A Nice Little Book
From time to time I find myself in the study of some aviation aficionado — former Flying editor Stephan Wilkinson comes to mind — admiring the cargo of his bookshelves. Many a volume that I would like to sit down with on a rainy afternoon; many that I have never heard of. The lavishly illustrated large-format ones you find remaindered at Barnes & Noble aren’t likely to be the most interesting; it’s rather the old cloth-bound volumes, mostly now out of print, that will take you deeply into other worlds of flight.
It is seldom convenient to note down titles in those situations, but one pilot sent me a nice little book of his that might save one the trouble.
Searching for the Epic of Flight: 107 Books Briefly Noted is its title. The British-born author, Robert J. Hing, intersperses his capsule reviews with his own reminiscences, and modesty does not preclude his inserting a couple of his own books among the aviation classics. The reader may judge for himself whether they ascend to the level of some of the others, like Sagittarius Rising, The Spirit of St. Louis, Night Flight or Gravity’s Rainbow. (I’m not sure what the rather dense Pynchon novel is doing here, nor St. Exupéry’s perennially beloved and terminally tedious Little Prince; but you don’t have to buy every book on the list, and probably couldn’t even if you wanted to.)
I’m indebted to Hing for calling my attention to Winged Victory, a novel about Camel pilots in World War I. Somehow, I had gotten this far in life without ever having heard of it, despite its being, according to its cover blurb, “the greatest novel of war in the air.” The paperback, which stupidly has an S.E.5, not a Camel, on the cover, arrived the day after I ordered it from Amazon; this “one click” stuff is like rubbing a lamp and having a genie see to your wishes.
The author, V. M. Yeates, is not to be confused with the poet W. B. Yeats, whose limpid sonnet on the death of an Irish airman is his only work on an aeronautical theme that I know of. Yeates flew Camels on the Western Front in 1918, dividing his efforts between air combat and ground attack. The novel is pretty clearly autobiographical; one way you can tell is that, like real life, it has no discernible plot. It’s remarkable that Yeates manages to keep you engrossed for hundreds of pages by what is basically a monotonous series of “jobs” — sorties of an hour or two, sometimes several in a day, a few miles into “Hunland,” looking for the odd hapless Pfalz or Albatros or reconnaissance two-seater to sneak up on and send down in flames, or plunging into a cauldron of machine-gun fire to drop a couple of 25-pound bombs or spray a trench with bullets. Movie-style mass dogfights are rare and brief; German pilots, whose equipment the protagonist, Tom Cundall, considers inferior to that of the British, are depicted as generally, and wisely, avoiding engagements with Camels. Most days end in a drunken haze, alcohol lubricating, as no doubt it always has, the wheels of war.
Much of Winged Victory — the title alludes, ironically I think, to the Hellenistic statue, triumphant but headless, that greets visitors to the Louvre — deals with Cundall’s fluctuating feelings about his trade: exultation or relief over his victories and escapes, disgust with the mechanical slaughter of men just like himself, and for what? For usury, explains a fellow pilot, who, persuasively enough, sees this mad war as redounding principally to the benefit of international industrialists and financiers.
Woven through this tapestry of daring, terror and growing doubt are the shining threads of flight. Yeates evokes Turneresque skyscapes — the tawny eruptions of evening cumulus, the pools and filigrees of mist, the leaden overcasts and the opalescent voids — that every pilot will recognize. Weather has a leading role in the drama. “Dud” weather means safety — you can roll over and sleep, the morning job won’t go — but also the boredom of empty hours. Good weather means danger — but also the fun of “contour chasing” over the war-blasted landscape at 20 feet and diving to radiator-cap level to terrify the occupants of British staff cars encountered by chance on country roads. Pilots who joined their squadrons during the winter months were likely to survive longer, because they would fly less; but in any case many novices died within weeks of arriving. The longer a pilot survived, the longer he was likely to; learning mattered.