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Century of Triumph

November 1, 2002 (from the Wall Street Journal)

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

By Daniel Ford

With rumors of war coming from capitol and pulpit, I naturally read "A Century of Triumph: The History of Aviation" (Free Press, 388 pages, $50) for clues as to how an air blitz against Iraq might play out. All the vehicles are here: the bat-winged B-2 Spirit bomber, the equally weird F-117 Night Hawk attack plane, the workaday fighters, the pilotless drones and the mighty but venerable B-52 Stratofortress -- a symphony orchestra of military might but one whose instruments haven't changed much since our earlier foray against Saddam Hussein 11 years ago.

Indeed, what's most striking about the century that Christopher Chant celebrates -- the one that began on Dec. 17, 1903, with the first flight of a powered, man-carrying, heavier-than-air machine -- is how swiftly aircraft developed in the beginning and how slowly they have evolved more recently. The B-52 has been in the inventory for almost half the history of flight. Even the bizarrely modern B-2, with no fuselage, no rudder and no immediately apparent engines, has been flying for 13 years, once time enough to spawn whole generations of aircraft.

U.S. Invention, Europe Innovation

History's first pilot of course was Orville Wright, though it might as easily have been his brother Wilbur. They were two remarkably capable inventors, but they weren't very lovable. Among other failings, they hid their plane, the Flyer, from view for more than two years after its maiden flight, for fear someone would steal their design. When others flew regardless, the Wrights sued them for patent infringement, bringing American aircraft development to a virtual stop. Aviation innovation shifted to Europe, where it remained for all practical purposes until the 1940s. With a few notable exceptions -- Charles Lindbergh's flight to Paris, the introduction of the Douglas DC-3 twin-engined airliner -- the U.S. contributed little to aviation until well into World War II.

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Then it took a commanding lead. Continental Europe emerged from the war too poor to compete, and Britain booted away an early lead in engine technology by producing a series of feckless aircraft whose designs had been mandated by a government commission. In the U.S., by contrast, the airlines decided what they needed, and private enterprise responded with such aircraft as the Lockheed Constellation -- "strangely elegant and indeed beautiful," as Mr. Chant describes it. The Constellation, introduced in 1945, could carry 100 passengers, while the equivalent British airliner was limited to 34. It was the beginning of travel for the masses.

For those who can't conjure an image of the lovely, tri-tailed "Connie," aviation artist John Batchelor provides a meticulous illustration, as he does for 200 other aircraft in "A Century of Triumph." Many of his paintings are exquisite, their interest often enhanced by reference to individual pilots, both famous and little-known. The book is further illustrated by about the same number of photographs, also chosen with care.

Mr. Chant's subtitle, "The History of Aviation," is an extravagant boast but one he very nearly fulfills. His range is enormous: from the Wright Flyer to the space shuttle Explorer. He even devotes a paragraph to the Winter War of 1939-40, when the tiny Finnish air force mauled the Russians in the sky. Yet his story flows nicely, and you never get the feeling that you're reading an encyclopedia, at least until the final chapters. Mr. Chant does falter a bit as he tidies up the loose ends and missing bits. I was startled to see the DC-3 transport on page 314 and a Super Cub light plane on page 355, long after we've moved from these 1930s concepts to the era of turbojets and supersonic flight.

Designs for a Second Century

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The only outright mistake I found in the book came in passing, when Mr. Chant says that the U.S. military ignored reports by Americans who faced the Japanese Zero fighter in China in the 1930s. This is a common misperception. No American pilot met the formidable Zero in combat until Dec. 7, 1941. The reports that had earlier come out of China -- of contests between Chinese pilots and the Japanese in Zeros -- were duly disseminated by the U.S. Army and Navy at the time. It was at the operational level that the information was ignored.

And there is an interesting omission: The Airbus super-jumbo airliner is mentioned but not shown while a page is devoted to Boeing's smaller, super-fast Sonic Cruiser, still on the drawing boards. Looking at Boeing's futuristic design, I can't help wondering: Are the U.S. and Europe about to swap roles? I'm not convinced that the market can support either of these designs for aviation's second century, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the bigger plane, the one that furthers mass transportation. That's to suggest that the Europeans may yet reclaim the aviation leadership they lost in the 1940s, at least when it comes to civil pursuits.

Mr. Chant concludes his chronology with the Afghan campaign of 2001, which saw the first combat use of unmanned aircraft and the atavistic firestreams from C-130 Spectre gunships flying lazy circles while they destroyed ground targets with their side-mounted cannon. But the first century of flight still has a year to run -- time enough to accommodate another war and the surprises it will bring.

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