Book Review: Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 that Forever Changed American Aviation

Would it be airplanes or balloons? This was the question that enthusiasts worldwide, and particularly in America, were asking as the 1910 International Balloon Cup and International Aviation cup approached, and the battle that Gavin Mortimer recounts in Chasing Icarus.

Ballooning had captured the world's interest, with altitude and distance records becoming higher and longer nearly every day. Feats, however incomplete, such as Walter Wellman's failed transatlantic attempt in the balloon America made ballooning seem like the future.

The "aeroplane" had also enraptured audiences everywhere it was showcased, and new models in the few short years since the Wrights' flight were also continuing to post impressive speed and altitude records.

This, then, is the setting at which Mortimer picks up his seventeen day history, of the battle royale between airplane and balloon. We know of course that the airplane triumphed, but that victory was far from clear when these international cups began late in 1910, and the impressive performances at Belmont Park that year won the adoration of the American public, and with it, the future of aviation.

It is hard to imagine a time when the balloon was almost unanimously considered to carry the day in aviation, and a crazy man was he who saw a bright future for airplanes. Mortimer leads the reader to feel  this tension, allowing him  to forget about the 777 he flew on last week. Instead, the reader gets to  relive Hawley and Post's amazing balloon journey and the one of survival that followed as well as the experience of a spectator in the Belmont grandstands becoming accustomed to the "airplane stare" as they marveled at men like Moisant and Grahame-White in their Bleirots and Wright Biplanes go for speed and altitude records as well.

Mortimer really hits his stride describing the big race from Belmont to the Statue of Liberty and back, where this bit of history momentarily becomes as good as the chase scene in Bullet. The rest of the book, however, too often reads like a summary of the day's headlines, and a browse through the notes really demonstrates Mortimer's heavy reliance on these sources. The footnotes are seldom related to the theme of the book, but rather reflect some "gee-whiz" tabloid fact Mortimer undoubtedly found interesting about the aviators' girlfriends/wives/family.

The greatest flaw is that Mortimer never settles on a thesis, and save for the dust jacket which indicates a broader scope than the book affords, the reader is left wondering--again, what is this book really about?

Aside from these quibbles, however, the book is a good casual read and at bottom worth the time for anyone who is interested in early aviation and doesn't know any other name but Wright.


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