The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War. By Samuel Hynes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 322. $26.00 ISBN: 978-0-374-27800-7
The Unsubstantial Air tells the story of American pilots during World War I. Rather than providing a conventional military history of American's first air war, Samuel Hynes, a Marine Corps pilot during World War II, draws on his own wartime experiences to bring to life these early combat pilots. Using letters, journals, and memoirs, he explores their backgrounds, how and where they learned to fly, their impressions of Paris and London, and their first exposure to combat. The title comes from a passage in Shakespeare's King Lear: "Welcome, then, thou unsubstantial air that I embrace ..."
Beginning with the Americans who volunteered to fight (and eventually fly) with the English and French after the start of World War I in 1914, Hynes chronicles the seven who helped form the famous Lafayette Escadrille, the first squadron of Americans to fly for France. Though largely forgotten today, these early pilots, such as Norman Prince, established an example for the thousands who would train as Army and Navy pilots after America entered the war in 1917. Many of the first Americans in the Lafayette Escadrille and other who followed came from well-to-do families and attended expensive colleges such as Harvard. As described by Hynes, being a pilot was often considered an "occupation for gentlemen," and many learned to fly at private flying clubs established at Yale and Princeton in the expectation of American involvement in the war. It was representative of an American culture and class structure long gone today.
With America's entry into the war, that gentlemen's occupation evolved as prospective pilots...