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Book Review

Thrill of Flying Propels Choppy Ride

INSIDE THE SKY, A Meditation on Flight, by William Langewiesche, Pantheon, $24, 240 pages

June 17, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

"Flying is another way of thinking" declares William Langewiesche, a writer who, as a former commercial pilot, thought as he flew. Rather than gym or civics, he suggests, high schools might offer lessons in the para-sail--a cloth wing with steering ropes, and the closest thing to bird flight. Gliding at bicycle speed 60 feet above the ground, there could be "an entire generation in which people truly had learned to see themselves from above."

There is exhilaration in Langewiesche's collection of flight meditations, and some disorientation. The book resembles, in a way, the chapter having to do with flying at night or in heavy overcast. It is a thrilling affair and one in which you might find yourself yawing uncontrollably without realizing it, or even flying upside down. One amateur pilot, caught with his children in bad weather, sobbed as he begged the control tower to tell him if he was right-side up. The tower's radar blips were useless; the man crashed.

No crashes in "Inside the Sky," but some unmanaged tilts and cloudy disappearances. The author ranges from the practicalities of flight to its mystique; the former is engrossing and so is the latter sometimes, but it doesn't always hook up.

On the practicalities, Langewiesche is superb. He gives a devastating description of the ValuJet crash in Florida; his vivid evocations here and elsewhere of what goes on in a cockpit--and what goes wrong--are topped by a careful unraveling of what led flammable oxygen generators to be packed in the cargo hold. Langewiesche's complex risk analysis touches on such things as the shortcuts involved in downsizing and cost-cutting, and the likelihood in complicated and dangerous technologies of "many little bad decisions," each nonlethal, that can add up to disaster.

To us multitudes who fly so much and know so little, a chapter called "Turns" insidiously disconcerts. Until gyroscopic horizon indicators came along, only by seeing the ground could a pilot know if he was tilting to the left or right with his nose beginning to spiral down. When the pilot lacks visibility, the mysteries of inertia and other momentums mean that his senses--or, for that matter, the drink in a passenger's hand--offer no clue.

It was this disorientation rather than the rigors of weather that made early pilots try to avoid flying in overcast conditions. Yet Langewiesche recounts the resistance put up to gyroscopes; pilots were supposed to fly by the seat of their pants even when centrifugal force had yanked them off.

In a clever, no doubt controversial chapter, Langewiesche argues that the safety role of flight controllers is exaggerated. Mainly they exist to keep the planes moving. As for safety, it is the pilots themselves, the refinement of their instruments, the sheer size of the sky and airplanes' aerodynamic tendency to stay in the air--or when dropping, to drop slowly--that deserve most of the credit.

Never mind the cliche that compares controllers at a busy airport to jugglers overwhelmed by balls. If it is juggling, Langewiesche argues, it is done on a low-gravity planet "using smart balls that knew how to navigate and to talk to one another and could find ways not to collide."

The man writes with sharpness and wit. He also writes beautifully. What he does not always do is think very clearly. There is a long section about the author and two fellow pilots flying a small plane all over the Midwest and East seeking out terrible weather. The courage needed by pilots tends to silt up, leading them eventually to give up flight, he explains--storm-flying dredges.

This is all very well, yet why, for all its vivid detail, does the account of battling above the ice, sheltering below it, turning back, radioing and rerouting seem flat? The fact is, it lacks something essential to an ordeal: a destination. It is not Mallory on Everest or Scott heading for the South Pole. It is more like a man deciding to walk the icy 49th-floor ledge of his office building. Exercise, even moral exercise, is not a journey, nor can it read like one.

Elsewhere, Langewiesche argues that the exultation of flight is a new and better way to know the world. "The fact remains that the old sterilized landscapes--like designated outlooks and pretty parks and sculpted gardens--have become obsolete, and that it is largely the airplane that has made them so."

His father was a pilot, and as a child, Langewiesche saw a great deal of the world from the airy, privileged and thrilling perspective--of a cockpit window. Of course it is thrilling, and lovely besides. No blisters, weariness, slowness or tiresome strangers.

Virtual reality is fun and it can even be expansive; what it can't be is more than a blip on reality. As Langewiesche so often shows in the grittier parts of his book, the reality of flying is instruments, attentiveness, the ice forming on the wing, the updrafts, and always and above all--below, that is--the laws of gravity.

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