book cover imageThe Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight
by Winston Groom.
National Geographic Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 464 pages, $30.

The young person at Barnes & Noble who led me to the stack of The Aviators, drew a blank at the names “Rickenbacker” and “Doolittle,” but not Lindbergh. “He’s the guy who flew the Atlantic in a small prop job.” He then added, “I saw the movie The Spirit of St. Louis on TV staring Jimmy Stewart.”

Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. accomplished much more than crossing the Atlantic non-stop in a small “prop job.” As we learn in The Aviators, before the Paris flight Lindbergh was one of the military pilots who proved that mail could go by air. Each bailout was a learning experience and enhanced his reputation as a superb airman. His autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, a remarkable account of the flight, landed him a Pulitzer Prize. He teamed up with a French scientist, Alexis Carrel, to produce a mechanical heart pump in the 1930s. He was, however, denied active military duty in World War II by President Roosevelt, who is reported to have said in May 1940, “I am absolutely convinced that Lindbergh is a Nazi.” This came following a speech by Lindbergh accusing the president of leading the U.S. into the European war: it was but one of manysuch attacks “Lucky Lindy” made on Roosevelt.

Subsequently, however, Lindbergh went to the Pacific as a civilian technician and flew some fifty combat missions as he taught fighter pilots how to conserve fuel. And, although Lindbergh remains somewhat controversial, his public reputation was restored by President Eisenhower in 1954 when the president reinstated Lindbergh in the Air Force Reserve with the rank of brigadier general.

The multifaceted lives of Eddie Rickenbacker and Jimmy Doolittle are also covered in this new book from National Geographic Press. While the three are introduced as exceptional aviators, this description needs qualifying in the case of Rickenbacker. As with many pilots serving in World War II, he was not an aviator before or following his short stint in the First World War. One of the country’s leading race car drivers, he went to Europe as a military driver, became interested in flying, and proved that an “amateur” could manage the craft of piloting. At war’s end, America’s “Ace of Aces” returned to hisprewar career of auto racing before moving on to become a leader in developing commercial aviation, Eastern Air Lines being his most notable connection.

James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, the best educated of the trio with a PhD in aeronautical engineering, matched Lindbergh as an nonpareil aviator. When “Captain Eddie” Rickenbacker was racing cars, Army Lieutenant Doolittle was racing aircraft, setting a new speed record in 1925. But where Doolittle “became enshrined” in aviation history, as Winston Groom notes, was in experimenting and developing the ability of pilots to fly “blind,” an advance absolutely essential to both military and commercial aviation. “He was,” Groom writes, “a serious, competent pilot and scientist, and he set about his quest for supremacy over the weather with persistence and ferocity.”

Leaving active military service, Doolittle was employed by Shell Oil in the 1930s. When war came in 1941, he donned his uniform as a reserve air force officer, leading to that historic attack by B-25 medium bombers off the aircraft carrier Hornet to let the Japanese know that America may have suffered badly at Pearl Harbor but had not lost its bite. Later, he was to become the commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in Europe. Like Lindbergh and Rickenbacker, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest recognition of heroic action. Among his postwar activities was service in 1957–1958 as Chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

Although this narrative biography of three iconic aviators is both interesting and informative, the author displays insufficient knowledge on air power and the Second World War, seen in misinformation and even glaring factual errors. Students of military history will cringe on reading “… in the spring of 1940 Hitler quickly attacked and conquered, in turn, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, and France.” Sweden, of course, was neutral throughout the war, and Finland fought on the side of Germany against the Soviet Union.

The author also misunderstands why the German Luftwaffe failed to defeat the British Fighter Command in the critical Battle of Britain. A major accomplishment of Doolittle’s employment at Shell Oil was his promotion of a higher octane fuel for aircraft. After convincing the U.S. Army Air Corps to move to the higher octane, he made the same sales pitch to Britain’s Royal Air Force and Germany’s Luftwaffe. The RAF was sold; the Luftwaffe, however, according to Groom, stayed with the lower octane. Citing a postwar quote, reportedly from Britain’s petroleum secretary, readers are told that “This octane was thirteen points higher than the fuel used by German aircraft. Those extra thirteen points ended the threat of any Nazi invasion of England” (my emphasis). That conclusion is, to put it bluntly, ludicrous.

The Luftwaffe failed to destroy Britain’s fighter defense, a necessary prelude to invasion, for a number of reasons, fuel octane differences for the competing aircraft not being one. In fact, Germany’s Me-109 fighter had begun using a higher-octane fuel. What was significant in this decisive conflict was the strategies of the opposing forces, including an integrated British air defense system bolstered by radar to warn of the approaching enemy; the obvious advantage to the RAF fighting over its own turf; and, to cite something often overlooked, the Luftwaffe’s lack of long-range heavy bombers capable of destroying the factories producing fighters to replace those Britain lost. Hitler cancelled the production of heavy, long-range bombers back in 1936, an act he no doubt came to regret.

With England standing alone following the fall of France in 1940, Groom writes, “There was every indication that Goring’s Luftwaffe was in the process of bombing England back to the Stone Age.” Wrong! This was never part of Hitler’s strategy for the domination of Europe. In the development of air power in the 1930s, it was Great Britain (followed by the United States) that decided on the bombing of an enemy’s population centers, as a defense against an aggressor. “Mess with us,” so the theory went, “and we will destroy your military capability as well as the will of the people to continue.” Large, four-motored long-range bombers had top priority, followed by short-range fighter-interceptors to defend against the enemy’s bombers. Hitler, on the other hand, decided to forgo the production of heavy bombers, deciding instead to produce tactical aircraft: short-range medium bombers and dive-bombers to support his ground forces. Der Fuhrer, as one historian noted, “had visions of conquests that would not be useless rubble (i.e. destroyed cities) but would add to Germany’s economic and military strength,” as in the case of France. Citing no source, Groom includes a conflicting statement: “Hitler took a keen military interest in airpower, because it now offered the threat of destroying entire cities from the air without the enormous casualties of ground attack.”

Groom, journalist turned historian, is best known as a talented novelist, his most successful being Forrest Gump. That talent is reflected in The Aviators, which is written as narrative nonfiction. As the author points out in an endnote, he “relied heavily on various (sources) to construct the narrative … but [has] chosen not to footnote every usage …” While this makes for engaging reading, his thin knowledge of the Second World War and the application of air power is unfortunate.

The Aviators, however, serves to commemorate, for both old and young, the many contributions of three pioneering airmen blessed with exceptional courage and vision. The author has documented that Captain Edward Rickenbacker was more business entrepreneur than aviator; Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., more aviator than politician; and General James H. Doolittle, not only a superb aviator, but an excellent engineer and outstanding military leader.

May their honors endure. 

Robert Huddleston, a freelance essayist and book critic was, long ago, a combat fighter pilot.