Early Air Pioneers – Lindbergh, Earhart and More – what an extraordinary story

Some years ago, I read Scott Berg’s biography of Charles Lindbergh. It’s a very interesting book, of course, and Lindbergh was a very interesting, and controversial in his later years, individual. But, putting aside his flirtation with Nazi Germany and the kidnapping and murder of his young son, what amazed me about the book (perhaps it should not have) was his activities as a pioneer flyer. Not only his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, amazing as that was, but all of his early aviation activities in light of the danger of flying in those days.

A quick example from that book:

“On March 6, 1925–only eight days before graduation from the Air Service Advanced Flying School–Lindbergh was part of one such maneuver at five thousand feet…The planes collided, locking together. When separating them appeared hopeless, Lindbergh climbed out to the right side of his then vertical cockpit and climbed backward as far from the ship as he could.

“Just three weeks earlier two Brooks Field cadets crashed and burned; and eight months earlier two other planes had collided in midair over Kelly Field, killing one pilot. Lindbergh was fortunate to follow the course of the other, his parachute functioning perfectly. While falling he was able to see McAllister descend safely and the two planes, one hundred yards off to the side, twirl earthward, bursting into flames upon hitting the ground. An hour later, Lindbergh was in the air again.”

Two points: first, that there was so much danger in early flying, and second, that people kept doing it — again and again.

Berg’s book is widely read – it won a Pulitzer Prize, after all. A much less read book is Margaret Thomas Warren’s “Taking Off”, which I also read through some time ago. Warren was a pioneer woman pilot, as a very, very young woman. And she was far from alone – there were many teenage women in the 1920’s who not only learned to fly, but flew often, in competitions and commercially. Again, in spite of the danger, and at a time when most women were still getting married and staying at home, hundreds of young women flew.

Last week, I read a third book, Susan Butler’s “East of the Dawn”, a biography of Amelia Earhart. Earhart, perhaps the best known of the early women pilots, died attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937, when her plane disappeared shortly after taking off from New Guinea on one of the last legs of the trip.

Her story is also fascinating. As a very young woman, growing up in Kansas, Earhart decided to fly. And fly she did.

She was clearly an extraordinary person, growing up with an alcoholic father, who was not able to keep his family together and not able to keep them financially secure, although her overall family background was quite privileged. She was bright, charismatic and fearless. She was not only a pilot (actually an early test pilot, a barnstormer, a promoter of women aviation, a publicist and a competitor in numerous races and contests), she became a dedicated social worker in Boston and New York, and a journalist and author. She was extraordinarily popular, and after the married a Putnam of the publishing company, she had the resources to support her popularity and her many activities.

Her first flight across the Atlantic was not as a pilot, but as a journalist/passenger. Her second flight across the Atlantic was not only as a pilot, but was a solo flight; she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and only the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was also the first woman to fly across the United States, from California to the east.

She was not alone on her attempted flight to circumnavigate the world – she had a navigator with her, perhaps not the right navigator. The mystery of her disappearance has never been fully solved – but most likely, they lost their bearings when they were heading from New Guinea to a small Pacific island, and probably simply ran out of fuel over the ocean.

But again, equally interesting in the book is the overall story of early flying. On a continual basis, her fellow pilots (including men and women whose reputation as professionals could not have been higher) crashed and were killed. Yet, still, more and more people learned to fly, more and more planes were designed and constructed. And eventually, flying no longer held the same degree of danger.

Those of us who today fly at the drop of a hat owe an extraordinary amount to these pioneers. But there’s another story here – again one that I don’t fully understand.

With all of the danger and the loss of life and property, why didn’t anyone stop the development of air travel? Government safety and regulatory institutions existed then as they do now – and not only in the United States, but also throughout Europe, where flying was developing with equal energy. There was something transcendental going on – the attraction of air travel was so great that those who normally would have avoided its danger ignored that danger, and those who normally would have regulated against those dangers sat back and limited regulation. Air travel was virtually perfected……but we should never forget the cost.

And the reading of these three books (or any of them)is highly recommended.

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