One Man Can Change the World. The 90th Anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s Epic Solo Flight

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Today – May 20, 2017, marks the 90th anniversary of Lindbergh’s take off from Roosevelt Field in New York and into the history books.

We live in a world today where social media and the court of public opinion determines who is noteworthy in our society.  We are a short-term people.  What is hot today is old news tomorrow.  We are driven by what the media tells us, right and wrong.  Our icons today are reality TV stars, grossly overpaid sports figures, musicians that can’t play an instrument, or people who covet fame from YouTube.com.   Our heroes are defined by pixels, their income, and their momentary popularity, more than by their accomplishments.

We weren’t always like that.  In 1927 we chose our heroes differently – by their actions and deeds rather than TV ratings.  Charles Lindbergh was such a man.  He wasn’t the first person to fly the Atlantic, but he was the first to do it solo.  He helped design the airplane for the journey, on that would take him across an ocean and into the history books.

Making such a flight alone was akin the madness.  Several aviators, some of much greater repute, had already died making such attempts.  In the Spirit of St. Louis, he didn’t have a life raft or radio to call for help.  If he ran into trouble he was going to die.

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Takeoff at Roosevelt Field

Lindbergh was the antithesis of today’s public icons.  He shunned publicity.  The man merely wanted to achieve the goal, not bask in the glory.  That was a big part of his great appeal.  He was a boy from next door – everyman.  In many respects he represented America at its best.  He was a man that challenged nature and fate and won.  Lindbergh harkened back to the American ideal of a pioneer and trailblazer.

One of my favorite movies is The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart.  Yes, there are some factual errors with the film, but it is the best representation we have of what that flight was like and the challenges that this supreme aviator faced.

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In crossing the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh changed forever the way we viewed aviation.  Suddenly, overnight, the world became much closer, more connected.

Every time I visit the NASM I make a point to pause and look at The Spirit hanging in the main gallery.  For a fleeting moment, I remember Charles Lindbergh and the daring he exhibited.  In that second of time I wonder if we will ever again have such men in our nation, men that we don’t seek to bring down, but instead bring out the very best of us.  In find myself longing for standards of men and women and go beyond the internet.  I know I am a romantic at heart, longing for a sense of something that is intangible yet wondrous.

I wonder where our heroes are…

Book Review – The Lafayette Escadrille – by Steven A. Ruffin

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With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille.  This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war.  Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service.  Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle.  Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.

When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited.  In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall.  I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out?  There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.

This one does stand out.

First, it is a photo history of the unit.  Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit.  What he brought to the table was context.  Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University.  Ninety-percent are unlabeled.  Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there.   This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.

Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today.  I loved these then-and-now images.  It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.

On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.

On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too.  He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story.  This is always a favorite of mine.  Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.

My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only.  It’s not footnoted.  I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from.  And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining).  On a personal note:  He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!

Does Ruffin break new ground with this book?  Yes.  Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century.  He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.

The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95.  It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era.  If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com 

Veterans Day 2014

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Photo by Jon Barrett 

I write books on the Great War so Veteran’s Day has special meaning for me – being the 11th day of the 11th Month – timed with the Armistice that ended hostilities in that conflict.  WWI is a war that has (as a result of the centennial) only now started to get its due.  The Americans were there for such a short period of time that the war did not have the emotional impact that WWII did.  Yet we suffered 116,000 deaths from combat and other means along with another 204,000 wounded.  When you consider the short period of time US troops were in battle, these losses are staggering.  Remember – the US ground forces engaged in only two campaigns which spanned less than three months time.  At that rate, in only a year, the US would have easily passed the casualties in the US Civil War.

The stories of the men that fought in that war are no less harrowing and courageous as those of WWII.  In some ways it was a more horrific war.  The use of chemical weapons made battle deadly and crippling in ways we cannot comprehend.  When you look at the aircraft of the era, flying at high altitudes with limited oxygen, in frigid open cockpits – the romantic image gives way to the grim and bitter realities of that kind of fighting.

