September 08, 2014

America from the Air, a fascinating book

After the American Century

Somehow until this year I never heard of Wolfgang Langewiesche or his three books dealing with various aspects of aviation. One of these, Stick and Rudder, is still unknown to me, though it has gone through more than 70 editions since it was published in 1944. What I have read, with great pleasure, is America from the Air, a reissued work from Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, that combines portions of two other books, I'll Take the High Road (Harcourt, Brace, 1939) and A Flier's World (McGraw-Hill, 1951). The first of these two was praised  by the New York Times as "a stirring and revealing story, told with sensitiveness and lucidity and with the warmth of a modest personal charm." These words still ring true 75 years later.

America from the Air is so clearly written that the text jumps off the page. Langewiesche came from Germany to the United States to study in Chicago, but he developed a passionate interest in flying, particularly in small planes. During the early 1930s he spent every dollar he could get his hands on paying for flying lessons and renting planes by the hour. He sold his car to get more air time, paying 25 cents a minute. He considered the airplane "of all the works of man" to be "the nearest to a living being." (1) And he loved to fly low over the American landscape, developing an understanding of the country from its physical and man-made formations. His prose is so good, he makes you see it too.

This book also explains how exciting aviation seemed in the 1930s. Reading it recaptures that time of open skies and free exploration, before traffic increased and security concerns clamped down. It also explains lucidly the stages an apprentice pilot must pass through before being ready to solo. It should be read alongside Mark Twain's account of what it took to become a Mississippi river pilot in the 1850s. Langewiesche and his generation had no radar and only the simplest of controls. They flew planes far less reliable than those of today, whose engines needed more frequent service. Langewieschetook practiced parachute jumping, just in case.

But America from the Air is not merely of historical interest. The experience of seeing the American landscape from a small plane at 3,000 feet, rather than from 35,000 feet, remains exhilerating and fascinating, not least because the pilot in a small plane has a much wider and unobstructed view than an airline passenger, who can only gaze out a small window in one direction, with the view of the  distant ground often blocked by a wing.  

This is a classic.