Category: Art & Culture

The Whispering Blades of the flying ‘Mad Men’


As a five-year-old child, my favourite 45 r.p.m. 7” singles were, in order, Tom Hark by Elias and his Zig-Zag Jive Flutes, Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders by much-cherished nursery-rhyme-mangler Stanley Unwin, and, last but definitely not least, a promotional 33 1/3 r.p.m flexidisc (you will remember these if you were born before, say, 1990) acquired by my aviation journalist father while working in Montreal, entitled How Quiet Is Our STOL?

Listen to the record here



This obscure little gem was issued by de Havilland Canada to extol the virtues of the company’s prospective new feederliner, the DHC-7, or Dash 7, which made its maiden flight on March 27, 1975. I listened to this flexidisc hundreds, if not thousands of times during my childhood, the urbane Canadian narrator sounding to me like the epitome of transatlantic sophistication; his voice was the very essence of an impossibly glamorous world, in which advertising executives boarded tastefully appointed turboprops at downtown airports, behind which loomed a backdrop of shimmering skyscrapers, where 30 minutes previously the immaculately-suited executives had been standing at floor-to-ceiling picture windows on the 130th floor sipping Martinis as a prelude to escaping the city’s steel canyons, by means of a runway built into the harbour below.

Pretty heady stuff, considering the flexidisc was essentially five minutes and one second of comparative recordings of different aircraft flying overhead, with the aforementioned narrator, whom I was sure was wearing a perfectly laundered tab-collar shirt with a slim wool-knit tie under a finely-tailored seersucker suit with thin lapels and five-inch side vents, explaining why the Dash 7 was the perfect aircraft with which to “establish a new metropolitan STOL transportation system” — which sounded immensely cool to me.

I had no idea what a metropolitan STOL transportation system was, but I knew that I wanted one in Croydon, which, with its impressive towering skyline (ahem) would become the New York or Chicago of, um, South London, and which would need high-speed links between the “metropolitan” and “downtown” areas such a modernist conurbation would inevitably spawn. The liner notes of the flexidisc’s gatefold sleeve explain that the DHC-7 had been specially developed to “permit its unobtrusive operation into built-up areas — the maximum noise level produced will not exceed 95 PNdB [Perceived Noise Decibels] at a distance of 500ft from the aircraft”. It goes on: “This recording has been prepared to provide a truly subjective appreciation of what a 95 PNdB noise level means in comparison with both conventional transport aircraft and downtown noise as represented by an eight-lane freeway”.

An EIGHT-LANE FREEWAY? What in the name of christmas daisies was that? Sounded like a much, much cooler version of our motorway, much grander, where cars with fins were driven by men in fedoras. I’m not sure quite why I had this 1950s notion about all of this, as the record probably dates from around 1974–75, when all that terrific Mad Men-era stuff had long since devolved into long hair and flares — but listening to it again now, I still see Ford Edsels and enormous station-wagons with wood panelling freemoving along a coastal highway like ants. Anyhow, after a brief intro from the narrator (who I imagined was probably the aircraft’s designer or at least the chief test pilot, which I now admit is unlikely), the listener is treated to the sound of a Boeing 727-100 passing overhead at a whopping peak noise level of 117 PNdB (hopeless!), before the far more satisfactory General Electric T64 turboprop-powered DHC-5 Buffalo (109 PNdB) makes its pass. Following hot on its heels is another turbojet, a DC-9-10, which is between the big tri-jet and the sturdy Buffalo, at 114 PNdB. Next up is our hero, the Dash 7, which tiptoes by discreetly at a 95 PNdB whisper — hurrah for de Havilland!

This was possible because the Dash 7’s engine configuration was specially designed to have a very low propeller tip speed, aided by low-noise paddle-type prop blades; buried air intakes and overwing exhausts for the type’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-50 turboprops also added to the Dash 7’s enviably low noise signature. To show just how quiet the new feederliner was in an urban environment, the record then provides the sound of a busy eight-lane freeway  — imagine my excitement! — at 90 PNdB, with a repeat of the Dash 7 following immediately afterwards. “This aircraft will provide attractive transportation for 48 passengers between conveniently located downtown STOLports,” explains the narrator, before assuring the listener that the new aircraft is built on firmly established de Havilland principles. STOLports — wow! Can we make one in the garden? As the hushed tones of the Dash 7 flying overhead disappear into the flexidisc’s run-off, my imagined 1950s-vintage Sim-City world wobbles and fades to black — shall we play it again?

By Nick Stroud

Editor of The Aviation Historian:

Penetrate the last redoubts of nature, make space retreat, make death retreat!


JG Ballard on the modern experience of flight:

Before take-off the cabin crew perform a strange folkloric rite that involves synchronised arm movements and warnings of fire and our possible immersion in water, all presumably part of an appeasement ritual whose origins lie back in the pre-history of the propeller age.

The success of human flight presents a trajectory of unfathomable bathos: beginning impossible, aviation moves quite swiftly through the exhilaratingly dangerous before settling inexorably into the banal. That my life has been punctuated by family Journeys between England and New Zealand has ensured that air travel for me conjures solely endless and excruciating cramping of limbs, parching of skin and eventual jetlag. It was only when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano wafted out its great clouds of ash in 2010 and grounded Europe’s aeroplanes that I experienced a glimmering of the poetic possibilities of aviation.

The combination of the boring, the sacred and the ritualistically troubling that Ballard ascribes to the modern flight reminds me of my childhood relationship with poetry. Although its joys and grandeur were glimpsable through the classroom’s assorted mires, it was an as distant and exam-related topic for me as any other. A literature degree later I am employed once a week to help ignite a passion for literature in an eight year old and a twelve year old boy. They attend one of London’s most creative and expensive primary schools and whilst both are astute, artistic and enjoy school, their mother had noticed that both tend to see literature as more of a daft chore than the inspirational seat of all human passion and achievement that she herself perceives. Poetic attempts to render flight’s thrills are often similarly laboured, coming off romanticised and unmagical (Google aviation and poetry for a look). These were my favourite lines:

…penetrate the last

redoubts of nature, make space

retreat, make death retreat.

  • Romain Rolland, 1912


I like how this most deathly and spatial of pastimes is modelled as postponing both space and death. Rather than approaching the exhilaration of people in flight, it extends the unnaturalness of the activity into a distilled moment of godlike atemporality. Language’s inadequacy to emulate precisely the thrills of humankind taking to the skies is superseded by its excellence at spatial and temporal distortions.

To my small protégés I attempt to present poetry as just this kind of nebulous layering of estrangements. Perhaps the medium lends itself so tenuously to early aviation (even in Robert Wohl’s chapter on ‘Poets of Space’ most literary reference is to prose) just because of this curious distortionary similarity. Both are, to quote Ballard again, exquisitely tailored relations of ‘line and function’. My students’ professed mounting dread and pre-emptive boredom is something I try to harness rather than deny.

The functions of the poetic line is to create something akin to that moment in 2010 where emptied skies created in me the excitement of aviation. If their dreaded poem can be seen as this kind of vessel to be guided into some kind of revelation of meaning, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the underwhelming experience of modern air travel can yet be shown to contain some of the dreadful awe of the first human flights.

By Emily McCarthy

Writer, tutor and research student of the Wellcome Trust’s utopias, built and unbuilt, at the London Consortium.

Painting the sky in blood: The Red Baron as a folk artist

‘Pilots are almost by nature individualists, and the First World War gave these men the opportunity to let their extrovert personalities have free rein. This took many forms: wild and riotous living, hair-raising stunt flying, a constant attempt to debunk authority, “brass hats” in particular, and last but not least the extraordinary private markings of their aeroplanes. ‘


This generalisation of the character of pilots, whilst happily coincident with the devil-may-care, skilled but anti-authoritarian, anti-hero so prevalent in popular fiction (Han Solo in Star Wars for example), is not borne out by fact. Thus it is startling that the ‘extraordinary private markings’ which actually were adopted by thousands of individual aviators in the First World War should have come about primarily due to the action of a man who was profoundly respectful of authority and a member of the aristocracy (Nowarra & Franks 1958), described by Ernst Udet (the highest scoring German pilot to survive the war) as ‘the least complicated man I ever knew. Entirely Prussian and the greatest of soldiers.’ (Udet 1935 p72)

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So inexorably tangled is this man with the image he created through the medium of his aeroplane that his very nickname, now almost shorthand for the Great War Air Ace, references his work with a paintbrush. ‘The Red Baron’ is arguably most famous today as Snoopy’s imaginary opponent in Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip (Schulz 1950-2000) he has also featured in several films, most recently an eponymous German production of 2008. This is all due to the fact that in early 1917 Manfred von Richthofen painted his aeroplane red; A seemingly random act by a man in thrall to military ideals and almost by definition, the epitome of the non-creative spirit. So why did Manfred von Richthofen paint his aeroplane red? Can this and other decorated German fighter aircraft be considered an example of applied art?

