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Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation

Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation by William F. Trimble. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 304 pp.

Hero of the air? Dr. William Trimble’s exhaustive biography of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss certainly drives the reader to that conclusion. The author offers a thorough study of the aviation pioneer’s flying life and his predominant role in the early days of naval aviation. The book is more than the subtitle implies, pointing out that although the Wright brothers were the first to fly, “Curtiss was instrumental in [flight’s] development or innovation phase” (p. xiv). As is his practice, Trimble has extensively researched the personal papers of the key players of aviation, official naval documents, period newspaper accounts, and a myriad of secondary sources.

Accompanying the central theme of Curtiss’s overall contribution to aviation are several secondary themes, one of which examines the strong partnership between Curtiss and the US Navy: “Early on, advocates of aviation in the Navy, chief among them Capt. Washington I. Chambers, recognized that the Navy had special requirements for airplanes and their operations, and for aviators and their training” (p. xv). Trimble affirms the well-supported position that Chambers utilized Curtiss’s unique ability to “design and develop” aircraft along with his experience in experimentation to “meet the Navy’s special requirements” (p. xv).

This partnership leads to another secondary theme—that the Navy didn’t resist aviation; rather, “the Navy’s leadership and bureaucracy adjusted well to aviation and other changes” (p. xv). To support this point, the book discusses at length the Navy’s efforts to embrace new technologies, such as long-distance flying, and highlights its desire to conduct the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean, which did in fact occur in 1919. Clearly, the Curtiss-Navy partnership helped add aviation to the Navy’s capabilities.

Professor Trimble tells Curtiss’s story chronologically, beginning with his family’s move to western New York and ending with the death of the aviation pioneer at the age of 52. He portrays Curtiss as an innovative and enterprising man who used a “cut and try” approach rather than a scientific or engineering-based method with everything from bicycles to motorcycles to airplanes. His detailed, almost weekly, accounting effectively relates Curtiss’s activities and numerous aviation firsts. Understanding the importance of the often-hostile relationship between Curtiss and the Wright brothers, Trimble includes the substory of their legal battles over aviation patents and their desire to protect their respective business interests.

The author does not place his subject on a throne as the infallible creator of naval aircraft. Rather, he notes that Curtiss’s “slack and inefficient ‘shop’ organization had been a source of frustration” to the Navy (p. 189). Throughout, Trimble clearly articulates the negative effect of the cut-and-try approach to aircraft design and Curtiss’s lack of an engineering background. Readers learn that after the Navy’s successful flight across the Atlantic Ocean in the Curtiss-built NC-4, Curtiss had the “good sense to walk away” from an aviation industry that had outgrown his aeronautical abilities (p. 214). Rather than offer a whitewashed, glossy characterization, this inclusion of the man’s shortfalls helps the reader assess his effect on aviation.

As with Trimble’s book Admiral William A. Moffett: Architect of Naval Aviation (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), readers who seek insight into the subject’s family life will be disappointed. This is no “there I was” study. Instead, Hero of the Air gives us an in-depth look at a key aviation pioneer who had an immense impact on aviation in general and naval aviation in particular. Although Glenn Curtiss was not the first to fly, one cannot deny his critical role in the early days of flight. William Trimble’s biography is a must-read for both aviation and naval historians.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF, Retired

Barksdale AFB, Louisiana

"The views expressed 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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