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The Un­sub­stan­tial Air: Amer­i­can Fliers in the First World War

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - by Sa­muel Hynes. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 322 pp., $26.

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THE BOOK

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

ALEXAN­DRIA, VIRGINIA.

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