Also-rans don’t figure much in our national imagination. Who remembers the horses that finished second to Secretariat during his remarkable 1973 run? (Drinks on me if you do. No Googling!) Americans love winners, but what about those who struggle, sweat, flail, and compete, only to fall short? Losers, sadly, are less interesting.
In “Atlantic Fever,” an unexpectedly gripping account of a Roaring Twenties contest over who would become the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris, Joe Jackson deftly sidesteps this conundrum. The victor of this story is, of course, Charles Lindbergh, who accomplished the deed in May 1927, flying solo across the Atlantic in Spirit of St. Louis, winning a $25,000 prize (roughly $305,000 today) offered by New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig. When the rangy, taciturn Lindbergh landed, after some 33 hours aloft, he immediately became an American legend and an icon of the age.
We know much about Lindbergh, perhaps too much. Jackson’s fantastically entertaining book spotlights those fliers forgotten by posterity: a gallery of aerial daredevils, barnstormers, decorated war heroes, all who vied with Lindbergh for the distinction. (A few tried doing it in the other direction.) At the risk of sacrilege, it is the socially awkward Lindbergh — he was happiest in solitude — who comes off as the least interesting of the lot. Jackson is not out to debunk Lindbergh; he merely wants to give others their due.
Jackson shows how commerce, science, technology, and the media — newspapers dubbed the contest “Atlantic fever” — drove the fliers to extraordinary lengths. When the frenzy was just starting to build, Lindbergh wasn’t even a blip on the front page. A strutting French pilot and World War I ace, René Fonck, “The D’Artagnan of the Air,” was first down the runway in 1926, piloting a giant three motor biplane, the S-35, designed by aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky. This “huge silver beast” sported a 101-foot wingspan, red mahogany chairs, a hide-a-bed, and food cabinet. The trip would be a lark (so it was thought). Bulging with thousands of gallons of fuel, baggage, and an elaborate victory dinner of Long Island duck, Vermont turkey, and Baltimore terrapin to be served in Paris, the 28,000-pound plane never got off the ground and crashed on New York’s Roosevelt Field. Fonck was lucky to survive; two of his crewmen did not.
There was a sense of tragedy about the quest; for all the fliers, glory came at the expense of spiritual corruption. “If an aviator wasn’t killed, he somehow lost his soul,” Jackson observes. As the Fonck disaster proved, there were no sure things. Bigger was considered better; it usually wasn’t. The physics of flight — the magic of lift and drag — were stll being calibrated.
Still, some of the very best, most experienced pilots tried the crossing. Navy man Robert Byrd, who controversially navigated the North Pole by air, was funded by department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker to the tune of $100,000. Another French war Ace, Charles Nungesser, did things in reverse order and took off from Paris with navigator François Coli in the L’Oiseau Blanc, in May of 1927, only to disappear off the coast of Newfoundland. Then there was Francesco de Pinedo, “The Lord of Distances” and the dandyish Italian exemplar of Mussolini’s’ Fascist “New Man,” who was continent hopping in his twin-hulled flying boat. Always immaculately turned out, even after a long flight, “[i]t was said that to find a scuff on de Pinedo’s shoes or a wrinkle in his tailored suits indicated the approaching end of the world.”
So why Lindbergh? For one, he flew lighter and leaner than anyone else. Dissension in the rival crews hobbled several competing efforts. Lindbergh flew alone; he would only have to battle himself, not his co-pilot. To save weight, he also flew without a parachute, a radio, navigation lights, sextant, or gas gauge. The Spirit of St. Louis was a miracle of compression and avionics: 9 feet 8 inches high; 28 feet long; and only 5,200 pounds fully fueled.
Lindbergh’s feat has been chalked up to the indomitable will of the American spirit and other such clichés. Jackson casts the accomplishment in a different light. “Lindbergh was not inherently superior to his rivals,” the author contends. He was just ruthless: “He pounced on his opponent’s weaknesses and learned from their tragedies. That was a truth of the winner that no one wanted to admit. Everyone gloried in the winner’s skill, strategy, stamina, and courage but few ever mentioned the grisly truth: the winner climbed over the bodies of those who had gone first.”
There are many such startling observations in “Atlantic Fever.” But Jackson’s narrative also bulges with overwrought prose and half-baked ideas. He can’t quite decide whether they were heroes or dupes: The pilots “had become the glorified advance men for capital interests. They risked their lives in the service of PR.” There are times when he’s not sure whether he’s writing a hard-boiled epic — one aviator’s “favorite cocktail was an equal mix of women, thrills and booze” — or cultural studies treatise: How many histories of aviation reference the long-forgotten literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch? Jackson sees the spirit of the age, in all its crassness, bravado, and recklessness, represented in the fliers he chronicles. They flew for science, glory, and cash.
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