Review by David Fredericks.
Like many who share a passion for flight and military aviation, I have held a fascination since I was young as to the concept of the ‘speed of sound’ and how the intrepid aviators around the world during the years immediately after the end of World War II tried to tame what was referred to by some as ‘the demon in the sky’. I recall watching those black and white British movies from the 1950s of RAF pilots struggling with their aircraft as they neared Mach One. I remember being engrossed by the lectures I attended on transonic and supersonic flight while I was studying for my degree in aeronautical engineering in the 1980s and being equally enthralled by the book and the film The Right Stuff that came out at the same time. The tales of flying fast, cheating death or, conversely, ‘buying the ranch’, coupled with the scientific and engineering advances of the time, were simply amazing to me.
So it was that, when I recently came across Dan Hampton’s 2018 book entitled Chasing the Demon in a bookshop, I was looking forward to rekindling my childhood fascinations. Better still, it was by an author whose other books I had enjoyed, and it was marked as a national bestseller.
Unfortunately, this book has proven to be a major disappointment. I would struggle to recommend it to anyone who is seeking to get a good, detailed insight into what the book’s cover says is ‘a secret history of the quest for the sound barrier and the band of American aces who conquered it’.
At first glance the content of this soft cover edition promises much with 266 pages of narrative and sixteen pages of black and white images. The book is composed of three parts and a total of nine chapters. There is also an eleven-page annex entitled ‘Aerodynamics 101’.
To my dismay the book doesn’t actually start to get to the crux of the topic—the efforts to fly at, near and beyond the Mach One—until page 167. This is at the start of Part III, chapter 7 of the book! The first 160-odd pages of the narrative, provided in two parts and their six chapters, labours on the history of aviation going back as far as the 1600s. In Part I we are introduced to those who helped invent manned flight; we read about Cayley, Lilienthal, the Wright Brothers, Langley and the others who got man into the air in powered and controllable ‘machines of the sky’. Part II takes us through the invention of the jet engine, the efforts in Germany and the United States to advance the design of aircraft, and then introduces us to those who would take the controls of the American aircraft in breaking through the sound barrier. Part III, finally, over the course of just 99 pages, takes us through the efforts of these aviators to go to and beyond Mach One.
What is so frustrating about this book, apart from barely one-third of it being on the actual topic of breaking the sound barrier, is that it is overloaded with content so far removed from the core topic that it becomes quite simply boring to read; to be honest I had to force myself to read on and not skim large sections or give up.
It goes into laborious detail on what can be described as a history of both the United States of America, and its participation in World War I and II. Throughout we are bludgeoned with pages and pages about what was happening in the USA throughout various points of the past 150 years. There are long discourses on America post-World War I, its economy, the Great Depression, the challenges of life in the USA after the wars, etc. While some of this is intended to aid in introducing some of the characters, such as Chuck Yeager, who are then covered in the book as World War II pilots and then as aviators who flew the aircraft that broke the sound barrier, it goes into detail and lengths of coverage that are simply of little interest unless you are an American.
At best, I can only recommend a non-American reader to ignore the first 166 pages of this book and start reading from page 167. Even then, I caution against getting bogged down in pages that seem to be of little relevance to what could have been a much tighter, focused coverage of the story this book has missed.