The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A thrilling cross-country race that helped spawn modern aviation

In ‘The Great Air Race,’ John Lancaster tells the story of men who gave their lives so that we might one day have carry-ons and same-day coast-to-coast flights

At Roosevelt Field, from right, Billy Mitchell stands in front of a DH-4 with its pilot, Lt. Ross Kirkpatrick, along with Benedict Crowell, the assistant secretary of war, and Col. Archie Miller, the commander of Roosevelt Field. Kirkpatrick’s mechanic, Sgt. E.J. Bruce, sits on the rim of the rear cockpit. (Library of Congress)

In October 1919, Maj. A.L. Sneed was piloting a DH-4 plane out of Rochester, N.Y., flying into a head wind. Nearly out of gas, he began a descent over a Buffalo airfield. Just before the plane touched down, the second person aboard, Sneed’s mechanic, unfastened his safety belt, stood up in the rear cockpit and worked his way toward the tail of the plane until he was sitting on the fuselage. Coming down hard, the plane bounced and tipped in the wind. Its right wing caught the ground, launching the mechanic into the air “like a stone flung from a slingshot,” with horrific results.

The mechanic had not left his seat to show off or troubleshoot any emergency. He was simply using his body to shift the plane’s center of gravity as far back as possible before landing. In the early days of aviation, such dangerous maneuvers were often the only way to keep an aircraft from crashing as it returned to Earth. They did not always work.

These improvised tactics make frequent appearances in John Lancaster’s “The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation,” a ticktock re-creation of America’s first transcontinental airplane race. A round-trip flight between Mineola, N.Y., and San Francisco, the 1919 competition was not just about endurance or brilliant flying.

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As Lancaster explains, “Though the airplane had shown its potential in war, it had yet to prove its utility in peacetime.” The transcontinental race was orchestrated to convince the public and the government that airplanes were the future of long-distance transportation in America, for the U.S. mail and humans alike. Revealing early in the book that the three-week race ended at sunset on Halloween with the shocking toll of nine dead, Lancaster also takes on its historical context, wrestling with the question of whether the spectacle served any real purpose.

Given the banal experience of commercial air travel today, reviving the wonder and terror of early human flight is no small feat, but the realities of early aviation provide Lancaster more than enough material. The competitors’ planes flew without brakes or parachutes. Dramatic turns of phrase such as “a sheet of flame rolled back from the engine” appear in dozens of sentences. After this book, readers may find themselves apprehensive when airborne in anything smaller than a jumbo jet.

Landing was not the only challenge. Takeoff could also be daunting, particularly in poor visibility near mountains. Pilots in the race recruited men on the ground to hold aircraft stationary until their engines reached full power, which allowed planes to leap aloft when released, clearing nearby chimneys or forests. At Green River, Wyo., one plane dove off a cliff, having not gained enough lift before running out of airstrip. Other unexpected dangers cropped up, from unseasonal ice to sabotage.

Lancaster frames his account of the race by focusing on Billy Mitchell, the legendary, insubordinate World War I pilot who promoted and sold — some might say oversold — the idea of the competition. But at heart, “The Great Air Race” has an ensemble cast. Lancaster alternately follows the group heading West then turns to those making their way eastward from the Pacific. Readers meet the cursed yet irrepressible Daniel Brailey Gish, who was destined for countless crises. Another contestant was Belvin Womble Maynard, known as the “Flying Parson,” a pious North Carolina minister who refused coffee at a Nebraska ground stop in favor of milk. Even the planes begin to take on personalities, among them the DH-4 combat aircraft from World War I, known, less than affectionately, as the “Flaming Coffin.”

The country was fascinated. Hundreds of people might show up at an airfield a day early, just in case pilots made better time than expected. Children streamed out of schools to wave at planes flying overhead — surely marking America’s first coast-to-coast live-audience reality show.

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In the end, the competition proved that humans could fly across the country faster than trains could roll. But critics included Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, who called the race a “pathetic display of selfish interests.” In wartime, some of the pilots in the competition had been heroes. In a race that risked lives, their feats might seem just as heroic. But for what purpose did so many in the race martyr themselves?

As dozens of planes cross the country and land at the same airports, Lancaster’s subject matter occasionally becomes repetitive. But just as a scene begins to flatten, an aircraft crashes into a tree or flips cleanly onto its back on a landing field, instantly reviving the narrative.

Lancaster reported for The Washington Post for two decades, including time spent as a military correspondent. “The Great Air Race” may owe its confident, understated tone to his years in journalism. But perhaps more relevant is the author’s experience as a pilot: He had a license in his youth, which he renewed to write “The Great Air Race.”

In 2019, Lancaster flew a modern plane along the same transcontinental route as the men in his story, more or less — many of the landing fields from the competition have since become farmland or shopping malls. He describes his own close calls in the air with sober self-deprecation, but they still underline his knowledge of the mechanics and spirit of small-craft aviation. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal narrator.

Visiting the Library of Congress at the beginning of his research, Lancaster could find no book-length account of what was officially known as the “Reliability and Endurance Test.” He came to think he might fill that gap. If he occasionally sacrifices a little drama in the name of completeness, he has, perhaps, more fully honored all those who gave their lives so that we might one day have carry-ons, boarding groups and same-day coast-to-coast flights.

Not everyone may be onboard with his argument that the race was worth it, but Lancaster tells a vivid story and makes a moving case that these early martyrs at the takeoff of domestic aviation gave the rest of us a future in the sky.

The Great Air Race

Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation

By John Lancaster

Liveright. 346 pp. $28.95

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