A deeply empathetic account of the first gentlemen pilots feeling their ways in uncharted territory.
A World War II pilot who caught the fever of flying as a youth, accomplished literary scholar Hynes (Emeritus, Literature/Princeton Univ.; Flights of Passage: Recollections of a World War II Aviator, 2005, etc.) sifts through the letters and diaries of young American men who were eager to enlist in the European war effort as an opportunity or an ideal. Well before the United States entered the war in April 1917, seven Americans had trained with the French in what became the Lafayette Escadrille as early as 1914. Mainly from well-to-do families and Ivy League–educated, they approached flying as a dangerous sport, much like sailing or polo. (Some notable exceptions: Bert Hall, a Paris taxi driver and drifter, and the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker, a somewhat older, non–college educated race car driver who only garners peripheral attention here.) Hynes moves gradually through the paces these early pilots had to learn, since aviation was in its infancy and the U.S. was “ill-equipped, ill-trained and undermanned” and had no air service to speak of until Hiram Bingham, professor of South American history at Yale and a pilot, was appointed in 1917 to plan a training program and mold the ideal pilot candidate. Besides learning literally from the ground up by piloting Blériot XI aircraft around the French flight fields and mastering the skills of aerobatics (looping), formation, vol de combat and gunnery, the novice pilots had to navigate the perils of being abroad for the first time: namely, wine, women and Paris. Tight friendships and sudden, inexplicable deaths brought home sobering truths.
Intimate and memorable portraits of these idealistic, daredevil young men are contained in a marvelously fluid narrative.