In 1919, with the future of American aviation taking a nosedive, the iconoclastic man who would later be known as the father of the Air Force proposed a solution: a brutal cross-country air race.
By John Lancaster
John Lancaster is the author of The Great Air Race: Glory, Tragedy, and the Dawn of American Aviation, from which this article was adapted.
Suggested reading from critics and editors at The New York Times.
Newsday, December 9, 2022
With no clouds in the sky over Roosevelt Field, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 1919, was a perfect day for flying.
“It’s hard to imagine a more ideal narrator…Lancaster tells a vivid story and makes a moving case that these early martyrs at the takeoff of domestic aviation gave the rest of us a future in the sky.”
— Washington Post
‘The Great Air Race’ Review: On a Wing and a Prayer
In the first transcontinental flying competition, the excitement — and risks — were sky-high.
“[A] compelling book that succeeds by giving this chapter in history its due … the pilots were pioneers whose exploits are worth remembering. At a moment when air travel has become a nightmare of flight delays, missed connections and vanishing legroom, it is refreshing to return to an era when taking to the skies meant adventure and freedom.”
— Michael O’Donnell, Wall Street Journal
“The Great Air Race,” by John Lancaster, recounts the early days of American aviation, when the budding industry struggled to get off the ground (literally) and keep aviators alive.
“Among the many virtues of John Lancaster’s delightful The Great Air Race is how vividly it conveys the entirely different world of aviation at the dawn of the industry, a century ago … My favorite book about Antarctic exploration is The Worst Journey in the World, by the British writer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a survivor of a doomed expedition in 1910. The Great Air Race has the same horrific but heroic fascination. Page by page you think, What else can go wrong? Page by page, you want to learn more … This is Lancaster’s first book. But he deftly pulls off some tricks that are harder than they seem. He embeds social, economic and political history as he writes — for instance, how coast-to-coast air travel fits into the history of wagon trails, railroads and highways connecting the continent … I have read a lot about aviation and the aircraft industry over the years, but almost everything in this tale was new to me. You might take it on your next airline flight, pause to look out the window and spare a thought for those who helped make it all possible.”
— James Fallows, New York Times Book Review
“It was this threshold moment in aviation history,” Lancaster described. “It was right after World War I, before Charles Lindbergh. There really wasn’t any commercial aviation to speak of. This race served as a demonstration of the practical potential of aviation, to show that you could actually knit the country together by air.”
Former Washington Post foreign correspondent and longtime Nantucket summer resident John Lancaster pops into the Nantucket Sound studio to discuss his forthcoming book The Great Air Race: Death, Glory and the Dawn of American Aviation.
“Journalist Lancaster debuts with an energetic and entertaining history of “the greatest airplane race ever flown,” a 1919 round-trip race between San Francisco and Long Island.”
Former Washington Post reporter John Lancaster shares the story of flying across the U.S. in his Flight Design CTLSi light-sport aircraft, for a book he is writing about the 1919 Transcontinental Air Race. While tracing the route flown by pilots in the Air Race 100 years ago, John faced challenges with weather, congested airspace, mountainous terrain, and more.
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