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The best books on Aviation History

recommended by Joseph Corn

The historian and author pilots us through a century of aviation, from the excitement that greeted the first airplanes to the transformative role of World War II.

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Joseph Corn

Joseph Corn is the author of the aviation classic The Winged Gospel and two other history books. He lectures on history at Stanford University and earned his PhD at Berkeley. Corn specialises in the social and cultural history of technology reception. In 2011 he edited Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight

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Joseph Corn

Joseph Corn is the author of the aviation classic The Winged Gospel and two other history books. He lectures on history at Stanford University and earned his PhD at Berkeley. Corn specialises in the social and cultural history of technology reception. In 2011 he edited Into the Blue: American Writing on Aviation and Spaceflight

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At their advent, aircraft were welcomed as more than merely a new technology. The fascination with flight is the theme of the five books you selected, and your earliest book explores this theme so elegantly that I want to begin by asking you to tell us about The Winged Gospel.

“The winged gospel” is not my invention but rather a phrase that’s found very often in the aviation literature and general newspaper coverage in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly after Lindbergh’s flight. It refers to the almost religious fervour surrounding the birth of aviation. The gospel was the belief that this technology would transform the world, which of course it did. But people projected that our way of life would be revolutionised, and in totally beneficial ways. Some of it was quite utopian. For example, some project that there would be women pilots, and there were. But in the utopian view, somehow in the sky there would be equality between men and women and that equality would affect the balance of power on earth. Similarly, there were a few black aviators and some felt that if whites could see blacks flying they would drop their racial animus. Another tenet of the gospel was the widespread belief shared by millions of Americans around World War II that the automobile would give way to personally owned airplanes or maybe helicopters. People would be able to live in the country and commute as they needed to the city by air. This didn’t happen of course, but it was part of “the winged gospel”.

Material and popular culture provided plenty of support for your thesis that the world expected manned flight to magically transform humanity. Please cite some of that colourful evidence for us.

“An Airplane in Every Garage” was the name of an article that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1930, a publication for the intellectual elite. During the wind-down of World War II, as the defeat of the Germans and Japanese became obvious in late 1944 and early 1945, Ladies’ Home Journal asked its readers whether they expected to own an airplane and an amazing percentage said yes – 30-odd percent, as I recall, and this was at a time when a far smaller percentage of people had cars. The percentage of people who actually got airplanes was less than 1% at its peak. Planes per population peaked in 1946 and basically it’s been going down ever since.

Remember, America rapidly moved from the development of the Model T to mass automobility by 1915. England didn’t reach the level of car ownership that California had in 1906 until 1956. So people thought, first we had horses and carriages and then we had bicycles and then we had cars and next, soon, it’ll be airplanes. And there was a brief moment after the war when the evidence suggested that the dream of owning an airplane would be within reach of almost anyone. Macy’s Department Store in New York sold airplanes in 1946. One newspaper article reported that the elevator men would call out, “Furniture, bed settings and airplanes 5th floor”. Another bit of evidence of “the winged gospel” – there was a movement, centred at Columbia University Teachers College to push “air-age education” into all schools. Textbooks were written on subjects like “air-age English”, “air-age geography” and “air-age mathematics”. Geography made some sense because the airplane seemed to be shrinking the globe.

In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt asked the Republican he had defeated in the 1940 election for president, Wendell Willkie, to make an around-the-world goodwill trip to show American support for beleaguered World War II allies, in India, Burma and so forth. Willkie wrote a book that became a bestseller about his 50-day journey called One World. It came out in 1943. That book is again evidence of this gospel-like belief that somehow the airplane would promote world peace and harmony among nations. This belief is ironic given that the world was in a brutal war that killed 60 million people, many as a result of the airplane.

Perhaps the best evidence were the ritualistic observances that went along with “the winged gospel”. People would go up in airplanes to get married and at least in one case a couple parachuted out to start their honeymoon. One woman in Florida took off with her husband piloting when she was in labour and her obstetrician delivered her baby at 5,000 feet – she named the girl Aero Jean. These little observances are all testimony to the tremendous excitement people had for flight and their tremendous optimism as to how flight was changing the world.

Is there anything specific to flight that inspired this utopianism, this feeling that the world was sure to change?

I think it was the fact that you were leaving the ground, going into a place that for millennia has been called the heavens and associated with angels or gods. The idea that entities aloft are divine is trans-cultural. For instance, in ancient Greece they believed their gods dwelt atop Mount Olympus, above the muck and dirt of the earth where we humans were confined. So when after 1903 human beings began moving into this previously divine realm it seemed to some to transform humankind.

