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Those Magnificent Flying Machines
aka: Magnificent Flying Machines

It's a Falling Machine. I'm so impressed.

Once upon a time flying was not the relatively mundane commute that it is today, but an adventure into an unexplored realm, a victory over gravity that was long thought to be impossible. Flying machines were not the shiny, high-technology Cool Planes we regularly see in the sky nowadays, but fabulous contraptions cobbled together by Mad Scientists, sporting lots of spinny bits, belching smoke and fire, risky and magnificent.

This trope is for all Flying Machines that reflect this aesthetic, and this romantic way of looking at human flight. It is most usually found in Steam Punk and Raygun Gothic works, but may also have a place in Fantasy and even Historical Fiction.

In more fantasy-oriented works, Sky Pirates may make use of Those Magnificent Flying Machines to plough the ocean of air in their search for prey. Floating Continents and a World in the Sky may or may not be involved. Please don't try to take this trope too far into the realm of fantasy, though. Letting flight be entirely explained by magic, for example, would not have the same feel or meaning for the story. A flying ship kept airborne by a wizard's spell would not count as an example of this trope (though a flying ship that uses magic to drive a hundred tiny propellers very well might).

Generally, a Magnificent Flying Machine will have one or several of the following features:

  • It will be powered by steam. Or bicycle pedals. Or simply the Rule of Cool.
  • It may have an inordinate number of wings. Which may flap. And may be far too small to be what's really keeping it aloft.
  • It may also have lots of propellers. Which may be corkscrew-shaped.
  • It will be a clear example of Bamboo Technology. Or, sometimes, Magitek.
  • It will have an open, fragile-looking frame, possibly with thin canvas wings and lots of machinery visible inside. Or its hull may be incredibly heavy-looking, totally un-aerodynamic, and studded with rivets.
  • It will have lots of spinning cogs and gears and other shiny moving parts.
  • Its designers probably Failed Engineering Forever.
  • And yet, against all odds... it will still fly.

Large examples may be Cool Airships — though Cool Airships don't always follow this aesthetic, and Magnificent Flying Machines don't have to be large (or lighter-than-air). Or cool, necessarily. While usually these craft will be treated as impressive feats of engineering — as the title implies — in some settings a primitive-looking flying machine will be Played for Laughs (perhaps as an aeronautical version of The Alleged Car). Actual use of the term "Flying Machine" usually suggests humour.

Actual aircraft in the early days of aviation, as well as many early unsuccessful attempts to build flying machines, may well fit here. Leonardo da Vinci deserves special mention for dreaming up many fanciful aircraft in the early 16th century (several examples below were inspired by his work). The trope likely stopped applying to Real Life sometime between World War I and World War II, as airplanes gradually evolved towards their modern form, and as large rigid airships passed their heyday and fell into disuse.

See also: Useful Notes on airships.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • The flying machine of Alexander LeRoi in the Batman Elseworld comic Master of the Future.
  • In De cape et de crocs, Bombastus builds a pedal-powered flying machine with flapping wings, all thanks to Bamboo Technology. Subverted in that half-way through the flight, he realizes it's not actually working - just slowing their fall.
  • An episode of Valerian, "World Without Stars", had pseudo-Renaissance blimps pulled by teams of horse-sized insects.
    • The airships we see at the end could also qualify, since they're basically modified old-school balloons.
  • Lady Mechanika has the Lewis Flyer, which appears to be a steampowered vintage car with ornithopter wings and a helicopter rotor that somehow still manages to fly.
  • The vehicles in the air battle between the Devil Doctor and Professor Moriarty in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
  • Starscream's alt-mode in the Steam Punk Transformers Elseworld Hearts of Steel is a batwinged fantasia of a biplane, based on designs by Gadgeteer Genius Tobias Muldoon.

