Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation. By William F. Trimble. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 270. $37.95 ISBN: 978-1-59114-879-1
This is a timely book, as 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. Trimble deals with his subject in an objective manner, avoiding the trap of many writers about the era who show barely concealed bias toward either Glenn Curtiss or the Wright Brothers, even though their legendary feud ended nearly a century ago. With his "just the facts, Ma'am" approach, Trimble is able to provide a clear, cogent telling of the remarkable story of how air power came to the U.S. Navy, and Curtiss' powerful influence on its development.
The book traces Curtiss' early life, running a bicycle shop to help feed his family after his father's death, and becoming a bicycle-racing champion. Turning his attention to motorcycles, he again became a champion rider. In 1907, he became known as "The Fastest Man on Earth" for roaring through a measured mile at 136.3 mph. But his real interest was in engines, and it was this interest that caused him to back into the then fast-developing world of aviation.
One strength of the book is that, while the focus is on Naval Aviation, Trimble has admirably placed those developments in the context of the general advance in aviation. Curtiss developed many engines, each more reliable and more powerful than its predecessors. Using these, he won many awards and prizes, such as several Scientific American prizes, the Gordon Bennett Trophy, and the Collier Trophy (twice).
Those years saw many villains, as well as many heroes. Among the heroes are Eugene Ely, a Curtiss test pilot, who made the first-ever takeoff from, and landing on, an anchored Navy ship in 1910. And, without the vision and wisdom of Captain Washington Irving Chambers, Naval Aviation would have not come about for some years after 1911. These were also the prime years of the...