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ARC Review: The Great Air Race: Death, Glory, and the Dawn of American Aviation


The Great Air Race: Death, Glory, and the Dawn of American Aviation by John Lancaster

On October 8, 1919 more than 60 pilots took to the air in what was officially called “The First Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test”, but everyone involved in it knew it was a race - an air race - across the United States. By the time it was done, the pilots and their planes would suffer 54 accidents and crashes, and nine men would be dead (two died even before the race began).

For a time the race captured the country’s attention, and newspapers of the day were packed with updates on the flyers and their progress, some laid out in grids reminiscent of the box scores that went along with the articles on the World Series, happening at the same time. But over time memories of the event have faded away, and today not many people know about this transcontinental race. 

In The Great Air Race John Lancaster has done amazing research to create a fascinating account of the race itself, how it came to be, and what it meant for the future of commercial aviation in the US.  

 The race was Billy Mitchell’s idea. Mitchell, a highly decorated aviator in the Great War, and considered by many to be the father of the US Air Force was, at the time, the chief of Army Air Service Training. He hoped that the publicity from the event would assist his efforts in lobbying Congress to establish an air force as a separate branch of the armed services.

The race was an “out and back”, with pilots taking off simultaneously from New York and San Francisco, flying to the opposite coast, and then returning to their starting point. The course included twenty “control stops” - landing strips - many of which did not even exist when the race was announced. It was open only to military personnel. Most were returned veterans of air combat in Europe. The planes themselves were a mixed lot, biplanes of mostly wood and cloth, with open air cockpits and finicky engines. Flying at night was forbidden, and Air Service officers at each control stop enforced weather halts when they judged conditions too bad to allow flyers to continue.

 All of this set the stage for what would be a thrilling race, and Lancaster’s account of it is as dramatic and thrilling as it gets. It’s full of wonderful details and amazing moments and holds your interest to the very end. He’s done a great job bringing an event that had almost been forgotten back to life.  The race created heroes, among them the first to finish the course, the “Flying Parson” Belvin Maynard. It also fueled a hunger for flying in the public that helped spur not only the formation of commercial airlines, but support for the funding of airports for the airlines to fly in and out of.

It’s amazing to think today of the skill of the pilots who took part, and of their mechanics who accompanied them. They flew in open cockpit planes through the Rocky Mountains at the start of winter weather, encountered rain and sleet that coated the planes with ice, and had to handle all kinds of mishaps like engine fires, stalls, landings in muddy fields that could rip the landing gear from their planes (or worse). They did all of this without the aid of modern equipment - no radios, no radar, no GPS, no lighted runways, no air controllers, and with sometimes spotty ground support and limited supplies. 

History buffs, aviation enthusiasts, and those who appreciate a good race will love this book. 

RATING: Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: I received an advanced copy of this book from W.W. Norton & Co.  and NetGalley, and am voluntarily providing this review. The book is available starting November 15, 2022.

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Title: The Great Air Race: Death, Glory, and the Dawn of American Aviation

Author: John Lancaster

Publisher: Liveright (an imprint of W.W. Norton & Co.)

Publish Date: November 15, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781631496370

Publisher’s List Price: $28.95 (Hardcover)