Aviation Records in the Jet Age: The Planes and Technologies behind the Breakthroughs

  • Published

Aviation Records in the Jet Age: The Planes and Technologies behind the Breakthroughs by Lt Col William A. Flanagan, USAF, Retired. Specialty Press, 2018, 192 pp.

Since man mastered the science and art of heavier-than-air flight, aviators have attempted to push the envelope of flight by flying faster, farther, and higher. Along the way, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (World Air Sports Federation) acknowledged these accomplishments as world records.

As a former SR-71 Blackbird radar system operator, Lt Col William A. Flanagan certainly knows a few things about aviation records. In his book Aviation Records in the Jet Age, Flanagan takes readers on a flight through the record-breaking flights of jet aviation. To accomplish this, he starts his monograph with a brief history of the early days of flight. The author begins the journey through the record books of the jet age with a discussion of the basics of flight: the Wright Brothers and concepts of heavier-than-air flight. Once the Wright Brothers successfully took flight in 1903, the quest to go farther, faster, and higher began. Flanagan tells the story of the immerging global quest for flight and records. He spins his story by combining technical explanation, a concise history of aviation, and an engaging storyteller approach.

World War I brought a temporary halt to the recognition of world records as nations did not want to acknowledge their many advances in aviation. Once the war ended, the public quest for aviation records returned. To that point, Flanagan continues his narrative leading up to the jet age. Once again, a world war stopped the recording of aviation records. While nations made great advances in aviation, those accomplishments were kept secret from their adversaries and the world. The jet aircraft proved to be one of those significant advancements.

To effectively tell the story of record-breaking jet flight, Flanagan includes a detailed discussion of the German and Allied development of jet aircraft. He does an excellent job of explaining the development of the jet engine, as well as the difference between the German and Allied approaches to how their engines operated.

With the fielding of the jet engine and the end of World War II, aviation records often lasted only a month as aviators continued to push the limits of speed, altitude, and distance. For his discussions in the post-World War II Jet Age, Flanagan divided the era into four chapters (periods): “Breaking the Sound Barrier (1946–56)”; “Jet Airliners and Mach 2 Fighters (1954–62)”; “Mach 3 and Beyond: Supersonic Cruise (1962–76)”; and “The Digital Age: Efficiency Trumps Speed and Altitude (1976–96).” 

Flying faster than the speed of sound initially provided the ultimate jet aviation record. Flanagan does an excellent job detailing the events leading up to then-Capt Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier while flying the Bell X-1. In a matter of two decades, the speed record for flight climbed from just above Mach 1 in October 1947 to an astonishing Mach 6.7 in October 1967. During that period, the author explains how a mixture of rocket-powered test aircraft and operational military jet aircraft routinely broke records as they pushed the envelope of flight.

Flanagan concludes his work by lamenting how the quest to set aviation records decreased after the Cold War. As the author points out, the commercial aviation industry is “cleaner and ‘greener’ ” aviation, along with increased fuel efficiency. With the shift toward efficiency, civil jet aircraft have similar operational performance characteristics. The close nature of their performance capabilities does not lend itself to setting records. Most records focus on distances covered.

To assist in explaining the technical items throughout the book, Flanagan often uses inset articles to explain in greater detail the relevant aeronautical principle. These inset articles are also accompanied with well-appointed diagrams of the scientific principle or aeronautical advancement being discussed. Readers without a technical aviation background will benefit greatly from these insets.

The book is loaded with high-quality photographs of record-breaking aviators and aircraft. The images are also high-quality and always pertinent to the topic or event being discussed. The large crystal-clear images help to bring the record-flying events to life for the reader.

In summary, Flanagan’s Aviation Records in the Jet Age is a fascinating easy read. The text is engaging, and the photography is high quality. While the book comes to an abrupt ending, readers interested in the cutting-edge of flight will find it a worthy read.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF, Retired

"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."