The full title of this book is ‘The Rocket Man and other extraordinary characters from the history of flight,’ and David Darling has got that right, sure enough. These are amazing individuals from the earliest days of flight, through the amazing barnstorming aerial performers, via the risk-taking test pilots of the first supersonic jets to the people who jump off buildings wearing wing suits.
Two things seems to unite these people – an urge to live on the edge that puts them at very high risk of death, and remarkable stories that are both uplifting and horrifying in equal parts. I really don’t know whether to class these people as very brave or very stupid. Certainly they have to be people who aren’t too worried about their long-term survival, given the number of stories that end with the main character dead.
David Darling has cleverly avoided wheeling out all the old familiar names. It’s not that the likes of the Wright brothers and Chuck Yeager, for instance, aren’t there, but they come in as sidelines to the more dramatic stories of others. So, for instance, it is Lincoln Beachey, showman and record breaker, we discover in the era of the Wright brothers, while Jack Woolams and John Walker take more of the X-plane story than Yeager (or Neil Armstrong, an X-15 pilot), even though we do inevitably get Yeager’s story of breaking the sound barrier.
If I’m frank there is very little science in here. The subject is all technology, and there is much less on how flight and these specific planes worked, and much more on the lives, adventures and (all too often) deaths of these remarkable individuals. But then, the stories are remarkable enough to cover them. The only slight surprise was not to have more than a throw-away one liner on the rocketbelt, given that made such a great subject in The Rocketbelt Caper. Don’t expect to learn a lot of science – but do expect a rollicking, rip-roaring tale.