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L.A. Birdmen

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West Coast Aviators and the First Airshow in America by Richard J. Goodrich

Although most credit Wilbur and Orville Wright with America’s first powered flight, two months before the brothers lifted off the sands of Kitty Hawk, a French immigrant named August Greth flew the California Eagle, an airship of his own design, across the skies of San Francisco. While the Wrights claimed they had invented a flying machine, Greth and the California aviators proved it in front of thousands of spectators at state fairs and festivals across the country.

L.A. Birdmen is the fascinating and forgotten story of America’s first aviators—Californians like August Greth, Tom Baldwin, Roy Knabenshue, John Montgomery, and James Zerbe. Possessing a rare blend of ingenuity, creativity, and bravery, these pilots captured the world’s attention in 1910 when Los Angeles hosted America’s first international airshow. Inspired by a flying exhibition held in Reims, France, Los Angeles promoter Dick Ferris convinced the city to host a competing event—a show that featured the world’s best pilots and machines and would firmly establish Los Angeles as the center of American aviation.

L.A. Birdmen offers a high-flying account of the West Coast contribution to aviation, a little-recognized chapter in the story of American flight. In the first decade of the twentieth century, these dashing aviators—not the Wrights—were the public face of American aviation.