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At the Dawn of Airpower

14 June 2022

At the Dawn of Airpower: the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917, Lawrence M. Burke II, 2022, ISBN 9781682477298, 338 pp.

At the Dawn of Airpower: the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 by Lawrence M. Burke II

Like an action-adventure novel this book is a page turner beginning with its prologue. That just doesn’t happen with a history book, right? Especially ones which run deep with information and history’s human dimension? Discovering that aviation’s aircraft design and piloting infancy was actually exciting as well as dynamic? Lawrence Burke has done all of this and more in At the Dawn of Airpower.

It would be most difficult to find a person other than Burke for this paradigm forging part of aviation history. His PhD work for Carnegie-Mellon University centers on this history as well as being the current Aviation Curator of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. In between these two milestones he taught history at the U.S. Naval Academy and was Curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the National Air & Space Museum. He likely is a fun person to hang around with in an aviation museum—to be sure.

So…how did Burke approach this subject so well, so deeply, as well as with so much fascinating explanation and context? He uses a theory called actor/network which essentially names all the players, agencies and technologies involved and how they interrelate to make history’s arc. A bit metaphysical for this reviewer but the end result of his process is clear—Burke not only puts down the details of this period of history in the USA but actually how it was able to happen—which was usually a combination of technology, politics, funding and personal will (or lack of it). The author could easily overwhelm readers with his seemingly bottomless well of knowledge but does not. Instead he presents and explains the story in a clear and lively fashion. There might be something to actor/network theory.

Facts and dates are easy to research and write down but that is not the style of this book. It is about understanding why the events occurred they way they transpired and how they were made to occur. For example—it is widely known that Eugene Ely was the first to fly an aircraft off of a ship (November 1910) but Burke shows readers that it was Washington Irving Chambers who overstepped his authority, while an officer in the U.S. Navy, to create that historical opportunity. Burke shows us many other persons who unfairly lie in the dust bins of history, simply by not being in the media’s spotlight, who nonetheless were the movers of aviation’s history in this formative period. These names are many and varied…both for the good as was well as the few who were poor or narcissistic leaders. 

Importantly, Burke addresses the cultural differences between the three U.S. military services (Army, Navy and Marine Corps) which came to aviation in the ten years detailed in the title. Interestingly, he also illustrates why Congress wisely chose the U.S. Navy to be the home of NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) which became the NASA now known to the world. Why not the Army which first bought U.S. military aircraft? This and many more of these intricately interlocking pieces are clearly explained and analyzed in this book.

And what a ten years in U.S. military aviation development 1907 to 1917 was. Most readers may think that not much occurred between the Wright Brothers first flight and World War I (WW I), or 1903 to 1914—and Burke early on mentions that this period is usually given “short shrift” and goes on to rightly explain why this is an error. This unfolding story is exciting as he describes brave pilots exploring aerodynamics as no one had done (e.g., ground effect, pressure altitude, navigating) before them and often perishing or suffering injury. The punctuation of military conflicts intervene to press Congress from a management strategy of technology retardation to revolutionary development of aviation. This resulted in new military strategies, tactics and the all important logistical support experiencing the same rubber banding effect. At the Dawn of Airpower explains all this clearly and with detailed specifics. Specifics which weave the technological and human dimensions into historical developments and occurrences. 

There is so much to enjoy learning about in this book. From the conversationally interesting like barrage balloons originally termed “kite balloons” to the race, at the time, for future technology investment between the “aeroplane” and the already successful rigid airships. 

At the Dawn of Airpower addresses the military achievements as well as dead ends by detailing how they were able to occur through a mix of human intervention and technological progress. Burke does not ignore turns of history and their effects, in fact his writing relishes them since these events determined new courses. One such turn is where the U.S. Army first learned of aircraft capabilities for scouting and communication in the Mexican Punitive Expedition (March 1916-February 1917). Burke does not forget Congress as well as a particular court martial which resulted in an investigation which unseated the “victors” in the court martial. You just cannot make this stuff up and many have forgotten this event. Though not Burkę as it was not only intriguing to follow, with all of its twists and turns, but it ended by being significantly formative to U.S. Army aviation. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” prevails, again. Another insight is learning that Billy Mitchell’s early years, which occurred in this in this period, were marked with by-the-book behavior and not especially supportive of aviation in general. He would later rebel against his superiors in great support of airpower and aviation as he saw it but that is another story in another time. It was also enlightening to learn of Hap Arnolds early days in aviation, as well.

Burke mentions the intense dispute between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss but does not go into the scope of the argument or the ramifications of it helping to leave the United States ill prepared to enter WW I. That is, and has been, a book unto itself and primarily a civil matter which did not affect how the military addressed heavier than air flight in its strategic needs or thinking. There were varied reasons the military and Congress were unprepared for WW I as well as having lagged behind European powers in regard to aviation and its use—which the author expertly addresses.

Obviously this book belongs on historian bookshelves as well as libraries. It is well researched, written in a lively and unbiased fashion, as well as thoroughly referenced and indexed. It is part of the Airpower Series offered by the Naval Institute Press and addresses aviation in the United States military during its highly dynamic early formative years—years which were undeservedly and mystifyingly overlooked. That is to say, until Lawrence M. Burke II arrived on the scene. 

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