Venturesome Heroes Who Made the “Miracle” of Aviation Possible

(p. 14) Aviation has become just another boring part of modern infrastructure. Some people are afraid of it. Most people endure it. Few people bother to look out the window for a view of Earth that was unimaginable to most of our ancestors, or to reflect on the miracle of technology, engineering and organization that daily airline operations represent. Before the pandemic, roughly three million passengers took flights to or from U.S. airports each day, which averages out to more than one billion passenger journeys per year. (Traffic has nearly returned to that level.) Over the past 13 years, through more than 10 billion passenger journeys, a total of two people have died in U.S. airline accidents.

Among the many virtues of John Lancaster’s delightful “The Great Air Race” is how vividly it conveys the entirely different world of aviation at the dawn of the industry, a century ago. Many airplanes in those days were literal death traps. A biplane known as the DH-4, used as a bomber by Allied forces in World War I, had its gas tank immediately behind the pilot in the cockpit. As Lancaster explains, “Even in relatively low-speed crashes, the tank sometimes wrenched free of its wooden cage, crushing the pilot against the engine.” To get a DH-4 properly balanced for landing, a co-pilot or passenger might have to leap out of the open cockpit and climb back to hang onto the tail. And this was one of the era’s most popular and successful models.

Some planes had no gas gauge, so pilots would learn they had run out of fuel only when the engine stopped. Just a tiny portion of the country was covered by charts; pilots’ navigation tools were a magnetic compass and their own eyes. (Mapping was one of the industries that aviation’s growth fostered.)

. . .

For readers familiar with modern U.S. aerospace pre-eminence — Boeing, despite its problems; governmental and private space programs; military aviation and corporate jets — perhaps the most startling aspect of American aviation a century ago is how uncertain its future seemed.

. . .

I have read a lot about aviation and the aircraft industry over the years, but almost everything in this tale was new to me. You might take it on your next airline flight, pause to look out the window and spare a thought for those who helped make it all possible.

For the full review, see:

James Fallows. “The Wild Blue Yonder.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 4, 2022): 14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 15, 2022, and has the title “When Flying a Plane Was Thrilling — and Often Fatal.”)

The book under review is:

Lancaster, John. The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation. New York: Liveright, 2022.

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