The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation
“Less than a decade away from his infamous court-martial for insubordination, General Mitchell came up with a simple proposal to capture the imagination of the American public: a race across the continental United States, from one coast to the other and back again, if for no other reason than to prove it could be done.”
From the moment that Orville Wright made that 12-second flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on a December morning in 1903, the world was divided into two types: those who were simply amazed that it could ever happen and those with visions of future possibilities for aviation.
In The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation, author John Lancaster homes in on the vision of one of those in the latter category, Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, and the scheme he concocted to imprint those possibilities on the minds of those in the former.
By 1919, recently ended World War I had proved aviation’s value in warfare, and mail service offered additional promise. But Mitchell had ideas that went beyond mail delivery, combat, and barnstorming by former military pilots who had learned a skill that served no apparent function in peacetime.
Less than a decade away from his infamous court-martial for insubordination, General Mitchell came up with a simple proposal to capture the imagination of the American public: A race across the continental United States, from one coast to the other and back again, if for no other reason than to prove it could be done.
Because if that could be done, then the only limits on the future of aviation would be those imposed by lack of imagination.
Mitchell had other ideas, as well. He desperately longed for an independent air force and had already begun lobbying for a department of aeronautics at a cabinet level that would oversee both military and civilian aviation. Its success or failure hinged on his ability to impress upon not only the government, but also upon the public, the viability of the airplane.
As the author writes, “For aviation to truly prosper in the United States, its citizens would need to embrace the airplane as a practical means of transportation and commerce, just as they had embraced passenger trains in the nineteenth century and more recently had fallen in love with automobiles. But what would it take to win them over?”
After all, there was a basic difference between planes, on the one hand, and trains and automobiles on the other. Trains and automobiles couldn’t fall out of the sky! What Mitchell needed was a gimmick.
And so the idea of the great air race was born.
Lancaster does a nice job of introducing readers to various of the pilots who participated in the race. He describes their successes and failures amid the dangers inherent in a transcontinental crossing so early in the development of airborne machines. The result is to provide a sense of a personal stake by the reader in the pilots’ efforts and the risks they faced.
And the race was obviously not without risk. Two fatal crashes occurred before the race even started as the doomed pilots were on their way to designated starting points. Three more deaths occurred on the first day of the race; more would follow due to, among other things, foul weather, mountains, and equipment failures.
The organizers of the race were mindful of the dangers, and they established rules with safety in mind: rules such as a prohibitions against night flying and flying on the Sabbath. The latter was not for religious reasons but because of the need to provide at least one day for the pilots and their mechanics, who accompanied them, to rest and service their airplanes.
But no system is foolproof, and no amount of rulemaking could guarantee safety. There were nine deaths, including the two pre-race fatalities, and 54 planes crashed. Some of those were repairable and returned aloft to the race, but some were not.
Trying to gloss over the loss of life, airplane builder Glenn Martin (whose company later, through a series of mergers, would form Lockheed Martin Corporation) wrote in U.S. Air Service magazine that the death rate, on a per mile basis, was lower than the Indianapolis 500. While technically true, it was little comfort to bereaved family and friends.
As the author writes: “But it was hard to see why anyone should have taken comfort from the comparison, which was a little like saying that juggling with knives is safer than juggling with hand grenades.”
Who ultimately won the race is of lesser value in the grander scheme of things than what the race proved: Albeit tragically in some instances, transcontinental air travel was plausible, at least for mail delivery like some sort of aerial Pony Express.
It would take later events, like Charles Lindberg’s crossing of the Atlantic and the Dole Derby, a race from the west coast of the United States to Hawaii, both in 1927, to open minds to the possibilities for overseas travel. Pan American Airways would, a few years after that, actually prove the potential for passenger service across the Pacific.
But Mitchell’s great air race was the pioneer. “It showed Americans what an air transportation system would actually look like. . . . Mitchell’s ‘greatest air race’ was not just a spectacle. It was the first iteration of a new age.”