I have before me a bound volume containing a year’s worth of Flying, a gift from an old friend and collaborator, pilot and photographer Baron Wolman, who picked it up at a swap meet for $4. The year, 1916, will surprise anyone who knows that our esteemed publication first appeared, under the name of Popular Aviation, in 1927, the year of Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight. But what I have here is a different Flying, launched in 1914 by the Flying Association of New York City “to gather and present, for the information of the American people, an accurate monthly summary of the progress of aeronautics throughout the world.” Its cover price was 25 cents.
The format was by turns newsy — contests, noteworthy flights, speeches, trophies and medals, dedications of airfields, allocations of funds and events in Europe, where the Great War was raging — and editorial, with articles and essays, some of prodigious length, on various matters, full of aviation boosterism, many of them heavy-breathing polemics on the shortsightedness of the penny-pinching War Department and the need for the United States to invest more in airplanes and pilot training. Some of the headlines are quaint beyond belief: “Junior Anti-Suffrage League Raises $800 for Training Aviators.” Looking forward and backward at the same time, this Janus-face association wanted men to fly, but did not want women to vote. Bloviation knew no bounds: One advertisement for a flying school proclaims, “The Aviator — the Superman of Now. The world has its eyes on the flying man. Flying is the greatest sport of red-blooded, virile manhood.” They must have been thinking of Nietzsche’s Übermensch — the Man of Steel came into being only in 1932.
Eyes accustomed to today’s magazines long for pictures, and of these there are few — but one, of a darkened Paris and the searchlight of an airplane floating like a comet above the Left Bank, although it may be a fake, is unforgettable. What graphic interest there is is supplied by advertisements, many of them full-page. On the first page of the January 1916 issue is an ad for the Sloane biplane, which, in the hands of an unspecified foreign government, climbed to 3,000 feet in seven minutes, 27 seconds “on rather bumpy conditions.” (At this point, sex and advertising had not yet consecrated their union; today, it would be enough to show the airplane in the general vicinity of a pretty couple.) Facing this, on the inside cover, is an ad for the B.F. Sturtevant Co. of Boston, every vital part of whose “140 Horse-power Aeroplane Motor has been tested to destruction.”
Sloane? Sturtevant? Where are these companies now?
Ads for long-forgotten enterprises crowd the pages: Van Blerck Motor Co. (maker of the “all-steel motor”), Splitdorf Electrical (the Dixie 80 magneto, used by David McCulloch, who “covered 480 miles, at an average speed of 64 miles per hour”), the Christmas Aeroplane Co. (“Builders of the Largest Aeroplanes in the World”), Excelsior Propeller, Baker Castor Oil, Ashmusen Manufacturing Co. (whose air-cooled flat-opposed aero engine had 12 cylinders delivering 8.75 hp each). Mingled among them, like so many flesh-and-blood figures among a swarm of wraiths, are the survivors: Wright, Curtiss, Martin, Sperry.
Mingled, similarly, among vast desiccated tracts of dutiful prose are a few oases. In the October issue, a Canadian pilot named Redford Mulock recounts his night pursuit of a zeppelin over the British coast. Armed only with “some bombs, grenades and a revolver,” Mulock found the zeppelin loitering at 2,000 feet, its engines shut down, dropping bombs. The silenced zeppelin’s crew heard him coming and opened fire with machine guns, ineffectually, at a range of 1,500 feet. “I saw the most wonderful sight. ... He ... majestically stuck his nose up and went up like a balloon.” Not surprising; he was a balloon. Mulock gave chase — although the zeppelin was faster than his airplane — but the zep flew into a cloud and, having the advantage of being able to stop in midair and listen for the approach of an antagonist, hid there like Zeus from Hera. Having lost the zeppelin, Mulock found that he could not descend without being picked up by British searchlights and anti-aircraft; communications between ground and air had not yet been established. He flew about until first light and then landed. “Dodging searchlights over the North Sea,” muses the happy-go-lucky aviator, “is the finest sport in the world.”