Oh the things you thought you knew…
Winston Groom let’s you know in this incredibly well-researched book looking at the lives of three of aviation’s greatest heroes: Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle. The book is structured in alternating chapters, taking us through each of the flyer’s lives up to and including their WWII service, but these stories almost never intersect. There is one or two mentions of the men meeting for dinner but in effect, we’re getting three parallel stories, similar to Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City. And those three stories are incredibly fascinating.
Rickenbacker is the World War I “Ace of Aces,” credited with more air kills than any other pilot. His wartime record and subsequent work as an advocate for commercial airline success (he was the head of Eastern Airlines for some 40 years), not to mention his winning personality and his ability to energize any of the groups he was in front of a motivational speaker, mark him as a major player.
Doolittle, a PhD in aviation as well as a respected pilot an the orchestrator of the “Raid over Tokyo” brought aviation into the modern era by pushing the limits of the machine as well as helping to develop and test aviation instruments, essential for a commercial industry as well as pilot safety.
Lindbergh, arguably the most famous of the three, is the man who first flew single-handedly across the Atlantic ocean, New York to Paris, thus proving it could be done. His first son was also the victim of a horrible kidnapping, the first “crime of the century” followed by the “Trial of the Century” when a suspect was apprehended. He was also the most controversial of the group, supporting a position of non-intervention in the second world war and being branded a traitor and anti-semite in the papers and public opinion.
All three are fascinating, complex men and Groom does a great job of bringing them to life. What he doesn’t do as well is giving us any insight into those lives. As I said, this book is incredibly well-researched, but there’s no analysis present, no furthering observations, no speculation on what may have driven them to do what they did. The sole, partial exception to this is Lindbergh, but I suspect that has more to do with the fact there are exponentially more books written about “Lucky Lindy” then the other two combined. Even then, Groom seems to take his own assertions for granted, blithely stating as fact when he thinks history got something wrong about Lindbergh but with little or no supporting documentation to back him up.
In the end, what Groom delivers is an eminently readable tale, showing the lasting contributions of three pioneers in a field where you might only know them for their one major accomplishment… I only wish he had been able to delve a little deeper into their heads, to find out what made them tick as well as what made them fly.