Wonderful Flying Machines by Barrett Beard

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MWSA Review

This well-written book is not just an interesting read; it is both historic and inspiring. It delivers insight into how a few special people (American Exceptionalism) changed history for the better, and how they paid a high price for doing the right thing, for disrupting the status quo.

The history of aviation progress followed that model: the Wright Brothers with their bicycle shop and Glen Curtiss with his reliable engines and better designs. The small band of Navy officers (Admirals Byrd and Moffit, and Commander George Noville) who set records and brought aviation to the fleet were similar. There was General Billy Mitchell, who was court-martialed for daring to show that his ragtag bombers could sink battleships. Names like Jimmy Doolittle and Kelly Johnson also come to mind.
The first part of the book writes this history, featuring Captain Frank Erickson and Captain William Kossler. This is the history of helicopters. The research is extensive, built on several failed efforts to tell the tale, and hundreds of cited documents and interviews.
The book starts small and personal. Lt. Erickson was the duty officer at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. The first bombs came down at 0753 and the world changed. Erickson witnessed the deaths of more than two thousand men within a radius of a mile and a half, and he watched helplessly as thousands more wounded and oil-covered victims struggled ashore. His immediate duty was flying patrols in the few planes that survived the raid—unarmed J2F and JRS scout planes. He felt helpless, but his greatest fear was not the war itself. It was that its duration would keep him in the Pacific, unable to pursue his dream of a way to rescue victims at sea, using helicopters.

It proved to be a long and rocky road. The helicopters of the era were barely able to fly. They had some promise for ASW work but could not hope to sink a submarine even if they found one. The war was over before they managed to show that helicopters with dipping sonar could track the best German submarines, XXIs with a submerged speed of 15 knots in 1946.
Unfortunately, that demonstration ended with the helicopter “getting dunked.” It didn’t have enough power to stop its descent to the deck of an LST. Both the copter and the sonar gear were lost. Rescue demonstrations were also spotty. Hydraulic hoists helped, but a heavy “victim” was about as likely to pull the copter down as the converse. A long dry spell followed, save for things like MASH in Korea and one critical Coast Guard mission. Helicopters proved indispensable for icebreakers. Ship’s captains would not give them up, and in at least one case, Byrd’s “High Jump” December 1946 mission, a single helicopter might have saved an entire fleet from the worst pack ice in Antarctic history or at least prevented the mission from being canceled.

Then came Vietnam, with its incredible stories of rescues of downed airmen under heavy fire behind enemy lines. To me, these stories were the best part of the book. The only chance of survival or avoiding horrific treatment in a POW camp came from helicopters. The NVA used our downed airmen as bait to target rescue aircraft. The rescuers came anyway. No one was abandoned. This was perhaps the brightest part of the American Vietnam experience, one marked by impossible rescues like BAT-21 (the greatest losses) and Spectre-22 (the most people rescued).

What’s missing from this book is the Army’s airmobile story which centered on helicopters. That changed the nature of war, but this book’s focus is on the Coast Guard. It convincingly makes the case that it was the Coast Guard that inspired, wet nursed, and nurtured the helicopter. Without that, the rest of this history would not have happened. Thus, the book’s focus is on copters as “fishers of men,” as lifesaving tools “that others may live.”
The book notes that the 42% of the U.S. Navy’s crews operate helicopters. That surprised me. What surprised me more was that only 29% of U.S. Army aircraft are attack helicopters. So perhaps it is true that helicopters did do more “saving” and “preventing” than “killing.” Interesting to ponder.

Is there anything I didn’t like about this book? The writing and editing is first rate, but I thought the production was substandard. I expected better from the prestigious Naval Institute Press. Better paper, larger fonts, a sharper cover. Small things, perhaps, but they make a difference.
I recommend the book.

Reviewed by John D. Trudel (April 2018)

Author's Synopsis

The story of the helicopter and its creator, Igor Sikorsky, and chief promoter, a young Coast Guard lieutenant, Frank Erickson, closely parallels that of Wilber and Orville Wright and their first flying machine. A small cadre of courageous visionaries, joining with Erickson, also risked their lives and careers on a dream. Dubbed "Igor's Nightmare" the helicopter brought derision and ridicule on its few supporters. The pioneers' story demonstrates the problems encountered by the personalities involved and their eventual strengths in overcoming adversity and overwhelming opposition in developing the helicopter for naval service (Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard). Erickson, with his friend and mentor, Coast Guard Captain William Kossler, undaunted by their lack of support, fought with single-minded intensity to establish the helicopter as a vital aviation tool. Kossler died in the project's infancy leaving Erickson undefended to suffer in disgrace for nearly a decade following. However, Erickson endured and did live to see his efforts succeed when the helicopter revolutionized, among its many eventual tasks foreseen by him, the saving of millions of lives worldwide, Erickson's first dream.

ISBN/ASIN: 1-55750-086-X
Book Format(s): Hard cover, Kindle
Genre(s): Nonfiction, History, Biography, Reference
Review Genre: Nonfiction—History
Number of Pages: 240