Category Archives: military

163: Roger Bilstein’s Flight in America

In Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, Roger Bilstein places the technological developments in aviation, space exploration, and the American aerospace industry in a broad social, economic, and political context.  This survey relies heavily on archival sources from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the FAA, NASA, and oral history, aviation, and transportation collections in Denver, New York, and Wyoming, as well as his personal experiences learning to fly in 1972.  

While Bilstein’s sources and approach are somewhat top-down and conventional, his narrative does provide a clear history of aviation in the US.  He traces aviation’s early start in stunt planes (the Wright Brothers couldn’t get the military to buy their invention, so they sold planes to the circus), post-WWI innovations in military aviation; 1920s mail routes, crop dusting, photography, professionalization, long stunt trips, crashes; 1930s streamlined passenger planes, trans-oceanic flying boats, and German rocketry; Fordist mass production, WASPs, and American air dominance during and after WWII, along with post-war fear of ICBMs, tech innovations by the military, and American desires for an intercontinental passenger network; the development of helicopters and the expansion of passenger travel and “jet setting” in the late 50s and early 60s, tech evolution of private planes (renamed “general aviation” in the 1960s to look less bougie), and the impacts of Vietnam, space exploration, the Cold War, and pop culture on flight.  Deregulation and international collaboration across globalized aerospace industries in the 1980s led to some pretty incredible tech developments along with growing fears of bombs on planes and Soviet/US competition that led to the Challenger disaster.

Throughout, the book is illustrated with photos (though some, like those of the early stunt pilots, are creepy because you know they died flying), and Bilstein works to contextualize flight in American cultural history.  He does spend a lot more time talking about military and defense projects and developments in industry and technology than he does talking about popular responses to flight.  I wonder if that was a conscious choice, if it was conditioned by the archives he chose, or if it truly is difficult to link such capital-intensive and seemingly distant technologies to everyday life?