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Translation from French: The utopias of Air Navigation in the last century

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 Steampunk 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.
  • It may have an inordinate number of wings.
  • It may also have lots of propellers.
    • Which may be corkscrew-shaped.
  • It will be a clear example of Bamboo Technology.
  • 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 after World War I as airplanes gradually became more streamlined, less improbable-looking, and more mundane.

Examples of Those Magnificent Flying Machines include:

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 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 Eighty 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.


  • 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.

Live Action TV

  • A Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch has an inventor wearing a flying machine that consisted of two small wings on his back, powered by a hand crank on his chest. It turns out (in a brilliant visual gag) not to work particularly well. Some of these also showed up in Terry Gillam's animated linking sequences.
  • The Goodies sometimes made their "trandem" bicycle fly, albeit precariously, by attaching it to a balloon.
  • The Wild Wild West series.

Tabletop Games

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.
  • One of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines appeared in Assassin's Creed II, and it was propelled by giant pyres burning all over the city.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Web Animation


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!


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 Flutag 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 Japan[2] 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.
  1. perhaps meant to be the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport near Rome
  2. Can someone provide link? Google isn't very helpful right now.