Colorful Characters in the Cockpit | HistoryNet

Colorful Characters in the Cockpit

By Scott M. Fisher
10/20/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Beginning a century ago, aviation-minded youngsters found inspiration in aerial adventure stories.

Today’s kids can play interactive games online or fire up their Xboxes to experience the thrill of flight. But before the advent of electronic gadgets, youngsters got their aviation thrills from the likes of Rex Lee, Ted Scott and Dave Dawson, just a few of the heroic fictional pilots who peopled the genre now remembered as boys’ adventure stories.

The best-known early series featured Tom Swift, boy inventor, and was attributed to Victor Appleton (a pseudonym for several writers employed by the Edward Stratemeyer publishing syndicate). Swift, with his father and several regular “chums,” engaged in all kinds of adventures, many of them involving flying machines, such as Tom Swift and His Airship, published in 1910. Every Swift series dust jacket offered an inspiring pledge: “It is the purpose of these spirited tales to interest the boy of the present in the hope that he may be a factor in aiding the marvelous development that is coming in the future.”

While each title was intended to stand on its own, a summary was typically included explaining the characters’ background. In this fashion readers were introduced to the series “family” and enticed to seek out previously released adventures.

The “Boy Inventors” series, by Richard Bonner, was similar in style to the Tom Swift stories, but used a larger group of heroes and settings. Titles typically highlighted technical innovations—for example, The Boy Inventors’ Electric Hydro Aeroplane. These early novels tended to be less about flying and airplanes and more about lost cities, buried treasure, explorers or espionage.

There was no shortage of exclusively aviation-oriented series. Ashton Lamar (who also wrote as H.L. Saylor) published “The Aeroplane Boys” series from the early 1910s. The “Young Aeroplane Scouts” books by Horace Porter featured complex, highly politicized plots. Our Young Aeroplane Scouts in Germany saw Billy Barry (an American) and Henri Trouville (a Franco-Belgian) sharing adventures in Europe, pitted against a German-influenced gang of villains in exciting air combat that involved rifles and pistols as well as Zeppelins. Older readers no doubt detected the symbolism of the American and French/Belgian alliance against a group of militaristic German antagonists.

The early series followed a common formula. They featured colorful illustrations, both on the dust jacket and the frontispiece, by artists such as Charles L. Wrenn, S.H. Reisenbergand and J. Clemens Gretter. The narrative usually began with an action scene, introducing the main characters. After summarizing previous exploits, they introduced the story’s “straight man,” often a nitpicking superior. The good guys inevitably faced conflicts that could only be resolved through expert flying, clever repairs and daring rescues.

In today’s PC era, the dialects the writers incorporated into their adventures may seem laughable or even offensive—as, for example, when an African American responds to a novel’s hero, “Yas suh, Massa.” And dialogue often served to further a publisher’s cultural or political views, such as when a character asks, “Do you reckon everybody is a goin’ to have one o’ them things [airplanes] after a while, jes’ like automobiles?” After all, the underlying point of many of these early novels was that aircraft were not only a path to adventure but would someday be commonplace. Some knowledgeable authors also tried to interest readers in aerodynamics and mechanics, including details about how internal combustion engines worked or how lift could be altered by different wing designs.

While most of the fictional characters, as well as the readers, were male, there were a few notable attempts to interest young women in flying. Margaret Burnham wrote a “Girl Aviator” series, and Ruthe S. Wheeler created Jane, Stewardess of the Air, which followed a nursing school graduate as she completed stewardess training, handled in-flight emergencies and crashes, helped capture mail thieves and kidnappers, and eventually became a pilot.

World War I brought a spate of war stories. Charles Amory Beach was one of the first to produce a series exclusively about aerial combat, “Air Service Boys.” In Air Service Boys in the Big Battle, Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly begin flying for the Lafayette Escadrille, then transfer to an American squadron when the United States enters the war. Beach described tactics like spotting for artillery as well as the early use of wireless communications in aircraft.

As the conflict continued, the genre evolved. Now there were more “true accounts” of aerial combat, with two main types of writers: nonpilots who interviewed returning veterans, and former military fliers, sometimes aided by ghost writers.

The 1918 armistice ushered in aviation’s Golden Age. Despite increasing competition from radio serials and films like Dawn Patrol and Hell’s Angels, youngsters during that period purchased record numbers of books or checked them out of libraries. Even in the Great Depression, aviation adventure books were avidly traded and reread many times.

Van Powell’s “Air Mystery–Haunted Hangar” stories and Ambrose Newcomb’s “Sky Detective” series enjoyed a wide readership, as did the “Ted Scott Flying Stories,” written by Franklin W. Dixon (a pseudonym for Grosset and Dunlap’s stable of writers, which also produced the Hardy Boys mysteries). Thomson Burtis’ “Rex Lee, Gypsy Flyer” series and Noel Sainsbury Jr.’s “Flying Ace” or “Billy Smith” adventures were also popular. Both authors also contributed to military series, with Burtis drawing on his WWI aviation exploits.

