Sunday, September 18, 2016

Turbulent Skies

Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation
© 1995 T. H. Heppenheimer
408 pages

What a century was the 20th, which turned everyday life into the stuff of yesteryear's science fiction. Who would believe at its dawning that one day people would travel the world primarily through the air, soaring through it in great machines made of iron?  Turbulent Skies is a history of commercial aviation in the United States, Great Britain, and (occasionally) Europe. Part of the Sloan Technology Series, it mixes business and social history with extensive commentary on aviation engineering.  Between the generous expanses devoted to airframe and compressor problems to the play-by-play of mergers and expansion plans, Turbulent Skies is a through bit of reference reading.   The author includes as many diagrams of jet engines as he does of the planes themselves, which I found curious.

Turbulent Skies largely focuses on the United States, with occasional chapters on Britain and a few mentions of French and German development.  The chapter on World War 2 features Germany heavily, but this is not a book of aerial strategy; instead, Heppenheimer records the respective powers'  pursuit of jet technology.  (Germany was able to produce the Me-262, a potential fighter that was thankfully squandered as a light bomber.  Considerable resources were diverted from planes to the V2 bombing programs,  again mercifully.)   What leaps out in Turbulent Skies is how utterly the creature of government air travel is. Unlike trains, which had their origin in commercial mining, the first air-commerce companies in the United States  balanced their budgets on mail contracts.  The world wars were likewise a boon to aviation, producing technologies like radar that were put to use in the consumer market. The amount of airplanes produced for military service and then dumped onto the consumer market likewise produced a multitude of small companies buying planes for pennies and trying to build regional empires.  The government  also bankrolled municipal airports and then forbade city governments from making a fuss about the noise. (Mind your business, peasants...)

With such support behind it, little wonder the airplanes had a quick triumph over their transport rivals, the train companies. (The quickness of aerial ascent is made obvious in the life of Juan Trippe: he created Pan-Am in the early days of aviation, and was still its lord and master when the 747 was created.) Of course, air travel had honest advantages -- speed and novelty.  Passenger ships also lost out to the planes, but the industry as a whole survived by shifting its focus to cruises. The seagoing experience, rather than being a comfortable means of transportation, became instead a vacation in itself: the ship was the party.  (Heppenheimer doesn't mention this, but trains tried doubling-down on luxury, too; unfortunately, toodling along at 30 mph speed limits inside cities isn't quite as relaxing as cruising the Caribbean.)     The happy days didn't last forever, though; in the 1970s, oil crises and recession saw some of the mainstays begin to flounder and perish.  The most notable death, prolonged until 1991, was Pan-Am. It  achieved early success by focusing on connecting the United States to the outside world, snagging a government-granted monopoly of the  Central-South American routes.   The recession and energy spike caught Pan-Am at just the wrong time, when it was borrowing billions to launch a vast period of expansion with 747s.  Perhaps it will be revived when we begin passenger service to the Moon.

Though informative, casual readers should be aware this is more about technology and business contracts than the social/human side of air transport.

Getting There: The Epic Battle Between Road and Rail, Stephen Goddard
The Great Railroad Revolution, Christian Wolmar


  1. The Me 262 was a great fighter plane. If it had been available in numbers and used properly who know's what the outcome would've been.... [gulp]

    Early commercial jets where interesting beasts. Did he spend much time on the Comet and it's metal fatigue issue? That was quite a 'learning experience'...

    1. Oh, yes! That was an interesting chapter...the Comet struck terror into the hearts of American airframe retailers, who were unused to competing with European firms. The Concorde appears, too, and of course Airbus shows up in the final pages as a growing competitor to Boeing.


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