The Unsubstantial Air

Written by Samuel Hynes
Review by Audrey Braver

This is the story of the American flyers in World War I. Quite a few of these men entering the war in 1915 before America joins the conflict, young American men eager to be part of the action, enlisted in the RAF and the French Foreign Legion with hopes of transferring into the French Service Aeronautique. They came from more or less privileged backgrounds, e.g., a Rockefeller, four Roosevelts, and from the best schools, St. Paul’s, Harvard, and Yale, to name only three. They were young, brave, and in some cases foolhardy, and they sometimes flew in unsafe planes against a formidable enemy. For many, their goal wasn’t getting decorations as much as it was to earn the appellation of Ace.

Samuel Hynes has written a vivid account of these American flyers, using their diaries, squadron historians’ accounts, and letters written home. Newspaper accounts were not always reliable. He brings these boys to life: you feel their fear, their eagerness, their despair, and their pride. The Unsubstantial Air is an excellent read.