Read Britain’s top female aerobatic pilot describing her favourite aeroplane here

In 1917 the aeroplane was barely ten years old and the first instance wherein one aircraft had intentionally destroyed another had occurred less than two years previously (Gunston 1975). Despite the very short time frame involved, another pilot had already painted his entire aircraft red and achieved passing fame. His name was Jean Navarre and he much better fitted the ideal of the mercurial anti-establishment figure. He would become known as ‘The Sentinel of Verdun’ and was briefly France’s premier fighter pilot before a medical board declared ‘Lieutenant Navarre’s mind is deranged’ and he was removed from active service (Sykes 1937).

At this time Richthofen was on the Eastern front so there is little reason to suppose he was aware of the all-red aircraft of Navarre (Nowarra & Brown 1958). Manfred von Richthofen was born in 1892 and ‘grew up in an atmosphere comparable to that of the son of an English country squire at the turn of the century. His pursuits of hunting, shooting and fishing were not dissimilar’ (Nowarra & Brown 1958: p9) His father was a Baron and an officer in the Prussian army and his mother was a wealthy heiress (Richthofen 1917) Manfred was a member of the ruling classes; he was not an anti-establishment figure. Much of his autobiography is taken up with accounts of hunting; his subsequent prowess at destroying aircraft is treated essentially as an unusual form of game shooting. Manfred went to military school as a cadet from the age of eleven and was serving as a lancer by 1911. In 1915 he transferred to the air service. He flew for a time as an observer before training as a pilot. By the time of his death in April 1918 he had shot down 80 aircraft, officially more than any other pilot of the war. At this point he had been flying an all red aircraft for about a year (Wohl 1994).

What are the ten best-looking German aeroplanes? Find out here

Richthofen’s autobiography was first published late in 1917. It is partly a work of propaganda but there is no reason to suppose that the sections that do not deal directly with the war as it was being fought had any external influence. Richthofen describes painting his aeroplane thus ‘It occurred to me to have my crate painted all over in glaring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird.’ (Richthofen 1917) This was just the first of several all-red aircraft that he would fly. It is interesting here that Richthofen states what the result actually was but not whether this was the intended result. Also it is not clear whether he meant, by ‘everyone’, his squadron (whom he was now leading), the German air service as a whole, all the armed forces of both sides or, really, everyone. It is certainly the case that his fame, or rather the fame of his aircraft, spread rapidly. In early 1917 Richthofen contrived to crash his aircraft next to the British machine he had just forced to land, ‘I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it “Le Petit Rouge”.’(Richthofen 1917)

Evidently, if Richthofen’s aim was advertising then he had succeeded. Indeed he succeeded rather too well for ‘the English had put a price on Richthofen’s head, with the stipulation that the red machine is shot down’. Or at least that was what was believed by other German pilots (it was not true) (vanWyngarden 2004) Before long, under the guise of protecting their leader from being singled out by the enemy, the whole squadron wanted in on the act as recounted by Manfred’s younger brother Lothar:

‘It had long been our wish to have all the aeroplanes of our Staffel painted red, and we implored my brother to allow it. The request was granted for we had shown ourselves worthy of the red colour by our many aerial kills. The red colour signified a certain insolence. Everyone knew that. It attracted attention. Proudly we looked at our red birds.’ (vanWyngarden 2004: pp12-13)

This shows that the colour red now signified a certain merit. One couldn’t just paint one’s aircraft red, one had to earn it and one is proud of it. Also the psychological connotations are plain to Lothar, even if his older brother hadn’t bothered to mention any. Red attracts attention and signifies ‘insolence’. The red of the aircraft is a statement, not a practical consideration. When Richthofen painted his aircraft red it could have been argued that it served to make him, as leader, instantly recognisable to his squadron mates. Richthofen himself said that a leader’s aircraft should be easily identifiable. This squadron-wide move by contrast looks like pure chutzpah in the face of the enemy.

What is not clear is that the enemy read it exactly in this way however. It is worth remembering that when Richthofen painted his aeroplane red, Europe was still a continent of Edwardian values and his action was more socially outrageous than it might at first appear. By way of example, in Death in Venice, written five years earlier,Mann writes that, as his mental state collapses, Asenbach’s ‘necktie was scarlet, his broad-brimmed straw hat encircled with a many-coloured ribbon.’ (Mann 1912: p263). This in direct contrast to the sober clothing of the rational German titled author who is definitely not in the business of falling for beautiful boys; Or the sort of man who paints his aeroplane red?

