From the London Review of Books, a look at The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War by Samuel Hynes:
The age of flight had barely begun in 1914 – the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903 – but it had developed swiftly. The Wrights’ airplane – in the shape of a big box kite, made of spruce and muslin – flew at a speed of about seven miles an hour, not much faster than a man walking briskly beside it. By 1908 an improved version went forty miles an hour, and a year after that Blériot, in a plane of his own design, flew across the English Channel. When the war broke out airplanes were being used primarily for reconnaissance, but soon started firing at one another with small arms, and then progressively machine guns appeared.
The Unsubstantial Air follows multiple lives into and through the war, relating their story in part through their own letters, diaries and other accounts which, together with Hynes’s own voice, are woven into a history –
The book contains chapters about the observation and bomber pilots and a portrait of Billy Mitchell, who came to France as a major and by war’s end had become a general ordering thousand-plane raids, but the heart of the book belongs to the pursuit pilots, their victories and their deaths: