Capturing the Allure of Flying in the Great War

When professor emeritus Samuel Hynes was growing up in Depression-era Minneapolis, he and his friends were fascinated by flying, especially combat flights, but even the humble planes puffing out advertisements for soft drinks transfixed them. “We thought, ‘How wonderful would it be to be up there?’” he recalls. 

Hynes enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1942, two weeks after his 18th birthday, and spent almost three years as a pilot, flying  78 combat missions. After his discharge, he became an English professor and  taught at Swarthmore, Northwestern, and then at Princeton for 14 years, specializing in the literature of war. His latest book, The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in  the First World War, is the story of the pilots of the Great War, told through their  letters and diaries.

Mary S. Cross

Hynes was curious about the generation of pilots that preceded him, young men for whom military aviation was a blank slate, since flying itself was in its infancy. World War I pilots — many of whom were elites who had joined flying clubs at Princeton and other Ivy League universities — had a romantic view of combat. 

“The rest of the war was muddy and bloody and anonymous, but in the sky, it was one guy fighting another, and that was romantic — Rickenbacker vs. the Red Baron,” Hynes says. “Just getting in a plane was dangerous, but that was part of the appeal. You were in danger, but they didn’t think in those terms. The whole wide sky was opening up.”

Hynes quotes heavily from pilots’ memoirs and contemporary writing to depict how the experience of war changed their lives. He writes, “They see great European cities — Paris and London — and the foreigners who live there; they discover café life; they eat foreign food and meet foreign girls. None of it is what they imagined it would be.” 

Hynes captured memories of his own flying days in Flights of Passage, published in 1988. He has returned to writing about war because it’s “a constant in the human experience,” he says. Now 90, Hynes has given up piloting reluctantly. “If someone came to me right now and said, ‘Come flying with me,’ I’d probably go,” he says. “It would be very foolish at my age, but I’d probably go.”