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Bill Bryson On The Eventful Summer Of 1927

This article is more than 9 years old.
Aviator Charles A. Lindbergh stands in front of his plane "The Spirit of St. Louis" in New York in before his historic solo flight to Paris, May 20, 1927. (AP)
Aviator Charles A. Lindbergh stands in front of his plane "The Spirit of St. Louis" in New York in before his historic solo flight to Paris, May 20, 1927. (AP)
Bill Bryson is author of "One Summer: America, 1927." (Julian James)
Bill Bryson is author of "One Summer: America, 1927." (Julian James)

The summer of 1927 saw Charles Lindbergh generating world-wide adulation after he crossed the Atlantic in a solo plane, Babe Ruth on his way to setting a home run record and the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.

That year, the American public was also transfixed by the "sash weight murder case," Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for a second presidential term and television was invented.

These are just a few of the events that Bill Bryson writes about in his new book "One Summer: America, 1927."

As Bryson tells Here & Now's Robin Young, "the thing that happened in 1927 was that America was becoming the top nation on Earth, and knew it — and that was the real psychological difference between before that period and after that period."

Book Excerpt: 'One Summer: America, 1927'

By Bill Bryson

"One Summer" by Bill Bryson


On a warm spring evening just before Easter 1927, people who lived in tall buildings in New York were given pause when wooden scaffolding around the tower of the brand-new Sherry-Netherland Apartment Hotel caught fire and it became evident that the city’s firemen lacked any means to get water to such a height.

Crowds flocked to Fifth Avenue to watch the blaze, the biggest the city had seen in years. At thirty-eight stories, the Sherry-Netherland was the tallest residential building ever erected, and the scaffolding – put there to facilitate the final stages of construction – covered the top fifteen stories, providing enough wood to make a giant blaze around its summit. From a distance, the building looked rather like a just-struck match. The flames were visible twenty miles away. Up close, the scene was much more dramatic. Sections of burning scaffolding up to fifty feet long fell from a height of five hundred feet and crashed in clattering showers of sparks in the streets below, to the gleeful cries of the spectators and the peril of toiling firemen. Burning embers dropped onto the roofs of neighboring buildings, setting four of them alight. Firemen trained their hoses on the Sherry-Netherland building, but it was a token gesture since their streams could not rise above the third or fourth story. Fortunately, because the building was unfinished it was unoccupied.

People in 1920s America were unusually drawn to spectacle and by 10 pm the crowd had grown to an estimated hundred thousand people – an enormous gathering for a spontaneous event. Seven hundred policemen had to be brought in to keep order. Some wealthy observers, deflected from their evening revels, took rooms in the Plaza Hotel across the street and held impromptu “fire room parties,” according to the New York Times. Mayor Jimmy Walker turned up to have a look and got soaked when he wandered into the path of a hose. A moment later a flaming ten-foot-long plank crashed onto the pavement near him and he accepted advice to withdraw. The fire did extensive damage to the upper reaches of the building, but luckily did not spread downwards and burned itself out about midnight.
            The flames and smoke provided some welcome diversion to two men, Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta, who had been flying in circles in a small plane above Roosevelt Field on Long Island since 9:30 that morning. They were doing so in an attempt to break the world endurance record set two years earlier by two French aviators. This was partly a matter of national honor — America, birthplace of aviation, was now hopelessly behind even the smallest European nations – and partly to confirm that planes could stay up long enough to make really long flights.

The trick of the exercise, Chamberlin explained afterwards, was to squeeze maximum mileage out of the plane by adjusting the throttle and fuel mixture to the point where the plane was just able to remain airborne — keeping it “on starvation rations,” as Chamberlin put it. When he and Acosta finally glided back to earth, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon of their third day aloft, they were essentially flying on vapor. They had been continuously airborne for 51 hours, 11 minutes and 25 seconds, an advance of nearly six hours on the existing record.

They emerged grinning from their plane to the approving roar of a large crowd. (People really did gather in enormous numbers for almost any event in the 1920s.) The two triumphant pilots were tired and stiff — and very thirsty. It turned out that one of their ground crew, in a moment of excited distraction, had left their canteens filled with soapy water, so they had had nothing to drink for two days. Otherwise the flight was a great success — great enough to be the main story in the New York Times on Good Friday, April 15. Across three columns the headline declared:
Fliers set record of 51 hours in air;
Day and Night without Food or Water;
Land Worn, But Eager for Paris Flight

They had flown 4,100 miles — 500 miles more than the distance from New York to Paris. Just as significantly, they had managed to get airborne with 375 gallons of fuel, an enormous load for the time, and had used up just 1,200 feet of runway to do so. All this was extremely encouraging for those who wished to fly the Atlantic, and in the spring of 1927 there were many, like Chamberlin and Acosta, who most assuredly did.
By a curiously ironic twist, the event that left America far behind the rest of the world in aviation was the very one that assured its dominance in so many other spheres: the First World War.

