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CASTING A LOOK BACK AT AVIATION'S GOLDEN AGE

Blaze of Noon (Air & Space 13) - Ernest K. Gann

Ernest K. Gann, in his day, was one of those aviators with a gift for conveying to the general reader the thrills and perils of flying. And in "BLAZE OF NOON", he succeeds brilliantly.

The story begins in September 1925 with the 4 McDonald brothers (Roland, Keith, Tad, and Colin) demonstrating their flying skills at a county fair in Iowa. This is the era of barnstorming, when active pilots, many of them --- like Roland the oldest brother --- First World War veterans who first experienced flight in a flimsy Curtiss Jenny trainer at one of the Army stateside airfields hastily created after America's entry into the war and later became either instructors or seasoned combat pilots over the Western Front. After the war, being enamored of flying and at a loss what to do in civilian life, several of these pilots found ways to keep aloft. Barnstorming, despite being a precarious livelihood, offered the way out of a life lived in the doldrums.

Aviation was a wide-open endeavor in the U.S. during the early to mid-1920s. But by the time the reader meets the MacDonald brothers, it is becoming increasingly clear to Roland that barnstorming is losing its appeal. (Aviation is fast becoming a serious business, with the federal government establishing rigorous standards for pilots, mechanics, and aircraft manufacturers.) He persuades his brothers to follow him to New Jersey, where he meets up with Mike Gafferty, an old friend and fellow aviator who runs a business flying mail for the Post Office Department from New Jersey to Upstate New York and Northeast Ohio.

Though now assured of steady paychecks and a more settled way of life, the MacDonald brothers find that the risks inherent with pitting a Pitcairn Mailwing radial-engine biplane against the vagaries of the weather can exact a high cost. For instance, one night when Roland is hard pressed to arrive at his destination with a load of mail, he makes a calculated gamble while in the midst of a menacing storm front in winter. "He patted the pint of whisky and thought of Albany as he gritted his teeth and pulled up into the low overcast. Then he concentrated with all his will on the turn-and-bank instrument, relating it to his compass, which for a time held obligingly at eighty-five degrees. When he reached three thousand feet he leveled off - or assumed he did, since the altimeter and air speed held steady. Now would come the test, not of the theory but of himself. He would have to endure this new and strange flying sensation for exactly twenty-one minutes. Then, according to his figures, he could let down until he broke out of the overcast and Rochester would be just ahead. He had only to hold his course and believe the instruments before him."

This is nail-biting stuff! There is also romance, brotherly devotion, and a few snippets of life characteristic of the 1920s.

Reading "BLAZE OF NOON" has been a thoroughly rewarding experience. I highly recommend it to any reader who loves thrill-seeking tales.