    Film 
  • The film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, Or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (the Trope Namer, as you might guess) opens with a brief "history of flight," featuring plenty of improbable and amusing contraptions. The opening credits feature a flotilla of humorous animated examples. The racing airplanes in the movie itself are also examples, and, notably, are all fairly faithful reproductions of actual early aircraft.
    • The "History of Flight" sequence was apparently a compilation that somebody had put together back in the 1920s, saving the movie's producers the job of making it themselves.
  • In The Great Race — a Dueling Film with the above — the evil Professor Fate uses a small pedal-powered airship to try and drop a bomb onto the hero, with predictable results.
  • Master Of The World featured the propeller-studded Albatross.
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was an old-timey race car fitted with little wings and propellers. Though its flying power was All Just a Dream... or was it?
  • The film Young Sherlock Holmes featured one of these.
  • Hudson Hawk. A Leonardo da Vinci glider comes in handy for the title character and Anna Baragli.
  • In the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days, Fogg and co. build one of these out of pieces of their ship in order to finish their journey on time.
  • In Once Upon a Forest a trio of young Woodland Creatures take their professor's plans for a flying machine called "The Flapper Wingamathing" with them on a quest to retrieve a plant that will help their comatose friend, and are able to build a scale replica of the contraption using Bamboo Technology to get the plant from a steep cliff face.
  • The chicken coop-turned airplane at the end of Chicken Run.
  • The airplane (later converted into a helicopter) in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
    • By Madagascar 3, it has been fitted with a warp drive... but still powered by monkeys.
  • Lawrence III's 'hovercraft' in Pokémon 2000, which despite being composed of massive structural girders and massive expensively decorated rooms, is held aloft by slowly rotating propellers above and below the tips of the structural girders. Contrast this with its aversion in the helicopter Dr.Oak and co. arrive in, which would be pretty bog standard for Real Life.
  • The Bat from The Dark Knight Rises deserves special mention - looking for all the world like the hollowed Tumbler body, and still it can fly.
  • The Fabulous World of Jules Verne [original title Vynález zkázy] (1958) is full of these - and almost every other steampunk device or vehicle you could imagine.

    Literature 
  • The War in the Air by H.G. Wells, obviously.
  • The jet-propelled ornithopters of the Dune universe probably count, though they are an unusually high-tech example.
  • In Sergey Lukyanenko's Alternate History duology Seekers of the Sky, the deficit of iron in the world has drastically slowed down the scientific progress. As such, flying is still in its infancy. All flying machines are gliders made up mostly of wood and sheets. They do have engines, which can be started with either a chemical or an electrical lighter. Also, gliders can be outfitted with one-time booster rockets that drop off after their fuel is expended. Most of the time, gliders are only used to deliver messages, as flying them is extremely dangerous, preventing them from taking on passengers. All pilots must memorize wind maps, as no instruments are present in gliders. Chinese gliders are the most advanced, and their boosters allow them to cross entire continents in one go. Due to their fragile nature, Old School Dogfighting is impossible. In wartime, gliders may be used to drop bombs.
  • Robur, the Conqueror, by Jules Verne, on which the film Master of the World was largely based (and not so much on the same author's book Master of the World), featuring the "aeronef" Albatross. It was powered by electricity and used lots of airscrews for both lift and propulsion, and was made of highly-compressed paper.
  • The original Tom Swift series of books had Tom designing a succession of improbable, and sometimes magnificent, flying machines, starting with his combination dirigible/winged airship, Red Cloud.
  • Ornithopters are also used by the Empire of Granbretan in Michael Moorcock's Dorian Hawkmoon novels. They're small, lightly armed, and not always wholly reliable, but in a world where the next best way to fly is on the back of a giant flamingo they're still an important part of the Granbretan war machine.
  • Clockpunk ornithopters and helicopters (along with airships) used to dominate the skies in Shadows of the Apt, but they're rapidly being outcompeted by WWII-esque planes in more recent books.
  • Show up as illustrations in the Disney children's encyclopaedia on flying machines.
  • The Mortal Engines series features lots of airships of all imaginable shapes and sizes (from couch-sized airships perfect for indoor flight to massive Air Dreadnoughts, and lots of assorted tramp traders in-between), perfect for adventuring in a vast Steampunk and Dieselpunk world. In the early books, the secrets of heavier-than-air flight have been lost, but later in the series we see all sorts of armed ornithopters, autogyros, and rickety biplanes competing with zeppelins in the sky. Air travel is heavily romanticised in the setting — air traders ply the "Bird Roads," seeing the world and having lots of glamorous and dangerous adventures.

