The last general history of U.S. commercial aviation, Henry Ladd Smith's Airways, appeared in 1942, when the subject was in...


CONQUEST OF THE SKIES: A History of Commercial Aviation in America

The last general history of U.S. commercial aviation, Henry Ladd Smith's Airways, appeared in 1942, when the subject was in its nonage; so this encyclopedic volume is welcome. Its only point of view is to heroicize its subject; nowhere is there an original idea, a strong opinion, or an attempt at analysis. On the other hand it's clear-cut, systematic, and as far as it goes, reliable; and since issues are hardly raised as such, it is only in what Solberg doesn't say -- about the later, lesser days of Pan Am's Juan Trippe, for example, or the social value of (unprofitable) service to outlying areas -- that he manifests bias. But if any business enterprise can properly be considered a success story, it's American aviation--which lagged behind European passenger service in the Twenties (only the mail flew regularly here), but spurted ahead by a combination of federal stimulation (via military aircraft procurement, safety regulations, route assignments), Wall Street backing (post-Lindbergh), and technological competition -- with some marketing pizzazz thrown in. Solberg keeps his chronicle from palling by shifting from one aspect to another, and by relating key episodes at some length. Among the highlights: the raucous 1934 Senate hearings into the non-competitive award of air-mail contracts to three supercombines; Howard Hughes' hush-hush deal with Lockheed (""the biggest order for commercial aircraft up to that time"") to build the new Constellation for TWA; the start of telephoning for reservations, back in the Twenties (a sign of status, when overheard -- and a cause of no-shows); and the genesis of credit cards in the 1936 pay-now, fly-later Air Travel Card. Solberg, in fact, is a bear for tracking down precedents and flushing out origins -- so we have not only Jimmy Doolittle's first all-instrument flight but also the tale of the first, self-nominated stewardess and the story of FDR divvying up Europe among American, Pan Am, and TWA. This is, indeed, very much an account of the major carriers -- with the complex history of Pan Am fully treated but nothing said about latecomers like Allegheny or the local trunk lines. And the book tails off after the advent of the jet altogether (the SST struggle is only one major omission). On its own terms, though, it's an efficient, diverting, information-chocked summation.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 1979


Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1979