Chasing Icarus

The decade following the Wright brothers’ historic 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk was full of peril but also the allure of fame for those who aspired to the new profession of “aviator.” The mastery of the sky promised not just momentary renown but downright hero-worship from a nation fascinated both by technology and bravura — so much so that the personal lives of pilots were fodder for gossip columns. Gavin Mortimer’s new history Chasing Icarus brings us up close and personal with those daring young men and their flying machines.

Mortimer’s entertaining narrative, focused on events in 1910, moves forward on three mostly parallel tracks. With aviation’s future up for grabs in the pre-WWI era, competition heated up between three types of aircraft: airplanes, dirigibles (an airship that uses gas to rise and propellers and rudders for propulsion), and balloons. Anchoring his story in the final days of October 1910, Mortimer follows Walter Wellman as he takes off from Atlantic City in his attempt to be the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a dirigible. The author also describes two international competitions, one involving balloonists starting from St. Louis and the other involving airplanes competing in Belmont Park, New York.

Perhaps because of the singular and dramatic nature of airplane flight, the American public fixated particularly on Belmont Park’s promise of winged spectacle. “In New York there was little interest in the balloon race about to start in St. Louis, nor was their much enthusiasm for Walter Wellman and what the New York Sun called his ‘mad enterprise.’ All eyes were on the forthcoming International Aviation Meet.”

If there’s a single hero in this story crowded with daredevils and innovators, it’s a British aviator/pilot named Claude Grahame-White, whom Mortimer describes as “arguably the most famous man in America” in the days leading up to the Belmont Park event. The British aviator possessed matinee idol good looks, wealth, and international fame. Most important for both the voyeuristic press and public, Grahame-White took as many risks in his personal life (especially with women) as he did while flying planes. Mortimer describes Grahame-White’s engagement to American actress Pauline Chase and then shows the British pilot simultaneously wooing a beautiful Boston socialite named Eleonora Sears.

Mortimer hints that Grahame-White may have been safer in the air than on the ground. At the Belmont Park event, newspaper reporters went into a feeding frenzy when both the famous Ms. Chase and the wealthy Ms. Sears went looking for their beloved British pilot at the same time: “The reporter from the World trailed Chase toward hangar row, willing Eleonora Sears to appear,” writes Mortimer breathlessly, “And suddenly he saw her, just at the moment Chase did. ‘Hardly had the two conspicuous young women spied each other,’ he wrote, ‘than they promptly proceeded to pass in opposite directions without recognizing .’ ” The spectators at Belmont, and legions of readers across the nation, reacted to the soap opera with open-mouthed fascination.

In a less frothy episode, Mortimer brings us aboard Wellman’s dirigible, America, as it crosses the ocean and its crew argues about whether they should give up the dangerous attempt. It’s clear from Mortimer’s account that Wellman puts himself in danger because he’s afraid of being ridiculed in the press. Wellman pushes forward but is ultimately forced to ditch his dirigible near Bermuda, where he’s picked up by a British ship. Some reporters did indeed ridicule Wellman for being “full of hot air,” and the St. Louis Post made a larger point: Wellman’s failure “tends to confirm the growing conviction that conquest of the air is far from achievement by a dirigible balloon. The flying machine will probably beat it to the goal.”

Meanwhile, the international balloon competition in St. Louis was eventually won by Americans Augustus Post and Alan Hawley, who endured their own post-crash ordeal. After floating a distance of over 1,000 miles, their balloon plummeted into the Canadian wilderness — a vast woodland still largely uncharted in the early 20th century. Even more dramatic than winning the race, the two Americans had to find their way back to civilization. With Hawley injured and with nothing but wilderness in sight, Post wrote in his log: “Each of us realized without mentioning it to the other, that our lives might be drawing to a close.” Mortimer, using Post’s log and other sources, vividly depicts how these two survived their wilderness ordeal.

Disasters and publicity triumphs are closely linked throughout the book: at the Belmont Park competition, planes were crashing and the crowds watched in awe. Mortimer depicts the often-ghoulish attitude of some spectators who, like some fans at race car events today, wanted to see fireballs. Mortimer cites a much-injured American aviator, Charles Hamilton: “his game has gotten to the stage where they are disappointed if someone isn’t injured or killed.” Hamilton himself suffered 50 crashes in two years, explains Mortimer: “He’d broken both legs, both collarbones, one ankle, several ribs, dislocated a shoulder, crushed his pelvis,” and more.

The intensity of risk and reward fueled numerous rivalries, particularly in view at the Belmont Park competition, including those among pilots (the Americans Glenn Curtiss and Orville Wright had a legendary hatred for each other), airplane designers (the widely loathed Wright brothers were involved in worldwide litigation against anyone who “borrowed” design features from their planes), and nations (the British and American aviators vied for supremacy, while both disliked the French and Germans). In addition to his romantic complications, Claude Grahame-White was engaged in an ongoing, much-publicized feud with the organizing committee of the Belmont Park event, which he believed was altering the rules to favor American pilots.

Mortimer skillfully describes the events at Belmont Park. In the speed competition, Grahame-White took the early lead, but the French pilot LeBlanc was clearly about to outpace him. Right before the finish line, LeBlanc’s plane crashed into a telegraph pole. LeBlanc “was stll alive,” writes Mortimer, but barely. Although Grahame-White won, he was angry with the press for emphasizing LeBlanc’s dramatic, last-second crash. The Wright brothers’ new plane, unveiled after months of secrecy, also crashed.

Mortimer’s narrative is dramatic, fast-paced, and entertaining. Yet he doesn’t quite deliver on his subtitle’s promise. American aviation grew incrementally in the days after Kitty Hawk and the 1910 Belmont Park event. No revolutionary technology came out of the competition, although the U.S. military monitored airplane technology closely and would, in the following months, invest more money into building airplanes for military use. In describing the future of manned flight, Grahame-White, the hero of Belmont, invoked the optimism that aviation often inspires and outlined a vision of peaceful, safe travel over the horizon: “I would like to make a bet with anyone that in twenty years’ time we will be flying across the Atlantic Ocean… a regular service carrying passengers.” But the pilot had vision enough to see clouds in the distance before others, remarking ominously, “I have made it a rule of late to avoid speaking about the uses of airplanes in warfare to avoid being laughed at.” Within days of the Belmont Park competition, Mortimer notes, the German War Office was ordering its first consignment of airplanes.