    Live Action TV 

    Music 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Space 1889 averted and played straight. Liftwood ships do not have wings, balloons or more than one propeller. They look and to a large extent function like ships. (Though the novel “A Prince of Mars” by Frank Chadwick describes the liftwood ships as less similar to regular ships than the role-playing game.) Even the early attempts at flight that historically looked like this are unlikely to occur in Space 1889 since liftwood has allowed practical flying ships. In the core book, however, there is a list of inventions that the player characters can make including flying machines. Many of them have illustrations that looks a lot like this.
  • Deadlands.
  • The metallic Deffkopta model in Warhammer 40,000. Plastic models however are more subdued, just looking like a bike modded into a helicopter. This works because it is made by Orks; they're idiots with telekinetic powers, so if they believe something will work, it does.
    • In Warhammer Fantasy, the Dwarfs have steam-powered "Gyrocopters", while the Dogs of War have the Birdmen of Catrazza, canvas-winged humans using da Vinci-esque pedal-powered flight suits.
  • The Ornithopters ("Thopters" for short) from Magic: The Gathering.

    Video Games 
  • In World of Warcraft, engineers can craft a Flying Machine (actually called that) that fits this trope perfectly. It looks like an old plane with tiny wings and a helicopter-like propeller on the top, belches smoke, and seems to barely stay airborne. If you idle in air with it, its engine will occasionally turn off for a second or so, causing it to fall a few feet before it turns back on.
    • Flying Machines originated in Warcraft III, with two distinct variations: one has a fairly typical-looking helicopter rotor with a pair of propellers for forward thrust. The other has a pair of propeller-turbine contraptions that can rotate to point forward or downward, a bit like an Osprey VTOL aircraft. Both are made with the finest steampunk materials, of course.
  • The Vinci faction from Rise of Legends are all steampunkish, and so are their flying machines.
    • Specifically, the flying machines come from the Pirata city-state, and some feature equipment like grapling hooks clearly meant for boarding.
  • One of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines appeared in Assassins Creed II, and it was propelled by giant pyres burning all over the city.
    • Modified into a dive-bomber variant in Revelations. The firebombs actually set fire to the ground, which means you can finally provide your own means of lift.
  • The flyers in Jade Empire. Rocket-propelled Magitek-powered cloth-winged constructions designed and built by a mad god named Kang. They really ought to shred themselves rather than actually flying.
  • Shovel Knight's Propeller Knight commands an airship that is kept aloft by two gigantic propellers and propels itself through the sky by means of giant oars.
  • Those Babylon Rouges of Sonic the Hedgehog certainly have a nice airship.
  • Spore allows you to build your own not only as airships, but also as spaceships! That's right, you can really let your Steampunk ideas go loose in this.
  • Beedle's shop in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. A square wooden helicopter in a world that otherwise doesn't have powered flight. It's powered by pedalling and has some sort of primitive computer.
  • Several Final Fantasy games (most notably VI and IX) take place in worlds where the local civilization is just beginning to conquer skies. So the local Global Airship is usually built in this aesthetic.
  • Corki, the Daring Bombadier from League of Legends flies around the battlefield in a heavily-armed Magitek gyrocopter.
  • The Barnstormer from Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, which resembles a three-way cross between the Wright Flyer, a helicopter, and a bat.
  • Guns of Icarus and its MMO sequel, Guns of Icarus Online, has you participating in combat between different kinds of fanciful airships in a Steampunk setting.
  • Obsidian has its own moth-like Ornithopter. But don't even question how it flies in this case, 80% of the game is inside dream worlds; It's powered by a Zoetrope!
  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has a scene where the brothers need to ride a hang-glider that can be controlled by moving around and shifting weight to tilt the machine.

