I have just finished reading Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World by Sam Howe Verhovek. It's the story of the development of the first jet airliners, and the establishment of transoceanic air travel, including reviewing the whole history of aviation from Icarus through to the Boeing 707 and its contemporaries.
After a few hilariously pessimistic quotations from people who should have known better doubting the future of aviation, the book opens with the de Havilland Comet, pride of the British Empire, grounded after three aircraft were destroyed by explosions shortly after takeoff. Meanwhile in Seattle, Bill Allen of Boeing was trying to make the jump from military to civilian contracts. He staked the future of his company on the Boeing 707, which debuted while the Comet was still grounded. Verhovek's story is not linear, often irritating in the way it jumps back in time then builds forward again along a new thread, returning to a previous development as if it had not already been the subject of an entire chapter. Perhaps people who grew up reading hypertext don't read books straight through, and a good index ensures you'll be able to find the time period or player you're looking for.
Every aspect of the tale is deeply researched, and illustrated with occasionally quirky but never boring anecdotes. It covers not just the technical aspects of spanning the world in an airplane, but also the politics, from the "great sandwich war" of 1954 to the negotiations between the manufacturers, airlines and government to finance the development of a jet, and of course the people that made it happen. There are even mini-biographies of some unexpected players, such as Tex Johnston, the Boeing test pilot, who famously rolled the 707 during a public demonstration flight and Ellen Church, the woman who conceived of flight attendants and convinced United Airlines to hire her as the very first. Highlights of airplane designer Geoffrey de Havilland's bio include his ancestor Sieur de Havylland, one of the commanders of William the Conqueror's army. There are fewer details than I had hoped for of the accident investigation process that revealed the design flaws in the original Comet, but Verhovek does describe the amusing Britishness of the worsted three-piece suits and other wardrobe of the crash test dummies. I suspect the eight page bibliography provided is just the highlights of what Verhovek read while preparing this book.
There are few geek details on specifications, design decisions, and the construction and testing of the new airliners, and this is not a picture book, although it does include about eight plates of historical black and white photos. In addition to the 707 and Comet, Verhovek also mentions the roles played by Douglas aircraft, the Canadian Avro C102, Soviet Tupolev Tu-104, and French Caravelle.
I found Sam Verhovek's prose occasionally distractingly flowery, calling attention to itself rather than simply creating images and providing information. Perhaps Verhovek is nostalgic not only for the age of the jetliners but for the days when news stories used the kind of language seen in the copious period quotations. It's still a very readable book and it doesn't demand background or current knowledge of the industry from the reader.
If you want technical details on the design process of the B707 or an explanation of the Comet disasters that extends beyond "square windows" and "metal fatigue" this book may disappoint. But if you like aviation stories and don't demand your history in chronological order, you'll probably enjoy reading Jet Age.
I received a free advance copy of this book from the publisher.
Publisher Avery offers another copy of this book as a contest prize. I wasn't going to run a contest, but reading all the stories in Jet Age inspired me. Here's the competition:
What is your favourite anecdote from the history of aviation? In the comments for this post, leave a description, up to 200 words long, of the funniest, most poignant, most inspirational or whatever you think is the "best" story to come out of man's urge to fly. If you don't have a registered blogger ID, please e-mail a copy of the comment to me so I know who made it, in case you win.
In a week I'll put up a new post that lets everyone vote on the best. Judging criteria (going by my experience of such things) will probably be a combination of how much the voter likes the story, how well they think you retold it, an assessment of your spelling and grammar, and how much you have annoyed or pleased other readers during your tenure as a blog reader. I'll leave voting open for a week, then I'll tell the publisher to send a copy of Jet Age to the winner. I'd plan a speedier timeline than that, but I expect to be incommunicado for a couple of weeks starting day after tomorrow, so I'll have to let this run itself.