Thirteen years after the Wright brothers flew their first true plane, aviation enthusiasts belonging to the Yale Flying Club took to the sky with uncanny dedication and great urgency. Lured by a sense of adventure and an unwavering belief in duty to country, some, the sons of wealth and privilege, learned to fly the imperfect planes of their era—which were also evolving as instruments of war.
Their compelling and true story is the subject of a new documentary film, The Millionaires’ Unit: America’s Pioneer Pilots of the Great War, by the non-profit Humanus Documentary Films Foundation, based on The Millionaires’ Unit, a 2006 book by Westville author Marc Wortman. The film was recently screened at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center, playing to a packed auditorium.
The documentary was produced and directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King, the grandson of John M. Vorys, one of the Yale flyers. Seven years and many serendipitous events in the making, the character-driven documentary focuses on the citizen-soldiers from Yale who would become the founding squadron of the US Navy’s Air Reserve, some of the first Americans to fight in World War I. Academy award-nominated actor Bruce Dern, whose great uncle Kenneth MacLeish, was another of the early Yale aviators, narrates the nearly two-hour documentary which mixes archival film footage and dramatic flight recreations using vintage aircraft and special effects.
While the Wright brothers loom large in early aviation, aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtis, the founder of the American aircraft industry, was most responsible for the development and supply of military aircraft to the U.S. navy and army. Flying accidents were common during training and in combat, however, with thousands of casualties recorded on the way to developing better aircraft.
Among the group of notable Yale flyers was F. Trubee Davison, the visionary leader and founder of the club. Davison would not make it to war with the men he inspired, though his legacy of leadership remained strong and his contributions to the unit indispensable. Davison suffered a broken back and lifelong paralysis after overshooting his landing marker during a flight test, crashing his seaplane into the water.
Meanwhile, David S. Ingalls, for whom Yale’s hockey rink is named, was America’s only naval ace during World War I, a distinction earned with five confirmed enemy kills.
The film and Wortman’s book highlight an interesting shift in the culture of wealth from then to now. “Today, we tend to think of the one-percenters as takers,” said Wortman. But The Millionaires’ Unit “is a tribute to the one-percenters of the era, and a time when the privileged viewed themselves as the ones who needed to make sacrifices. It was an era when idealism, patriotism, and sacrifice was tied to privilege. We need to renew that today.”
The Millionaires’ Unit is not the only work in which Wortman has dealt with early aviators. In a 2012 article for The Daily Beast, Wortman wrote about America’s earliest black aviators in the context of the George Lucas movie Red Tails, a Hollywood stylization of the Tuskegee Airmen story. More than a critique of the film, the article explores the histories of a number of early African American aviators, who not only fought the enemy abroad, but persevered against the institutional racism that denied them training and opportunity at home. Wortman said he had hoped to write a book about the overlooked aviators, but the deal never materialized.
The author of several books and a contributor to many national publications, Wortman is working on a new book about the U.S. entry into World War II.
The Millionaires’ Unit filmmakers hope to close a deal with PBS for syndication to its affiliates nationally. They have a number of short historical films also in the works that will most likely be ready for distribution in time for the World War I centennial in 2017.
In the meantime, the documentarians are planning a release of the their film on DVD.