Conquest of the Skies

Seeking Range, Endurance, and the Intercontinental Bomber

by William Wolf


You’ve heard it a hundred times: the Wright brothers’ first flight was shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747 built only 60 years later. How this was achieved is the question this book examines.

The subtitle says “Seeking . . . the Intercontinental Bomber.” Well, you’ll still be seeking it after reading the book because it is about everything and the kitchen sink. And by everything we mean balloons, ornithopters, microlights, airships, helicopters, spacecraft!

This does not speak to a problem with the book, only with overzealous sub-titling. It would have made perfect sense—intercontinental bombers are useless without range and endurance, but in this book these metrics are used to advance those particular aspects within the more general story of progress in aviation.

It is in fact a quite monumental book, clearly written by someone with a love for the subject (his father was only 16 when he got his wings, one of the youngest US pilots in his day). Wolf appears to have amassed tens of thousands of items over the decades, from books to complete sets of magazines to manuals of all sorts, even microfilms of vintage combat reports and squadron histories. How he is able to keep all this material organized is a feat in itself! Wolf retired from dentistry at 45 in order to devote himself to his aviation (and other) interests and has produced an impressive stack of uncommonly lengthy monographs.

No matter which aspect of intentional, repeatable flight you pursue, the story of organized aviation in the Western world usually begins with the Wright brothers and their immediate antecedents. So does this book. It takes a sort of encyclopedia-like approach, developing its theme chronologically up to the point when the number of players gets too large and then switches to a treatment by county. Photos abound, and the point here is not to see unpublished or rare material but to have the story suitably illustrated. (Though Wolf owns thousands and has digitized innumerable now long-crumbled sources.)

The Table of Contents is absolutely essential to getting anything out of the book (sounds obvious enough but is really not!). There is an Index, but of proper names only, and expecting anything more multi-tiered in a book of this scope is folly.

The amount of data woven into the narrative is so vast that there is no credible way to render an opinion as to accuracy except to say that spot-checking reveals no obvious weaknesses. Even from the typo front there’s nothing to report. Inevitably, some readers will argue that other or additional people, aircraft, events etc. should have been included—but the book already clocks in at 400 pages and 4.5 lb. In fact, the only thing that is “light” about it is the price!

The photo count of 585 supplied by the publisher cannot possibly be accurate because almost each of the 400 pages contains multiple, albeit small photos. Appended are photos of (some) aviation trophies, tables of records, and a list of especially “enormous designs.”

Even if you do read the book cover to cover the first time ‘round, you’ll later probably pick it up often to just read an entry or page here and there—and you’ll surely be surprised every time anew that you’re finding something new or already forgotten.

Conquest of the Skies:
Seeking Range, Endurance, and the Intercontinental Bomber
by William Wolf
Schiffer Military History, 2017
400 pages, 585 b/w illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $69.99
ISBN-13: 978-0764353215

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