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THEY WANTED WINGS : BARONS OF THE SKY: From Early Flight to Strategic Warfare: The Story of the American Aerospace Industry, By Wayne Biddle (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 366 pp.)

July 28, 1991|Frank Rose | Rose's most recent book, on Apple Computer, is "West of Eden" (Penguin)

In the early years of the century, rogue businessmen brought a pair of unlikely East Coast inventions to Southern California and turned them into the twin wellsprings of the Southland's economy. One of those inventions, of course, was the moving picture; the other was the airplane.

Like the movie industry, the aviation business flourished in the sunny weather and anything-goes business climate of Southern California, despite periodic depredations by Wall Street bankers and Washington investigators. But in most other respects, the two enterprises might as well inhabit parallel universes.

Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, or the auto manufacturers of Detroit, the men who created Lockheed and Northrop and Douglas were unable to find a consumer market for their wares--not that some of them didn't try. Despite visions of an airplane in every garage, the realities of the business soon forced them to turn to military customers, giving rise to the military-industrial complex that has been a salient feature of American life since World War II.

In "Barons of the Sky," Washington reporter Wayne Biddle tells the story of the men themselves and the behemoth they created. Like most entrepreneurs, these were a quirky lot, and Biddle describes them vividly.

Glenn Martin, the progenitor of Martin Marietta, built flying machines in an abandoned church in Santa Ana and became a professional "birdman," performing daredevil stunts at carnivals and staging mock bombardments for curious military officers, before becoming one of America's greatest tycoons--and almost certainly the only one to live with his mother.

Donald Douglas, the MIT graduate whose company eventually became half of McDonnell Douglas, started his business in a barber shop on Pico Boulevard as a hedge against failure when he'd dug up his yard and planted potatoes that promptly rotted.

Jack Northrop, who began as a Santa Barbara garage mechanic, became the ultimate technological aesthete, nursing a predilection for streamlined design into a lifelong obsession with the "flying wing"--an aircraft having neither fuselage nor tail. Today, more than 60 years after he first articulated it, his vision lives on in the B-2 bomber.

As for the industry, Biddle argues that its characteristic web of interlocking interests and its dependence on government support antedated the Cold War by several decades--indeed, that the military-industrial complex began to take shape almost spontaneously during World War I. He makes a convincing case, citing Glenn Martin's prescient ramblings ("Veritable flying death will smash armies, wreck mammoth battleships and bring the whole world to a vivid realization of the awful possibilities of . . . swift winging aerial demons," he wrote in the Los Angeles Evening Herald in August, 1914) and the previously unexploited papers of Lockheed chief Robert Gross, whose maneuverings were as agile as any fighter pilot's. He also shows how the untutored enthusiasts who created the industry were shouldered aside by money men such as Gross--the same thing that happened to their counterparts in the auto business and, more recently, computers.

The most tantalizing passages in the book are those in which Biddle tries to show how the nation's goals and resources were skewed after World War II by the aircraft industry's need for orders. Was the Cold War driven by the profit motive? In part, at least, the answer seems to be yes. Certainly industry leaders did not hesitate to confuse their needs with the interests of the country--and in the sudden sales slump that followed V-J Day, their needs were great. But how much influence they really had is difficult to determine from what's presented here, since the full scope of the debate is only hinted at.

To tell such a tangled tale requires the kind of sweeping historical synthesis that Neal Gabler supplied for Hollywood's Jewish moguls in "An Empire of Their Own." Sadly, Biddle doesn't provide it. "Barons of the Sky" contains a great deal of diligent reporting, but it's assembled in such a slapdash fashion that even the most attentive reader is apt to get lost. Gossipy (and fascinating) tidbits about Douglas and Northrop and Martin alternate with raw data from the ledgers to form a narrative that's as full of peaks and valleys as the aircraft business itself. Ancillary developments, like the rise of the passenger airlines, are not detailed at all; TWA and Pan American simply appear out of nowhere and start buying planes. Key competitors--Boeing, for instance--are mentioned only in passing.

Worse, Biddle's commentary does not go much beyond a facile denunciation of the arms trade, suggesting that he himself has not thought through the issues he's raised. The truth is that weapons production, even more than other forms of capitalistic enterprise, is a profoundly amoral undertaking.

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