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Lessons From a Forgotten Race Across America’s Skies
A review of "The Great Air Race" by John Lancaster
On the morning of October 8, 1919, dozens of American military pilots took to the skies over Long Island and San Francisco in their primitive World War I-era fighters and embarked on perhaps the most daring aerial adventure yet attempted in the then-short history of aviation: flying from one coast of the United States to the other and back again, simply to prove it could be done. Seven aviators would lose their lives and fifty-four aircraft would be wrecked over the course of this weeks-long contest. Today, however, this grand transcontinental air race has all but disappeared from the storied annals of American aerospace history, overshadowed by later feats like Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier, and John Glenn’s orbital spaceflight.
That’s something journalist and aviation enthusiast John Lancaster aims to rectify with his book The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation. It’s a brisk and gripping adventure, complete with a colorful cast of characters competing against one another to win the race and testing their own endurance against the elements and their less-than-reliable machines. With his vivid account of white-knuckle flying and overnights at rough-and-ready airfields carved out specifically for the race, Lancaster gives readers an intimate sense of the extremely unforgiving nature of early aviation.
It's a tale that has its origins in a bold attempt to win public support for aviation in the wake of World War I – and one that shows just how vital public investment can be to promising but still unproven new industries and technologies. Lancaster effortlessly weaves this story of early twentieth-century industrial policy into his wider narrative of aerial derring-do, moving back and forth from the corridors of power in Washington to freezing, rain-lashed cockpits and rudimentary airfields with ease.
The Great Air Race picks up where books about the fight in the skies over the trenches of the Western Front typically conclude: the end of the World War I and the promising but still uncertain future of aviation. Though Americans had invented the airplane, the United States lagged behind European nations like France and Germany in aviation even before the outbreak of war in 1914. Patent disputes between the Wright brothers and Glen Curtiss, their main rival, stymied aeronautical progress, as did a lack of government support for aviation research and development. Only in 1915, the year after war broke out in Europe, did Congress deign to create the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to fund and oversee American aviation research – an agency that made critical breakthroughs in aircraft design before it became the foundation for NASA in 1958.
Nor did America emerge from World War I as an aeronautical powerhouse on par with its European allies, either. During the war, American military pilots flew French and British designs. For its part, American industry churned out these foreign designs under license. There was one bright spot, though: the mass production of the Liberty engine, a twelve-cylinder beast that needed three men to start on the ground. While America’s aviation industry was in better shape at war’s end, Lancaster tells us, it still remained behind its competitors across the Atlantic.
The inevitable and swift decrease in military spending that followed the end of hostilities hit America’s aviation industry hard, with the War Department – the precursor to today’s Department of Defense – cancelling orders for some 13,000 aircraft it no longer needed. Congress pared the U.S. Army Air Service’s funding to just five percent of its wartime height. These savage budget cuts threatened the very existence of America’s fledgling aviation industry; future aerospace titan Boeing, for instance, shifted its manufacturing business from aircraft to speedboats and furniture to make ends meet when government orders dried up.
One true believer was determined to rectify this dreadful state of affairs: Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, effectively second-in-command of the Air Service. Mitchell was a fanatic for airpower, obsessed with what he believed to be its war-winning potential to the point where he got himself court-martialed in the mid-1920s. But Mitchell was right to see the enormous possibilities inherent in aviation, and he correctly understood the need for public spending in this still-embryonic technology and industry. To acquire that funding, though, the Air Service would need the public to see aviation as some sort of national priority – an enterprise worth the investment.
A transcontinental air race would provide the perfect opportunity to prove the value of aviation to the American public. At the end of August 1919, a similar but much shorter competition had just been flown between New York and Toronto. Mitchell announced the Air Service’s own coast-to-coast contest on September 18, giving the military just three weeks to find and build rudimentary airfields across the length of the country before the race’s planned October 8 start date.
It would be an ambitious proof-of-concept experiment as much as anything else, one that would push the limits of the day’s aviation technology – as well as test the skill and endurance of American military pilots. Still, it certainly appeared technically feasible to fly from one end of the country to another in the airplanes of the day. As part of its wider ambitions for transcontinental air mail service, after all, the U.S. Post Office had at high cost successfully established an air mail route between New York and Chicago that delivered the mail in half the time it took a train to travel the same distance.
Lancaster’s narrative of the race itself starkly illustrates the primitive nature of aviation in 1919. Despite its major leaps and bounds during the war, aviation remained nowhere near able to make good on the promises of its boosters. On their journeys from one coast to the other, pilots fly through dreary and frequently dangerous weather – including what one pilot, future Air Force chief Carl Spaatz, dubbed a “snow hurricane” over Wyoming – with few real flight instruments and little beyond unreliable compasses, tourist maps, and railroad tracks to guide them on their way.
Aircraft routinely broke down or simply wore out, necessitating frequent repairs at the hastily improvised airfields along the race’s established route. These airstrips themselves were often austere at best and potentially deadly at worst, particularly those set up in the western stretch between Omaha and Sacramento; two in Wyoming were rated by contestant pilots as death traps. The race proved extraordinarily grueling on man and machine, with few pilots making the transcontinental flight one-way and even fewer – just nineteen out of the sixty-three aircraft that started out – completing the round trip.
When it came to its primary purpose, cultivating public support for aviation, the great air race of 1919 was probably a wash. Indeed, Lancaster notes that the race’s death toll and crashes may well have hurt the cause by reinforcing “public perceptions that flying was dangerous.” Neither the Post Office nor the Air Service would receive much more than marginal increases in their budgets over the course of the decade to come.
The air race did nonetheless show that coast-to-coast air travel was indeed possible and that the Post Office’s transcontinental air mail plans were in fact feasible, if only by excruciatingly thin margins. For all its budgetary parsimony, Congress would indeed give the aviation industry critical support throughout the 1920s – largely in the form of air mail contracts that fostered an American commercial aviation industry that endures to this day. These contracts didn’t create the world-beating industrial colossus that emerged out of World War II, but they did keep America’s fragile aviation industry alive during a critical and uncertain period of its early development.
Beyond telling the story of this forgotten but thrilling aerial adventure, The Great Air Race shows us that America and humanity as a whole have made astonishing technological and economic progress over the past century. It’s hard to read this book and not contrast the ease with which many of us fly across the country and around the world today with the dangers pilots faced a century ago as they raced across the continent from rough-hewn airfield to rough-hewn airfield in their flimsy wood-and-fabric aerial contraptions.
But there are wider lessons to be drawn from Lancaster’s account of this long-ignored episode of aviation history – especially the importance of public support in every sense for new and uncertain technologies and industries. It’s hard to say how American aviation would have evolved in the absence of even the meager public investment it received after World War I, but without it America’s aviation industry wouldn’t have been in a position to make a crucial contribution to the arsenal of democracy that won World War II. In other words, public support helped America stay in the aviation game as the industry struggled to take flight both literally and figuratively.
That’s something to keep in mind as America embarks on its next great phase of industrial policy a century later. The Great Air Race reminds us that the real question regarding America’s industrial policy isn’t whether to do it but how – and how much of our national resources we should dedicate toward it. It’s a book that encourages us to marvel at the courage and tenacity of the great air racers of 1919 and understand just how much aviation has changed America and the world.
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