I'm on vacation this week. So, hoping to keep you occupied, I'm running brief excerpts from my seven published books and, on the last day, a glimpse at my upcoming book. This is from "Complete & Utter Failure," published by Doubleday in 1994, from the chapter on bad timing.
The most unambiguous cases of bad timing are those people brushed aside by what English pundit Clive James has called "the Fonck Factor." Rene Fonck was a French aviator pushing hard int he mid-1920s to be the first person to fly from New York to Paris nonstop, thus claiming a $25,000 prize offered by businessman Raymond Orteig.
Fonck was confident the prize was his. He convinced aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky to provide a S-35 triple-engine airplane—the most advanced plane at the time and, at $105,000, also the most expensive. Since such an epic flight deserved a certain degree of magnificence, the interior of the plane was beautified by an interior decorator, who added panels of Spanish leather and mahogany walls so that it resembled "a tastefully furnished drawing room." Fonck ignored Sikorsky's plea that the aircraft first be thoroughly stress-tested. With a takeoff weight of 28,000 pounds due to the extra fuel, 10,000 pounds past its design maximum, a stress test might have been a good idea. To make matters worse, the plane was loaded down with all sorts of optimistic tokens, from a bouquet of orchids for the French President's wife to a full-course celebration dinner for six, prepared at a New York hotel and packed in vacuum containers so it would still be hot when consumed at the Crillon in Paris. Moments before the departure from Roosevelt Field, on the cold, gray dawn on September 21, 1926, Fonck was handed yet another gift from a well-wisher. He "lifted it in his hand to test the weight, and with a rueful look placed it aboard the already overloaded plane," according to the New York Times report the next day.....
Literally burdened with the expectations of success, the plane never became airborne. Its landing gear collapses during take-off, and the plane cartwheeled into a gully at the end of the field and burst into flames. The plane's mechanic and radio operator were killed. Fonck and his navigator survived. Later, Fonck summed up the rash by uttering this wrenching expression of Gallic grief, "It is the fortune of the air," and immediately vowed to make the attempt again.
Alas for the gallant Fonck, the following spring, on May 20-21, 1927, a 25-year-old former airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh, flying a stripped-down single-engine plane (pilots preferred those two- and three-engine planes in case one of the engines died in the middle of the Atlantic; Lindbergh was thinking of saving fuel), alone without a crew, crossed the Atlantic in 33 hours, 30 minutes. At times holding his eyes open with his thumbs, or hanging his head out the window to be revived by the icy air, Lindbergh also reported that he kept himself awake by repeating "There's no alternative but death and failure" over and over again.
Lindbergh got the fame and fortune. Fonck got, well, Foncked.