Book Review: The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight

Winston Groom
National Geographic, 2013.

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight is a combined overview-biography of three of the most famous and influential aviators of the early 20th century. The book essentially follows each man chronologically through his life, but it does so by intertwining their periods of life so that, in some cases, they almost seem to grow up together — which, as contemporaries, they essentially did. This somewhat unique style can be slightly confusing to some readers, as the famous aviator might change from one chapter to the next, but it also provides a very enlightening and important context to what each of those famous pilots did.

There is an interesting contrast, for example, between Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic voyage, accomplished solely by visual lookout in 1927, with Doolittle’s experimentation with flight instruments and totally “blind flight” two years later in 1929. The varying political views of each aviator through the interwar period and World War II are also interesting when viewed essentially side-by-side and understanding that they came about in the same cultural context.

The Aviators is not a minutely-detailed look into any of the three, but it appears to be reasonably well researched, relying primarily upon previously published autobiographies, biographies, and the occasional primary document. Groom is an accomplished fiction author, and he successfully transposes factual history into a very entertaining and engaging prose.

The downside of the well-written prose — which generally, though not always, seems to take a favorable view of the aviators — is it has opened Groom up to accusations of hero worship. Groom seems loathe to bring up or lend any credibility to some of the more sordid details of the aviators’ lives, which might tend to strengthen that accusation.  However, Groom’s overall theme is the three men and their contribution to aviation, not a tell-all about every minute of their waking life.  To be fair, there are other auto/biographies that tell the stories of the individual men in more detail, including what Groom calls their “dirty linen.”  Given the focus on the greater aviation world, the absence of some “dirty linen” details of the aviators’ lives does not detract from the book in the least.

Some aviation purists might catch an awkwardly worded aviation phrase or two, and anyone who idolizes one of the three men will likely find something about which to complain. That said, taken as a whole, The Aviators is a fascinating and comprehensive look at aviation in the early 20th century, as told in the intertwined stories of three of the men who made crucial contributions to its development.

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight is Recommended and available from Amazon.

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