I am privileged to write about such men.  Recently I spoke at the Museum of the US Air Force for the League of WWI Aviation Historians on Frederick Zinn.  Fred was the subject of my award winning book, Lost Eagles.  A Galesburg/Battle Creek MI native, Fred was Michigan’s first aviator.  He was the United States first aerial combat photographer (in 1916, a year before the US joined the war).  Fred sent all of the replacement pilots to the front in WWI.  When the war was over, he pioneered the search for missing airmen.  In WWII (at over 50 years old) he established the systems for tracking and identifying missing airmen, all while serving as a counter-intelligence agent in the OSS in Europe (precursor to the CIA).

I arranged with the Museum to bring Fred’s uniform out from storage for the League members to see.  I like to think it made my lecture more tangible, more real.  When it came out though, there was a sense that Fred Zinn was there, in the room.  He stood before us, in that French aviator’s uniform, basking for a few moments in silent glory – praised and applauded by people that had a minor comprehension of the risks he had undertaken in a war that has been often forgotten.  I have no words to convey what it was like to stand next to that man’s uniform.

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During his life, Fred never claimed the accolades that he deserved.  He was a humble man.  His commitment was to the families of those men that remained missing – in both world wars.  Fred understood that Veterans Day was not just about the men and women who have seen battle – but it is about the families who bear burdens and emotional scars that most of us cannot comprehend.

On this Veterans Day let us remember not only those that have given their full measure for our nation –but those that are missing still, awaiting for us to bring them home.  Let us remember as well the families of our vets and what they have given up for our country.  Let us remember all of the Frederick Zinns – the silent heroes who, in their own ways, changed the world we live in.   Let us remember the wars, great and small, where blood has been shed in the name of freedom.

New Wings of Glory Miniatures – A Quick Review

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When I was at Gen Con last month, I swung into  the Ares booth to stock up on some aircraft miniatures for Wings of Glory game.  I’m a Wings of Glory junkie – I’ll concede that.  They ran a great special, buy two get one free.
I opted to snag the new Hanriot HD.1, the Aviatik D.1, and the Sopwith Triplane.    I saw the DR 1 Triplanes too, so I grabbed an all-too-familiar red DR.1 piloted by Manfred von Richthofen.
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Okay, the photos do a good job of speaking for themselves.  Let me say this, this metal miniatures have some incredibly intricate paint jobs.  Ares is to be commended on that front.  The quality of the paint jobs is outstanding.    Check out the paint scheme on Mario Fucini’s Italian Hanriot.  It is very intricate for the level of detail.   I’ve noticed on eBay that a cottage industry has sprung up with people custom painting these models, which is testimony to how detailed they are.
 
I was looking forward to the Sopwith Triplane and the Aviatik.  I wanted the Aviatik for some scenarios I’m running with Bert Hall of the Lafayette Escadrille.   Sopwith Triplanes, to me, have a special look about them and Ares did a good job in capturing these.
 
The other plane in this series that I didn’t pick up with the Siemens-Schuckert D.III.  This brings to surface my only minor gripe with Ares on this game line – which planes they are bringing out.  Let’s face it the Siemens-Schuckert D.III and the Hanriot HD.1 are not on the list of prominent aircraft of the Great War for most historians.  Ares so far has skipped over Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters, for example (come on Ares, give me a Fred Zinn Sopwith!) I’m sure they’ll get around to the more popular and recognized aircraft at some point, I was simply hoping they would do that up-front. 
 
Here’s the latest release set:  
Hanriot HD.1 Coppens Belgium
Hanriot HD.1 Fucini Italy
Hanriot HD.1 Scaroni Italy
Aviatik D.I Linke-Crawford Austria-Hungary
Aviatik D.I Sabeditsch Austria-Hungary
Aviatik D.I Turek Austria-Hungary
Sopwith Triplane Collishaw Canada
Sopwith Triplane Dallas Australia
Sopwith Triplane Little Australia
Siemens-Schuckert D.III Lange Germany
Siemens-Schuckert D.III Veltjens Germany
Siemens-Schuckert D.III Von Beaulieu-Marconnay Germany
 
If you haven’t picked up Wings of Glory, I recommend it.  It’s a beer and pretzel’s approach to WWI combat where the pace is not bogged down with rules adding realism and complexity.  It’s the kind of game you can teach an eight year old in about 10 minutes.