A detailed reconstruction, from primary sources, of US aeronautic activities up to Kitty Hawk which is also, and equally, a history of ""the American aeronautical community."" Crouch, curator of astronautics at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian, tells the interlocking story of his band of pioneers without any particular style but with scrupulous, illuminating attention to the much-disputed facts. Here is Chanute, the civil engineer, publicist, and catalyst, in correspondence with everyone in the US and abroad; Langley of the Smithsonian, engaged for 18 years in theoretical studies and then piecemeal, ""cut-and-try"" efforts to construct a plane; and the Wrights, who, seeing the airplane ""as a complex technical system, realized that each element. . . had to be separately evaluated in order to judge where the real problems lay."" But Crouch is also appreciative of the contribution of Boston enthusiast James Means, publisher--at a critical junture--of the Aeronautical Annual; he assesses the legends of maverick Californian John Montgomery and German-born mechanic Gustave Whitehead; he closely examines the controversial claims of Augustus Herring. In the case of the experimenters, he explains the conceptual and technical shortcomings of each effort; in the ease of the joint undertakings, he describes the personal strains that dogged them. And throughout, meetings, speeches, and publications figure importantly: a climate of opinion is being created receptive to the possibilities of flight, young men are catching the bug. When the Wrights finally appear, it's only natural that they write to Langley for information, and to Chanute to report on their progress. But Crouch has no doubt that they were the inventors of the airplane. The fullest, most authoritative record to date--and something more than technological history.