Combat stories were now mostly written by men who had seen actual action. WWI vet Eustace L. Adams wrote the “Air Combat Stories for Boys,” featuring Jimmy Deal, a U.S. Navy flier, Ivy League graduate and football player. Adams drew from his experience in describing the bitter cold of high altitude and the pain of combat wounds. He described the view from the cockpit in lurid detail: “The earth below was vomiting flame and the sky all around him was flickering redly with the bursting shrapnel.”

Thomson Burtis, who penned the “Four Aces” and “Flying Blackbirds” novels, invented characters who conformed to the rugged American individualism ideal. Jerry Lacey, for example, was an insolent warrior nicknamed the “Manhattan Madman,” whose Texas-born cohort Rud Riley was proud to be descended from mountain people. They represented the mix of cultures and backgrounds blended together in reallife military units. And while these books were written after WWI, they included hints that perhaps the job wasn’t quite done in Europe. Writers of this era weren’t shy about referring to Teutonic bad guys as “square heads,”“sausage guzzlers” and “krauts.”

Interestingly, the most factual and wideranging aviation stories of this period were part of the six-volume “Bill Bruce” series, written by U.S. Army Major Henry H. “Hap”Arnold, who was stationed in Kansas during the late 1920s. At the time, he was more or less in exile, due to his close association with Billy Mitchell (court-martialed in 1925 for criticizing the Army over its lack of air-mindedness). Arnold’s title character was named after his second son, William. Bill Bruce witnessed all the great American aviation milestones of the early 20th century, even meeting the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss (in Bill Bruce and the Pioneer Aviators). The series continued with training and combat (Bill Bruce Becomes an Ace). His postwar experiences were reflected in Bill Bruce and the Transcontinental Race and Bill Bruce on Forest Patrol. Arnold himself had arrived at the Western Front too late to see combat, but he managed to convey the excitement of being an Air Corps pilot while showcasing the effectiveness of military air power and the advantages of air travel.

With the outbreak of World War II, new aviation heroes joined the fictional stalwarts of the previous decade. Grosset and Dunlap continued to market the older books, but fresh characters were introduced in the “Thrill-Packed Air Combat Stories” series. WWI vet Al Avery (aka Rutherford G. Montgomery) wrote the multi-volume “Yankee Flier” series in which “Wild Irishman” Bill O’Malley fought in every theater of the war— flying everything from Stearman trainers to the latest fighter prototypes. Canfield Cook’s “Lucky Terrell Flying Story” series delved into new technologies such as experimental jets and flying wings.

R. Sidney Bowen, billed as the youngest member of WWI’s RFC/RAF, developed the 15-volume “Dave Dawson War Adventure” series, seemingly in competition with Avery’s Yankee Flier books, which saw Dawson and pal Freddy Farmer engaging enemy pilots in similar aircraft and many of the same locations. Bowen also wrote the “Red Randall” series, with heroes Red Randall and Jimmy Joyce.

Books like these were now marketed as being “As exciting and up-to-the-minute as today’s headlines.” They were also used to sell war bonds. On the back cover of the Dave Dawson books was a letter from Dave himself: “Fellows! We need your help! We in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps will smash the Japs and Nazis, in the air, on the ground, on the high seas and under the sea if you send us the planes, the guns, and the ships. The government needs money to buy and make this stuff for us and you and your friends can do your part in winning the war by buying war savings bonds and stamps. Buy them yourselves and get other people to buy them and buy them regularly.”

Zack Mosley’s popular “Smilin’ Jack” comic strip was expanded into several hardcover novel-length editions during this same period. In Smilin’ Jack and the Daredevil Girl Pilot, for example, Mosley’s hero—a U.S. Coast Guard reserve flying officer—went undercover to nab a gang of Nazi collaborators in South America.

After WWII the popularity of aviation adventure novels began to wane, as youngsters gravitated toward motion pictures and then TV. The rise of comic books also contributed to the death of the genre. But a full century after aviation adventures first began capturing the imagination of airplane-crazed kids, it’s still possible to find these novels in used bookstores, flea markets and antique malls. Most cost under $10, and some are highly collectible, especially if the dust jacket is complete and the spine and pages are in good condition. In fact, some collectors now value a book’s artwork over the volume’s general condition.

Not surprisingly, aerial adventure novels reflect the language, culture, technology and politics of their times—in ways that may seem old-fashioned or outlandish today. But they have also intrigued generations of young readers, inspiring many to look to the skies.


Scott M. Fisher, who has taught airframe and power plant mechanics, writes from Iowa. He recommends that readers visit their local library to find books from the series he cites. Many are also available via and eBay.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.  

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