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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Aviators by Winston Groom

As with his book The Generals (, Winston Groom takes three historic figures, Rickenbacker, Lindbergh, and Doolittle, and amplifies their lives.  First question:  What the heck do you mean by amplify???

Easy answer.  Most of us, especially those of us who have cut through the air on laughter’s silvered wings, know the names and probably at least one big event in each of these men’s lives:  Rickenbacker was the highest scoring American World War I ace, 1918; In 1927 Lindbergh became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris; And, in 1942, less than four months after Pearl Harbor, Doolittle led the famous raid on Tokyo.

Eddie Rickenbacker standing beside his Nieuport 28 

Charles Lindbergh in front of The Spirit of Saint Louis

Lt Col (at the time) Jimmy Doolittle with his Tokyo Raiders

Did you know all three men received the Medal of Honor?  How about the other things that make them stand head and shoulders above the crowd? And what were their contributions to aviation?  The answers are both complex and surprising.

To begin, Groom sets the stage by exploring the times they lived in.  All three saw a plethora of technological advances that took them from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk (1903), all the way to jets and streaking across both oceans in the comfort of huge commercial airliners.  But that’s far from all.  In their lifetimes, they saw the rise of the common use of the telephone, the radio, the automobile, and the common use of electricity and indoor plumbing in American homes.  Take a moment and consider if even our ‘miracles’ of technology have had a greater impact on daily life.

But, Groom delves deeper, goes farther and tells the often glorious and sometimes horrifying details of these men’s lives.  Before the First World War, Eddie Rickenbacker was a famous racecar driver, in World War II, he barely survived 24 days at sea in a life raft.  Lindbergh suffered the kidnapping death of his first son and flew combat missions in World War II, while Doolittle was an air racer and held both a master’s and PhD from MIT.  And, those are just a few of the highlights of their fascinating lives.  All of them promoted aviation around the globe and were called upon time and again to carry out diplomatic missions and work closely with industry.

When I heard about famous people in long-ago history classes, the names and events seemed so one-dimensional. I always pondered what the figures were really like and what led up to the big events.  Was a life just built around one historic occasion?  Whom did they love?  How did they act when the press wasn’t standing by and snapping photos?  Were they really larger than life, or just normal people cast surreptitiously into the limelight?

In an ever interesting narrative, Winston Groom carries the reader into the varied and very human lives of these giants of aviation.  The conclusion is irrefutable.  None of the three were simply thrown onto the stage of history, nor did they stagger blindly into the public eye.  Their stories are spellbinding from the beginning, as Winston Groom takes you from the dawn of aviation to the jet age.  It’s a fabulous ride.

If you’ve ever been in a cockpit, pulling the stick, pushing up the throttles, fighting off fatigue, dodging bullets, you’ll be in your element with this book.  And if you haven’t?  You’re going to get a heart stopping glimpse of exactly what these men did and what they overcame to stand so tall.

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