Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

First to Fly

The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew For France in World War I

by Charles Bracelen Flood

From a critically acclaimed historian, the lively story of the American pilots who defied neutrality and flew for France before the United States entered World War I.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date June 14, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2520-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date June 02, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2365-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

If the Wright brothers’ 1903 flights in Kitty Hawk marked the birth of aviation, World War I can be called its violent adolescence—a brief but bloody era that completely changed the way planes were designed, fabricated, and flown. The war forged an industry that would redefine transportation and warfare for future generations. In First to Fly, lauded historian Charles Bracelen Flood tells the story of the men who were at the forefront of that revolution: the daredevil Americans of the Lafayette Escadrille, who flew in French planes, wore French uniforms, and showed the world an American brand of heroism before the United States entered the Great War.

As citizens of a neutral nation from 1914 to early 1917, Americans were prohibited from serving in a foreign army, but many brave young souls soon made their way into European battle zones: as ambulance drivers, nurses, and, more dangerously, as soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. It was partly from the ranks of the latter group, and with the sponsorship of an expat American surgeon and millionaire William K. Vanderbilt, that the Lafayette Escadrille was formed in 1916 as the first and only all-American squadron in the French Air Service. Flying rudimentary planes, with one-in-three odds of being killed, these fearless young men gathered reconnaissance and shot down enemy aircraft, participated in the Battle of Verdun, and faced off with the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, dueling across the war-torn skies like modern knights on horseback.

Drawing on rarely seen primary sources, Flood chronicles the startling success of that intrepid band, and gives a compelling look at the rise of aviation and a new era of warfare.


“A perfect fit for the center of a trilogy of the beginning of aviation [alongside David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and John F. Ross’s Enduring Courage] . . . These three excellent books clearly show how the Wright Brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk and their sound basic technology was picked up by the Europeans, and how the wartime scenario in 1914 accelerated development of observation, pursuit and bomber aircraft.” —Washington Times

“Charles Bracelen Flood’s book on the most legendary outfit of World War I is utterly absorbing, full of great anecdotes and harrowing dogfights. A compelling tribute to the young American men who fought in those flimsy contraptions that were the first warplanes, as well as the women who supported them behind the lines.” —Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

“Rare is the book that combines authentic history with the vivid characterizations of the finest novels. Add to that achievement the gripping story of the war in the air in World War I and you have First to Fly, the most unforgettable drama that novelist and historian Charles Bracelen Flood has created in his long and distinguished career.” —Thomas Fleming, author of Over There, past president of the Society of American Historians and the PEN American Center

“Fusing his talents for narrative and characterization with a scholar’s passion for research, Charles Bracelen Flood has seamlessly woven an epic story of the American airmen who served in the ‘Great War.’ The reader is rewarded by an achievement of literary excellence that enlightens as it entertains.” —Sidney Offit, novelist, critic, memoirist, and curator emeritus of the George Polk Awards for special achievement in journalism

“This riveting look back at a catastrophe that changed our world tells the tale of a fascinating group of young men at war. With his well-turned prose, Charles Flood recreates a time that was dreadful yet also contained an innocence foreign to us today. First to Fly deserves a wide reading audience.” —John Buchanan, author of The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas

“Charlie Flood gives us a vivid account of the Lafayette Escadrille, young American pilots who took to the air against Germany nearly a year before the United States entered World War I. Some were idealists; some adventurers; all were present at the beginnings of America’s combat airpower. All of Flood’s formidable writing skills are on display here, as he tells this important story.” —General Merrill A. McPeak, USAF (Ret.), former chief of staff, U.S. Air Force

“Profiles a handful of the courageous and colorful men who flew in [the Lafayette Escadrille] and were among America’s first combat pilots.” —Richard Ernsberger Jr., American History

“The compelling story of the squadron of adventurous young American pilots who were among the first to engage in air combat.” —Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“Charles Bracelen Flood’s lively account of the group of American pilots known as the Lafayette Escadrille provides a striking counterpoint to news stories about radicalized young Americans who have run off to join ISIS . . . Flood . . . has an eye for the high-octane drama when young men mix with war, airplanes, booze and women . . . First to Fly shows us that there was something noble and honorable about the Escadrille, men who did not turn against their own country but put their lives up to fight for a cause, not because they had to but because it was the right thing to do.” —John F. Ross, Wall Street Journal

“Flood’s final book is a page-turner, written in spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway.” —Tom Eblen, Lexington Kentucky Herald-Leader


As the air war began, a stranded pilot would send a message back to his airfield saying where he was, and asking that the squadron send a staff car and a couple of mechanics to repair his plane so that he could fly it back. Often this required a stay of two or three days, and the pilot would return with a big smile and a report of splendid hospitality at the home of the Baron This or the Countess That.

Pilot Ned Parsons found himself in one such emergency when his electrical system “just cut out for good and all.” He glided down into “the park of a chateau,” overshot the flat area, and found himself “hanging head down about seven or eight feet off the ground, and all my weight was on my safety belt.” A peasant came around and asked in French if he could help. But Parsons ended up dropping “squarely on the back of my neck. . . . I awoke with my head in the lap of a charming and very beautiful English girl, whose husband, a French officer at the front, owned the chateau. I was there for several days till the wrecking crew came. Then they had two wrecks to take care of. I was the other.”