Review: Vintage Aviators: Aircraft of the Great War

Reviewed by David Christian

‘Vintage Aviators evokes superlatives. Not just the subject matter but the whole physical object. It’s a beautiful amalgam of all that is best in modern photography, printing and bookbinding technology. ’

This publication evokes superlatives. Not just the subject matter but the whole physical object. It’s a beautiful amalgam of all that is best in modern photography, printing and bookbinding technology.  

The superlative ‘stunning’ keeps coming to mind but that won’t tell you much about the actual contents. As the title says it’s about aviators and aircraft of WW1, The Great War. Aviation was in its infancy during that period; heavier-than-air flight not much more than ten years old. And aeroplanes of that era were, quite understandably primitive, both the airframes and the engines. The coming of war rapidly changed all that. It propelled the technology forward at an enormous pace. 

To our modern eyes the early military aircraft still appear flimsy and slightly primitive. But they had an attraction and capability all their own as the superb photography in this book shows. WW1 was not fought in black and white, as most publications suggest, but colour photography did not exist in those times to show that the war in the air was, in fact, in glorious technicolour. And the aircraft depicted in the gorgeous photographs in this book clearly show the charm and vivid colours of the aeroplanes involved. 

Rudimentary they may appear but they were built with great skill by the craftsmen of that time. The quality of the workmanship and the materials was outstanding. And the total number manufactured by all participants is almost unbelievable. Many tens of thousands; all of them in Europe of the Northern Hemisphere. None were built (way) down under in Aotearoa New Zealand. At the end of WW1, these military aeroplanes rapidly disappeared almost overnight - ‘services no longer required.’

Yet, in an odd twist, New Zealand, thanks to all the vintage aeroplane enthusiasts, now boasts the finest collection in the world of these fascinating and romantic flying machines. And they’re not just static museum examples. They fly - just as the photographs in this book show very convincingly. 

We have a very strong and skilled aircraft recovery and restoration industry with a world reputation second to none. This book is a celebration of this fact in the most impressive and entertaining way. As one peruses the book one can almost hear the rattle and clatter of the primitive aero engines, the hum of the bracing wires and sense the smell of the cocktail of lubricants and exhaust together with heady doped fabric; the unique smell of an aircraft cockpit interior. 

But don’t be misled. These aeroplanes, for all their primitive appearance, very capably and effectively fought a war. The skill and courage to fly and fight in these machines was as equally impressive as the machines themselves as the text of the book reveals. Men died or became heroes within their flimsy structures and fabric skins. 

Quite apart from the magnificently produced photographs, the book is full of fascinating tales about each aircraft by the modern pilots who have the immense privilege of actively flying them. Looking through its pages one feels they have joined them with the slipstream tugging at face and body soaring above the lovely landscapes of New Zealand.  

In summary, this publication is a must if you delight in beautifully produced books. Technically and physically it’s superb, with no apologies for the superlative. If there is a small criticism, in the mind of the reviewer, it is that a bit more captioning is needed to fully explain and describe some of the pictures, especially the close-ups in cockpits etc. The author and editor has left it to the reader to extract information from the accompanying text to describe a number of photos. This can be time-consuming when one is eager to plunge ahead onto the next captivating photograph.

Reviewed by David Christian