It’s also the experiential feeling. When the plane takes off, if you look out you’ll notice how the unappealing aspects of the environment – trash on the street, broken-down cars and badly done yards – recede. When you get to 1,000 feet it all looks gorgeous. To view the world from aloft is to see a world that is already transformed by the visual experience. That fed into these utopian associations.

You identified the “religious excitement with which people greeted airplanes and flight” as an example of “technological utopianism”. What do you mean by that phrase and what do you attribute this utopianism to?

In my book I link it to earlier examples of technological utopianism generated by railroads in 1800s and by personal computers in the 1980s. Believing that machines are going to make for a better world is a strong strain in American culture. There’s some validity to it but the utopian hopes are mostly dashed and none of that utopianism acknowledged the inevitable downsides and the groups that get hurt by one technology or another.

The five books you selected explore the ways in which the last century of aviation has exceeded and defeated our expectations. An overview of aviation history, written from the perspective of 10,000 feet, is your first choice. Please tell us about Wings, by National Air and Space Museum curator Tom Crouch, and why you chose it.

There have probably been hundreds of aviation history surveys – a good handful came out around the 100th anniversary of Kitty Hawk in 2003 – and I’ve a read a number of them. Wings is by far the best one-volume study that we have – many reviewers agreed. It’s just wonderfully written. It’s comprehensive and takes a wide view. For example, Crouch includes kites, which the Chinese began flying thousands of years ago. He covers the development of the jet engine, which is thought to be mainly an English story, at least at its beginnings. Many other histories tell the story of flight just from an American perspective. There’s some validity to that: The Wright Brothers invented the first practical airplane, we had many other technological firsts and certainly had more airplanes than other countries early on. But the story of flying is really international, that’s how Crouch tells it and that’s why I chose Wings.

The author spent 30 years researching and writing this book, which has 42 pages of notes. Does his diligence weigh down the account? Is it just for aviation buffs? How does he make the story soar?

All of these books are very readable, even though one is published by an academic press. I don’t like books unless they’re well written and accessible to ordinary folk.

Crouch tells the story of aviation’s evolution through the story of aviation innovators. I can’t think of another technology whose pioneers are as fixed in history as the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and so on. How personality driven is the history of flight? And how personality driven was the development of the aviation industry?

That’s an interesting question. In the early days, the era of invention, the so-called “golden age” of flight from the Wright Brothers through World War II, that was true. Everyone knew the name of World War I American fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker and Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron. Young boys in particular grew up gaga over airplanes. Even some of the British and French World War I heroes became household names. These survivors of military combat were larger than life in our view because what they did often involved tremendous courage, vision and skill.

But pilots aren’t seen as larger than life any more. Today a pilot is considered a functionary, they press buttons, follow computers, tell you to put on your seatbelt and nobody knows their names.

Next let’s turn to a book about one of those larger-than-life flyers, a chronicle of Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and how it transformed American aviation. Please tell us about Thomas Kessner’s The Flight of the Century.

Since Lindbergh’s flight there have been probably hundreds of accounts of it. He himself wrote two. We was a light biography with a 10-page account of the flight that he released within two months of landing. In We Lindbergh referred to himself and also his airplane, which he saw as his partner in that achievement. Then in 1953 he published a book called The Spirit of St Louis, which won the Pulitzer prize. He devoted most of the book to an hour-by-hour chronicle of the flight balanced by his meditations while in flight. In that way he interweaves the story of his life with the story of his historic flight. It was a brilliant literary achievement, very straightforward but often a bit scary, particularly when he’s falling asleep mid-Atlantic. That was his second book about the flight.

Historians and journalists wrote many more. A Scott Berg wrote a magisterial biography using Lindbergh’s papers with the permission of his wife. But then Kessner comes along. He’s a historian at CUNY. Kessner focused on not just the flight itself but how the flight was promoted and its impact on American aviation and culture. He tells that story wonderfully.

During the tour Lindbergh made of America after his record-breaking flight he visited every state in the nation. How did his journey over the Atlantic, and his promotional odyssey afterwards, affect the future of aviation?

Thanks to movie newsreels, which had been developed in years before 1927, not only did people know about Lindbergh but they had a visual image of him. And thanks to radio they knew his voice too. I don’t think any world leader was as widely recognised, until you get to Stalin maybe and Roosevelt and Churchill.

As to the impact on aviation – one dramatic thing was that aviation stocks all of a sudden were worth money. That’s a mark of the market’s belief that the future of commercial aviation seemed much brighter after Lindbergh flew. The Air Mail Act, which gave subsidies to passenger airlines for carrying the mail, was enacted in 1930. The publicity that Lindbergh generated facilitated the passage of that act.

The memoir of a World War II aviator who never made the papers is your next selection. Why read Samuel Hynes’s Flights of Passage?

