Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jet Age

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.


coreydotcom said...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a scene in "vivir para contarla" where he thinks he experiences a moment few men have ever experienced or will ever experience: it was raining inside the airplane. That was in the 40's. I experienced the exact same thing, in the exact same country (possibly on the same route but I can't remember my exact route), almost 70 years later. We both lived to tell the story. In my story the F.O. was yelling at the passengers to shut up because they were screaming at him. If you didn't believe in anything before surviving a rain-in-the-plane-in-the-colombian-andes experience... you believe in something afterwords.

jwenting said...

I've experienced "rain" in aircraft myself, though in reality it's not rain but heavy condensation causing water to drip from the overhead bins and ceiling.
It was common enough in Northwest's DC-10s that flight attendants weren't at all surprised when it happened.

I've also had drafty cabins, with people sitting near doors complaining about a cold wind (and flight crew warning against opening cans and bottles during the flight, don't you love leaky pressure cabins) on mostly Tupolevs and Antonovs.

My own most memorable experience must have been an emergency landing in Alma Ata, being detained by armed KGB guards for 20 hours in a waiting room without facilities or furniture before a new aircraft could be flown in to take us on to our destination.
If we'd not already come to the conclusion that Soviet hospitality was a farce, that experience would have convinced us.
Flying Aeroflot in the 1980s was never boring. From having to load your own baggage on some flights to the unflavoured microwave chicken snacks to things like the above, something strange was bound to happen on every leg.

coreydotcom said...

i can't say for sure if it was rain or condensation now that I look back on it, but I do know it was pouring and it was REALLY loud so we all just automatically assumed it was raining... and it was one of those planes with 1 seat on each side of the aisle and you can see straight through to the cockpit and I remember the pilots probably couldn't see much (sorry I'm not a pilot so I couldn't tell you which planes and can't confirm if it was IMC or not)...

but great story about the KGB... reminds me of having to pay a "fine" basically for being white to an 18-year old Cartagena "Policeman".

Chris said...

A friend of mine told me a story of his service in the Royal Australian Air Force - it even has a Canadian connection.

He was ferrying the original flight of DHC-4 Caribou aircraft from Canada to Australia which necessitated a number of stops, the Caribou being relatively short legged and not equipped for inflight refuelling. Somewhere over North Africa he picked up a very faint distress signal on 121.5. He diverted to the source of the signal and because it was so faint they had a hard time tracking it down, often losing it entirely. Eventually he found a lone pilot standing under the wing of his wrecked C172. Circling for a bit, the crew dropped some food and all the water they had, then bid the pilot farewell and flew on for their destination, reporting the crash site at the next aerodrome. They flew onward but before reaching their original destination of Australia they were again diverted - this time for South Vietnam. He never learned of the fate of that bloke, stranded in the sea of sand.

Years later, standing in a bar in Laos in a small village in the middle of nowhere. An Air America pilot heard the Australian voices and came over shouting the whole crew a drink. He said bought drinks for any Australian flight crews he met because years earlier he had an engine failure ferrying a C172 across North Africa, crash landed and was on his last legs when a Caribou dropped food and water and sent rescuers to his was the same bloke whose life they had saved.

I've probably done a poor job retelling the story, but it was the anecdote my friend was most proud of.

Cloudesley Shovell said...

The Comets didn't explode--they broke apart in midair due to structural failure caused by metal fatigue.

If anyone ever asks why airliner windows are round or oval, you can tell them about the square windows on the original Comet.

Anonymous said...

The structural failure of the Comets resulted in explosive de-compression of the cabin, so in a sense they did explode.

As for cabin rain, getting soaked was a fairly common experience on Long Haul British Airways 747-200's on descent into London. The cold soaked airframe descending into the high humidity of London caused rapid condensation inside, and the water would pour out from the overheads onto some unlucky passengers.

As for other cabin weather, Vicker's Viscounts used to get cabin fog, fog would literally stream out of the fresh air vents, but i suspect few who read this blog are old enough to have flown on a Viscount.

Aviatrix said...

Oh this is interesting. I was expecting relatively well-known stories from the annals of aviation: the Gimli Glider, Bleriot trying to cross the channel with an engine that had never run long enough continuously to do so, or an arctic tale of mending a downed aircraft with caribou hides and cigarette papers. I wasn't expecting your personal stories. They're all welcome, but so are stories many of us already know, perhaps from readers who can't draw on their own experience for tales.

jwenting said...

From the anals of aviation greats:
When WW1 ended the allied powers intended to destroy the German aviation industry and impound all machines and parts.
Anthony Fokker beat them to the game and smuggled his entire factory (including part of the workforce) and dozens of disassembled aircraft from Germany to Amsterdam on trains, in order to restart his company in his native Netherlands (where he'd originally left because noone wanted to support his plans to start building aircraft, when in pre-WW1 Germany he could get funding).

