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Aviation History Book Review: American Combat Planes of the 20th Century

By Walter J. Boyne
8/22/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

American Combat Planes of the 20th Century

by Ray Wagner

The 2004 version of American Combat Planes, published by Jack Bacon and Co., is the fourth edition of Ray Wagner’s groundbreaking title since 1960, and it’s by far the best for a number of reasons. Wagner’s dedication to writing and museum work has earned him a place in the hearts of readers for half a century. His work has been cited in hundreds of books and articles, since he’s known for thorough research and accurate reporting.

This 758-page book is crammed with photos and succinct descriptions of airplanes designed to “attack an enemy with guns, bombs or rockets.” Wagner excludes trainers, transports and other aircraft that are not at the point of the combat sword. It is a wise choice, for there is plenty to tell about American combat planes.

Wagner revised his format in this edition, vastly improving the presentation. Thirty-eight chapters are divided into four major parts, and I’ll describe just one major section as an example. Part One, which covers the biplane period, 1917 to 1932, will likely be the favorite section for older readers who remember with pleasure the clean-cut lines of Curtiss and Boeing fighters, the many struts and wires of observation planes and the bombers’ lumbering bulk. It is wonderful to be able to check the figures once again for so many unusual types such as the Loening M-8 or the Engineering Division USB-1. (Grover Loening himself once gave me a severe lecture on the error the Air Service made in not adopting his M-8 as the standard fighter type.) Both Army and Navy aircraft are covered, and it is Wagner’s great strength that he is able to succinctly describe the planes while bringing in the significant personalities and events of the time. Thus as you read about the Barling NBL-1, you also learn the role played by Walter Barling and fearless test pilot Harold Harris.

Things grow more complex as time passes, of course, and the vast numbers and variety of production in World War II makes Part Two, “Monoplanes For World War II, 1931 to 1945,” the longest section at more than 300 pages.

Each section has an introductory chapter setting the stage, then immediately plunges into the hardware. Wagner forces us to remember what a tiny thing the air and space industry once was. Yet it was filled with so many companies designing so many aircraft. Today everything is reversed, with the industry huge and the players few.

The book is replete with very clear, clean black-and-white photos of every aircraft type, often depicting every model of every type mentioned. Instead of captions, the photos provide the vital statistics of each aircraft. This is one more strength of the book—accurate data, easily accessed and utterly reliable. There are a few color photos in the splendid bibliography and reader’s guide section, which is an invaluable resource in itself. The index is thorough and accurate—something many indexes are not.

Reference books are usually just that: books to refer to. Wagner’s superb writing turns American Combat Planes of the 20th Century into a wonderful read—not a page-turner, but with plenty of pages to savor. If you have old copies of Wagner’s work, you need to get this one to be up to date. If you haven’t read any of the preceding editions, you’re in for a treat.


Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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