Book Reading

Jet Blues

A new Seattlecentric account of the race to conquer the skies may not soar, but it still explores a fascinating history.

By Eric Scigliano October 18, 2010

And the winner is….


Tonight Seattle-based journalist Sam Howe Verhovek will present his new Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World at Elliott Bay Books. Jet Age leads off with an inspired question: What would “medieval serfs or the Founding Fathers” find most amazing about our time? Perhaps Google Earth or the iPhone, but more likely “our jetliners, whizzing around up there at more than 500 miles an hour.”

Really? Humans had imagined flying for millennia and tried to for centuries—from Daedalus to Leonardo to the brothers Montgolfier. But today’s digital technology defies and surpasses the wildest dreams of a few decades ago. Verhovek cannily excludes them in another sweeping assertion: The jet plane “is undeniably the machine that has connected our world in the most real, tangible of ways, truly linking more people in more places than any other invention in history.” But if you’re going to celebrate the blessings of ubiquitous jet flight, you might also note some downsides: cultural homogenization and the cheapening of travel, the lightning spread of terrorism, disease, and invasive species, the fastest-growing share of greenhouse gas emissions.

Verhovek dispenses with broad claims to tell his story: how America’s (and, at that time, Seattle’s) Boeing and Britain’s de Havilland raced to build the first successful commercial jet. But he frontloads the highpoints and gives away the outcome, in a structure recalling a classic newspaper pyramid. (Verhovek was Seattle correspondent for the New York and LA Times.) We learn on page 17 that de Havilland’s Comet was a “tragic failure” and watch Tex Johnston barrel-roll the proto-707 to glory on page 35.

Still, the back story that follows is rich enough to overcome prose that sometimes reads like the New York Times’s front page on a bad day. Especially fascinating: the forgotten jet gambits of France, Canada, and Russia, and how Hitler botched the Messerschmidt.

Perhaps someone someday will weave it all together, as Daniel Yergin did the petroleum age in The Prize. But writing on jets and the industry that created them never seems to soar, and this brief account, though sprightly and superbly researched, is no exception. Sailing ships, car trips, horses, canoes, even trains have all inspired great writing. Jet flight, for all its globe-leaping speed, hasn’t. Perhaps it’s outraced our imaginations—or simply become too commonplace, a victim of its own success.

Sam Howe Verhovek will also speak at
Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park, Saturday, Nov 13, 7-9pm.
Town Hall, 1119 8th Avenue, Tuesday, Dec 7, 7:30-9pm.
University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Monday, Dec 13, 7-9pm.

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