There are probably hundreds of World War II flight-related memoirs. This is certainly one of the best written. Hynes enlisted in 1945, so he’s part of the last wave of young men. When he gets his training he’s sent out to the Pacific, but by that time the momentous Battle of Okinawa is over. Most of Okinawa is in allied American hands – the Japanese cause is all but dead. Although the war will rage on very bloodily for another six to eight months, there were very few Japanese planes left aloft.

Hynes wrote this book 40 years after the war, as a tenured professor of literature at Princeton. So it’s very literary but grounded in an experience he shared with thousands of other young men. Hynes writes wonderfully sensitively about what it was like to leave your hometown, which for him was one of the Twin Cities, as a young guy and go to a base and be exposed to alcohol, promiscuous women and fast living and to end up in strange places in great danger.

The book is wonderful in capturing the way death in the air could come so quickly, from the stupidity of hijinks by guys, who weren’t much more than kids, flying 10 tonne machines at 200-plus miles an hour. Even though he was in a war zone, there was virtually no one getting shot down by the Japanese. But Hynes lost a number of buddies to these silly escapades.

So it’s a bittersweet memoir that records one dimension of the tragedy of war and yet it’s got some good flight stuff in it. Hynes was flying one of the worst aircraft that the military provided in the period, the Grumman TBF Avenger. Pilots called it the turkey because it was very cumbersome. This was the same plane that the future President George HW Bush got shot down in over the Pacific. Hynes doesn’t get shot down but he did wreck one plane while showing off too close to the ground. His commander sentenced him to work on its restoration for two weeks so he got the idea that it was time to grow up.

How did World War II affect the trajectory of aviation?

The war made it clear that aviation was a major force in the economy and in the culture. So many Americans experienced their first flight during the war – not just people like Hynes, who actually flew while in the military, but also guys like my father who was in the infantry but took his first flight going from one camp to the other in the States before he was shipped overseas. The military would fly people just to speed things up. The Women’s Air Service Pilots, the WASPs, relieved men from having to do a lot of stateside flying, by flying planes from where they were built – maybe by Boeing in Washington or by Lockheed in California – to the various bases where they would either get on ships and be carried across oceans or in the case of bombers be flown across by military pilots. So even over here, airplanes were in the sky everywhere. Everyone saw airplanes or knew people who knew a pilot.

New aircraft emerged as a result of technological developments during the war. Air travel started to become common. In the early fifties the surplus military aircraft were bought by entrepreneurs and used for charter flights. Many of my generation – I graduated from college in 1960 – had their first flight abroad on a charter airplane. By the end of the sixties flight was something accessible pretty much across classes in the United States. That’s another strong impact of the war.

Then there’s “the jet age”. We have to link that to the war because jet technology was first devised as part of the war effort. The first US military jet fighter went into service as the war ended. A decade later, passenger planes got jet engines. Jet planes are a much more efficient and lower cost and safer means of travel than the old piston engines. So the move towards mass air travel is helped by the wartime development of the jet.

Pan Am founder and World War I airman Juan Trippe is the subject of your next selection, The Chosen Instrument. Please introduce us to Juan Trippe, Pan Am and this book about them.

It’s not only a biography, it’s a corporate history. All kinds of industries attract historians who want to tell the story of the great firms and businesses. There have been corporate histories of Delta; a couple of United, but this one of Pan Am is also a biography of its charismatic leader Juan Trippe. He was a handsome man, a Yale man, who knew everyone, fraternised with occupants of the White House, but also flew. He starts the airline on a shoestring in 1927 – you could say Lindbergh made it possible. His first route connected Florida with Cuba. Very quickly he’s operating routes crisscrossing North, South and Central America.

Trippe wanted to develop an airline to serve all of or as much of South America as he could, that was his first goal, and then he reached out to the Pacific and eventually to Africa. He realised to achieve that goal he needed bigger and better airplanes. Trippe was one of the first airline executives to grasp the importance of better technology. He saw that better airplanes could make the business of carrying passengers more profitable. No airline made much of a profit before 1936-38 when an airplane finally existed – the Douglas DC 3 – that could earn a profit carrying just passengers without a subsidy from the US postal service, which was what airlines before then depended on to survive. But to reach all of South America, Trippe developed a series of seaplanes, multi-engine aircraft that could land and take off on water, which made sense in parts of the world where there was no airport infrastructure yet. Eventually he became the prime mover in getting Boeing to build the 747 for transpacific routes in the sixties. So he and Pan Am pushed along aviation innovation.

How else did he manage to domesticate and democratise flight?