‘A very amusing thing occurred. One of the Englishmen whom we had shot down and whom we had made a prisoner was talking with us. Of course he inquired after the Red Aeroplane… there was a rumour that the Red Machine was occupied by a girl, by a kind of Jeanne d’Arc. He was intensely surprised when I assured him that the supposed girl was standing in front of him. He did not intend to make a joke. He was actually convinced that only a girl could sit in the extravagantly painted machine.’ (Richthofen 1917)

Perhaps: Not the reaction of a man impressed with the brio of his opponent as a combatant so much as admiring the bravery of some kind of aerial transvestite in parading about in a suspiciously feminine aircraft. In the first English language edition of Richthofen’s autobiography, C G Grey, the noted aero journalist, can’t entirely suppress a patronising tone on the subject:

‘Their leader chose to paint his little Albatros a brilliant pillar-box red. The others painted their machines according to their fancy. Some had yellow noses, blue bodies and green wings. Some were pale blue underneath and black on top. Some were painted in streaks, some with spots. In fact, they rang the changes on the whole of the paint-box.’ (Richthofen 1917)

Grey makes it plain the effect that Richthofen’s red aeroplane had on his comrades. Apparently unworried by the gender concerns of their opponents, German pilots painted all their aircraft in a great variety of colours, a tiny handful of which are depicted in the appendix. What is particularly surprising about this is that the German army, an organisation stereotypically famed for its discipline should allow this to occur at all. It would appear that the fame of Richthofen and his all-red aircraft effectively precluded any objection to encouraging other pilots to emulate the hero. The British high command, by contrast, ‘regarding uniformity as a virtue, viewed the unorthodox in aircraft markings with as much distaste as variations in airmen’s uniforms’ (Green and Swanborough 1981: p8).

The example of the ‘Seven Swabians’ Fokker D.VII flown by Wilhelm Scheutzel serves to represent the aesthetic development of the short-lived era of individual aircraft decoration from the broad stroke abstraction of Le Petit Rouge. Corporal Wilhelm Scheutzel (a corporal it should be noted – nearly the lowliest rank of all), destined to shoot down a single enemy aircraft, decided to decorate his aircraft with the Seven Swabians from one of Grimm’s more obscure fairy tales. It is unusual amongst its contemporaries in that it depicts human figures but apart from that it can be considered relatively typical. The Swabians in question, all carrying the same lance, fall in a river and drown after mistaking a rabbit for a dragon. It serves no practical purpose – It certainly isn’t camouflage nor can the scheme be considered as a practical means of identification. In fact it would be hard to say that it serves any purpose at all save to appeal to the taste of the pilot. As a propagandist tool the Swabians are not a symbol to inspire fear in an opponent or martial enthusiasm in an ally. It refers to an act of militaristic incompetence by Germans. The Swabians were stupid and died. The dragon was a rabbit. The image is comical, charming, pretty even. It would not look out of place on a child’s bedroom wall. Scheutzel’s aeroplane delights in a self-deprecatory joie de vivre that contrasts with the circumstances of its creation in the midst of the bloodiest industrialised war the world had yet seen.

How to explain this phenomenon of which Richthofen was the vanguard and remains the standard bearer? Could the decorated fighter aircraft be an example of folk art?

It is unlike any other movement in any field of art before or since, indeed it is quite separate from later examples of aircraft decoration or graffiti. In the Second World War aircraft, particularly American, were often decorated with various painted decorations, which became generally known as ‘nose art’, and this has received some academic attention. Most of it was profoundly sexual in nature and much was simply the work of pin-up artists such as Vargas and Petty copied onto the aircraft’s skin (Ethell and Simonsen 2003) ‘Army Air Force Regulation 35-22 officially sanctioned nose art as a means of “increasing morale”; however, the regulation was meant to curb the suggestiveness of the nose art particularly in the field’ (Bilsing 2005: p20). There was no need with the German aircraft of the First World War. Figurative elements are minimal at best and there is not a woman in sight . This may say a good deal about the preoccupations of contemporary German society and that of America in the ‘forties but it does, I think, make the German work more interesting. It is abstract and often based solely in colour. It is does not consist of the application of a decoration onto an existing colour scheme, though it may contain decorative elements. There is very little copying. It is not functioning in the same way as ‘nose art’.

