“The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindburgh and the Epic Age of Flight”
Author: Winston Groom
Publisher: National Geographic Society
Price: $30.00 (Cloth)
Winston Groom’s historical nonfiction is increasingly a great reading pleasure. Now a master of this form, he researches extensively, assimilates mountains of material and then tells the stories, smoothly, engagingly.
In this book there are three long stories, of three genuine heroes. One says “heroes” without reservation, or irony, in a time when the idea of the hero has gone out of fashion or, at least, there seem to be few larger than life characters to pin that label on.
Groom begins with the three as youths, each one enthralled by the excitement of aviation, by the barnstormers, wing walkers, daredevils of the earliest twentieth century. From modest beginnings, these three became the most famous American aviators until the space age.
Eddie Rickenbacker, born 1890, was a farm boy who dropped out of school at 13. His beginnings were as a hugely successful race car driver. From 13 races in 1916, Rickenbacker’s racing team made $78,000 in profit, $1.5 million in today’s dollars, and Rickenbacker personally won $60,000. Then he went for his first airplane ride and it changed his life forever.
In WWI he became an ace, flying against pilots such as the Red Baron and Herman Göring. Jimmy Doolittle, 1896, a Californian, was partly raised in Alaska during the Gold Rush. He dropped out of college for flight school but would eventually earn a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from MIT. He did not serve in Europe, but after the war earned fame setting flying records, including first to cross the continental U.S. in under a day and first American to fly over the Andes.
Charles Lindburgh, the youngest of the three, in May of 1927, at 25 years old, flew from New York to Paris alone in the “Spirit of St Louis,” becoming the most famous person alive. It was a dangerous flight, especially since he had to stay awake, alone, for two days. He was so exhausted he had hallucinations such as “some sort of phantoms in the back of the fuselage.” Lindburgh described them as “friendly, vapor-like shapes, without substance….” They chatted with Lindburgh, even offered him advice! (Lindburgh had been working as a mail pilot which was as dangerous as combat. From 1919 to 1926, 31 of 40 mail pilots were killed in crashes.)
All through the 1920’s Doolittle, like Rickenbacker and their hero Billy Mitchell, championed air power, urged the U.S. military to build more and better planes and warned that Germany and Japan were doing just that. Doolittle also was the first to fly a plane blind, by instrument only. Up to then, pilots had thought instruments untrustworthy. Flying by the seat of your pants was the answer. This resulted in confusion and from time to time, pilots diving down instead of up.
WWI, the sensational setting of records and the Paris flight made these three immortal, but as Groom explains, enormous achievements still lay ahead, after the men were no longer youngsters.
Doolittle became a national hero again when, in April 1942, just four months after Pearl Harbor, he led the raid over Japan. His B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier “Hornet,” deep in Japanese waters. No one had thought it could be done and the boost to American morale was incalculable. Even more valuable, the immediate torrent of Japanese radio traffic helped American cryptographers break the Japanese naval code.
Doolittle, at war’s end a general, as commander of the 8th Air Force in Europe oversaw the bombing of Germany and air support for the Normandy invasion. His 8th dropped a million tons of bombs and destroyed 18,000 enemy aircraft. He later became the VP of Shell Oil.
Lindburgh, much sympathized with when his son was kidnapped, lost his luster when he became anti-interventionist, a mainstay of the America First Committee and a Roosevelt-hater. Lindburgh was criticized by many as a Nazi-sympathizer. Groom explains this situation in convincing detail. Lindburgh was against entering the European war; he was not pro-German, although he “admired the organization and growth of modern Germany out of the chaos that had followed WWI.” To erase all doubt, he re-established his patriotic credentials by flying 50 missions in the Pacific and was a hero all over again.
We also learn that Lindburgh, like the others a mechanical genius, experimented with a pump which would lead to the pump used during open heart surgery, and in his last years headed up the World Wildlife Fund.
Although it obviously pains him to include it , Groom does tell the reader that Lindburgh, “The Lone Eagle,” between 1957 and 1967 “fathered seven children by three different women in Germany.”
(Rickenbacker, when asked about affairs, replied: “I never had the time.” Groom remarks: “Nobody’s disputed him yet.”)
When Eddie Rickenbacker’s B-17 went down in the Pacific with no food or water, he and his men survived for 24 days in tiny life rafts! After the war, Rickenbacker became, among other pursuits, the president of Eastern Airlines.
At different points, all three men had received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As fantastic, as unbelievable, as all this may seem, there is no call for skepticism. There were truly giants on the earth in those days.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”