cover image The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation

The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation

John Lancaster. Liveright, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63149-637-0

Journalist Lancaster debuts with an energetic and entertaining history of “the greatest airplane race ever flown,” a 1919 round-trip race between San Francisco and Long Island. Conceived by U.S. Army Air Service deputy director William Mitchell and open only to “qualified military aviators,” the race was designed to “demonstrate the transformative potential of aviation” and “protect the Air Service from the worst of postwar budget cuts.” With rudimentary flight instruments, few permanent airfields, and “no radar, air traffic control system, or radio network,” danger pervaded the competition from start to finish: four fliers were killed in the first two days, and one pilot required three planes to complete the race. Lancaster brings to vivid life the eccentric cast of racers, including Belvin Maynard, known as “the Flying Parson,” a theology student who flew with his German police dog as a passenger, and Brailey Gish, who checked himself out of Walter Reed Medical Center to enter the transcontinental race while still in leg braces from his last crash. Though some participants get lost in the shuffle, there is no shortage of memorable characters and dramatic scenes. The result is a high-flying history of aviation’s white-knuckle early days. (Nov.)