Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Penguin no. 139: Flying Dutchman
by Anthony Fokker

This is the autobiography of Anthony Fokker, aviation pioneer, designer of German WWI planes, and inventor of the synchronised machine gun. It covers his life from early childhood until the age of 40. And yet it has a cerise rather than a dark blue cover - you know that he must have led an adventurous life.

And adventurous it certainly was. He was there at the very start of aviation. He designed and built his own first plane, and taught himself to fly. He did this in 1910 only 7 years after the Wright Brothers had first flown. At a time when very little was understood about the structural weaknesses of aeroplanes he experimented with models, formed innovative theories, and risked his life repeatedly testing his new designs. And he recognised that he remained alive through luck - once something went wrong in the air the outcome was impossible to control; it took both luck and skill to survive.

Of course he is the author of his own tale. He goes from success to success, but I wondered if parts of the story were being filtered out. He acknowledged the crashes and the deaths, but he always seemed to minimise his share of the blame. He generally admitted to some small part and lauded his willingness to do so; but the majority of the blame always lay elsewhere. I began to suspect that certain character traits were shining through his words.

The story of his life is fascinating. The things he achieved at such a young age are inspiring, and the approach he took to solving problems is instructive. He details adventures, from outwitting those who would steal his designs to smuggling more than 220 aeroplanes, destined for destruction, from Germany to Holland after the war. And then there are the adventures of others: Richthofen, the Red Baron, flew a Fokker, and he knew the other famous German aces Boelcke and Immelmann. And Charles Kingsford-Smith completed the first circumnavigation of the world in a Fokker.

But this book offered something more. He gives a picture of the world as it was before and during World War I. As he describes his world we see it in detail: corruption in Russia, the conservatism of the German military, the German belief that they could conquer the world, their near-starvation in 1917, the devaluing of the currency, and a post-war revolution. This book works on many levels. It is an exciting tale full of adventure, an inspirational story of a self-made man, and a first-hand account of the world as it was at an important time in history. And the book is littered with observations, and comments on the lessons he has learned. It was a fascinating book.

Flickr set of cerise Penguins


  1. Hi Karyn,

    That's some undertaking to read all those brilliant Penguin Books.

    I live in Somerset, which is in the South of the UK. A few miles down the road from us, is a vast warehouse unit, literaly stuffed to the rafters with books of every description. When I last visited, I noticed a whole, massive bank, of all the old Penguin Books, literally hundreds of them, in varying condition.

    I'll leave a link to their website and on-line shop, as I am pretty sure that they ship overseas. It might be worth checking them out.

    Good Luck


  2. This sounds really good! I love reading about this time period and about people who are pioneers in their field.



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