I'm not flying when it's 10 degrees out, people. But I will read about it. So I picked up this history book by browsing the 380's of the public library and it's the first one I finished in 2015.
"Dreams of Flight" by Janet & Michael Bednarek starts with the Wright brothers and goes right up until the book's published date in 2001. It focuses on general aviation (powered flight that is not military or commercial). It's chock full of lots of tidbits, but kind of reads like the writers were torn between writing a story and writing an encyclopedia. I wish they'd stuck with one. Honestly the content could have done just fine as an encyclopedia - I had to google to learn that a Rogallo wing
is the flexible, collapsible wing used on hang gliders, and kind of wished there'd just been an entry right there. And I STILL don't understand why Cessna and Beech chose Wichita Kansas to start cranking out thousands of little airplanes, except that maybe they were just bored Kansans with nothing much to do but learn to fly. (Learjet started in Wichita simply because this is where the aviation resources already were. Nobody picks this place for scenic reasons.)
If you love airplanes, the book can be a little depressing. It starts with a time where people were just sure that airplanes would change the world. We'd ALL have one, you'd have to learn to fly to be anybody, we'd all be zooming around the country without any thought of distances. The progress following the wright brothers flight was amazing. Planes were suddenly everywhere, built by lots of people. Everyone thought there'd be this natural progression until we were all zooming around with personal jetpacks.
But the industry that produced 33,200 planes for general aviation in 1946 was selling less than 1000 a year in the early 90s. Flying has gotten more expensive and complicated. Something didn't come together.
The history of the AOPA and EAA organizations is fascinating and could just about be its own book, since the issues concerning these organizations really tell a story of what went on with general aviation. I appreciated the book chronicling the impressive beginnings of both these powerhouse groups, not just because I'm an AOPA member.
I also appreciated that every chapter included a section on women and minorities in aviation. There are too many great names to mention here, but seeing certain people mentioned gave me confidence the authors did their homework. There was a lot about Bessie Coleman
, the great black woman stunt pilot born into a family of sharecroppers who went to France to learn to fly since no one in the US would teach her. I also loved reading more about air racer Louise Thaden
. Jackie Cochran
and the WASPs who flew ferry planes during WWII are mentioned, with paragraphs given to some of the more interesting ones... again, tough to cover in a few pages what should be a book in itself.
I read a copy from the library so the last epilogue was written to address post 9/11/2001 aviation restrictions and compromises. The author also made the unfortunate mistake of updating us all on Chicago's Meigs Field
- stating that an agreement had been reached to keep the airport open until 2026, an "ultimately happy ending". YUP. Pilots today describe the situation not as "ultimately happy" but as "ultimately destroyed by bulldozers in the middle of the night by a Chicago mayor who felt like he was above the rules" - so there's a lesson for you historians, do not write epilogues in the middle of a tennis match.
This is a book to read with wikipedia nearby, but when it's not rattling off sequences of events it'll give you some big ideas about what motivated the people who built planes, ran flight schools, set government policy and made aviation famous.