The Aviators – Book Review
Charles Lindbergh. Eddie Rickenbacker. Jimmy Doolittle. These three names are synonymous with some of the greatest achievements in American aviation history. Although primarily known for their individual successes, they shared a surprising number of common traits and experiences.
Skillful aviators in their own right, their greatest contributions actually came through improvements and advances in aviation doctrine, safety, aircraft design and performance, and military or corporate leadership. Each of the three was awarded the Medal of Honor. They enjoyed close relationships with their mothers. And, they toured pre–WWII Europe, often serving as informal intelligence agents examining British, French and German military aviation capabilities. Of greatest importance, however, is how Lindbergh, Doolittle and Rickenbacker inspired the United States (and often the world) to believe that man could achieve the seemingly impossible. Winston Groom’s latest work, The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and the Epic Age of Flight, traces the earliest days of American aviation history through the life stories of these three legendary pilots. Essentially, The Aviators provides readers with a distinct but intertwined study of each man, emphasizing their incredible additions to aviation knowledge and capabilities. Part biography, part military and commercial aviation history, this book offers something of interest to virtually any reader.
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The Aviators begins its tale in the years following the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Groom meticulously explains the incredible dangers and near suicidal bravery associated with the first attempts at heavier-than-air aviation. He describes the private ventures and public competitions designed to continually challenge pilots and aircraft to go farther, faster and higher—often with deadly results.
When we think of air travel in the 21st century, we tend to picture large, safe, comfortable aircraft; inconveniences are limited to lost luggage and delayed flights. Accidents, while tragic, are thankfully rare events. But the brave men and women who followed the Wright brothers into the sky did so in airplanes made of wood and fabric, employed crude instruments (when any were actually used) and learned flying techniques largely through trial and error—and errors made thousands of feet in the air could be fatal. Airplane accidents were the norm and not the exception. The initial chapters of The Aviators remind readers just how far aviation advanced over the past century.
Although Rickenbacker, Doolittle and Lindbergh were not the only men involved in aviation advances, they were personally responsible for many of the conveniences we take for granted today. The Aviator’s middle act addresses each man’s respective military career in war and peace. Rickenbacker began his service during World War I, ultimately finishing the conflict as America’s top ace, with 27 confirmed kills. Following a successful Liberty bonds tour across the United States, Rickenbacker joined Eastern Airlines, ultimately emerging as one of America’s leading commercial aviation business leaders. Deemed too old for uniformed service in World War II, Rickenbacker traveled the globe giving rousing speeches to Allied personnel, recommending aviation improvements and even surviving a 24-day survival ordeal following a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean.
Too young for the Great War, both Doolittle and Lindbergh found their first taste of fame and fortune pursuing aviation challenges, the most famous being Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Like Rickenbacker, both men played key roles in World War II. Doolittle led his namesake raid against Tokyo in 1942, giving the United States a much needed morale boost in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Recognized as a capable leader, Doolittle served in command positions throughout the war in Africa, Europe and the Pacific.
Lindbergh, although initially opposed to America’s participation in WWII, immediately offered his assistance once Congress declared war against Japan and Germany. He journeyed to the Pacific Theater, serving as a civilian technical expert and, unofficially, in combat against the Japanese Empire. War’s end found Lindbergh in Allied-occupied Germany assisting dozens of prominent rocket scientists and their families escape to America. Many of these German scientists were critical figures in the United States’ own nascent space program.
Groom concludes The Aviators by examining his subjects’ post-war lives and continued contributions to military or commercial aviation, air safety improvements and aircraft development. Easily the weakest part of the book, the final chapter largely glosses over this stage, despite the fact that Rickenbacker, Lindbergh and Doolittle enjoyed long, full lives and were still active men through their final years. Indeed, their accomplishments in this period alone would merit inclusion in the annals of aviation history. However, Groom does not build up his subjects as infallible supermen without vice. Nor does he devote unnecessary time investigating scandals or side issues that distract from the author’s focus on aviation pioneering. Slated for a November release, The Aviators is a must read for this fall.
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.