Before 1914, airplanes barely featured in military thinking. The French air corps, with three dozen planes, was larger than all the other air forces in the world put together. Germany, Britain, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Austria all had no more than four planes in their fleets; the United States had just two. But with the outbreak of fighting, military commanders quickly saw how useful planes could be — for monitoring enemy troop movements, for directing artillery fire, and above all for providing a new direction and manner in which to kill people.

In the early days, bombs often were nothing more than wine bottles filled with gasoline or kerosene, with a simple detonator attached, though a few pilots threw hand grenades and some for a time dropped specially made darts called flechettes which could pierce a helmet or otherwise bring pain and consternation to those in the trenches below. As always where killing is involved, technological progress was swift, and by 1918 aerial bombs of up to 2,200 pounds were being dropped. Germany alone rained down a million individual bombs, some 27,000 tons of explosives, in the course of the war. Bombing was not terribly accurate – a bomb dropped from ten thousand feet rarely hit its target and often missed by half a mile or more – but the psychological effect, wherever a large bomb fell, was considerable.

Heavy bomb loads required planes of ever greater size and power, which in turn spurred the development of swifter, nimbler fighter craft to defend or attack them, which in further turn produced the celebrated dogfights that fired the imaginations of schoolboys and set the tone for aviation for a generation to come. The air war produced an insatiable need for planes. In four years, the four main combatant nations spent $1 billion — a staggering sum, nearly all borrowed from America — on their air fleets. From almost nothing, France in four years built up an aircraft industry that employed nearly 200,000 people and produced some 70,000 planes. Britain built 55,000 planes, Germany 48,000, and Italy 20,000 — quite an advance bearing in mind that only a few years earlier the entire world aviation industry consisted of two brothers in a bicycle shop in Ohio.

Up to 1914, the total number of people in the world who had been killed in airplanes was about a hundred. Now men died in their thousands. By the spring of 1917, the life expectancy of a British pilot was put at eight days. Altogether between 30,000 and 40,000 flyers were killed or injured to the point of incapacity in four years. Training was not a great deal safer than combat. At least 15,000 men were killed or invalided in accidents in flight schools. American flyers were particularly disadvantaged. When the United States entered the war, in April 1917, not a single American military official had ever even seen a fighter aircraft, much less commanded one. When the explorer Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu but now a middle-aged professor at Yale, offered himself as an instructor, the army made him a lieutenant-colonel and put him in charge of the whole training program, not because he had useful experience – he didn’t – but simply because he knew how to fly a plane. Many new pilots were taught by instructors who had only just been taught themselves. America now made a huge, but ultimately futile, effort to catch up in aviation; Congress appropriated $600 million to build an air force. As Bingham wrote in his memoirs, “When we entered the war, the Air Service had two small flying fields, 48 officers, 1330 men, and 225 planes, not one of which was fit to fly over the lines. In the course of a year and a half, this Air Service grew to 50 flying fields, 20,500 officers, 175,000 men and 17,000 planes.” Unfortunately, almost none of those 17,000 planes reached Europe because nearly all available shipping was needed for troops. So American airmen, when they got to the front, mostly flew in borrowed, patched-up planes provided by the Allies, leaving them in the position of being sent into the most dangerous form of combat in modern times with next to no training in generally second-rate surplus planes against vastly more experienced enemies. Yet at no point was there a shortage of volunteer pilots on any side. The ability to climb to 13,000 feet, to fly at 130 miles an hour, to roll and dart and swoop through the air in deadly combat, was for many airmen thrilling to the point of addiction. The romance and glamour of it can scarcely be imagined now. Pilots were the most heroic figures of the age.

Then the war ended, and planes and aviators both were suddenly, largely worthless. America terminated $100 million of aircraft orders at a stroke, and essentially lost all official interest in flying. Other nations scaled back nearly as severely. For aviators who wished to remain airborne, the options were stark and few. Many, lacking anything better to do, engaged in stunts. In Paris, the Galeries Lafayette department store, in a moment of unconsidered folly, offered a prize of 25,000 francs to anyone who could land a plane on its roof. A more foolhardy challenge could hardly be imagined: the roof was just thirty yards long and bounded by a three-foot-high balustrade, which added several perilous degrees of steepness to any landing on it. A former war ace named Jules Védrine decided nonetheless to have a try. Védrine placed men on the roof to grab the wings of his plane as it came in. The men succeeded in keeping the plane from tumbling off the roof and onto the festive throngs in the Place de l’Opéra below, but only at the cost of directing it into a brick shed housing the store’s elevator mechanisms. The plane was smashed to splinters, but Védrine stepped from the wreckage unscathed, like a magician from an amazing trick. Such luck, however, couldn’t hold. Three months later he died in a crash while trying to fly, more conventionally, from Paris to Rome.

