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Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the Birth of Naval Aviation and Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of Naval Aviation— two books I’ve read

22 September 2010

This year is the centennial anniversary for US Naval Aviation and what better way to celebrate than by going back to its beginnings. Naturally, several people were involved with the inceptive years of naval aviation and from all walks of life — mechanics, pilots, managers, politicians, engineers, scientists, managers, film studios, etc. When looking into this early era of navy flying, years where aircraft were not reliable and their potential unrealized, two men stand out from most. They lived and worked contemporaneously but never appeared to have met or communicated with one another.

These two were Admiral Moffett, US Navy, and Glenn Curtiss, inventor and entrepreneur. We are fortunate in that there is much in the way of information on each and several books regarding Curtiss but an excellent historian and writer has recently published a title for each man. The book with Glenn Curtiss as its subject is brand new as of Summer 2010 and the book about Moffett is relatively new, being published in 2007.

The author is William Trimble and his writing style has natural rhythm that I find as enjoyable to read, while in a comfortable chair, or at a desk while researching — wanting information and lots of it in a concise logical format. Trimble excels in this talent as only few writers do.

That Moffett and Curtiss never met makes sense after reading these books as they were living in two worlds with only a small amount of overlap. This is good stuff to find, Trimble gives context to the information so the reader can be placed back in the day to better understand events — getting an idea of the sense of the events as if they were playing out in the present day.

Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of naval aviation, William F. Trimble, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59114-880-7, 338 pp.

Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of naval aviation by William F. Trimble

Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of naval aviation by William F. Trimble

William Moffett was man dedicated to his service and his country. Beginning as a blue water sailor, and on track for career advancement in a battleship navy, he saw Glenn Curtiss’s aircraft in Valparaiso and San Francisco and realized that aviation was a dimension that had to be added to the Navy. He moved to accomplish that and he knew it would be a hard road being progressive in a conservative service, but he felt it would be best for the service in the future. As Trimble illustrates, Moffett rose in rank and became a top-notch manager and developed skills to work with the Navy as well as the US Congress (for funding and planning). He is known as an airship man, and he certainly promoted them, but this reputation is undeserved and likely a product of the press. Perishing in an airship accident, the media was remiss in emphasizing his efforts to explore all avenues of aviation. He vastly improved the design and manufacturing process that would keep aviation companies in business, insisted on engine development, tirelessly worked to not only get aircraft carriers but to have them used to their best ability and to not use them as platforms for artillery spotting. The admiral also had faults as well as foibles — as we all have and Trimble covers these aspects in his professional approach to writing, he is no spin doctor. The battle in the media Moffett had with another William, Billy Mitchell, is also addressed. While a hero to the Army Air Force (now the US Air Force), Mitchell had the idea that the country should have only one air service and should be styled after an army way of thinking. That he pursued his opinion in the press and political manipulation would be his undoing but not after much wasted effort was caused.

Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the birth of Naval Aviation, William F. Trimble, 2010, ISBN 978-1-59114-879-1, 270 pp.

Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the birth of Naval Aviation by William A Trimble, jacket Chris Gamboa-Onarubia

Hero of the Air: Glenn Curtiss and the birth of Naval Aviation by William A Trimble, jacket Chris Gamboa-Onrubia

I awaited this book eagerly, learning it would be published about three months prior to the actual date. I was rewarded as Trimble rarely will let the reader down. The book goes into the Curtiss’s early days as inventor, innovator, and daredevil as well as enviable family life. Trimble weaves in enough context so that one understands what Glenn Curtiss’s days were like as he battled the Wright Brothers*, developed aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, landing and taking off from ships, flying boats and more. Curtiss had astute business sense in setting up pilot schools (Japanese officers were some of the first to attend foreshadowing the coming international struggle for control in Asia and the Pacific) training military personnel and civilians, including women (rare practice in the day). Curtiss worked as an innovator and left designing of aircraft in the 1920s as engineering had eclipsed his native ability — and he did have many businesses and millions of dollars to manage. The continuing animosity emitting from the Wright Brothers, but not returned in kind by Curtiss, is palpable in this book. Curtiss had other legal suits to defend against, as well, as is the peril of a successful business person. Trimble also has a chapter on Curtiss’s later life as a real estate developer in Florida. But Glenn Curtiss did not only build houses in the towns he helped to make. These towns neighbor one another and are near Miami and they are Opa-locka, Hialeah and Miami Springs. Along with these towns he also built two airfields to promote development through aviation enterprise as well as bases for his aviation schools. The field in Opa-locka is still in use though greatly expanded and was first known as Glenn Curtiss Field. The old Miami Municipal Airport is now a park** — but a park with no remnant of its aviation heritage save for its name.

* For more on this issue, please read my post Wright … or correct? — which published on 28 February 2010

** Amelia Earhart began her around the world flight from this field. Tragically she and her navigator Fred Noonan were lost in the vicinity of Howland Island near the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The park is now named Amelia Earhart Park to honor her life and her attempt.

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Erratum: I was wrong about Amelia Earhart Park … but do read on

Just a few days ago I wrote a post about Amelia Earhart Park, and included a note about that park in a post just a few days before that, and I made the mistake thinking that Amelia Earhart Park was the location of the now long gone Miami Municipal Airport. Thankfully, I have been made aware of that error.

Reader KB777  has a deep and intimate knowledge of the area and he has noted that the correct location of the old airfield is near the park to the southeast of it. My mistake and my thanks for contributing to the blog by KB777. He also references an excellent web site where a treasure trove of images relating to the general area has been amassed and it can be found here. Before you visit the site I suggest that you first pour yourself some tea, coffee or wine as you will be happily immersed in historic photos for quite some time. Do not go there just before turning in for the night as you will go to bed very late as it is a hard site to leave … you have been given fair warning.

Seemingly paradoxically, though, KB777 has underscored the thrust of my post about the park. There is no remembrance of why Amelia Earhart’s name is there, or about Miami Municipal Airport or about Glenn Curtiss’s involvement in the area. Only the use of her name. This is why I made my error originally — unless one knows a local historian, local historical society or the like, no one knows the why or the whereabouts of the important historical events that transpired in this part of the world. Only a name on a sign and, as it turns out, Amelia Earhart’s name also used for a nearby elementary school. This is surely a way to honor an individual but not a reliable way to preserve history and make that history known to the general public.

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