The wikipedia article on him fails to mention the cloak and dagger operation, instead phrasing it as a legitimate venture (it wasn't, the entire thing was in violation of the surrender documents, the equipment having been hidden in barns and warehouses to prevent seizure).

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

If Jet Age has William E. Boeing playing "bet your company" on the development of the 707, it is badly confused. Mr. Boeing retired from the company in the 1930's.

The real hero of the 707 story was Bill Allen, who was President of Boeing from the late '40's through the '60's.

After Tex Johnston's famous roll (an aileron roll, BTW, not a barrel roll), Bill Allen called him on the carpet and asked, basically, "WTF do you think you were doing?" Tex's reply was, "I was selling airplanes."

HERE, is Tex, telling the story of the roll.

Best regards,


Aviatrix said...

Frank: The Bill Allen error is mine: the result of inattention while condensing a lot of notes on the Boeing company, all the way back to Wilhelm Böing. The barrel roll error is Verhovek's. Both have been corrected in the post.

Nikos said...

I never flew in a Viscount although when I was based at Heathrow back in '83 or so I went to chat to the pilots of a British Midland Viscount 800 sitting on the ramp: Expecting them to wax lyrical about flying this Lady of the skys, they complained that the nice handling of the earlier models had been ruined on the later heavier marks.
As for the Comet 1 (the world's first "RJ"), check out how thin the fuselage skin is compared to modern airraft )Dreamliner excepted) - it was like kitchen foil in comparison! It hardly never pays to be first.

Best wishes, Nikos

Nikos said...


Excuse the typos - I#m sitting at an unfamilair German keyboard tonight, but bear in mind that Comet flew in 1949 and was built by De Havilland who 8 years earlier had designed the Mosquito made mostly out of plywood! (haha Howard Hughes)

Unknown said...

So many stories, so few words...

...The best story in all of aviation publishing history would have to be "Wing and a Prayer" as told by Neil Williams in his wonderful book "Airborne". Practicing for the 1970 World Aerobatic Championships, Williams had a wing failure at low altitude while flying the Zlin 526. With incredible presence of mind he managed to bring the upward failing wing back into place by rolling inverted. One drama followed another - as he pushed up into a climb at treetop height...the engine quit! He managed to find and rectify the engine problem, which left him with eight minutes of inverted fuel supply in which to decide his future (no parachute). An inverted approach with a last second roll to upright was his choice for landing, and he executed it so perfectly that the wing tip plowed a furrow in the grass as he rolled, without breaking the nav light!

Wirelizard said...

My favourite aviation story was told to me by a fuel guy/flight student/shuttle driver at an FBO at Seattle's Boeing Field.

We'd been over at the Seattle Flight Museum, toured the Concorde grounded there, and the FBO guy told us this story as he drove us back to the FBO from the museum...

The Seattle Concorde set a trans-North America speed record going into retirement; from New York to Seattle in some improbably low number of hours.

He claimed this supersonic flight had been entirely unauthorized, a farewell supersonic outlaw howl across the continent. After all, he said, what were they going to do once the Concorde landed in Seattle, ground the plane?

Wikipedia and other sources say the flight was authorized, and followed specially-designated flight routes across underpopulated areas of the US and Canada to avoid broken windows and such.

But the image of the Last Concorde's crew taking off from New York, enroute to their airplane's premature retirement in Seattle, going, "Fuck it!" and flooring their glorious white bird across the continent in on final record-and-window-shattering outlaw howl into retirement has stuck with me.

After all, what were they going to do, ground the plane?

D said...

i remember being captivated by the story of the POW's building a glider to escape from Colditz?? or maybe one of the Stalag camps - don't remember exactly where it was. Read it many years ago, and the details are hazy, but the tale has stuck with me. Amazing that the craft actually flew and people escaped.

Anonymous said...

"After all, what were they going to do, ground the plane?"

worse, ground the pilots, pull their licenses, bury them alive in red tape, ruin their careers.

Which is why I generally don't believe such stories.

Chris said...

OK - a non-personal anecdote? Mildly humourous?

During WW2 as aircraft started having greater and greater performance they started effecting the ability of the humans controlling them. The US air force investigated the use of inflating suits which nowadays are called g-suits. The company they found which had all the necessary skills and equipment to make these suits was a company which made bras and corsets.

The David Clark company.

After making the g-suits they started branching out into other sorts of aviation equipment in the early days when most pilots still used a handmike and loudspeaker. Almost every general aviation pilot in the world now owns or has owned a headset made by the David Clark company. The green colour is synonymous with pilot headsets.

