A dramatic chronicle of a pivotal moment in the history of aviation.
By 1910―seven years after the Wright brothers first lifted a plane off the ground at Kitty Hawk―America and the world were transfixed by the danger and challenge of mastering the air. Yet which form of flight would predominate was far from clear―dirigibles, balloons, and airplanes all had their passionate advocates. Emblematic of this uncertainty, the precursor of the U .S. Air Force owned one plane and two dirigibles.
During the seventeen days in October 1910 that Gavin Mortimer vividly recounts in Chasing Icarus, the question of primacy in the air was on full display, after which the future of aviation was never in doubt. The great dirigible America, captained by Walter Wellman, lifted off from New Jersey and for several turbulent days attempted to be the first flying machine to cross the Atlantic. From St. Louis, ballooning teams from around the world took off in pursuit of the Gordon Bennett I nternational Balloon Cup, given to the team that traveled the farthest distance, with a denouement featuring Americans Alan Hawley and Augustus Post that would stun the country. And at the famed racetrack at Belmont Park, New Y ork, huge crowds gathered to watch airplane pilots race above the oval and attempt to set speed, altitude, and distance records. Newspapers everywhere, even in the smallest of towns, made headlines of the results, and the public treated all aviators as matinee idols.
Interweaving the dramatic narratives of these three astonishing events, bringing to life powerful personalities (the ruthlessly competitive Wright brothers, the debonair Englishman Claude Grahame-White, the ultra-confident John Moisant), Gavin Mortimer reveals the pioneers of flight as fitting descendants of the legendary Icarus, risking all in pursuit of glory. Chasing Icarus captures both a pivotal moment in the history of aviation and the end of the gilded era that would soon descend into the devastation of World War I ; indeed, within four years dogfights over France had replaced air shows.
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Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Great Swim. He has written for a wide range of publications, from Esquire to the Daily Telegraph, from BBC History to the Observer. A long distance swimmer, he lives in the south of France.From The Washington Post:
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle In 1910, the year of the events in Gavin Mortimer's "Chasing Icarus," airplanes were still such novelties that there was no universally accepted term for the people who flew them. Among the choices were "birdmen" and "jockeys," but "pilots" had yet to be borrowed from the world of the barge and riverboat. Mortimer's tantalizing subtitle, "The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation," sets up the three events that pilot his book: The dirigible America took off from New Jersey in an attempt to make the first airborne crossing of the Atlantic; a great race called the Gordon Bennett International Balloon Cup started from St. Louis; and aviators vied to outperform one another in flying stunts above Belmont Park in New York. This confluence of events seems to have brought aviation to a kind of critical mass, with reporters and pundits predicting a glorious future for flying machines in both sports and warfare, though not, apparently, in transportation. The little-known heroes of these adventures included the English flier Claude Grahame-White, the Frenchman Jacques de Lesseps (whose father was Ferdinand, builder of the Suez Canal) and the American Arch Hoxsey. Many of the fliers involved died young, in plane crashes, but not Grahame-White. Before his death in 1959, he marveled at how quickly aviation had progressed. Not that long ago, the Soviet Union had sent its first Sputnik into orbit, whereas "the first airplane flight in Europe was as recent as 1906."
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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