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The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War
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The members of the U.S. Air Service learned to fly, fight, and face the trauma of personal loss on French battlefronts in 1917 and 1918. What was the experience like for them? Samuel Hynes went to the source—the fliers’ war diaries and letters home—to produce this colorful collective biography.
These massed aerial combats are not adequately described by the expression ‘dog fights’. They were violent mob riots of the air.
–Pilot Alan Winslow, Escadrille N. 152
WHY THE AUTHOR DECIDED TO WRITE IT
“I suppose you might say I wrote The Unsubstantial Air out of genealogical curiosity,” a reflective Sam Hynes told me in a phone call from his Princeton study. “I belong to the second generation of American combat pilots, so I’m naturally curious about the experiences of the first generation. I think (or I tell myself) that they can be best understood by someone who has also flown—and flown in combat.”
A CHAT WITH SAMUEL HYNES
How did you see World War I fliers when you started this project?
I thought they’d be much like my generation— civilian kids who weren’t really adults yet, curious to know what it was like to fly an airplane and curious about war. Both are romantic subjects if you’re 18 years old and don’t know anything.
It feels like we’re witnessing the birth of the modern world here.
I wouldn’t use that copious a term, but with these guys, I was living through the emergence of a new kind of warfare, which would powerfully affect the world I lived in. As late as 1910 or so, European nations were making treaties that would forbid aerial bombardment. But as soon as the war started and someone figured out how to do that, aerial bombardment began. When the war started, the Wright brothers’ flight was only 10 yearss behind them; the plane was a gadget thatt people were making in their backyards! Samuel Hynes flew for the U.S. Marines in World War II.
You write, “I could make my own muster of the lost— — the ones I’d like to have flownwn with.” Do you have a favorite?
Joe Eastman—a nervous, anxious guy who brought too many sets of long underwear. He probably shouldn’t have been there, but he was. He kept a diary that was never published, but I got a photocopy of it.
You were a talking head in Ken Burns’ The War. Will his next film be called The Unsubstantial Air?
[Laughs] I’m waiting for the phone call!
ALLAN FALLOW IS A WRITER AND EDITOR IN