Two of the test pilots assigned to the g-suit program were Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager. They visited the David Clark Factory while testing different designs and as they were leaving were given samples of underwear as a gift for their wives. On the return flight they had engine trouble. Bob Hoover recalls being less concerned with the engine trouble, but more concerned about being found in the wreckage of the cockpit with Chuck Yeager and a load of womens underwear.

Anonymous said...

When I was a boy I listened to Tom Rutledge tell a story about when he was a young man. Tom worked for the Wright engine company and was tasked with building J5 engines and “running them in”. A variety of plane and pilot teams were then attempting to be the first to cross the Atlantic non-stop. Since the Wright J5 was the a reliable engine most were choosing it for their planes. Tom’s coworkers with more seniority were allowed first choice of whose engines they would build.

After assembly, the J5 engines would run on a test stand with the valve covers removed so that one could “hit” the valve rocker arms with a rubber mallet when the valves became stuck. The valves would stick sometimes until they had been run for a time. While Tom was working with an especially difficult engine, whacking on it with his mallet, he was introduced to Charles Lindberg, his engine’s owner.

Chris said...

I can't vote for my own, but even if I could I would still have voted for the Lindbergh/Wright story. I have a vision of a very pale Lindbergh watching the machinery he was entrusting his life to being whacked enthusiastically by an apparently insane mechanic while everyone around him carried on as normal.

Jim said...

My buddy's dad was a navigator/bomber on a Lanc during WW2. Fred passed away 7 years ago, but we used to sometimes sit at the kitchen table and look at his logbook and pictures. Fred was one of 4 boys in the family, all were inthe air force, two did not return.

Story #1: We were looking at a picture from altitude of a white building, pretty much undamaged. It was a hospital, apparently painted white so it was unmistakable and therefore hopefully would not be bombed. Fred used it as an aiming point because "I never hit anything I aimed at, so that was the best way to not hit it".

Plan worked, he missed it and apparently it was a reasonably successful bombing run (with respect to the things his bombs were supposed to hit).

Story #2: Each crew does about 25 missions, and a non-trivial percentage do not return from each night's mission. While the crews did try to get through to the target, it was not unheard of to abort a mission for relatively simple problems. During the bombing run the a/c is flying straight and level, to get in line with the target, and is thus a target itself. And the aircraft is heavy with bombs, so handling is quite mushy compared to after the bomb drop. On a night bombing run on a city their Lanc was attacked by night fighters. Without a word from the Captain, Fred dumped the bombs, closed the doors, and they got out of Dodge while Fred went to find a gun and, in his words, "shot at anything that moved."

When they got back to their field he was met by the base commander at engine shutdown, who indignantly told him he not only missed the target, he missed the whole damn city - by 7 miles. No word on whether any enemy cows were registered as casualties.

Story#3: There was lots of downtime between missions, as the aircraft were repaired, they waited for suitable weather, etc. All the soldiers had various tasks they did during the downtime, and one of the most coveted was "butter pat cutter". They received wooden boxes of butter from Quebec, and the job was to cut the big block of butter into small squares, or "pats". As this was the military, there were specifications regarding size of each pat, as well as how many pats each box should produce. Fred figured out quickly that if he made each square a little bit smaller, there would be some leftover butter, and this leftover butter would make a lovely gift for the mother of the english lass he was trying to date, during the food-rationed years.

He got fired as "butter pat cutter" after two weeks due to complaints about the size of the butter pats - apparently there were more than a few girls he was trying to date.

Sue said...

I'm sure comments are closed, but I thought I'd post anyway. I'll offer a story related by Alan Tennant in his book /On the Wing/, published in 2004. Tennant and Tom Cade of the Peregrine Fund found themselves in Alaska at the Bettles Lodge near the Brooks Range, looking for transportation to the Colville River, where they intended to join two peregrine researchers who had set up camp there. They decided to hire EH, a bush pilot with a C-206, to fly them through the Anaktuvuk Pass. When they arrived at the Colville, the pilot noted that what looked like gravel bars was probably rocks, but he attempted a landing anyway. The airplane slammed down, bounced, and flipped over into a gully. The pilot and two passengers were able to exit the aircraft, and an hour later, the pilot secured the fuel hatches, and with the help of three Inupiat who had happened along, unloaded the cargo and pulled the plane out of the gully. The prop blades were twisted, so the pilot took out a hacksaw and cut off the ends of the prop, shortening it by about two feet. As Alan and the three biologists watched in amazement, the pilot started to pre-flight and then took off, stubby prop and bent right landing strut notwithstanding. No doubt he was back in business within a week. It seems that bush pilots are a different breed altogether.