The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.

A book recommendation by Don Allen

It’s such a simple question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Besides the crew, what is the most important piece of equipment needed in an Air Force? Go ahead, I’ll wait………

mc_371-491x006-webA photograph of the famous B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” from our digital archive collection. Click here to discover more.

Done? Thought so. Of course you know the answer is the aeroplane! The USAAF, including our very own Mighty Eighth and the 2nd Air Division, could not have performed so heroically in World War II (WWII) if planes didn’t exist to fly. While nowadays aeroplanes as weapons of war seem like a no-brainer, advocates of aviation had to fight for decades for their belief (and for the money needed to fund that belief) that air superiority could be a major factor in war. World War II proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that controlling the air was a vital component of winning modern warfare. From the ability to bomb enemy factories and supply chains to transporting personnel and equipment to the forces on the ground, air power was here to stay.

It is easy to forget however that by the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, on December 7th 1941, the aeroplane was less than 40 years old. In 1939 the first airport lounge, the Admirals Club at LaGuardia Airport in New York, had been opened. The first ever international agreement on flight rules had been signed in 1929 at the Warsaw Convention. It had been only 13 years since the ill-fated Australian Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith’s flight across the Pacific in 1928, preceded the year before by Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic in the legendary “Spirit of St. Louis”. During World War I, flight effectiveness had been limited primarily to reconnaissance missions, although combat had begun with the addition of machine guns mounted on the planes and the carrying of small bombs. In his book The Wright Brothers however, available in the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, David McCullough takes us all the way back to the very birth of modern flight on the east coast of America.



The first heavier-than-air powered flight had been achieved on December 17th, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina by Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bike manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio who would go on to change the world. Using “the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence” (quote from jacket), McCullough gives us an inside look at the workings of two brothers who had a dream. Beginning with their upbringing, McCullough introduces the Wright family, including father Milton Wright who fostered an atmosphere of inquiry and learning, and sister Katherine who helped keep the brothers grounded. By the beginning of Chapter Five, which goes into the actual historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, you are rooting for the Wright brothers to succeed, having learned of the immense time and effort put into their machine, including their studies of bird flight and creating from scratch a workable gas engine. When that first, 12-second flight is described, it is no less thrilling for the fact you knew it would happen, and did in fact happen 113 years ago.

However, just because they had flown the first flight doesn’t mean that planes started, excuse the pun, dropping out of the sky for general use. McCullough details the next few years as: they struggle to convince anyone who hadn’t personally seen the brothers fly that they had in fact flown; to tinker with their machine to create a better, faster, more precise plane; to sell the invention; to convince the US government to buy it; and eventually their spectacular demonstrations in France that firmly and finally established their pre-eminence in the air to the world. He ends the main narrative with Orville taking his then 82-year old father, a major source of support for the brothers during their trials, on his first ever flight, becoming at the time the oldest person to ever fly in an aeroplane. The epilogue briefly rounds out the Wright’s history after their achievements, with Wilbur’s death in 1912 at only 45 shocking me, as I hadn’t realize he had died so young. By the time of Orville’s passing in 1948, he had seen his invention: go from covering a few hundred feet from an altitude of 10 feet to flying thousands of miles at thousands of feet; travel across first the Atlantic and then the Pacific Ocean, feats that even Orville once thought impossible; from handmade launch pads to massive airports and runways; and from a novelty to helping win wars.

McCullough brilliantly takes us through this tale with his trademark attention to detail that never overwhelms the narrative flow of his work. While I could classify it as an “easy read”, and it is, it’s only an easy read in the most literal sense. The reading of it is easy and flows very well. However, the depth of detail, the attention that McCullough gives to the family and lives of the brothers, their father, and their sister Katherine, draws you into the world of the early 20th century. The birth of flight and its first few faltering steps plays out before your eyes. It’s a wondrous sight, and I give this book my highest recommendation.

If you’d like to reserve a copy to read, click here to go the library catalogue.

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Filed under American History, Books, Memorial Library

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