Friday, November 22, 2013

'Inspiration for a grubby world'

I have vague memories of seeing the Air Force Thunderbirds perform once when I was a kid – I think it might have been for the Utah State Fair.  And while it was thrilling to watch, I didn't think much about it again until several years ago when I was offered tickets to sit in the Oracle booth at the Miramar Air Show near San Diego.  It was awesome!  Not only did the Thunderbirds (F-16s) perform but lots of other cool jets as well.  If you've never seen (and heard!) a Harrier jet take off and land vertically, you've missed something truly amazing.  I've gone to Miramar again and the air show at Edwards AFB and seen the Navy's Blue Angels, F-18s and F-22s, the B-2 Stealth Bomber, old WWI era bi-planes, P-51 Mustangs, and lots of others, but my favorites are still the Thunderbirds.  I just think the F-16 is the coolest (although the P-51 Mustang comes a very close second).

We probably take it for granted that we can fly across the country in a few hours or halfway around the world in the better part of a day.  Travel by air is commonplace now, but it wasn't always so.  In the early days of aviation, airplanes were for daredevils to entertain in barnstorming shows.  Even after the First World War, few in America thought the airplane had much use, even in the military.  But one who saw its great potential was Eddie Rickenbacker, America's most successful "flying ace" from WWI with 26 enemies shot down.  He later went on to influential roles in developing America's air industry, and even used his fame to inspire pilots in WWII during which he crashed in the Pacific Ocean with a group of others and spent 24 days drifting in lifeboats until they were rescued.

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight by Winston Groom profiles three of the most influential aviators in history.  Doolittle saw that airplanes could never become truly effective as long as pilots had to fly by their own observations, especially when limited by fog and clouds.  He was the first to take off and land blind in a canvas-covered cockpit, using only rudimentary instruments.  He later led America's response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor with the "Doolittle Raid," where American planes bombed Japan in April 1942 – a raid that had very far-reaching implications and was the beginning of turning the tide in the war.  And Charles Lindbergh is famous for being the first person to fly from New York to Paris in his plane "The Spirit of St. Louis," but his contributions during WWII are seldom known or remembered.

Winston Groom has written a fascinating and superbly readable triple biography of these inspirational men.  His accounts of Rickenbacker's exploits in WWI dogfights and the crashes he endured and especially Doolittle's Raid put you on the edge of your seat and are hard to put down.  Lindbergh's historic flight is every bit as exciting, and the kidnapping of Lindbergh's child is emotionally wrenching to say nothing of the trials he faced with the paparazzi of his day.  My only complaint is that by alternating among the three men they easily blended together (being so similar to begin with) and I found it hard to mentally keep track of and remember their individual accomplishments.  Also, the book is so highly praising and inspiring that I couldn't help feel that part of the story was being glossed over.  Groom addresses this in the final pages by saying "I don't know why it is these days that this dirty linen has to be aired... about otherwise decent and interesting people, but the public seems to demand it."  I agree with him but it doesn't make for a very balanced read (also some might simply reject it as hagiography); nonetheless, he briefly mentions some of the shortcomings of these otherwise inspiring heroes (and his explanation of some of Lindbergh's less inspiring behavior and comments prior to WWII was entirely reasonable).  But I still found it a fun and exciting read.

Unfortunately for me, I'm the only one here who still likes to go to an airshow.  The boys went to a few with me but have kind of moved past that, and the girls have no interest whatsoever.  And it would be kind of lame to go by myself.  Oh well...

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