THE MEN WHO GAVE US WINGS – Review by John Henry Phillips

A few weeks ago I was handed a book to review on the life and exploits of Australia’s most successful flying ace, Robert A. Little, entitled Unknown Warrior. Aircraft and the history of aviation has never been something that has perked my interest past looking at the machines themselves, which of course, brings a wave of awe when they’re seen in full flight. The mechanics, the development and the specifics that come with constructing an aircraft, however, is an interest that has passed me by. I’m sure my Spitfire and Lancaster building Grandfather would have energized the stories and sparked a passion – but I starting asking questions too late.

Indeed, one cannot be an expert on everything, which is why these books exist, after all!

Notwithstanding, I was gripped by the story of Little and those that read my previous review will recall my fascination with the idea that aircraft were used for war so early into their conception. It took a mere eleven years from the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight for aircraft to reach fighting level in World War One. The story of a flying ace is perfect to get a personal insight into war in the skies and an idea of the emotions of the men that left the ground. It does not however, give the reader a context or space in time in which World War One sat progressing in aviation history.

As luck would have it, the next book to land on my desk was The Men Who Gave Us Wingsby Peter Reese. After being left unfulfilled by Unknown Warrior, in terms of its historical information on aircraft development – which is not to take away from its amazing storytelling of Robert A. Little, this book was a perfect follow up. Wings perfectly covers the history of aircraft from the very first light-bulb-moment right up to point at which the machines flew into battle. This book covers the whole spectrum, a perfect accompaniment to the story of any flying ace you happen to pick up and read.

So what of the history of aircraft? It could be said that we, sitting comfortably in the 21st century, take the actual action of being in the sky, surrounded by nothing but metal and electronics, for granted. Perhaps it’s the arguably overzealous nature of airport security, the thought of pouring shampoo into a smaller bottle or the astonishingly cheap cost of budget flights – but by the time we take our seats before take off, how many of us have really thought about what it is we are about to do? To the early pioneers of flight, the way we now look at aircraft would have seemed impossible. Years of blood, sweat and tears were exhaustingly trudged out for the pride of it, to be the first; Richard Branson they were not.

Until a few years ago I had not taken to the sky since I was a child heading off on holiday. For years my image of flight was one of being strapped in by my parents heading to Tunisia: stuffed camel in hand, cheap fez on my head.  Last summer I boarded a plane to India, where I would be changing to fly to Thailand. I was heading there to trace my Great Uncle’s steps as a Japanese POW, a trip of a lifetime and one I plan to write about in the future. This was my first solo flight and a 16 hour one at that. The flight to India was perfectly smooth. The flight to Thailand however, was on a plane a third of the size and seemed to be caught in constant turbulence for the entire journey. Of course, I am well aware that this is completely standard – but it shook me enough to think of how alien the concept of flight is, and just how far it has come in just over 100 years.

It came down to one man, a northerner with numerous estates in his name, to first scribble down a design for a toy helicopter (let’s not count Da Vinci’s 1480’s ‘aerial screw’ concept – this book certainly doesn’t!). As is so often the case with new developments, Sir George Cayley was a rich man with the means and funding to design and keep on designing. What followed from this first sketch was a gripping test of time and money, akin to the space race of the sixties and seventies, to see which country would be the first to create powered flight. Of course, we had to get to that point. Models were shown at exhibitions and fairs of what must have seemed like an out of reach pipe dream to the spectators and an all-consuming life-goal to the creator. Wind tunnels, gliders, and even balloons were used to push the development forward. Years of requests denied and injuries sustained led the men who gave us wings to their eventual goal – with a little help from the invention of the internal-combustion engine, naturally.

It is hard to imagine how exciting a time it must have been as the 20th century rolled in, as humans began to take their first flights. Gone were the stories of wax wings and in its place was a reality of people soaring amongst birds. There seems to be something about aircraft that obsesses a man. The Wright Brothers caught the bug, as did Bomber Harris and even Howard Hughes. Human beings seem to want to push the status quo until they either self-destruct or take to the skies, and I find in that an admirable romanticism. Without those great eccentrics we would have our feet stuck firmly in the quick sand. They led the way for aircraft in war, in leisure, as a business and inevitably, in space. We owe them the world.

There could be said to be a fitting poignancy in this book being released at a time of such military uncertainty. Drones are circling the skies of Gaza, while passenger jets are being struck from the clouds in Ukraine. The pioneers pushed wooden structures into the air a century ago and in eleven years we were using them as weapons. While the Wright Brothers were working in contract with the US Army, Wilbur Wright died in 1912, before he could even see his pride and joy be used for mass killing. If he had lived, would his head be held high? We will never know.

The Men Who Gave Us Wings is an incredibly intricate and well-told story of the earliest history of aircraft development. Perfectly laid out into four sections covering the designs, struggles, accomplishments and U-turn towards war as 1914 approached. A brilliant overview of how we got to the point at which flying aces could soar straight into the history books.

Reviewed by John Henry Phillips for War History Online.

By Peter Reese
Pen & Sword Aviation
ISBN 978-1-84884-8481-1

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.