The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War

The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World WarThe Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War by Samuel Hynes
ISBN: 0374278008
on October 21, 2014
Genres: Aviation
Pages: 336

My initial impression of this book by its cover, was pretty skeptical. Was it one more book about famous aces, rehashing the stories that have been told many times before? Was it one of the flood of books written quickly to cash in on the WW1 centennial? After reading just a couple dozen pages, however, I was pleasantly surprised at how wrong I had been. This is an incredibly insightful overview of what it was like to be an American pilot in the First World War. It is not simply a repeat of war stories. Using the writings of many individuals, Hynes describes the pilots’ prewar lives, their civilian and military flight training, their reactions to living in foreign countries, their time in combat, and how their experiences affected their lives afterward if they survived.

The author takes full advantage of his experience as a young pilot in WW2 to describe what the WW1 young men went through and what they thought about it. This level of understanding enables him to share these insights with his readers.

One example among many will suffice to illustrate this. Hynes comments (p.212) on the common phenomenon of pilots being disgusted by their hometown newspapers’ exaggerated accounts of events in which they participated: “Pilots know that the newspaper version will miss the important details: the roles the other pilots on the patrol played, and what the Boche did, and the weather, and the way luck enters in, and fear, and nerves. Civilians won’t get it right… And so pilots at the front withdraw into their pilots’ world, where there are other young men like themselves who understand the contingencies of combat….”

One of the other joys of this book is how Hynes puts the actions and attitudes of these young pilots into their historical, cultural, and socio-economic contexts. In reading it, you start to understand for the first time how their views were shaped by such factors as contemporary concepts of manhood; an upper-class, Ivy League background (for many); grandfathers who were Civil War veterans; etc. Hynes submerges you in the American life of the turn of the last century and the result is fascinating.

The raw material for this excellent book consisted of the first-person writings of over 60 individual pilots. As I was reading, it occurred to me that a hundred writers could have started with the same raw material but that probably none of them would have interpreted it with the same insight and brilliance. Whether this will be your first exposure to World War One aviation or you’ve already read dozens of books on the subject, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Steve Suddaby, past president of WW1HA. This is only the second time he has awarded a book five stars on an review.

New York Times: “…both thrilling and poignant…

The Washington Post: “A terrific book.”

Kirkus Review: “…a marvelously fluid narrative.

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