James R. Hansen's 1989 historiographical sketch outlining the state of aviation history drew attention to the lack of engagement with other historical disciplines, including gender, social, and labor histories. Ultimately, Hansen pled with historians to ask intersectional questions that appeal to audiences in "a wider view." By the early-1990s, histories of flight focused almost exclusively on engineering advancements and the military application of flying machines. Hansen noted that, as a result, aviation history had stagnated, "wherein broadly synthetic, contextual, and interdisciplinary studies" would "explore the meaning of a particular field of history in terms of what it means to others."1
In Military Aviation in the Gulf South: A Photographic History Vincent P. Caire responds to Hansen's call for aviation history in the wider view in the most literal sense with his general and celebratory regional history of aviation that stretches across military bases in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Divided chronologically across six chapters—beginning with the Army's 1907 initiative to acquire aircraft for military use through contemporary student flight training practices at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas—Caire's monograph narrows the focus from broader national military aviation history to that of regional. The author [End Page 165] immediately establishes that this history "is not an attempt to present an encyclopedic, all-inclusive chronicle," but he encourages general appreciation and further academic research (xiii).
While Hansen sought to influence an adaptive and evolving academic audience, Caire appeals to aviation "buffs" who focus on the intricate details of specific aircraft, notable pilots, and regional military bases. Hansen confirmed the necessity for such monographs like that of Caire's Military Aviation in the Gulf South because they are invaluable sources of raw information, without which "scholars would have a much harder time finding the precise data" that would "put major trends and evolutionary developments into focus."2 Hansen claims that these books typically "resemble the most esoteric treatises on ornithology" as the content on the flying machines themselves limit the narrative strictly to the fascination with aircraft, pilots, and airfields themselves, but this book does not fall into that trap.3 In addition to its value as an encyclopedic reference, Caire's book bleeds into the subdisciplines of science and technology, military history, and transportation.
In relation to Alabama history in particular, Military Aviation in the Gulf South is an invaluable resource for beginning researchers seeking basic information on state and local history as it relates to aviation. Caire briefly chronicles the establishment of the Montgomery Air Intermediate Depot with the Army's purchase of Frank D. Kohn's 100-acre cotton plantation located northwest of Montgomery. In November 1922, the War Department renamed the facility Maxwell Field to honor Natchez, Alabama, native Second Lieutenant William C. Maxwell, who died in the Philippines when he purposefully crashed his aircraft into a flagpole to avoid a group of children at play. Ultimately, the Army Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) selected Maxwell as the center for development in aerial bombing, tactical operations, and aerial support that would maintain an increasing fleet of large aircraft. [End Page 166]
Caire addresses cultural and social changes in military aviation with a brief dedication to the first African American primary flight school at Tuskegee Institute and the first African American advanced training programs at Tuskegee Air Field. The establishment of an equitable, albeit segregated, aviation training program for qualified African American pilot candidates was an integral change in military aviation in 1939. Upon induction into the Air Corps, squadron members were selected for fighter or bomber training where members mastered their skills in piloting, navigation, mechanics, and squadron support. Amidst Jim Crow segregation in Alabama, Caire notes, the Tuskegee Airmen initiated military desegregation by proving their capacity "to fulfill such critical responsibilities" in military aviation (52).
Vincent Caire's impressive collection and precise incorporation of photographs nicely complements this encyclopedic military aviation history of the Gulf Coast. It is an excellent companion to...