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Alexander P. de Seversky and the Quest For Air Power

10 December 2020

Alexander P. de Seversky and the Quest For Air Power, James K. Libbey, 2013, ISBN 978-1-61234-179-8, 348 pp.

Professor James Libbey is retired from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University having a great amount of expertise in aviation history as well as Russian-American relations. His research is stellar as are his travels in developing the writing of this biography of an embarrassingly barely known and incredibly unsung developer of aviation progress as well as, ultimately, the U.S. Air Force. Written six years earlier than his Foundations of Russian Military Flight, 1885-1925 ( it reads as he must have lectured—which does not translate as well, at times, since the associated inflection of speech and expression of body language are absent. This book is a trove of information as well as insight, however. Libbey well places the reader into the context of the time and the moment of the history.

Alexander P. de Seversky: and the Quest for Air Power by James K. Libbey

Seversky (born in Russia and originally named Aleksandr Nikolaevech Prokof’ev-Severskii) was inventive as well as innovative throughout his life. Making a name for himself in the tsar’s naval air arm, he became an ace while flying two seat flying boats during World War I and continued flying for the Whites in what became known (eventually) as the Bolshevik Revolution—the bloody creation of the USSR from the embers of what had been Imperial Russia. And doing all of it with a partly amputated right leg! His development of aircraft paralleled his close friend Igor Sikorsky and, like his dear friend, after emigrating from Russia to the U.S. would lose his company and transform himself. Sikorsky moved on to rotary winged flight while Seversky became a popular pundit and analyst both the in the media and in public service.

He had many business opportunities which sprang from his leading edge designs of the day (i.e., the Seversky P-35 which gave the U.S. its first all metal, enclosed cockpit, retracting landing gear modern day fighter). Making record flights, advancing designs as well as inventing (e.g., a modern and novelly accurate bombsight prior to the Norden bombsight) seemed to be his forte though manufacture planning and on-time delivery was decidedly not. He excelled at PR but got onto Hap Arnold’s list of unreliability for failing miserably at milestones. Seversky amplified this into a lifelong fight to his own disadvantage while Arnold concerned himself with getting aircraft into his squadrons, especially before they became outdated.

Libbey has a dimension in this biography not often seen and that is understanding the financial as well as business workings, gotten by enlisting the aid of his wife who has expertise in accounting and financial planning. This dimension is imperative to understanding why Seversky continued to be a success in some endeavors but continued to fail in factory production—eventually losing ownership of his company (which is a tale in itself and well written by Libbey). Seversky’s company became Republic Aviation and the chief designer, along with Seversky on the P-35, Alexander Kartveli would go on to create the renowned P-47 Thunderbolt which bears more than a passing resemblance—especially in the wing—to the P-35.

While Kartveli designed, Seversky opined. He traveled, researched, interviewed and pondered. Most of his thoughts were prescient and are interesting in their development since they were most often against the grain of the established military leadership. He realized the country required an independent air force separate from, and alike, the other armed services though he may have gone a bit far in thinking there was no longer a need for them.

Libbey has written an authoritative, and enlightening, biography of one of the U.S.’s instrumental aviation pioneers as well as air power futurist.

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