We’ve all become so used to the quick march of technological innovation that it is salutary for readers to be reminded by this evocative and marvelously detailed book that the age of passenger jet air travel is only a little more than half a century old. Its author, Sam Howe Verhovek, a true globetrotter in the course of a long career as a journalist, has a way of conveying not only the dry facts about jet travel - how it boosted tourism exponentially and doomed the great ocean liners that had transported passengers overseas in such style - but also the excitement it engendered.
In the words of poet and historian Carl Sandburg, who was on the first commercial jet flight from New York to Los Angeles in 1959: “You are whisked and streaked, you are zipped and flicked, you are sped, hurtled, flashed, shuttled from an ocean on one side of the continent to an ocean on the opposite side in less time than it takes the sun to trace a 90-degree arc across the sky.”
Since most readers will never have known any other kind of air travel than jet powered, it is important to convey to them, as this book so consistently does, the thrill experienced by those who had been used to piston-powered aircraft:
“The jetliner represented a radical improvement over an earlier generation of propeller-driven airplanes which shook, sickened, and even broke the bones of passengers in the 1930s. ‘When the day was over my bones ached, and my whole nervous system was wearied from the noise, the constant droning of the propellers, and exhaust,’ one airline customer recalled of such a flight.”
If the generation of pressurized planes that immediately preceded the advent of the jetliner was not as bad as all that, I can attest from personal experience that they provided a very different experience from what was to come. With jets, the enormously increased sense of speed on the ground and the much sharper angle of takeoff that whisked one into the skies were indeed novel and thrilling.
And of course speed was a crucial factor in the supremacy of jet aircraft, cutting the time of travel if not quite in half compared with the DC-7s and Constellations they replaced, then close to it. When it was revealed that the Mercator projection had distorted that familiar shape of Africa we used to see on maps, making the southward pointing part look much shorter than it in fact is, I remember remarking that was no surprise to anyone who had flown over it before there were jets.
And of course, they took passengers about three times higher. Not really, as airlines liked to advertise, above the weather, but far less subject to the frequent turbulence that had made flying such a miserable - and literally sickening - experience for so many.
If “Jet Age” has a hero, it is the Boeing 707, the first really successful jetliner, not only capable of flying the Atlantic nonstop but also carrying many more passengers - 100 or so - than previous planes. The story of how, after decades of being bested by its rivals, Douglas and Lockheed, Boeing sprang to the forefront with this huge success occupies much of “Jet Age” and is a fascinating mix of avionics and commerce. And of course, the 707 was the beginning of a line of blockbuster planes: With those two sevens being so lucky for Boeing, no wonder that they have continued the custom into the present when they are still an industry leader.
But it’s no wonder that the 707 comes second in the book’s subtitle, since its most interesting sections involve the tragic story of its much less-known predecessor, the British De Havilland Comet. Although the Wright Brothers were of course American and the United States dominated the production of passenger aircraft in both the piston and jet ages, the British were aviation pioneers.
An Englishman, Sir Frank Whittle, had invented the jet engine and just as they were later to do in supersonic flight with the Concorde, Britons produced the first passenger jet service as early as 1952. Carrying only 36 passengers, the Comet - sleek, streamlined and futuristic, as may be seen in the book’s photographs - did not have the range to fly the Atlantic, but worked well on flights between London and Africa and Asia, where it could make frequent stops.
Mr. Verhovek does an excellent job of evoking the luxury and sense of exciting innovation that drew passengers to the Comets during their two years of glamorous service. But when several of them blew up in midflight with no warning, killing all aboard, it was clear that there was something terribly wrong with their design. The “Jet Age” account of how it became clear that the crashes had been caused by metal fatigue and why this known phenomenon had not been taken into account in the Comets’ construction is a true cautionary tale.
Yet a retooled Comet IV rose phoenixlike in the late 1950s, not only strengthened against metal fatigue but with sufficient additional range to fly the Atlantic. Thus revamped, it managed to rob the 707 of the honor of being the first jetliner to accomplish this feat, although because the Comet still needed to refuel between London and New York, the American plane managed that crucial distinction of being the first to make the trans-Atlantic hop nonstop.
Perhaps most of all “Jet Age” demonstrates that the speedy air travel we all take for granted was much more hard-won than most of us realize. And that, as so often with great innovation, there was a human cost to be paid.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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