When a jumbo jet roars overhead, it's easy to forget that 100 years ago, airplanes were barely bigger than automobiles and made mostly of wood, wire and cloth. Getting off the ground was as much a feat as traveling any distance at all, while crashes were as common as bicycle wrecks. Chasing Icarus tells the story of the daring young men who took to the skies to prove that flight was here to stay.

As Gavin Mortimer reports, in 1910 the world wasn't certain these newfangled inventions had any use. Even the military didn't know what to do with them. Just four years before World War I, the combined air forces of Europe boasted 52 airplanes; the U.S. Army had only two. Flying machines were a curiosity, and those who predicted more were treated with skepticism, if not outright derision.

Chasing Icarus revolves around two major events staged to fight the skeptics. The first was an attempt to cross the Atlantic in the dirigible America, a feat most judged impossible. The second was the hosting of the International Aviation Cup and International Balloon Cup at Belmont Park, New York--the first time the competitions would be held in America. The outcome of both events would set the stage for air dominance in the century ahead.

Mortimer weaves his story among the fates of the America, the balloon racers and the aviators who wowed the crowd at Belmont. The result is a fascinating mixture of adventure, friendly competition, bitter rivalry (both in the air and on the ground) and even celebrity gossip. The cast of characters is equally rich, from the conservative Wright brothers to the flamboyant English gentleman Claude Grahame-White (think Richard Branson combined with David Beckham). Throw in balloonists struggling to survive the Canadian wilderness, an American plotting to overthrow a South American government, and an actress vying with an heiress over a handsome aviator, and you have a tale worthy of a miniseries. Best of all, it's all true.

The grandson of a pilot, Howard Shirley flew a plane (very briefly) at the age of nine. He's wanted to fly again ever since.

 

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