William Langewiesche has found a new way to write about aviation, and not before time. There are, of course, numerous books about flying and a disappointingly large number of them fall into what Langewiesche himself calls the 'tedious transportation history of the British plane-spotter kind.'
A recent British book, Empire of the Skies (“When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World) by James Hamilton-Paterson does a typically first rate job of missing the point about what really went wrong with an industry that the British tax payer has, over the years, put millions of pounds into.
In Britain aviation books seem to be published on the premise that aviation enthusiasts buy them looking for uncritical adoration of aviation, aircraft (especially British) and pilots. Although Empire of the Skies seems to ponder on the demise of what it regards a once formidable industry it does not get to the heart of the problem. It does not mention the lack of investment in tooling and processes that made British aircraft so expensive to manufacture and so inconsistent. Or the lack of analysis that lead to the development of aircraft, generally government funded, that suited only one customer. Nor does it make mention, of those few British aircraft that were good enough to find a market in the USA, how they had to be virtually redesigned in order to be manufactured to American production standards. British manufacturing companies had long held to a very labour intensive craft tradition that kept tooling costs low but led to highly expensive production costs in the event of the odd success that warranted volume production. For more on this look at my earlier blog, An enduring myth.
Langewiesche's look at aviation is very different to that mainstream British view. He takes a highly critical look at airliner operations (maintenance), air traffic control, NASA's management style and performance of profesional pilots. The result is a new insight into what goes on, Aloft.
It should be noted that Langewiesche IS not one of those professional contrarians who often fill the newspaper blogs. He is an enthusiast with a love of flying and aircraft that goes back beyond his first glider solo at the age of 14. His father wrote 'Stick and Rudder', a guide to flying light aircraft that was still a must read when I learned to fly in 1982. He started in professional flying hauling freight in aircraft that were often 'pencil whipped', as he puts it, into the air. (By this he means that maintenance was often glossed over, and illegal signatures put on documentation in order to get aircraft airborne in order to meet schedules.)
The fact that this still goes on, more so in the under regulated present day commercial airline industry comes out in his essay on the loss of Valuejet 592. (Those economic Dawinists who feel that all business should be left to regulate itself might want to consider what level of accidental loss of life the 'market' will tolerate before it 'demands' more rigorous adherence to safe operations.) The loss of the space shuttle Columbia finds a management desperate to ignore crucial engineering advice an organisation that had forgotten the lesson of 17 years earlier when Richard Feynman commented, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
And there are other incidents where things just go wrong because of human behaviour. For me, most remarkable is the tale, "The devil at 37000ft" an accident that became a fatal collision due to the astonishing accuracy of modern navigation equipment. It is the custom to see aircraft accidents as being the simultaneous breakdown of several systems but in this case one aircraft had been allowed to maintain the wrong altitude and was flying down an airway towards another aircraft. Both aircraft come to occupy the same piece of the huge sky because systems can place two aircraft flying at 37000ft with an error of less than 0.02%. This incident killed all the occupants of a Boeing 737, which was flying perfectly legally at its assigned altitude, yet spared the crew of a brand new business jet, who although they got on the ground safely, were nothing like in complete command of their aircraft that day.
And there's more. All written by someone who is a complete aviation enthusiast but who has turned a critical eye on the business that he loves. Aloft by William Langewiesche, is highly recommended.