Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Wacky World of WWI Aviation History

Let me open by saying that I am a proud member of the League of WWI Aviation Historians.  I am proud of the organization because it is a group of individuals that has dedicated itself to the preservation and discovery of history associated to this field.  I like being a part of an organization where I feel I can contribute, either time or expertise and the League does not disappoint. 

WWI aviation fascinates me.  These aircraft were not flimsy, but were incredibly dangerous.  The men that flew these aircraft were incredibly brave…putting their lives on the line every time they climbed into an open cockpit.  Death could come from any number of mechanical failures, from shrapnel, or from a machine gun bullet fired at dangerously point-blank ranges. 

This field of research is intriguing because of the unique niches.  Some of the members are experts on the aircraft – tracking every tail and serial number of every aircraft the can amass data on.  A handful are color experts as to paint schemes, while some track weather patterns on the western front.  Members focus on fighters – some on bombers, and some specialize in a particular nation’s air force.  Some members concentrate the men who flew the planes, their stories and biographies.  Others look at squadron histories, chronicling not the actions of one man but of a band of brothers.  Still other members are stunning artists, who bring battles and men back to life.  All of us combined generate an image of what warfare in the skies in the Great War is all about.

We don’t always agree because we have specialties and areas of expertise.  At times this can be frustrating.  At other times it can be quite rewarding.  I was fortunate enough to work with Al Roesler on an article about Ivan Roberts.  We both had written books about Arizona WWI aviators which gave us some common ground.  Working virtually, we both brought things to the table to make the article work.  In the end, it was something I think we are both proud of.  It didn’t changed anything major about WWI aviation history – but it did profile an aviator that had been overlooked for decades. 

The biggest challenge we face, whether it is said out loud or not, is that our numbers are dwindling.  At 48 years old, I sometimes feel like the “kid” in our regional meetings.  We have wonderful expertise in the group but we’re not growing by leaps and bounds. 

What we have to do is begin to bring new people into the fold.  That’s not easy.  We’re an impressive group and with all of the expertise and knowledge we each have, it can sometimes intimidate new potential members.  As members we need to be willing to do a little recruitment on our own, to try and seduce new members to join and take part.  We have to be inviting – we have to be educators – we have to share what we know.

The virtual (Facebook) community is one way we accomplish this, and the League has done a fantastic job in the last six months in this area.  Another is the regional meetings where you can bring in people we know that are interested in the field.  We each have a responsibility to try and maintain and even grow our membership – or we run the risk of disappearing altogether.  I recently invited a high school student and his father who happened to be a fan of Jon Guttman to our regional meeting.  He got to meet his favorite author and get his books autographed.  I don’t know if he’ll join our numbers, but it was a good place to start. 

I encourage you to join whatever historical group is out there that is in your field of interest.  These groups are rewarding and if you give them time, you can learn and grow yourself.  If you want to learn more about the one I am a part of, check out out at

As for me, I’ll see you in the air…

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Book Is Never Really Done...

I think people believe the life of an author is glamorous and somehow exciting.  I'm glad that myth exists but in reality, it is mix of creativity and hard work.  Yes, you get to do some TV and radio interviews, if you're lucky…but those can be more nerve-wracking than fun at times.  The opportunity to screw up on nationwide TV can be a little daunting.  Most of the work of being a writer however is not being on TV or radio, it is spreading out piles of paper in your office, typing long hours, footnoting (yuck!), and doing research and organizing your work.   There are not a of reality shows about historians/authors.  
There are some rewards - and I don't mean financial.  When I was in Michigan in December doing the book tour for Lost Eagles I got to meet some members of the Zinn family face-to-face.  I have corresponded with some of the family.  The lecture events brought out people I have never knew existed.  It was an incredible treat as a writer. 
One brought a photo album with images I have never seen before.  Others brought stories I had never heard.  It was a real treat.  Fred Zinn's extended family had a lot to be proud of. 
Perhaps the neatest part was the fact that I learned what happened to the memorial plaque for Fred.  According to his son, and the folks at Kellogg Regional Airport, it was stolen in the 1970's.  As it turns out the family took it - most likely saving it from obscurity or destruction.  I was delighted that this piece of history had not been melted down in some scrap yard. 
In working with the Kalamazoo Air Zoo we came to the realization that Frederick Zinn as not part of the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.   The Air Zoo staff was very helpful and we are beginning the submission process for Fred Zinn to be included in 2012 (2011 nominations are closed).  Given his local ties and his contribution to aviation history, it seemed only fitting that he be enshrined there.  Since I worked on the book it only seemed fitting that I get the paperwork in.  Not for me - for Fred.  
My point?  The work isn't over when the book is written.  In many cases, it has just begun. Even when you are done with the book, new details come in, new facts, new bits of evidence.  You never are really done working on a book...