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Flying Man: Hugo Junkers and the Dream of Aviation

Flying Man: Hugo Junkers and the Dream of Aviation by Richard Byers. Texas A&M University Press, 2016, 264 pp.

Richard Byers successfully categorizes Hugo Junkers a German engineer and aircraft designer, into the role he played in the development of aviation versus that of assisting the Third Reich. The latter was a more common portrayal resulting from the vast numbers of Junkers-titled aircraft the Luftwaffe used during World War II. The Australian-born European history professor illuminates the constraints levied on Junkers due to the large cost of advancing aviation technology combined with a tepid demand for a maturing commercial aviation concept. At the time, an airplane ticket cost four times more than a train ticket, with the latter being a more reliable and comfortable option (p. 73). Further, Junkers’s intransigent personality negatively affected his business decisions.

Byers explains how the Junker’s model, led by its creator, fared in evolving a nascent aviation capacity during unstable economic times. The model prioritized research and development using patent revenue as a primary source of income. Doing so enabled small batch production and a reduced dependence on sales for organizational survival (p. 4). The model did not generate the private income needed, forcing Junkers to pursue government funding and subsequently become beholden to government priorities. Unfortunately, he felt the government trended in the wrong direction, placing him in the delicate position of maximizing government funds while pursuing his own agenda. Surprisingly, despite his obstinate nature and retention of reckless subordinates in pivotal positions, Junkers succeeded at this undertaking until the German government lost patience and pressured him into renouncing all claims to his aviation patents. He died shortly after that in 1935 at the age of 75.

Flying Man is a worthy read, but Byers occasionally offers conclusions beyond his research. For example, he concludes that Junkers’s tale demonstrates the erosion of individual power and initiative within the aviation community as technology matured and became a viable instrument for the state (p. 5). Perhaps, but it was Junkers who ran out of funds—forcing his collaboration with the German government to remain solvent. He also proposes that Junkers built the flower bed from which Soviet aviation blossomed (p. 64). Maybe. Byers provides enough evidence to make that assertion plausible, but not proven. Still, Byers succeeds in authoring a scholarly work that examines Junkers’s life for non-German audiences and showcases his considerable contribution to German aviation development—which clearly did not include equipping the Third Reich with Junkers’s aircraft.

The prospective reader should be aware of two points. First, the work is advertised as a scholarly biography covering the entirety of Junkers’s life—and it does. But Byers spans Junkers’s first 50 years in a mere six pages, with the rest of the volume covering his final 25 years. Second, a “concern” as it relates to Europe, and especially Germany, is a business structure whereby a number of separate plants are subservient to a parent company from an economic—not action-execution—standpoint. Byers uses this denotation for concern often, expecting the reader to seamlessly follow.

This book will suit the aviation enthusiast as it gardens well an area previously only lightly tended. As well, any acquisitions professional, whether a builder or buyer, will have empathy—both favorable and unfavorable—for Junkers and the obstacles through which he maneuvered. Lastly, the balance and tension between private industry innovation and government marshaling of private industry inventions will resonate. Hugo Junkers endured that precarious relationship, helped pave a definitive path for German aviation, and did it while remaining beholden—albeit precariously—to the Junkers model.

 Col William J. Ott, USAF, Retired
Langley AFB, Virginia

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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