Mortimer (The Great Swim, 2008, etc.) chronicles a pivotal moment in the history of aviation.
Seven years after the Wright brothers’ famed Kitty Hawk flight, it was unclear whether the future lay in dirigibles, balloons or airplanes. The author looks at three events in October 1910 that tested the mettle of each technology: Walter Wellman’s attempt to fly the America from New Jersey to England; the competition among airplane fliers (the word “pilot” was not yet in use) for the International Aviation Cup, held in Long Island; and the contest to see which balloonist could travel the farthest distance from St. Louis, Mo. The America flew about 1,000 miles, the longest trip ever for a dirigible, before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, and balloonists Alan Hawley and Augustus Post covered more than 1,200 miles from Missouri to the woods of Québec. Above Belmont Park, N.Y., however, fliers demonstrated the airplane’s superior speed and maneuverability. Flying planes was undeniably dangerous—several men died in accidents during the competition—but the amazing show guaranteed that the airplane would dominate aviation from then on. Mortimer expertly interweaves the three stories, vivifying each event with a riveting combination of historical detail and novelistic suspense. He does especially fine work in rendering Hawley and Post’s ordeal after their balloon went down; lost in the Canadian forest, the men were faced with brutal weather and dwindling food supplies. Mortimer also paints an unforgettable portrait of roguish British flier Claude Grahame-White, famed for daredevil exploits and a rakish manner, and deftly portrays the famed Wright brothers as mean, petty and litigious.
Enjoyable, accessible technological history, further enlivened by colorful character sketches of some of the most interesting figures in the early days of flying.