BIRDMEN: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone. Ballantine Books, 428 pp., $28.

The flight was not even really a flight, just a short hop -- some 120 feet. But in successfully flying a controlled, powered aircraft on the beach of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright did what many had tried and failed to do before.

Their accomplishment, a combination of American ingenuity, pluck and perseverance, is familiar fodder for high school reports. The story that Sagaponack author Lawrence Goldstone tells in "Birdmen," his enthralling new account of flying's wild early years, is a much darker version. The brothers' ingenuity is not in question -- Wilbur was a self-taught tinkerer who mastered complex aeronautical principles -- but they were also petty, vindictive, litigious businessmen who, Goldstone suggests, impeded the progress of American aviation.

At stake was a central issue: Was powered flight a concept open to all who could master it, or a patented process that could be owned? The Wrights insisted it was the latter, and moved to patent flying itself, and their decisive innovation of lateral control, a twisting of the wings that provided stability. The patent claim was breathtaking in its sweep. Yet, as Goldstone shows, flying could not be contained.

Another American aviation genius, Glenn Curtiss, became the focus of the Wrights' wrath. Curtiss, a motorcycle builder, would construct the first seaplane and design the first retractable landing gear and first enclosed cockpit. But, as the first decade of the 20th century unfolded, he was harassed by the Wrights at every turn with lawsuits and patent-infringement claims.

"The ferocity with which Wilbur Wright attacked and Glenn Curtiss countered first launched America into pre- eminence in the skies and then doomed it to mediocrity," Goldstone writes.

The author's account of the grinding legal process is dry and deals with complex legal terms, but his sections on powered flight's pioneering years brim with exciting (and deadly) exploits.

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The Wrights were first, but they were left in the dust by Curtiss planes and the pilots who flew them. Aviators pushed the limits in contests across the country, flying higher, faster and harder, breaking records and taking cash prizes. Most famed of all was Lincoln Beachey, whose "Dip of Death" enthralled crowds everywhere.

The joyless Wrights eschewed such showmanship. They may have a place in the history books, but Goldstone shows how innovation curdled into obsession, keeping the brothers earthbound when they could have soared to even greater heights.