Védrine’s death in a French field illustrated two awkward facts about airplanes: for all their improvements in speed and manoeuvrability, they were still dangerous devices and not much good for distances. Just a month after his crash, the U.S. Navy unwittingly underscored the point when it sent three Curtiss flying boats on a hair-raisingly ill-conceived trip from Newfoundland to Portugal via the Azores. In readiness, the navy positioned sixty-six ships along the route to steam to the aid of any plane that got in trouble, which suggests that its own confidence in the exercise was perhaps less than total. It was as well that it took precautions. One of the planes ditched in the sea and had to be rescued before it even got to Newfoundland. The other two planes splashed down prematurely during the race itself and had to be towed to the Azores; one of those sank en route. Of the three planes that set out, only one made it to Portugal, and that took eleven days. Had the purpose of the exercise been to show how unready for ocean flights airplanes were, it could not have been more successful.

Crossing the ocean in a single leap seemed a wholly unachievable ambition. So when two British airmen did just that, in the summer of 1919, it was quite a surprise to everyone, including, it seems, the airmen. Their names were Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten (Teddy) Brown and they deserve to be a good deal more famous. Theirs was one of the most daring flights in history, but sadly forgotten now. It wasn’t actually particularly well noted at the time.

Alcock, aged twenty-six, was the pilot and Brown, thirty-three, the navigator. Both men had grown up in Manchester, though Brown was the child of American parents. His father had been sent to Britain in the early 1900s to build a factory for Westinghouse, and the family had stayed on. Though Brown had never lived in America, he spoke with an American accent his whole life and only recently had given up his American citizenship. He and Alcock barely knew each other and had only flown together three times when they squeezed into the open cockpit of a frail and boxy Vickers Vimy airplane in June 1919 at St. John’s in Newfoundland and headed out over the forbidding gray void of the Atlantic.

Perhaps never have fliers braved greater perils in a less substantial craft. The Vickers Vimy was little more than a box-kite with a motor. For hours Alcock and Brown flew through the wildest weather — through rain and hail and driving snow. Lightning lit the clouds around them and winds tossed them violently in all directions. An exhaust pipe split and sent flames licking along the plane’s fabric covering, to their understandable alarm. Six times Brown had to crawl out onto the wings to clear air intakes of ice with his bare hands. Much of the rest of the time he spent wiping Alcock’s goggles since Alcock couldn’t for a moment relax his grip on the controls. Flying for hours through cloud and fog, they lost all orientation. Emerging into clear air at one point, they were astounded to find that they were just sixty feet above the water and flying sideways, at a 90-degree angle to the surface. In one of the few spells that Brown was able to navigate, he discovered that they had somehow turned around and were heading back to Canada. There really has never been a more hair-raising, seat-of-the-pants flight.

After sixteen hours of bouncing disorder, Ireland miraculously appeared beneath them, and Alcock crash-landed in a boggy field. They had flown 1,890 miles, only slightly more than half the distance from New York to Paris, but it was still an astounding achievement. They emerged unhurt from their mangled plane, but struggled to get anyone to grasp quite what they had just done. Word of their departure from Newfoundland had been delayed, so no one in Ireland was expecting their arrival, removing all sense of excitement and anticipation. The telegraph girl in Clifden, the nearest town, was not terribly good at her job, it seems, and could only manage to transmit short, mildly befuddled messages, adding to the confusion.

When Alcock and Brown managed to get back to England, they were given heroes’ welcomes — medals were bestowed, the king gave them knighthoods — but they quickly returned to their quiet previous lives, and the world forgot all about them. Six months later, Alcock died in a flying accident in France when he crashed into a tree in fog. Brown never flew again. By 1927, when flying the Atlantic Ocean became an earnest dream, their names were hardly remembered. [1]

Entirely coincidentally, at almost exactly the same time that Alcock and Brown were making their milestone flight, a businessman in New York who had no connection to aviation at all — he just liked planes — made an offer that transformed the world of flying and created what became known as the Great Atlantic Air Derby. The man’s name was Raymond Orteig. He was from France originally, but was now a successful hotelier in New York. Inspired by the exploits of World War I aviators, Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 to the first person or persons who could fly nonstop from New York to Paris, or vice versa, in the next five years. It was a generous offer but an entirely safe one since it was patently beyond the scope of any airplane to cover such a span in a single flight. As Alcock and Brown painfully proved, just flying half that distance was at the very bounds of technology and good fortune.

No one took up Orteig’s offer, but in 1924 he renewed it, and now it was beginning to seem actually possible. The development of air-cooled engines – America’s one outstanding contribution to aviation technology in the period – gave planes greater range and reliability. The world also had an abundance of talented, often brilliant, nearly always severely underemployed aeronautic engineers and designers who were eager to show what they could do. For many, winning the Orteig Prize wasn’t merely the best challenge around, it was the only one.

