Readers recommend: songs about aviation | Peter Kimpton

Planes, helicopters, gliders, balloons, rockets or drones, name your songs about the fears, dreams, and thrills that take flight as we reach for the skies

Can there be anybody, who, at some point, has not woken up just after a dream of flying? Lucid visions of floating over streets, buildings, mountains, or even above your own bed could express an array of feelings – a thrilled, joyful release, a fear of danger and lack of control, or a yearning for freedom from life’s problems. Perhaps it’s an unstoppable urge for an elsewhere, and as transatlantic female pioneer Amelia Earhart put it: “You haven’t see a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.”

Flying is as much in the mind as in the body, and flight can transcend place, as well as time, an experience summed up by Thomas Pynchon in his difficult but ultimately rewarding masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow: “Real flight and dreams of flight go together. Both are part of the same movement.” Here then is a flight of fantasy that soars with a dreamlike beauty. It came to me in my childhood, and will always be a bit special.

Walking in the Air from the animated version of The Snowman (1982) sung by Peter Auty

I cannot help see or hear The Snowman at this time of year without also thinking of an even earlier childhood thrill, an animated version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol featuring the voice of Alistair Sim (1971). Ebenezer Scrooge is transported into different times, past, present and future, and for me this will always feel like dreamy, psychological aviation.

A Christmas Carol (1971)

What is it about flying that has inspired many creative endeavours, including song? Perhaps imagining flight is a physiological throwback to the dawn of our DNA, to a turning point when the human strand developed hairs rather than feathers, limbs rather than wings, and shed what resembled webbed toes or joined fingers. Animals may well dream of flight too. Cats’ and dogs’ limbs twitch, just as ours do, during lucid dreaming, but what do they see in their minds’ eye other than scampering through the undergrowth, or climbing up the branches of trees? Analysis of the tiny twitches of their mouse leg joints when sleeping have, I remember reading, suggested a muscular movement not unlike a wing flap. Perhaps then a mouse dreams it is a bat, or indeed a flying squirrel?

Siberian flying squirrel
Siberian flying squirrel in Japan. Photograph: Masatsugu Ohashi/Rex Features

Great songs very often have a moment when they truly lift off – a sudden solo, a key change, a stirring chorus, a lyric that turns the narrative, an unusual sound, an inflection in the voice, an emotional revelation or elevation. But this week your song suggestions must actually touch on the subject of aviation, by which we mean not birds (a topic already covered), but the machinery or means by which humans, other creatures, or other objects that do not naturally fly, can do so. It is something that took off primarily in the 20th century, but has been part of world culture long before that.

Transcending time and place, aviation is a dream that may have begun, in written form, with the Greek mythological Icarus. We tend to associate early practical aviation with the wacky attempts of late-19th and early 20th century inventors with their flapping, collapsing crashing machines in the era of before the early aeroplane of Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. However, aside from kites in the Middle East, Asia and China, humans began more than two millennia ago with plans and practical attempts to mimic bird flight with machines, even if in short hops.

Henri Farman in a Farman biplane
Henri Farman in a Farman biplane at the Blackpool air show in 1909. Photograph: Walter Doughty

Such ideas include the concept of a flying automaton by Archytas of Tarentum (428–347 BC), the the feathered-up attempted flights of Abbas Ibn Firnas (810–887), gliding bird attempts by Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury (11th century), early drawings of helicopters by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the hot-air balloon of Passarola of Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão (1685–1724), culminating the best known pioneering design in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers and early plane designs by Sir George Cayley in 1799.

Hot air balloon festival Leon, Mexico
The international balloon festival in Leon, Guanajuato state, Mexico. Photograph: Leopoldo Smith Murillo/EPA

The 20th century, driven by modern warfare, littered the sky with zeppelins and simple biplanes until the turbojets and jet engines took over. Gliders and other lighter-than-air models were superseded by a new force – de Havilland, Spitfire, Messerschmidt, Lockheed Martin, Boeing … The list is long, but the obsession with flight, even beyond power or money, prevails, and its grip was perhaps expressed none more potently than in the form of pioneering entrepreneur, Howard Hughes. Leonardo Di Caprio, in one of his better performances, captures this obsession in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. “It’s the way of the future,” he says, repeatedly.

Howard Hughes lifted into movie form, with Leonardo Di Caprio in The Aviator.

Hughes was right. But in aviation terms, the space age was the way of the future and came next. Space is a subject previously covered in RR, but as it comes under the subject of aviation, so unlisted songs could still count. The space age perhaps reached its peak in the public’s imagination with the moon landings from 1969. Somehow the dream did not fully continue. Space Shuttle missions were hit by the tragedies of Challenger (1986) and Endeavour (2003). And Virgin’s VSS Enterprise crash on 31 October 2014 has also been a setback, not only for the practicality of passenger space flight, but also in the imagination. And yet space exploration by long-distance craft, if not for carrying people, but in the hope of discovering new lifeforms, remains exciting.

Space Shuttle Endeavour's Mission To The International Space Station
Oh, what a wonderful world … astronaut Rick Mastracchio and STS-118 mission specialist working on the International Space Station. Photograph: Nasa/Getty Images

Has aviation in the 21st century stalled? A culture of cheap flights, with firms such as Ryanair has brought more people into the air than ever before. But after 9/11 much of the joy, restricted by security concerns and delays, has made it mundane, when really it should still be magical. Yet plane crashes, such as the disappearance of flight MH370 and the shooting down of MH17 still don’t put most people off.

Deutsche Post Tests Deliveries a drone
Future skyline? A quadcopter drone arrives with a small delivery at Deutsche Post headquarters in Bonn, Germany Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

But perhaps the most fascinating, and perhaps frightening development in aviation is not to do with aircraft that carries people, but bombs, goods and information. Drone bombing missions in the Middle East and beyond are on the increase, but closer to home for westerners, with Amazon testing them for shopping missions, drones may become the new feature on our future skyline, far more prominently than helicopters, aeroplanes, satellites or spaceships. Look then to the skies, as well as your music collections, for inspiration.

Waiting in the wings for your song suggestions, this week’s watchful eye on the dial and caretaker of the cockpit is the returning flight lieutenant vikingbones. Place your songs in the aeroplane hold in comments below or optionally in the Spotify playlist by last orders 11pm on Monday 15 December for a carefully flown journey to a final list published on Thursday 18 December. This has been Captain Kimpton speaking. Enjoy your flight. Over and out, and all clear for takeoff …

Spotify playlist for songs about aviation

To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:

• Tell us why it’s a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song’s words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify, SoundCloud or Grooveshark are fine.
• Listen to others people’s suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist, please email
• There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at theMarconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and otherstrange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the ‘Spill blog.


Peter Kimpton

The GuardianTramp

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