Every now and again it is a good idea to reread an old book, and if you’re interested in the history of aviation and how it grew, I strongly recommend finding a copy of Grover Loening’s “Takeoff Into Greatness.”
Loening was born in 1888. Shortly after receiving America’s first master’s degree in aeronautics, from Columbia University, he became Orville Wright’s assistant and progressed, along with the aviation industry, for the next half century and more.
By the start of World War I he had his own aircraft company, where he pioneered in the development of military, commercial and private planes, including the famous Loening amphibians. Over the years he often served as an aviation advisor to the government, from the administration of Calvin Coolidge to that of Lyndon Johnson.
To give you some idea of Loening’s significance to aviation, the book’s foreword is written by a Naval Academy graduate who, in the summer of 1912, walked into Loening’s small aircraft factory and asked for a job. That man, Donald W. Douglas, commented on how fortunate we are that “the writer of this history, at one time Orville Wright’s assistant, is here today to tell us what happened, from personal knowledge, having been involved in this business all that time.”
Loening’s history tells of the struggles our aircraft industry had from its very beginning, through World War I, into its dizzying but mostly-unprofitable era between the great wars, its progress after World War II; what went wrong, what went right, and why. He tells about people and events few of us know anything about, including a fascinating look at Charles Lanier Lawrance, who invented the radial engine as we know it to this day. His air-cooled Wright Whirlwinds eliminated the heavy radiators of most earlier aircraft engines and provided Charles Lindbergh with the reliability to fly across the Atlantic.
Loening’s lively commentary on the Wright-Curtiss rivalry, and fascinating highlights such as how the Langley Aerodrome finally got airborne, are priceless. So are his incisive, knowledgeable observations of the politicians, aircraft industry moguls and their rivals, and the pioneering pilots who contributed to how and why we got to where we are today – or, at least, to 1968, when the book was written. Loening lived for almost another decade, until 1976.
Grover Loening’s “Takeoff Into Greatness” is a wonderfully written reminder of “the undying debt to distinguished predecessors,” in the words of Donald Douglas, that all of us in aviation owe.