Sometimes the schemes contain elements of heraldry or chivalric devices but it does not fit easily into a heraldic tradition. It is true that some pilots were from the aristocracy, Richthofen himself for example, however most were not. Shields, dragons and other heraldic figures are used without regard to their historic function but for their aesthetic appeal or generic warlike or fierce qualities. Historically-

‘each participant in a passage of arms, whether of a warlike or merely sporting character, wore a coat of arms on his shield… and on the trappings of his horse. This was the only means of distinguishing him from other combatants’ (Neubecker 1979: p14)

National markings had rendered this function obsolete, thus whilst the combatants of this war might serve to render their aircraft distinguishable it was generally for their own benefit and not to render them recognisable to others.

The First World War produced a plethora of what is now known as trench art which fits into a folk art tradition exemplified by the scrimshaw work of sailors (Saunders 2003). However, trench art is defined as ‘objects made by soldiers…from the waste of industrialised war, and a host of miscellaneous materials’ (Saunders 2003: p9) Richthofen did produce trench art: ‘a lamp which I made from the engine of an aeroplane I had shot down. I fitted small bulbs into the cylinders’ (Richthofen 1917) but his and others operational aircraft are not the ‘waste of industrialised war’ nor are they ‘miscellaneous materials’. A better comparison would be the mass of ornament that covered wooden fighting ships until the mid nineteenth century. Like a fighter aircraft the ship is simultaneously a conveyance and a weapon. However the decoration of warships was applied during construction and carried out by craftsmen (Dodds and Moore 2005), the aircraft of the Great War were mass-produced and decorated by their pilots.

Cars are also mass-produced and some are extensively redecorated by their owners in a process collectively referred to as customisation and Cooper 1994 discusses this practice as an example of ‘working class art’. The awkward reality of the pilots of the Great War is that they were not generally working class (some were). Richthofen was an aristocrat, most were middle class. Despite this, they were functioning in an unusual situation that served to break down the greater extremes of class distinction so I feel the comparison is not unwarranted. Indeed is it possible that these aircraft represent a very specific form of outsider art? In The Artist Outsider Gerald L Davis states ‘“Outsider art” seems to be one of those pleasantly unambiguous phrases intended to represent exactly what it describes, aesthetic creations produced by people trained outside of a fine arts tradition.’ (in Hall and Metcalf Jr 1994) These decorated aircraft as aesthetic creations fit this definition. However I think that describing the phenomenon as outsider art is, frankly, erroneous. Nonetheless Dubuffet argues that Art Brut was

‘produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry … so that such creators owe everything – their subject-matter, their choice of materials, their modes of transcription, their rhythms and styles of drawing, and so on – to their own resources rather then to the stereotypes of artistic tradition or fashion’ (Dubuffet 1973: p91)

The artist-pilots were entirely reliant on their own resources and materials, down to the very canvas they used – the literal canvas their aircraft were covered with. These men were not the outsiders in the sense of the insane or the disenfranchised that so fascinated Dubuffet. Nonetheless, that the pilots were people from diverse backgrounds who found themselves in a unique, dangerous and new situation is undeniable. Their aesthetic response was also new and unique. The notion of the outsider here is that the rarefied qualities of their experience placed them outside (quite literally, at times, above) the rest of society and rendered them therefore different, though different as a group. The particular accident of their nationality and the attitude of those who governed them created the environment in which their work could flourish.


I think it is fair to say that this represents a totally unique form of folk art and Richthofen a totally unique artist-creator. It has no true precedent and it lasted barely two years but during that period became so popular amongst its practitioners that by the time it ceased it had become virtually universal amongst an absolutely specific band of soldiers. What is certain is that it can never happen again. Writing in 1957 Barthes had this to say about the pilot of the past compared to the modern ‘jet-man’ pilot of the fifties.

‘the traditional hero, whose whole value was to fly without forgoing his humanity (like Saint Exupéry who was a writer or Lindbergh who flew in a lounge-suit). But the mythological peculiarity of the jet-man is that he keeps none of the romantic and individualistic elements of the sacred role’ (Barthes 1957: pp72-73)

They may not have written like Saint Exupéry but they painted like there was no tomorrow. The tragedy of their particular school is that for so many of them, Richthofen included, there wasn’t to be one.

By Ted Ward

Illustrator, historian and founding member of Uke Attack! Uke Attack!