Today, flying is like riding a bus. But it wasn't always that way. Vaulted from the sands of Kitty Hawk and freed from military exigencies by the end of World War I, aviation soared into the 1920s and '30s on a direct course to tomorrow. Here are three flyers who not only helped open the skies, but also brought literary gems back from the cutting edge of progress, from a time when flying was the most exciting thing in the world.
In 1931, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of America's biggest celebrity, served as the radio operator in the back seat of her husband's plane on a voyage into the unknown. She chronicled the adventure in her book, North to the Orient. The Lindberghs dropped in on fur trappers, Eskimos and missionary settlers in the frozen wilds of Canada and Alaska. They crossed the Bering Sea from Nome and visited Soviet outposts in Kamchatka. Particularly moved by the Land of the Rising Sun, Anne wrote about the artistic delicacy of Japanese culture, but the book's climax comes on the other side of the China Sea, where the Lindberghs surveyed the devastation caused by the Yangtze's 1931 flood. Her harrowing passages about the large, chillingly tranquil lake submerging the lives and homes of millions is surely one of the best descriptions of flood ever written. Only from the air could one comprehend the devastation.
While North to the Orient won the first National Book Award for general nonfiction in 1935, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic Wind, Sand and Stars carried off the award four years later. Believe it or not, before he wrote his much-beloved children's story The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery was a professional pilot for a French airmail company, braving storms and mountains, Saharan deserts, windswept steppes, and the brutal horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Genuine magic animates his pen, and through him, we suffer the perils of stormy skies, ache with the cold of the Andes and revel in the magic of lonely nights aloft, amid a glitter of stars.
Saint-Exupery posits the book on the question, "Do we, or don't we?"
"We do," he answers. His near-mystical peregrinations somehow manage to transcend flying, for in the end, Wind, Sand and Stars is a challenge to its reader.
Ernest K. Gann picks up where Saint Exupery left off, in the late 1930s. Gann takes us through his professional apprenticeship on domestic commercial routes — flights that often weren't even close to routine, as his story of being caught by a violent thunderstorm near New York City makes apparent. Once during World War II, Gann found himself in northeastern India, flying the notorious "hump" over the Himalayas, delivering supplies to China. It was one of the most dangerous aerial undertakings of the war — even though it wasn't considered a combat operation. In one day on the hump, Gann witnessed the loss of four airplanes — and 32 men.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Ernest K. Gann survived their flying careers and died at advanced ages, but Fate caught Saint-Exupery in its talons. His plane disappeared in the summer of 1944. He'd known the risks, and it's hard to imagine him wanting it any other way. As his friend Mermoz had observed, "It's worth it, it's worth the final smash up."
Gregory Crouch is the author of China's Wings: War Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight and a former infantryman in the U.S. Army.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.