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Airplane Boys

Entry updated 26 July 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The Wright Brothers' first successful heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903 signalled the inevitable death of the Airship Boys subgenre of boys' adventure series before it properly began. Tales involving juvenile chums creating and/or piloting lighter-than-air craft, almost always dirigible Balloons, did not in fact come into the market until Harry Lincoln Sayler published the first of his Airship Boys sequence, The Airship Boys; or, The Quest of the Aztec Treasure (1909), which formally initiated the doomed subgenre. Although he retained the series overtitle for all of its eight volumes, he effectively changed modes in volume two, The Airship Boys Adrift; Or, Saved by an Aeroplane (1909), where the boys' Airship crashes into the sea, upon which the sturdy lads convert the wreck into an aeroplane, in an act of casual but devastating symbolic import that terminated the Airship Boys subgenre before ever really took off.

The attentiveness to advances in aeronautical Technology that almost certainly motivated Sayler's switch is typical of the Airplane Boys subgenre throughout, and distinguishes this category of the chum tale from its nonfantastic stablemates in the Stratemeyer Syndicate stable and elsewhere. Its closest relative may be the Tom Swift sequence, where advances in various forms of Transportation and Weapons are assiduously namechecked or anticipated, in line with the exceedingly influential Edward Stratemeyer's insistence that boys' series must present morally acceptable heroes who gain renown and worldly success through the morally acceptable application of the kinds of Invention that make America great. Tom Swift himself is a paradigm Edisonade hero; his virtues and inventiveness and entrepreneurial skills tend to be parcelled out among at least two or three protagonists in other boys' series, including the earlier Airship Boys tale. The use of several protagonists almost certainly derives directly or indirectly from the example of Jules Verne, most of whose novels feature what might be called a corporate protagonist: three or more viewpoint characters with varying skills who together make available a panoptic composite response to the world. In the Airplane Boys tale, the boy pilot is frequently only the user of the Inventions of a chum, or of an eccentric but revered and usually wealthy elder; and the entrepreneurial amalgamation of exploit and innovation may be left to other characters entirely.

The pre-World War One Airplane Boys series is almost never found outside America; though they may use multiple protagonists, UK boys' stories of the period are usually singletons, and rarely invoke the entrepreneurial sublime. Many of them have no fantastic content, focusing on adventures with state-of-the-art equipment. Along with Sayler's Aircraft Boys, early American Airplane Boys series of sf interest include the Dave Dashaway sequence by Weldon J Cobb writing as by Roy Rockwood, and the Boy Aviator Series by John Henry Goldfrap writing as by Captain Wilbur Lawton. L Frank Baum switched the sexes in his 1911-1912 The Flying Girl sequence as by Edith Van Dyne. World War One itself did not inspire much of sf interest in the mode. After the War, though a considerable number of series were introduced – both sf and nonfantastic – later examples of the form soon struggled to retain their collegial format, and indeed their good humour, over against a cultural phenomenon to which there would be no satisfactory solution.

Given the fact that in his early career he was clearly an airplane boy, there is some irony in the fact that Charles A Lindbergh (1902-1974) was from the first perceived to represent Americanness almost solely in terms of the solitary heroism of his nonstop New York-Paris flight on 20-21 May 1927, and that this perception coloured boys' fiction from that point on, as well as contributing to the Depression-fuelled creation of the solitary salvation-bestowing Superman. In reality Lindbergh's feat did in fact reflect the nature of similar exploits unpacked over the previous decade and a half of Airplane Boys stories: his plane was designed and built for him, with Inventions duly installed, by the Ryan Airlines Company in San Diego, California; the enterprise as a whole was financed by backers in St Louis, Missouri, who hoped for an eventual return on their investment; and he flew to win a prize. There is little sense of recognition of this complex reality in the intoxicated wave of tributes to the Pilot that engulfed Lindbergh, an unprecedentedly merciless deification whose most intense literary manifestation may be found in the glutinously reverent poems assembled as The Spirit of St Louis: One Hundred Poems (anth 1927) edited by Charles Vale. Lindbergh's own writings were modest, and his muted advocacy of a commercial Pax Aeronautica dominated by America deserves scrutiny; but it was to no avail.

Unsurprisingly, a spate of boys' series featuring solitary, consummately skilled, humourless, chivalric heroes soon appeared, few of them with any significant sf elements; the most significant of these is the nonfantastic Ted Scott Flying Series by John William Duffield as by Franklin W Dixon, which adheres very closely to the Lindbergh's life. The Airplane Boys series initiated after 1927 were modestly competent, but clearly lacked any sense that they were addressing a reliable market of young lads. They include the Andy Lane sequence by Eustace L Adams, whose lead character clearly reflects the Lindbergh model; the Airplane Boys sequence by E J Craine; the Cloud Patrol sequence by Irving Crump; the Rocket Riders sequence by Howard R Garis; the Sky Scout series by Van Powell; and the Hunniwell Boys Series by Levi P Wyman. None of these series is nowadays read, and sf for young readers – except for Carl H Claudy's remarkable Adventures in the Unknown sequence – would not flourish in America until John Blaine and Robert A Heinlein began to write juveniles. [JC]

see also: H Bedford-Jones; Canfield Cook; William Dixon Bell; Edward S Ellis; H Irving Hancock.

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