A quirky, eclectic history of great flights, from balloons to space shuttles—with some generous plugs for the author’s own Virgin company.
Billionaire Branson (Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, 2010, etc.), founder of Virgin Group, is a pilot and visionary in his own right, as he reminds us liberally throughout this lively, selective history of man’s attempts to take to the skies. The author likes nothing better than a story of someone willing to try what others say can’t be done, and he sprinkles his work with these inspiring tales, more or less chronologically: Master inventor Daedalus flew successfully out of King Minos’ labyrinth and reached Sicily, while his unfortunate son, Icarus, didn’t make it; the Montgolfier paper-manufacturing family engineered the first unmanned balloons in the late 18th century, followed by a host of subsequent lighter-than-air record-breakers, mostly French; gliders modeled on the wings of birds were perfected by Otto Lilienthal and others, until the Wright Brothers and mechanic Charles Taylor added the engine to activate propellers. Branson admires such daredevils as Manfred von Richthofen (aka the Red Baron) and entrepreneurial pilot Howard Hughes, as well as bold ladies like Florence “Pancho” Barnes, but he’s also interested in the physics of flight, offering brief disquisitions on the working of wings, the function of the jet stream and what the “sound barrier” means. But the author is especially fascinated by the evolution of the airline industry, its character largely shaped by the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, the growth of Pan Am Airways and how the Internet has vastly altered the airline landscape. He also shares some of Virgin’s cutting-edge designs and prospects for spaceship flight.
In contrast to Martin van Creveld's polished, staid Age of Airpower (2011), Branson is above all enthusiastic about his subject and forward-seeing.