This Week’s Book Review – From Kites to Cold War

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘From Kites to Cold War’ takes a closer look at reconnaissance

By MARK LARDAS

Nov 23, 2019

“From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance” by Tyler Morton, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 328 pages, $49.95

Few think of Benjamin Franklin as an airpower proponent. Yet this Founding Father was enthusiastic about the balloon’s military potential. Not just as a tool for reconnaissance, but as a means of moving troops behind enemy lines.

“From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance” by Tyler Morton delivers this nugget among several surprising revelations in this history of aerial reconnaissance.

The Duke of Wellington stated war consisted of guessing what was at the other side of the hill. As Morton shows aerial reconnaissance offered a look at that hidden side of the hill.

Airborne scouting has extremely old roots. The Chinese used manned kites for centuries before the first hot air balloon flight in 1783. But the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon launched manned aerial reconnaissance in the West. For a century, armies attempted to use balloons from the French Revolutionary War in 1794 through the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Morton shows how motorizing lighter-than-air craft creating powered blimps and zeppelins made things more interesting. The Wright brothers, with their heavier-than-air airplanes, offered unprecedented access to flight.

Morton explores what happened in chapters covering development of aerial reconnaissance before World War I, during that war and in the years after it through World War II.

He shows how air forces evolved from flying fragile, kite-like biplanes to the robust aircraft of the mid-1940s. He also shows how reconnaissance evolved, and how it changed warfare. Ironically, during this period airpower advocates often slighted reconnaissance in favor of strategic bombing — occasionally to the point where they lacked target information for their bombers.

The final chapters cover the Cold War through the end of the Vietnam War. He wraps the book up in the early 1970s. Classification made it too difficult to accurately document reconnaissance after that.

Yet these chapters are the book’s most fascinating. The U-2 possibly prevented World War III by reducing uncertainty about Soviet intentions. This was also the period when integrated battlefield reconnaissance through early-warning aircraft emerged.

“From Kites to Cold War” is a fascinating look at a neglected part of history: reconnaissance. History buffs will enjoy Morton’s book.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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4 thoughts on “This Week’s Book Review – From Kites to Cold War”

  1. 10 Cents:
    Lockheed did so much for aviation. Did any other company do as much, Seawriter?

    Boeing (B-29, 707), Douglas (Douglas World Cruiser, DC-3), De Havilland (DH-4, Mosquito, Comet), Supermarine (S-6b, Spitfire) and a few others . . .

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  2. Seawriter:

    10 Cents:
    Lockheed did so much for aviation. Did any other company do as much, Seawriter?

    Boeing (B-29, 707), Douglas (Douglas World Cruiser, DC-3), De Havilland (DH-4, Mosquito, Comet), Supermarine (S-6b, Spitfire) and a few others . . .

    I should have been more specific. I meant aerial reconnaissance. I was thinking U-2 and SR-71.

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  3. 10 Cents:

    Seawriter:

    10 Cents:
    Lockheed did so much for aviation. Did any other company do as much, Seawriter?

    Boeing (B-29, 707), Douglas (Douglas World Cruiser, DC-3), De Havilland (DH-4, Mosquito, Comet), Supermarine (S-6b, Spitfire) and a few others . . .

    I should have been more specific. I meant aerial reconnaissance. I was thinking U-2 and SR-71.

    Again, it depends. Both the Consolidated PBY and B-24 did outstanding maritime reconnaissance during WWII.  The Boeing AWACs and ELINT aircraft were not strategic reconnaissance assets (like the U-2 and SR-71), but they provided critical battlefield intelligence (in a battlefield defined as many hundreds of miles). Even in strategic reconnaissance, both U-2 and SR-71 can be compared to the Corona and Keyhole satellites.

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