I would not say that Pan Am was a leader in democratising flight. Trippe was not an innovator in cheap fares or anything like that. Pan Am tended to make its money on routes that were not served by anyone else and charged what the traffic would bear. Flying Pan Am was a first-tier experience. In 1960 I took my first airplane flight from the US to Brazil. I so wished I could have flown on Pan Am. I flew on propeller planes, while Pan Am was flying long-distance jets. My flight was 28 hours total – flying Pan Am would’ve taken about nine hours. Democratisation and Pan Am don’t go together.

The title, Chosen Instrument, refers to Pan Am’s relationship with the US government. Please explain.

“The chosen instrument” was a phrase he used that became accepted in the airline industry after WWII. What it means is that a particular airline became the chosen instrument of a nation’s foreign policy through its transportation contacts with other nations. Other countries developed state-subsidised airlines – KLM, Air France, British Airways, the Arab countries all have their own airline. Having your own airline as a country was a mark of having arrived. But in the United States, Pan Am became the chosen instrument of the State Department, easing dealings with South America in many ways. Trippe and his executives were chummy with the State Department and Roosevelt himself. So that’s what Chosen Instrument means.

What does the book tell us about how the airline industry helped knit the world together and helped along globalisation?

I’ll start with the negative. Knitting the world together spoiled some of the more fragile parts of the world. Today if you have money, and it often doesn’t cost much, you can fly almost anywhere. Very few spots remain untouched by tourism. That fallout from mass flight is negative.

On the positive side, I always thought it would be neat to write a book, a sort of sequel to The Winged Gospel, about the dramatic changes that occurred as a result of what you called the democratisation of air travel. One example is international rock concerts raising funds for causes like famine relief. You couldn’t have that if the rock stars couldn’t as easily flit around the globe on private jets. Sports – the Super Bowl or the World Cup – wouldn’t be what they’ve become without the ease with which you can gather 100,000 people in one corner of the world. Shuttle diplomacy – the whole phrase itself suggests flight. We didn’t have shuttle diplomacy when we were stuck with ground and water transportation.

Finally, Sky as Frontier by historian David Courtwright. Tell us about this book and its strong central argument.

I call it a thesis-driven book. I like it because history is harnessed to technology. Courtwright took the concept of “the frontier” developed by late 19th century American historian Frederick Jackson Turner and applied it to the air. In 1890, the American Census Bureau announced that, according to their criteria, there was no uninhabited area of the United States left. In other words, from the Census Bureau’s point of view there was no more frontier. Turner spent much of his life writing about the effects of the frontier on American history and suggesting ways in which America without a frontier would be in trouble. The frontier, in his words, was an incubator of freedom and democracy. It tested people and brought out the best in people.

In his Sky as Frontier Courtwright applies that thesis to the history of aviation. So this results in a slightly different way of periodising the story of flight, rather than the standard pioneering to golden to jet age periodisation. Going back to Turner, he spoke of two different types of frontiers: The agricultural frontier, which attracted settlers and resulted in isolated nuclear families that would chop down trees and homestead, leading to civilisation across the country; then there was the mining and extractive frontiers – whether centring around fishing on the coasts of Maine or mining in the Sierras, these frontiers were characterised not by nuclear families but by rough and tumble male-dominated populations. Courtwright sees the early history of flight up through Lindbergh, as the mining and extractive industry phase. Then he sees an equivalent to the agricultural frontier emerging with airlines. As you said, the domestication of flight was the phase when the yous and mes got to travel abroad.

In a final chapter, which he calls “The Significance of Air and Space in American History”, in an echo of the language that Frederick Jackson Turner used 100 years ago when he wrote about “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Courtwright addressed how aviation changed America. One of the consequences was environmental. And he says our dependence on automobiles is possible only because of our air mobility, meaning that our air and space achievements, including the development of satellites, allow us to fight Gulf Wars, kill terrorists with precision drones and watch what the Iranians are doing with their nuclear fuel. Without all our satellites and the military jets that back them up we wouldn’t be able to maintain American dominion over these places, so our automobility would be deeply challenged and maybe impossible. It’s a provocative argument and another thing I like about the book.

Are there any frontiers left in aviation?

Maybe uninteresting ones like getting better mileage out of airplanes. The supersonic frontier of mass air travel seems at the moment unlikely. There is talk of another supersonic transport being built but it’s hard to imagine how they can solve the tremendous fuel costs and the sonic boom problems, which are a matter of physics. So for the foreseeable future the frontier is closed. That’s sort of a pessimistic note to end on.

Then I’ll ask just one more question. What place does aviation and flight have in the popular imagination today?

That’s a great question. I don’t think much place at all. Flight has become as routine as riding a train. Adherents of “the winged gospel” are all buried. Kids don’t grow up fixated on flying toys or dreams of aviation adventures. When they look up in the sky they don’t see a frontier. Their frontiers are all on screens.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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