The Millionaires’ Unit

Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King


Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
The Boy Downstairs