A superb history of flying machines, by one who should know.
Crouch, senior curator of the aeronautics division of the National Air and Space Museum, brings impeccable credentials to his task. He’s also a fine writer with an international outlook, which sets this apart from recent histories that take a US-centric view of aviation. His episodic, anecdotal narrative opens in 1908 with Orville Wright’s hour-long circling of a military parade ground outside Washington, an incident that prompted the assembled brass to wonder about the application of aircraft to warfare—and then, almost immediately, to dismiss the possibility. (Said the Secretary of War: “I just can’t see that these aeroplanes are going to be especially practical just yet.”) The brothers Wright hoped, for their part, that the airplane would help bring about world peace, reducing the distance real and metaphorical between nations. Alas, Crouch observes, things didn’t quite work out that way. The author touches at many points on the relation between military and civilian developments in aircraft design and manufacture, and on the role of international figures in bringing air supremacy in both spheres to the US; the German inventor Hugo Junkers, of WWI fame, for example, designed both military and civilian aircraft, and his firm “inaugurated the age of commercial air transportation in Japan, China, Africa, and Australia” while selling plenty of its ultramodern (for the 1920s, at least) F13 aircraft to the US Post Office and military. Crouch’s pages are full of technical details and enough facts and factoids to satisfy the most demanding trivia buff. He closes on an international note, observing that by 1990 the European Airbus consortium was outselling its biggest competitor, Boeing, in “every class of airplane smaller than the 747.”
A real treat for aviation buffs, and by far the best one-volume analysis of the subject.