Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation [NOOK Book]


In October of 1910, only four years before the outbreak of WWI, the precursor of the U.S. Air Force had one plane and a couple of dirigibles. Nobody knew which form of flight would predominate: planes, dirigibles, or balloons. And for a period of 17 days that month, this question was on prime display. The dirigible America, captained by Walter Wellman, was trying to cross the Atlantic. At horse racing tracks from Belmont Park in New York to California, huge crowds watched airplanes race above the ovals. And from ...

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Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation

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In October of 1910, only four years before the outbreak of WWI, the precursor of the U.S. Air Force had one plane and a couple of dirigibles. Nobody knew which form of flight would predominate: planes, dirigibles, or balloons. And for a period of 17 days that month, this question was on prime display. The dirigible America, captained by Walter Wellman, was trying to cross the Atlantic. At horse racing tracks from Belmont Park in New York to California, huge crowds watched airplanes race above the ovals. And from St. Louis, ballooning teams from around the world took off in pursuit of the Bennett International Balloon Cup, given to the balloon that travelled the furthest distance. The dramatic denouement featuring Americans Alan Hawley and Augustus Post would stun the country. Newspapers, even in the smallest of towns, kept their readers informed of all the latest aerial accidents and international squabbles. The public treated aviators of all kinds like matinee idols.

While the future was anything but clear then, in retrospect these few days nearly 100 years ago laid the foundation for an Air Force that would become the largest and most powerful in the world. In Chasing Icarus, Gavin Mortimer has plumbed original and primary sources to paint a vivid picture of the launching point of flight, and an indelible portrait of the late-Edwardian world about to explode into war.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

British author Mortimer (The Great Swim) persuasively argues that three aeronautic events in 1910 vouchsafed the primacy of U.S. aviation and the triumph of heavier-than-air flight. Interweaving the events-Walter Wellman's failed attempt to cross the Atlantic in his dirigible, America; the International Balloon Cup Race, which embarked from St. Louis; and the country's first international aircraft contest, held above the Belmont Park racetrack in New York-Mortimer effectively places the reader at the vital center of all three. He enlivens the narrative with interesting details, such as navy department opposition to aviation as a military application and the flying records set and lost daily at Belmont Park. The author excels in depicting both the pilots and the New York City society swells attracted to aerobatic thrills, and he takes a dim view of the Wright Brothers at Belmont Park, portraying them as greedy entrepreneurs who devoted as much time looking for possible patent infringers as offering honest competition to their peers. His evocative final chapter outlines the advances in aviation and its cost in lives. A singular contribution to early aviation history.
—John Carver Edwards

Kirkus Reviews
Mortimer (The Great Swim, 2008, etc.) chronicles a pivotal moment in the history of aviation. Seven years after the Wright brothers' famed Kitty Hawk flight, it was unclear whether the future lay in dirigibles, balloons or airplanes. The author looks at three events in October 1910 that tested the mettle of each technology: Walter Wellman's attempt to fly the America from New Jersey to England; the competition among airplane fliers (the word "pilot" was not yet in use) for the International Aviation Cup, held in Long Island; and the contest to see which balloonist could travel the farthest distance from St. Louis, Mo. The America flew about 1,000 miles, the longest trip ever for a dirigible, before crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, and balloonists Alan Hawley and Augustus Post covered more than 1,200 miles from Missouri to the woods of Quebec. Above Belmont Park, N.Y., however, fliers demonstrated the airplane's superior speed and maneuverability. Flying planes was undeniably dangerous-several men died in accidents during the competition-but the amazing show guaranteed that the airplane would dominate aviation from then on. Mortimer expertly interweaves the three stories, vivifying each event with a riveting combination of historical detail and novelistic suspense. He does especially fine work in rendering Hawley and Post's ordeal after their balloon went down; lost in the Canadian forest, the men were faced with brutal weather and dwindling food supplies. Mortimer also paints an unforgettable portrait of roguish British flier Claude Grahame-White, famed for daredevil exploits and a rakish manner, and deftly portrays the famed Wright brothers as mean, petty and litigious. Enjoyable,accessible technological history, further enlivened by colorful character sketches of some of the most interesting figures in the early days of flying.
From the Publisher
“Mortimer brings to life these early aeronautic pioneers and gives us a unique insight into the public’s love affair with aviation at the dawn of it’s Golden Age.” —Ballooning magazine

“Mortimer weaves his story among the fates of the America, the balloon racers and the aviators who wowed the crowd at Belmont. The result is a fascinating mix of adventure, friendly competition, bitter rivalry, and even celebrity gossip.” —BookPage

The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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 [each other].' " 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 [airplane] 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: "[T]his game has gotten to the stage where they [crowds] 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...[with] 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. --Chuck Leddy

Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who writes frequently about American history. He reviews books regularly for The Boston Globe, as well as Civil War Times and American History magazines. He is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802719607
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 7/1/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.12 (d)
  • File size: 774 KB

Meet the Author

Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Great Swim. He has written for a wide range of publications, from Esquire to the Daily Telegraph, from BBC History to the Observer. A long distance swimmer, he lives in the south of France.
Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Great Swim. He has written for a wide range of publications, from Esquire to the Daily Telegraph, from BBC History to the Observer. A long distance swimmer, he lives in the south of France.
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