Three Books...
1:05 pm
Fri March 16, 2012

Pioneers Of The Sky: 3 Books That Take Flight

Originally published on Sat March 17, 2012 3:44 am

Today, flying is like riding a bus. But it wasn't always that way. Vaulted from the sands of Kitty Hawk and freed from military exigencies by the end of World War I, aviation soared into the 1920s and '30s on a direct course to tomorrow. Here are three flyers who not only helped open the skies, but also brought literary gems back from the cutting edge of progress, from a time when flying was the most exciting thing in the world.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Literature is full of explorers, people who sail across oceans, tunnel deep into caves, or travel through time. Writer Gregory Crouch likes to read about a particular kind of pioneer: those who ventured into the skies. And that's his theme for our series Three Books.

GREGORY CROUCH: Today, it's like riding a bus. But it wasn't always that way. Vaulted from the sands of Kitty Hawk and freed from its military background by the end of the Great War, aviation soared into the 1920s and '30s on a direct course to tomorrow. Here are three flyers who not only helped open the skies but also brought literary gems back from the cutting edge of progress, from a time when flying was the most exciting thing in the world.

In 1931, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of America's biggest celebrity, served as radio operator in the back of her husband's plane on a voyage into the unknown. She chronicled the adventure in her book, "North to the Orient." The Lindberghs dropped in on fur trappers, Eskimos and missionary settlers in the frozen wilds of Canada and Alaska. They crossed the Bering Sea from Nome and visited Soviet outposts. But the book's climax comes in China Sea, where the Lindberghs surveyed the devastation caused by the 1931 flood. Her harrowing passages about the large, chillingly tranquil lake submerging the lives and homes of millions is surely one of the best descriptions of flood ever written. Only from the air could one comprehend the devastation.

"North to the Orient" won the National Book Award for general nonfiction in 1935. Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic "Wind, Sand and Stars" carried off the award four years later. Believe it or not, before he wrote his much-beloved children's story "The Little Prince," Saint-Exupery was a professional pilot for a French airmail company, braving storms and mountains, Saharan deserts, windswept steppes and the brutal horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Genuine magic animates his pen, and through him, we suffer the perils of stormy skies, ache with the cold of the Andes and revel in the magic of lonely nights aloft, amid a glitter of stars.

Ernest K. Gann, author of "Fate Is the Hunter," picks up where Saint- Exupery left us, in the late 1930s. Gann takes us through his professional apprenticeship on domestic commercial routes. Often, the flights weren't even close to routine, as his story of being caught by a violent thunderstorm makes apparent. Once, during the World War II, Gann found himself in northeastern India, flying the notorious hump over the Himalayas, delivering supplies to China. High mountains, volatile weather and Japanese fighter planes made this one of the most dangerous aerial undertakings of the war even though it wasn't considered a combat operation. In one day on the hump, Gann witnessed the loss of four airplanes and 32 men.

Gann and Lindbergh survived their flying careers and died at advanced ages, but fate caught Saint-Exupery in its talons. His plane disappeared in the summer of 1944. He'd known the risks, and it's hard to imagine him wanting it any other way. As a friend of his had observed: It's worth it. It's worth the final smashup.

BLOCK: That's writer Gregory Crouch. He's the author of "China's Wings: War Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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