Book review: ‘Flight Not Improbable’ by Simine Short

A new biography goes some way towards returning aviation pioneer Octave Chanute’s name to the limelight it deserves.

When it comes to protagonists in the early history of aviation, Octave Chanute does not spring to mind perhaps so readily as the Wright brothers, who are generally accepted as being the pioneers who invented, built and flew the first motor-operated aeroplane.

Yet, as Simine Short observes at the start of her scholarly and highly readable ‘Flight Not Improbable: Octave Chanute and the Worldwide Race Toward Flight’ (Springer, £24.99, ISBN 9783031244308), it is something of an injustice that Chanute should not be as widely recognised today as he clearly once was. He was, after all, honoured with inclusion on the Frieze of American History that encircles the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.

The panorama depicts Chanute alongside no lesser luminaries than Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers, sporting both his trademark goatee and model plane. Quite how the self-educated French immigrant earned his place on the American national artwork is but one of the questions Short sets out to answer in her biography of one of the great civil engineers of the 19th century; an account that will go some way to returning Chanute’s name into the limelight where it so richly deserves to be.

As Short explains, such was Chanute’s influence over the emerging discipline of aviation that when the Wrights achieved their first powered flight of December 17 1903, he became the first and for some time the only person outside of the Wright family to be informed of the success.

His involvement in early aircraft design and mentorship of aviation pioneers earned Chanute the honorific ‘Father of Aviation’, while shortly after his death his eulogy in Aeronautics magazine rapturously noted that: “Mr. Chanute was one of the foremost railroad builders of the country. The Kansas City Bridge was declared impossible of construction. Mr. Chanute accomplished it.” Wilbur Wright contributed that had Chanute “not lived, the entire history of progress in flying would have been other than it has been, for he encouraged not only the Wright brothers to persevere in their experiments” but also (among the many others he mentored) French aviator and engineer Louis Blériot, who became world-famous after making the first airplane flight across the English Channel.

Although his ‘double-decker’ glider influenced the Wright brothers, and his strut-wire braced wing structure was to remain unchallenged until the First World War, ‘Flight Not Improbable’ inevitably steers the reader to the conclusion that Chanute’s place in history rests not so much on his technological innovations as his presence as a lightning rod for a new movement in American engineering. His willingness to share knowledge, as Short says, served only to substantiate his reputation as a central figure in the industry.

Chanute’s importance may be overshadowed by the pilots that flew the planes but, as ‘Flight Not Improbable’ plausibly confirms, without Chanute they might never have got off the ground.

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