the League of Nations, he was able to convert his institutional status into authority through his aviation journalism for The Times and two years as head of the Aerial League of the British Empire. In 1934, his book Behind the Smoke Screen became a standard text for anyone who shared the now widespread fears about Britain’s vulnerability to aerial bombardment.[3]

Amy Johnson, ca. 1930, portrayed as glamorous and determined, via Wikimedia Commons.
A charismatic Amy Johnson waving to the enthusiastic crowd after landing at Brisbane, Australia; photograph published in The Queenslander, June 5, 1930, and digitized by the State Library of Queensland (image no. 196480).

Other means of creating authority were available. Flying prowess remained useful, of course. Amy Johnson became a household name in Britain after her daring solo flight to Australia in 1930, the first of a number of record-breaking long-distance flights. If ability and daring were perhaps not quite enough to grant her the same authority enjoyed by Groves, her celebrity was cemented by her glamorous looks and her marriage to another famous pilot, Jim Mollison, in 1932. Nevertheless, despite prevailing gender norms and her lack of military experience, by 1934 Johnson was writing for the Daily Mail on aviation topics, including air defence and offence.[4] Conversely, the very narrative of technological progress associated with aviation could undermine the value of flying experience, since it was unclear how relevant an understanding of today’s technology would be to that of tomorrow. Thus H. G. Wells, a famous novelist and public intellectual, wrote on numerous occasions about the promise and peril of aviation. His early warning The War in the Air (1908) was echoed in a more terrifying form in the film which he scripted, Things to Come (1936), notable for its terrifying portrayal of an air raid on a large city very similar to London.[5]

The point here is not that any of these aviation experts were any more or less legitimate than the others in the public eye; rather, it is that their authority in all cases was constructed. While credibility had to be earned, there was no one way to do so, and there was nothing natural or inevitable about the process. In order to become an aviation authority in Britain in the early twentieth century, actual flying ability was neither necessary nor sufficient. Status, charisma or imagination were just as useful, and often better.

Brett Holman is Lecturer in History at the University of New England, New South Wales, Australia, and blogs about his research at Airminded.

  1. Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908–1941 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 10–11.  ↩
  2. Malcolm Hall, From Balloon to Boxkite: The Royal Engineers and Early British Aeronautics (Stroud: Amberley, 2010).  ↩
  3. Brett Holman, “The Shadow of the Airliner: Commercial Bombers and the Rhetorical Destruction of Britain, 1917–35,” Twentieth Century British History 24, no. 4 (2013): 495–517,  ↩
  4. Liz Millward, Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922–1937 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).  ↩
  5. Robert Wohl, A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908–1918 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 70–76.  ↩
Suggested citation: Brett Holman, “Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation,” History of Knowledge, October 12, 2017,