Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough


Author: David McCullough
TitleThe Wright Brothers
Narrator: David McCullough
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, are figures shrouded in the myths and legends of the pioneers of aviation.  David McCullough presents them as two distinct personalities, and introduces the Wright Sister, Katharine, an integral part of their team although she did not directly participate in the experiments with flight. While McCullough always writes (and reads!) in an engaging manner, he tends towards the hagiographic in his biographies.  At one point he observes that Samuel Pierpont Langley has a scientific team, the backing of the government, and millions of dollars and fails, while the Wrights succeed with a little bit of money, their self-taught skills, and a bit of grit.  This is unfair to Langley and wrapped up in the American mythos of the self-made entrepreneur.  That being said, the Wrights were remarkable figures and McCullough does well to provide their background with the key event of December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk not coming until halfway through the book.  After conquering the air, the brothers then split up to market their aircraft to the American military and abroad in France.  Orville suffered serious injuries in a crash in 1908.  Wilbur died young in 1912 and while Orville would live 76 years (long enough to still be alive when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier) he retired from flying in 1918.  Like any good biography this is the story of fascinating lives well told.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship by C. Michael Hiam


Author: C. Michael Hiam
TitleDirigible Dreams: The Age of the Airship
Publication Info: Lebanon, NH : ForeEdge, 2014.
Summary/Review:

I received this book free through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Hiam details the history of rigid airships – or dirigibles – from their earliest innovation in that turn of the 20th century through World War II.  Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States, and most of all Germany put a lot of effort into programs to build airships.  Stories of airships used for Arctic exploration, warfare, and commercial travel are related.  Mostly though, dirigibles seemed to be prone to crashing and/or blowing up.  After 40 years of disaster, it’s not a surprise that the airship era came to an end.  They still seem pretty cool though. Hiam’s writing is a bit dry, but the text is lit up by some engaging stories of dirigible dreams and nightmares.

Rating: **

Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier


10 years before Sputnik, and 60 years ago today, Air Force test pilot Captain Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than Mach 1 and break the sound barrier. This is one of my favorite historic events due to my pre-adolescent obsession with The Right Stuff which lead me to read Yeager several times as well as make multiple visits to The National Air & Space Museum (where the Bell X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” is on display) and read everything I could find about aviation history.

A conservative military man like Yeager is a strange hero for a peacenik liberal like myself, but hey, Chuck Yeager is just that bad ass. And he’s a great story-teller too. He even has his own website.

MetaFilter and Bad Astronomy each provide tributes to Yeager on this anniversary.

Here’s the scene as depicted in The Right Stuff: