Novels of Flight

Flight is a fascinator. From the slow glide of the seagull to the fall of Icarus, flight gives us our most arresting, archetypal images of what is novel and beautiful, resonating across all artistic genres. The opposite of flight is likely security of place, culture and role. Given our instincts for the ground, what drives us to emulate eagles and gulls? Why are we so fascinated by flying?

We will first investigate some technical aspects of aircraft design and pilot training. Then we will ask, of selected poetry, novels and films, questions such as: Does flight represent escape? Or love of risk? Or simply the precise cooperation of human and machine? Is our desire for flight war driven, business driven or a reach for other worlds?

Note: This course involves required reading and film screenings.

A $62 discount will be applied automatically for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Aviation Heroes I—Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh and others

We begin with a brief exploration of what a student pilot first studies: the theory of flight, and types of aircraft and their engines. We then explore Earhart’s and Lindbergh’s autobiographies. What happened to Earhart? And what drove Lindbergh to attempt to cross the Atlantic? How do both figure in the myth and history of today’s aviation industry? At all points and in all sessions, we welcome experiences of flight you may have found, drawn from literature and life.

A good wiki site on Earhart, another on Lindbergh:

Week 2:  Aviation Heroes II—What Identity is Fashioned By and For Pilots?

Flight and pilotage, from Icarus to Lindbergh, Earhart, Howard Hughes and Sully, has meant variously translation, artistic creation, carrying cargo, adaptation, diaspora, migration, escape, saving the stranded or those at risk, and in many senses, transcendence.  On the negative side it has meant exposure to the alien, the fear of boundless space, the fear of falling and of being lost and disoriented; eventually, the fear and risk of death. This session will be devoted to Sully and other modern pilots and aircraft.  In reality and in literature what ideals of identity and skill is a pilot supposed to meet? And what about those who do not? Back on the ground, a pilot’s training in navigation and map work are key to this week.

Week 3: Flying in Reality and Flying in Fiction—Icarus, and Howard Hughes in The Aviator I

We’ll ask how and why Howard Hughes became so good at flight, enough to fashion and fly the first massive cargo and troop-carrying aircraft, the H-4 Hercules or “Spruce Goose”. What do his skill and risk-taking say about the identity, ambition, neurosis, sociality and mythos of flight? The technical area for this week will be air law, airfields and the various Canadian, US and European flight levels and air spaces.

Week 4: Images of Flight and the Pilot—Howard Hughes in The Aviator II

In terms of pilotage we’ll next look at meteorology, weather descriptions and forecasting. How is flight and aviation history fashioned in The Aviator? How does Hughes’ reputation change in the public mind during the course of the film? At the end, what happens to his skills and why? We have a great trust that a machine made somewhat in the image of a bird, and a skill in maneuvering in three-dimensional space will overcome the risks. Where does the trust come from? Again, at all points and in all sessions, we welcome experiences of flight you may have found, drawn from literature and life.

Week 5: Flight and Ambition—Case, Antihero of Neuromancer

We explore the idea that three-dimensional flight might yet be the core sensation of science fiction, of space travel, time travel and travel in cyber space. In cyberspace, there is the immediate presence of a void rather than the pictorial distance of perceived three-dimensional space. For Gibson though, cyber dimensionality is still perceived through all the senses. This new exterior allowed by the matrices of computer memory and networks seems to replace three-dimensional landscapes, and the stars, planets and galaxies of science fiction with a new dimensionality. Or does it? Keeping to our track of our real pilot, night flying, radar and radio work will be focused on for this week.

Week 6: Neuromancer, The Fashioning of Cyberspace and Flight Through It

Movement in cyberspace may at first seem like flying at night using instruments, watching city lights unfold beneath you. But is this an old-fashioned representational view? Gibson's cyberspace is cubist, more like collage, made through an art of juxtaposition and shifting points of view, not linearity. Is this flight imagery, from the old three-dimensional world, what makes the Neuromancer trilogy work so well? We’ll end with Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules, (IFR) and how to land safely at an airport at night and in bad weather. In light of our readings, we’ll attempt a summation and evaluation of what we have found out about flight in film and literature.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

There is required reading and viewing for this course.

  • Beryl Markham, West with the Night (any version)
  • The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese

The book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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