Why are we fascinated by pilots? That’s the question Birdmen explores while examining the literal ups and downs of America’s earliest aviators. It was also the question that I was trying to answer in my personal life at the time, since I was actually dating a pilot while reading this book. Aviation still has a huge hold on our imaginations; although as we discover in Birdmen, today’s pilots pale in comparison to both the glamour and tumultuous risks of the first flyers.
Lawrence Goldstone’s non-fiction saga focuses on the famous Wright Brothers and their rival of choice, Glenn Curtiss. However, Birdmen also recounts the tragic fates of countless enthusiastic young aviators who plummeted to their deaths performing death-defying spins and dives. Horrifyingly, the vast majority of these young pilots paid for these acts of fearless defiance with their lives. However, what is really sickening is discovering that scarcely a century ago ravenous audiences at airshows resembled bloodthirsty spectators at a Roman amphitheatre. They would egg on these ambitious young fliers, only to see them crash. Far from mourning these heroic adventurers, crazed fans would leap over and steal every scrap of morbid memorabilia left, sometimes even before the pilots were dead. It was a shocking world, filled with amazing showmanship and equally terrifying spectators.
Perhaps aviation has always been and always will be prone to disaster. During the reading of Birdmen, my relationship with my pilot derailed. The mysterious Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 also disappeared during this time, leading me to discover that a passenger of the previously doomed Air France Flight 447 flight was also alumni of my high school. It’s all a chilling reminder that no matter how eagerly we take to the skies, even today the skies are still a fascinating yet dangerous place to be.