Book Review 11: Wagner’s AMERICAN COMBAT PLANES OF THE 20TH CENTURY

AMERICAN COMBAT PLANES OF THE 20TH CENTURY
By
Ray Wagner

Jack Bacon & Company, 2004, $65.00 758 pages, 1,700 photographs

This massive book by one of the most respected aviation historians is an invaluable addition to the library of everyone who loves airplanes. Ray Wagner has spent more than fifty years in first hand research on American, German and Soviet aircraft. He has the rare ability to seek out and relate the most important facts relating to an individual aircraft, place that aircraft in the context of the times, and then add some insight to it that humanizes the story.
The book is far more than an “up-dated” version of his previous best selling success, American Combat Aircraft, as he has extensively modified the text and added many new photographs. More importantly, he has used his unique layout and story-telling style to take us through the modern era of Lockheed Martin F/A-22-and F-35 aircraft
The very size and layout of the book tells much about the history of American military aviation in terms of the numbers of companies, numbers of experimental aircraft, and of course the number that reach production. It is exciting to see all of the great old names—Curtiss, Vought, Seversky, even Brewster– and to have presented all of their many efforts. In later years, of course, there are fewer aircraft introduced and fewer still to reach production.
At first glance, Wagner’s method of subdividing his work might seem a little odd. But as you use the book, you realize how useful it is, particularly given his comprehensive coverage of all aircraft, including prototypes. Thus the book begins with a ten chapter section, The Biplane Period, 1917 to 1932 In it he provides a discussion of the role of the combat plane, and then a discussion of each of the types of the period—fighters, bombers, observation, patrol boats and the like. As you read through you realize what a rational break down this is, and, more important, when you use the book for reference, you realize how handy it is.
There is nothing wrong with a straight alphabetical or a straight chronological approach to a book covering a century of warplanes, and many successful books follow that pattern. Wagner’s approach has the advantage of having all of the types presented with their contemporaries, so that you get a sense of the way advances filtered from one aircraft to another, and from one type to another.
The author provides a complete description of each type, along with specifications, the number produced, the designer, and often in a case of a prototype or experimental aircraft, its ultimate disposition. Unlike most alphabetical or chronological approaches, Wagner’s style enables him to introduce far more of the human element, so that almost every page of the book is enlivened with tales of heroes such as Harold R. Harris, or designers such as Ottorino Pomilio.
The book’s photographic coverage is remarkable, particularly of the rare aircraft such as the twin-boom Curtiss CT-1, the stalky Douglas XT3D-2, the lower gun-mount of the sleek Vultee G11-B, the unlikely Curtiss Wright Condor BT-32 seaplane, the handsome Lockheed YP-24, the ungainly Great Lakes XSG-1 and so many more. If you have this book, you will win all the “Guess This Airplane” contests.
Wagner covers the so-called “Golden Age” of aviation with affection and insight, and for many, his details on such exotica as the Bell Airacuda, the Curtiss Wright CW-21, and so on are worth the price of admission alone. But he is at his best in his intensive coverage of World War II aircraft, which he presents with a great deal of additional information in the form of production tables, cut-away drawings, and accounts of their use by foreign countries.
In many ways, this book is a college course in American military aviation, and unlike most reference books, can be read straight through with enjoyment. For any one who writes about aviation, it is a valuable resource, particularly because you can be very comfortable about its accuracy. I’m sure there are mistakes somewhere in the book, but I did not find any.

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