    Web Animation 

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama, despite being set in the 31st century, occasionally shows flying machines that fit this trope right alongside Flying Cars and Shiny-Looking Spaceships. Bender once referred to the protagonists' Cool Starship as "the Flying Machine", evoking this trope (though their ship is not itself an example).
    • Leonardo's spaceship in "The Duh-Vinci Code" is probably an example, though, and there are more on the planet Vinci.
  • Parodied in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons that featured a fortune-teller predicting Lisa's life in the far-off future year of 2010. We see eight-year-old- er, twenty-three-year-old Lisa travel in a "futuristic" airliner that looks like the illegitimate child of a modern jumbo-jet and the Wright Flyer, with numerous fragile-looking canvas wings attached to a modern-looking fuselage.
    Lisa: I just love these new planes!
    Hugh: Yes, it's a good thing they re-evaluated those wacky old designs!
  • The flying machines built by Gadget in Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers.
  • Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines.
  • From Wacky Races, you had the Crimson Haybaler.
  • The Flintstone Flyer in the first episode of The Flintstones, a pedal-operated whirlygig invented by Barney (despite the name). Later in the series, planes were just modern airliners with pterodactyls instead of jets, or else one giant pterodactyl with a cabin mounted on top.
  • Used at least once (probably more, due to the Steampunk setting) in The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack.
  • Seen in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, "Griffon the Brush-Off", where Pinkie Pie tries at one point to keep up with Rainbow Dash and Gilda in a pedal-powered helicopter decorated with candy-cane stripes which Dash accurately describes as a "crazy contraption".
    • Tank the tortoise gets outfitted with propellers in "May The Best Pet Win!".
    • In "Sweet and Elite", Rarity christens an airship, which is made up of a conventional-looking boat suspended from a fish-shaped balloon.
  • The St. George from Dragon Hunters.
  • The Disney Wartime Cartoon Victory Through Air Power starts off with a humorous review of the progress of the airplane from the Magnificent Flying Machines of the early days of aviation to the deadly warplanes of World War II.
  • The 1972 Scooby-Doo episode "The Ghost Of The Red Baron" (crossover with The Three Stooges) had bi-planes all over the place, one of which, airborne, had Velma in the cockpit—and she doesn't know how to operate it.
  • In Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School, the cadets at Calloway Military Academy have a pedal-powered helicopter.
  • Albert the Fifth Musketeer sometimes made use of a human-powered ornithopter. In the contraption's debut episode, it doesn't allow a Crew of One (or at least, not when the pilot is too short to reach the pedals), so he has to ask the Queen to help him pilot it to rescue the rest of his team.

    Other / Real Life 
  • Honourable mention must go to the Wright brothers, who created the first successful heavier-than-air flying machine. It stayed airborne for all of twelve seconds... but look at what it started!
    • While their twelve second flight is the most famous, they actually made four flights that day, with the longest lasting a full 59 seconds.
    • Though the Wright Brothers are generally accepted as the inventors of heavier-than-air flight, the title has historically been contested by Samuel Pierpont Langley, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Gustave Whitehead, and others. Please see this trope's Analysis page for more.
  • Leonardo da Vinci dreamed up a whole range of Magnificent Flying Machines, including human-powered ornithopters and corkscrew helicopters.
  • Red Bull Flügtag showcases some hilarious, inefficient, ineffective but ultimately awesome "flying" machines.
  • This clip presents black-and-white stock footage that includes several silly airplanes and helicopters failing (two examples at the beginning, then more about halfway through).
  • A working, human-powered ornithopter was built by University of Toronto post-graduate students and flown successfully in August 2010 (though earlier flights can contest the "world's first" claim in the article, this is likely the most successful, and elaborate, design used so far). Interestingly, the design was created using Leonardo da Vinci's sketches as an early starting point, though the final product looks nothing like his work (but no less impressive in flight for that).
  • An annual festival in Japannote  brings together man-powered contraptions to essentially leap off a cliff together in their pursuit of flight. Success is measured in distance and seconds, but isn't the sole criteria; points are given for design originality and sheer ballsiness.
  • A series of 3-dimensional models in the Chinook Mall (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) are this. They're suspended from a track which they periodically move around. Only one is an actual aeroplane.


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alternative title(s): Flying Machine; Magnificent Flying Machines
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