A new book tells the fascinating history of aviation through the larger-than-life characters who pioneered it.

  • Image about gavin-mortimer-wilbur-wright-alan-hawley-claude-grahame-white-americanway

IN THE CHARMING Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation (Walker & Company, $26), Gavin Mortimer looks back to a brief period in the early twentieth century when aviators of all types were flying high on the strength of interest in newly invented aircraft.

In that era, flight was fresh, exciting, and even sexy, and technological strides were being made not just with airplanes but also with balloons and dirigibles. Mortimer does more than simply describe mechanical development, though. His real achievement is painting a portrait of the colorful characters who were major players in the development of aviation.

Those men include dashing British flier Claude Grahame-White, one of the “wizards of the sky,” whose exploits and love affairs were breathlessly covered by the tabloids. Also present in the pages is flight pioneer Wilbur Wright, along with his brother, Orville. Wilbur is depicted as Grahame-White’s opposite, a 41-yearold man who didn’t drink, “didn’t gamble, didn’t womanize, didn’t even talk that much,” writes Mortimer.

And while Mortimer’s subtitle may read like a hyperbole, it isn’t. October 1910 saw a series of journeys and exploits in various kinds of equipment that held newspaper readers and spectators rapt. Walter Wellman, whose earlier try at flying to the North Pole by dirigible had, according to Mortimer, “ended in humiliation,” helmed the dirigible America, which departed from New Jersey and headed for England. Balloonists Alan Hawley and Augustus Post soared more than 1,200 miles from St. Louis, setting a new record before making an unplanned landing in the Canadian wilderness. And at New York City’s Belmont Park fairground, airplane fliers, including Grahame-White, participated in daredevil stunts and races. These three parallel events are presented through a kind of split-screen effect in Chasing Icarus, with Mortimer’s sure-handed, often witty narration woven among them.

The details are remarkable. Hawley and Post managed to survive in the woods with little food or water until they were rescued by a group of French-Canadian hunters, who fed them a meal of bread smeared with pork fat and then led them home. The gang at Belmont Park drew an audience of thousands, with wealthy luminaries such as Vincent Astor and industrialist Morris Kellogg in attendance. The retailers of the day attempted to capitalize on the aviation trend; for the air show, Macy’s department store sold a black coat with a special collar that allowed spectators to look skyward without causing excessive wrinkling.

At one point, Mortimer quotes Grahame-White, saying, “ ‘The time will come when transatlantic airships will be as common as steamers are today, perhaps more so.’ “ He was correct, of course, but while air travel may be commonplace today, big personalities such as those brought to life in the pages of this book are still rare, and reading about them is a treat.