The Wright Stuff

Sunday, July 12, 2009


The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation

By Gavin Mortimer

Walker. 305 pp. $26

In 1910, the year of the events in Gavin Mortimer's "Chasing Icarus," airplanes were still such novelties that there was no universally accepted term for the people who flew them. Among the choices were "birdmen" and "jockeys," but "pilots" had yet to be borrowed from the world of the barge and riverboat. Mortimer's tantalizing subtitle, "The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation," sets up the three events that pilot his book: The dirigible America took off from New Jersey in an attempt to make the first airborne crossing of the Atlantic; a great race called the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Cup started from St. Louis; and aviators vied to outperform one another in flying stunts above Belmont Park in New York. This confluence of events seems to have brought aviation to a kind of critical mass, with reporters and pundits predicting a glorious future for flying machines in both sports and warfare, though not, apparently, in transportation.

The little-known heroes of these adventures included the English flier Claude Grahame-White, the Frenchman Jacques de Lesseps (whose father was Ferdinand, builder of the Suez Canal) and the American Arch Hoxsey. Many of the fliers involved died young, in plane crashes, but not Grahame-White. Before his death in 1959, he marveled at how quickly aviation had progressed. Not that long ago, the Soviet Union had sent its first sputnik into orbit, whereas "the first airplane flight in Europe was as recent as 1906."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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