One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft (Book Review)

Reviewed by Walter J. Boyne
By Norman Polmar and Dana Bell
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2004

Laced with little-known tidbits of information, a new compendium tours military aviation’s first 100 years.

It is a daunting task for two knowledgeable aviation writers to choose 100 of the world’s outstanding military aircraft and give us detailed characteristics and interesting rationales for their choices. Norman Polmar, especially noted for his several books on U.S. Navy ships and aircraft, and Dana Bell, archivist at the National Air and Space Museum and a specialist on military aviation colors and markings, have done just that in One Hundred Years of World Military Aircraft (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2004, $32.95). They have chosen planes over seven time periods, from the preconflict days of the planes built by Louis Blériot, Glenn H. Curtiss and the Wright brothers to the era of relatively new technology aircraft like the McDonnell F-15 Eagle, Mil Mi-26 Halo and Panavia Tornado.

While some of the choices made by the authors may be arguable, they have selected aircraft "that were the `first’ of their type, or the largest, or had the best performance, or aircraft that influenced political or military decisions (such as the Lockheed U-2 spy plane) or public attitudes toward aviation (such as the Savoia-Marchetti S.55)." They do not include strictly civilian aircraft, experimental or research planes, unmanned aerial vehicles or lighter-than-air craft.

What makes One Hundred Years much more interesting than a mere recital of airplane statistics are the tidbits of fascinating information that the writers provide to supplement the data on their choices. For example, we learn that after Glenn Curtiss won a $10,000 prize from the New York World newspaper for his successful 1910 flight from Albany to New York, the paper editorialized that battles of the future would be fought in the air and "the aeroplane will decide the destiny of nations." As a demonstration intended to back up its claim, the newspaper launched a float the size of a battleship on Lake Keuka and Curtiss "bombed" it with lead pipes — which resulted in the World‘s prediction that "an aeroplane costing a few thousand [would be] able to destroy the battleship costing many millions." Other bomb-throwing contests against simulated ship targets conducted that same year have rarely been mentioned by any other historians.

A broad range of topics and analysis ensure that every reader can find compelling facts and figures in One Hundred Years. For example:

  • The Junkers Ju-52/3m, workhorse of the German transport forces, was improved after World War II, and nearly 600 were produced in Spain and France and used by the French air force in the Indochina War.
  • The Japanese developed the rocket-propelled Mitsubishi J8M Shusui (Sword Stroke) based on the German Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet.
  • The British Avro Lancaster was considered as the carrier for the atomic bomb when it seemed that the weapon might not fit into the bomb bay of the Boeing B-29.
  • About one-third of the nearly 13,000 Boeing B-17s built were lost in the European theater.
  • A total of 13,906 Waco CG-4A 15-troop Hadrian gliders were delivered to U.S. and British forces.
  • The molded plywood de Havilland Mosquito, which the authors say was "one of the most successful aircraft of the war," had a profound influence on U.S. planning for photoreconnaissance and night fighting. However, there was a reluctance to build them in the United States, and a comparable American night fighter was not produced until after the war.
  • Six camera-equipped Convair B-36s reportedly flew a high-altitude photoreconnaissance mission over the Soviet base at Murmansk, Russia, in January 1951.
  • No combat aircraft has remained in frontline service longer than the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. It has been flown by more than 60 nations and is still in the inventory of all four U.S. uniformed flying services. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, while still in service after more than 50 years, is no longer in production. B-52H models are forecast to remain in the inventory until 2024.
  • The Russian Mil Mi-26 Halo twin-engine helicopter is the largest rotary-wing aircraft ever built. It can carry a crew of five, 82 troops and five medical attendants, or lift a total of 123,500 pounds.

Polmar and Bell have illustrated their compendium with a wealth of photographs. All in all, One Hundred Years is a fast-moving tour through the first century of military aeronautics. Their work is not only a valuable aircraft statistical reference but one that is also enjoyable and unique in its presentation.

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