There often seems to be an unoccupied space in many academic disciplines, particularly so in historical research. There are, as Hush-kit readers are probably aware, a number of highly specialist academic journals which deal largely with the technical aspects of aviation: engineering, aeronautical design and ergonomics. Fewer cover Aviation History, but where they do exist there is a stress on military and strategic history rather than the cultural, visual and social elements of the subject.
At the other end of the scale, a scan of the shelves of any decent newsagents reveals a large number of titles for the hobbyist and enthusiast. However, whilst these also fulfill a useful role, they can lack depth of research and be limited in their scope; they do after all exist to make money for their commercial publishers.
There is in addition a large amount of valuable ‘grey literature’ contained in the newsletters of smaller groups and societies internationally which often fall beneath the radar. A new journal: ‘The Aviation Historian’ appears to be an attempt to fill the vacuum between dry academia and hobbyist periodical.
‘The Aviation Historian’ is undeniably research rich, factually dense and of academic value but is also produced with a level of pictorial illustration and in a format that should draw in readers who might be alienated by a drier formal format. As the Editor declares (in somewhat messianic style) in his introduction it is a publication intended for:
‘historic aviation’s “true believers”; those of us with a deep abiding passion for man’s glorious triumphs – and calamitous failures – in the quest to master the air above us and the universe around us.’
As such, it lacks some of the traditional elements of an academic journal; there are for example no long bibliographies or citations. However, the editors are contactable and anyone using the journal for research purposes could no doubt obtain sources and contact the authors. The editor also mentions in his introduction that he wants the readership to engage with the journal and perhaps draw in some of those readers producing work for the hundreds of newsletters and small pamphlets produced on the subject.
Being the first edition (No.2 is now also on sale) there are naturally no letters or conference proceedings although there is a very useful book review section. Conversely the first issue is extremely rich in graphic information, particularly photographic material. In fact, the graphic design of the issue is impressive not only in terms of the size and quality of the images. but in the dynamic typography and lay-out employed. It invites you to have a ‘conversation’ with the topic matter and is lively and engaging. That is not to say it is compromising the depth of information provided but merely that it is presented in a more accessible manner than most purely academic journals which is often one of their major faults. Aeroplanes look good; a publication about them has no excuse not to look equally as stylish.
Having clarified that the journal is well designed, I should move on to the content.
That is where this reviewer hits rocky ground, being a cultural/design historian the technical specifics and design of aircraft are not a personal strong point.
When reading the articles however it became clear that there are certainly enough of the technical and engineering elements of aviation history here to keep any ‘tech-head’ content. This engineering-resistant reader however was still able to read and enjoy and even comprehend the meaning of an article comparing the RAF’s Lightning fighter to the USAF’s Lockheed U-2 or a review of the history of the Bristol Mercury.
My point being that if you are the kind of person who shrinks from a diagram of an engine but you still find yourself gripped by such articles, a genuine enthusiast should relish them.
There were a couple of articles in the first edition that were also strong on the cultural/social history front. Particularly enjoyable was ‘The Tragedy of Flight Three’ (this journal employs catchy titles for its content) in which Michael O’ Leary examines the DC-3 crash that killed Hollywood Film Star Carole Lombard in 1942. The article not only discusses the details and causes of the crash, the plane and the details of the flight but contextualises it socially and historically, a particular strength of this journal. In this case there is information about War Bond drives, Carole Lombard’s role as part of a Hollywood ‘golden couple’ and her husband, Clark Gable’s subsequent war service. The Editor, Nick Stroud’s article ‘Hef and the big bunny’ on the Playboy supremo’s private jet was fascinating and frankly brilliantly illustrated. This reviewer would really like to obtain one of those Jet Bunny uniforms (anyone who can help please contact Hush-kit!). There were also articles that seemed upon a cursory glance eccentric, flying billboards anyone? Yet upon reading the article the inherent interest of the mechanics and thought involved in designing such a distinctive aircraft became clear.
A perusal of the list of contents should be enough to reel any fan of the history and romance of flying in with titles such as: ‘Messerschpitts at Five 0’Clock!’ (intentional spelling), ‘One Furious Summer’ and ‘Ryan and the Flying Pterodactyls’. Aviation is about design, mechanics, propulsion, science, chemistry and engineering. However these activities are undertaken by individuals. The motivations are human and driven by imagination, ambition, hope, greed and sometimes aggression. The results are similarly diverse.
At the Goodwood Revival last year what struck this reviewer were the stories behind the aircraft on display, their physical beauty and the sheer exhilaration of seeing a formation of World War II aircraft speed through the sky. It seems that ‘The Aviation Historian’ is seeking to condense these elements onto its pages in a lively, informative, accessible and engaging manner.
Review by Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab) Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London
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