I’ve grown up hearing and talking about airplanes. My dad was a single-engine pilot for many years. Well, technically he still is, but he hasn’t got a current medical certification, so there’s that. My knowledge of planes is purely academic while Dad’s is practical, but it’s our thing. One year I bought him a pack of Beemans gum for Father’s Day because we like quoting that one line from The Right Stuff to each other. Plus, when my family and I went to the National Air and Space Museum, Dad and I raced around and saw everything while the less enthusiastic members of our party took a more leisurely tour and then waited in the cafeteria. It was a blast.
Dad’s good about passing on any books he finds about planes, too. Years ago he gave me a 1943 edition of ABC of Aviation by Victor Wilfred Pagé, which has long been considered by aviation buffs to be one of the authoritative sources on early aircraft. Only thing was, I never read it until now because I thought it looked boring. I was wrong, of course.
Victor Wilfred Pagé was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Air Corps Reserve. There’s very little biographical information out there, but we do know Pagé was born in 1885 and died in 1947. We also know that in addition to his military career, he amassed a sizeable publishing history of books and magazine articles (See a list of Pagé’s books here).
Pagé’s first work, The Modern Gasoline Automobile, was published by the Thomas Henley Company in 1913, doing well enough to merit several reprints and updates. Other books focused on trucks, auto repair, tractors, and glossaries of common aviation terms. He even wrote user manuals for Ford and Chevrolet.
According to the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Pagé’s educational background is murky. He cited MIT as one of his schools, but there’s no record of him ever going there. What Pagé did have was firsthand experience working with engines, as well as reading a lot of technical manuals himself. He drew on these sources pretty frequently when writing.
As for his prose style, Pagé’s secret was that he not only created an aura of expertise around himself, but he played to his readers by appealing to their intelligence. His writing style was semi-informal, and despite being non-technical, it wasn’t simple enough to be of the “For Dummies” variety.
The first edition of ABC was published in 1919 and like his other books was updated and revised continually over the ensuing decades. It’s a solid volume, over five hundred pages, and above all, it is a textbook. It’s meant to be read in chunks, and each chapter ends with a quiz.
Despite being heavily detailed, ABC is still a fairly fast read because it has a lot of pictures. The bulk of the book details all types of aircraft, and not just planes, either. Dirigibles get their own chapter, and there is a surprising assortment of types. My favorite is the Los Angeles because it’s basically like a full-service Pullman car, with cabins and a galley.
Since the book covers the early twentieth century, the autogyro is represented, and the book provides a meaty comparison of autogyros to helicopters. I always thought these craft were odd ducks, but it turns out autogyros do have their strong points. While an autogyro looks flimsy, they’re highly maneuverable, and unlike helicopters, they can taxi down roadways if need be.
However, Pagé cautions that an autogyro is no substitute for an actual car or truck. They’re pretty darned useful, though–autogyros are still produced today, albeit in small numbers.
Most of the book has to do with what we know as conventional planes, and Pagé breaks it all down. He covers everything from airplane parts, large and small, to why these parts are important, to the actual science of flying. For instance, who knew a certain type of airplane cabin is called a “sedan”? How much difference is there between a monoplane, a biplane, and a triplane besides the number of wings? Does it really matter if airplanes have bent-tip wings, or is that just a style thing? Pagé answers all of these questions and more.
He also devotes quite a bit of space to instruments, because next to the all-important checklist every responsible pilot goes over before takeoff, instruments are absolutely one of the most crucial parts of aviation. One must be proficient at flying blind or it’s a recipe for trouble (John F. Kennedy Jr.’s fatal accident is a great example).
Pagé carefully lays out what each instrument is, each instrument’s inner workings, what they do, how they’re supposed to work, and where they generally sit on a cockpit dash before launching into various scenarios of when instruments should be used and why. The shortest answer is that instruments need to be used at all times and there’s no way to get along without them. Even on short flights a pilot might run into fog or some other contingency and have to rely on instruments to fly and land safely.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the physics of flying. Pagé relates flying through the air to ships cutting through water: It’s the resistance that keeps one afloat, and forward motion is essential. Pagé also includes numerous diagrams about air currents, as well as illustrations of dozens of wing types and shapes. Obviously, there’s a ton of difference between planes designed for long-range flights as opposed to craft designed for short jaunts, such as a Curtiss or a Cherokee.
It’s impossible to adequately sum up a 500-plus page book in a thousand-odd words, but I will say this: I am very happy to be wrong about ABC of Aviation. I thought it would be dry and boring, but it really isn’t. It might seem antiquated, and it literally is, since it was published over a hundred years ago, but Pagé’s information holds up wonderfully. Planes are still planes and air is still air, so pilots and aviation buffs continuing to look to Pagé for guidance is a no-brainer.
Oh and thanks for the book, Dad. Got any Beemans? I’ll pay you back. 😉
We’re gonna visit with Audrey Hepburn on Friday, guys. Thanks for reading…
BROCKMANN, R. JOHN. “Victor W. Pagé’s Early Twentieth-Century Automotive and Aviation Books.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 10.3 (1996): 285-305.