William Langewiesche is a writer of extraordinary skill and remarkable perception. He is also a pilot of extensive experience and the son of one of flying's greatest exponents (his late father Wolfgang's book, STICK AND RUDDER, is one of the eternal pillars of the craft of flying and should be read by every pilot at every skill level). He writes with elegance and style.
ALOFT is a collection of the author's essays written over a fairly long timespan. The book addresses issues that hundreds of millions of us experience worldwide, year after year, but few understand well: flight, flying, airplanes and the sky. Add another vital dimension: the weather, which the author writes about with appropriate respect in a chapter titled "The Angry Sky," through which we may ponder the reality that Nature bats last and should demand endless respect from mere humans.
The book traces many different aspects of flying and the natural environment of air and space above the surface of the earth. One core consideration attacks the reader: flying is not a natural act except to birds, bees and other flying devices. Every ascent by man more than a few feet above the earth invites a visit below. Langewiesche looks at everything with a coldly analytical eye, the same kind of clinical skills of observation that have informed his many excellent works over the years. Yet he scrupulously avoids jargon or technical cant.
Pilots will find his material fascinating, including his terrifying analyses of accidents such as the loss of an Air India 747 flying out of Bombay, the re-entry breakup of the Columbia space shuttle, and the collision of an executive jet with an airliner at 37,000 feet over the Brazilian jungle. He shows a forensic-analyst's ability to examine, review, balance and decide in the presence of extreme technical complexity. He would make an excellent expert witness at an accident investigation.
Of course he is not omniscient--he fails to note, for example, that under the stress of an emergency the human, physiological reflex is to 'boresight' the vision and exclude peripheral information that could deliver life-saving solutions. And he does not comment on a truly shocking NTSB defect: the absence of battery backup for the aircraft data and cockpit voice-data recorders that, in the case of the EgyptAir 990 crash, meant that the last 114 critical seconds of the flight were not recorded as to aircraft behavior or cockpit conversation when the engines and their generators were shut down (note: the author of this review attempted at the time to ask why battery backup was not mandated, but received no intelligent response). And, with respect to the view from aloft available to everyone these days, he needs to edit and update to reflect the views offered by satellite services such as Google Earth.
Non-pilots may be at times shocked by his candour but should in the end come to trust his appraisal of airplanes and their complex systems and equipment, pilots of many kinds, air-traffic controllers, the governing and examining bodies--the entire spectrum of interested and involved organizations and people involved in flying. Those readers should also abandon fear of flying on commercial aircraft, which statistically (as is widely known) is many times safer than driving to the airport.
Readers of almost any persuasion, who derive pleasure from the precise use of language, will be thrilled by Langewiesche's extraordinarily supple and readable prose.
Here is a book that satisfies on many levels. It stands with some of the very best writing about flying, ever. It ranks, for example, with some of Richard Bach's best work (e.g. STRANGER TO THE GROUND and A GIFT OF WINGS), or the lovely book by Jeffrey Quill, (SPITFIRE: A Test Pilot's Story), or many of the flying novels of the late Ernest Gann.
Even if the author claims, in his introductory notes, that he did not want to write further about flying after having done so much of it, and had to be bullied by his editors to do more, perhaps he protests too much. He has wisdom and a voice in flying that needs to be exercised and that we should listen to. With any luck, given the right editor, he will be persuaded to add to his writing oeuvre in the domain of the sky, perhaps in subsequent editions of this very special book. I, for one, would like to read his analysis of the Air France Airbus A340 loss over the Atlantic, once the bare facts are known, or his description of the two non-stop, unrefeueled round-the-world flights so far achieved.