Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War

  • Published
Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War by Bert Frandsen. Smithsonian Books, 2010, 318 pp.

In Hat in the Ring, Dr. Bert Frandsen captures the spirit and challenges of America's World War I military aviation pioneers. He effectively chronicles the training and stand-up of the American Expeditionary Forces 1st Pursuit Group, relating the American experience and stories of some of the more well known US aviators like Billy Mitchell, Frank Luke, Benjamin Foulouis, and Eddie Rickenbacker. The author also sheds light on lesser known figures who labored behind the scenes but with great impact: Bert Atkinson, Phillip Roosevelt, and Raoul Lufberry, all of whom contributed to the American effort. In short, Hat in the Ring captures the birth of the fighting spirit and mystique of these combat aviators.

Frandsen arrived at this research task well prepared. A 20-year veteran of the Army and a retired lieutenant colonel, as well as a graduate of the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies and Joint Forces Staff College at Norfolk, Virginia, he holds a doctorate in history from Auburn University. A former member of the Air Command and Staff College faculty, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Frandsen now teaches at the Air War College.

Hat in the Ring's thesis is that the rise of early American airpower can be credited to the training and mentorship of Britain and France, coupled with effective technological transfer from both of those countries. American aviators adapted what they learned from those allies to benchmark best practices that enabled them to quickly engage German forces in the air. The book is a fun read because the author is a gifted storyteller. Not only does he add rich, new elements to the historiography of this early period in American military aviation but also the book provides an exposé of the budding organizational culture that still informs Air Force behavior. As Frandsen notes, "Culture is an elusive organizational phenomenon that is difficult to define and measure. Yet it is significant because its influence is pervasive, and like an individual's personality, organizational culture tends to endure." His contribution is a wonderful bookend to other seminal works on Air Force culture and fighting spirit such as John Sherwood's Officers in Flightsuits (New York University Press, 1996), Carl Builder's Masks of War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), and Michael Worden's Rise of the Fighter Generals (Air University Press, 1998).

A study of organizational change, technology transfer, and leadership, the book would make an interesting addition to any library. The author shows how new American squadrons were built from the ground up and the early pains suffered by these organizations as they grappled with the best way to groom and select effective combat leaders. Specifically, the book chronicles successes and failures in the command screening process as early aviation leaders struggled to find pilots who could both fly productive combat sorties and lead effectively on the ground. Lamented Maj Bert Atkinson, "The greatest troubles I have are due to a lack of knowledge on the part of both officers and men on the handling of property, paper work and administration in general. . . . Where are our squadron commanders coming from?"

Frandsen argues that the 1st Pursuit Group case study is a model of success. The key was an organizational culture that encouraged and rewarded adaptability, tenacity, and risk taking. American aviators developed their own methods from a hybrid of British and French organizational constructs, combat techniques, and technology transfer. In this extraordinarily well researched book, the author does a noble job of bringing the characters to life, oftentimes endearing them to the reader only to note that their young lives were snuffed out in either an aircraft accident or combat. The fact that Hat in the Ring adds texture to the Air Force's early history and heritage no doubt influenced the book's selection for the 2013 Air Force Chief of Staff's Reading List. Airmen and leaders of all stripes and backgrounds would do well to read it and ponder the many contributions of early aviators to a long and storied Air Force history.

Col Shannon W. Caudill, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"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."