By Sam Howe Verhovek
The Penguin Group, 2010
Hardcover, 248 pages
Photographs, bibliography, index
We're accustomed to an increasingly shrinking world, virtually linked through media and the wonders of the Internet. But in his book Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World, author Sam Howe Verhovek reminds us that the initial and real connecting impact came with jet airplane travel, a little more than half a century ago.
The world's first operational jet was the German Messerschmitt Me 262 -- a military war plane -- but it was Great Britain that brought the first commercial jet service with the deHavilland Company's Comet. Promising in concept, the British Comet logged thousands of passenger miles but a design flaw led to three tragic explosions in the sky, ultimately allowing a small Seattle airplane builder, the Boeing Company, to quietly step forward and take the lead with its well-engineered 707 Jet Stratoliner.
Jet Age is the colorful story of the race between countries for dominance in commercial jet air travel. Canada, Russia, and France each developed a jet but the real race was between the deHavilland Aircraft Company and the Boeing Company, Britain and the United States. Even though the Comet made the world's first commercial jet flight across the Atlantic in October 1958, the plane ultimately could not compete in the marketplace with the 707.Mystery surrounded the plagued Comet. What caused them to explode? The book explains and it is hard to imagine, given the plane's disasters, that the company persisted in building Comets. Eventually the problem was discovered and fixed and the name continued to be used: there were Comets 2, 3, and 4. (Why was there never a Titanic 2?). In the early 1950s, Britain's economy was in postwar shambles, and the fact that deHavilland persisted showed the world that Brits had grit and determination.
Any book is a "good read" that devotes chapters to colorful Boeing test pilot Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston; movie-handsome British Group Captain John "Cat Eyes" Cunningham, British Overseas Airline Company's (BOAC) test pilot; filmmaker and aviator Howard Hughes; Sir Geoffrey deHavilland; Boeing's Bill Allen, and a number of brilliant engineers. Johnston is legendary for barrel rolling the prototype Dash-80, precursor of the Boeing 707, at Seattle's Seafair hydroplane race on August 7, 1955. These were larger-than-life characters and their stories make Jet Age not only informative but entertaining. Of course the planes themselves are colorful characters too.
One highlight of the book -- in the chapter "Ambassadors in the Air" -- is the story of the airline stewardess who, in the early years of flight, was mainly hired as a "sky girl," expected to make passengers comfortable and to ease their fear of flying. As Verhovek points out, plane crashes in those early years were common. When one boarded a plane, one prepared to die. But as commercial jet service grew popular, airlines began selling the world and the airline stewardess became a glamorous and powerful marketing draw. She was elegant and fashionable, admired for her beauty, grace, intelligence, and wit. Stewardess was a coveted job (for those 5' 5" and under) but sadly it came with sacrifice as they were not allowed to marry or have children. A stewardess alumni group is appropriately named "Clipped Wings."
Former New York Times national correspondent Sam Howe Verhovek is a Seattle resident. Jet Age is an important world story, but also important regionally for the story of the Boeing Company's rise. In the book's Epilogue, Verhovek admits he originally intended to write a book about Bill Boeing but found Bill Allen and the beginnings of commercial jet travel much more fascinating.
Jet Age covers the years from the 1920s through the 1960s, with a focus on the years following World War II, a time of great world change. At the heart of this change was the jet, the plane that quickly connected the world. It was also a time that gave the Boeing Company prominence. Under the direction of William Allen, company president from 1945 to 1968, Boeing gained a dominant presence with its dependable jet 707.
Although commercial jet travel began only a little more than 50 years ago, most of us today have little or no adult recollection of how it felt when the world suddenly shrunk. Verhovek does not miss two relevant television and movie links, referring to the Jimmy Stewart film No Highway in the Sky and ending with an appropriate and eerie Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode. Both serve to put us in the mood of the 1950s.
--By Margaret Riddle, August 15, 2011