The first to try was the great French aviator René Fonck, in partnership with the Russian émigré designer Igor Sikorsky. No one needed the success more than Sikorsky did. He had been a leading airplane designer in Europe, but in 1917 had lost everything in the Russian revolution and fled to America. Now in 1926, at the age of thirty-seven, he supported himself by teaching chemistry and physics to fellow immigrants and by building planes when he could.

Sikorsky loved a well-appointed airplane – one of his pre-war models included a washroom and “promenade deck” (a somewhat generous description, it must be said) – and the plane he now built for the Atlantic flight was the plushest of all. It had leather fittings, a sofa and chairs, cooking facilities, even a bed – everything that a crew of four could possibly want in the way of comfort and elegance. The idea was to show that the Atlantic could not simply be crossed, but crossed in style. Sikorsky was supported by a syndicate of investors who called themselves the Argonauts.

For a pilot they chose René Fonck, France’s greatest war ace. Fonck had shot down 75 German planes – he claimed it was over 120 – an achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that he had flown only for the last two years of the war. He spent the first two digging ditches before persuading the French air service to give him a chance at flight school.  Fonck was not only adroit at knocking down enemy planes, but even more incomparably skilled at eluding damage himself. In all his battles, Fonck’s own plane was struck by an enemy bullet just once. Unfortunately, the skills and temperament needed for combat are not necessarily the ones required to fly an airplane successfully across a large and empty sea.

Fonck now showed no common sense in regard to preparations. First, he insisted on going before the plane was adequately tested, to Sikorsky’s despair. Next, and even worse, he grossly overloaded it. He packed extra fuel, an abundance of emergency equipment, two kinds of radios, spare clothes, presents for friends and supporters, and lots to eat and drink, including wines and champagne. He even packed a dinner of terrapin, turkey and duck to be prepared and eaten in celebration after reaching Paris, as if France could not be counted on to feed them. Altogether the plane when loaded weighed 28,000 pounds, far more than it was designed, or probably able, to lift.

On September 20 came news that two Frenchmen, Major Pierre Weiss and a Lieutenant Challé had flown in a single leap from Paris to Bandar Abbas in Persia (now Iran), a distance of 3,230 miles, almost as far as from New York to Paris. Elated at this demonstration of the innate superiority of French aviators, Fonck insisted on immediate preparation for departure.

Thus it was the following morning, before a large crowd, that the Sikorksy – which, such was the rush, hadn’t even been given a name – was rolled into position and its three mighty silver engines started. Almost from the moment it began lumbering down the runway things didn’t look right. Airfields in the 1920s were essentially just that – fields – and Roosevelt Field was no better than most. Because the plane needed an especially long run, it had to cross two dirt service roads, neither of which had been rolled smooth – a painful reminder of how imprudently overhasty the entire operation was. As the Sikorsky jounced at speed over the second of the tracks, a section of landing gear fell off, damaging the left rudder, and a detached wheel went bouncing off into oblivion. Fonck pressed on nonetheless, opening the throttle and continually gaining speed until he was almost going fast to enough to get airborne. Alas, almost was not good enough. Thousands of hands went to mouths as the plane reached the runway’s end, never having left the ground even fractionally, and tumbled clumsily over a 20-foot embankment, vanishing from view.

For some moments, the watching crowds stood in a stunned and eerie silence – birdsong could be heard, giving an air of peacefulness obviously at odds with the catastrophe just witnessed – and then awful normality reasserted itself with an enormous gaseous explosion as 2,850 gallons of aviation fuel combusted, throwing a fireball fifty feet into the air. Fonck and his navigator, Lawrence Curtin, somehow managed to scramble free, but the other two crew members were incinerated in their seats. The incident horrified the flying fraternity. The rest of the world was horrified too – but at the same time morbidly eager for more.

For Sikorsky, the blow was economic as well as emotional. The plane had cost more than $100,000 to build, but his backers had so far paid only a fraction of that, and now, the plane gone, they declined to pay the rest. Sikorksy would eventually find a new career building helicopters, but for now he and Fonck, their plane and their dreams were finished.

For the time being, it was too late for other ocean flyers as well. Weather patterns meant that flights over the North Atlantic were only safely possible for a few months each year. Everyone would have to wait now until the following spring.

[1] The Vickers Vimy hangs in the Science Museum in London, but few notice it. A monument to Alcock and Brown, at Heathrow Airport, wasn’t erected until 35 years after their flight. When I checked out Graham Wallace’s classic account of the trip, The Flight of Alcock & Brown, 14-15 June 1919, from the London Library, I was the first person in 17 years to do so.

Excerpted from ONE SUMMER: AMERICA, 1927 by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


This segment aired on October 10, 2013.


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