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Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World

April 13th, 2011

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The captivating story of the titans, engineers, and pilots who raced to design a safe and lucrative passenger jet. In Jet Age, journalist Sam Howe Verhovek explores the advent of the first generation of jet airliners and the people who designed, built, and flew them. The path to jet travel was triumphal and amazingly rapid-less than fifty years after the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, Great Britain led the world with the first commercial jet plane service. Yet the pioneering British Comet was cursed with a tragic, mysterious flaw, and an upstart Seattle company put a new competitor in the sky: the Boeing 707 Jet Stratoliner. Jet Age vividly recreates the race between two nations, two global airlines, and two rival teams of brilliant engineers for bragging rights to the first jet service across the Atlantic Ocean in 1958. At the center of this story are great minds and courageous souls, including Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who spearheaded the development of the Comet, even as two of his sons lost their lives flying earlier models of his aircraft; Sir Arnold Hall, the brilliant British aerodynamicist tasked with uncovering the Comet's fatal flaw; Bill Allen, Boeing's deceptively mild-mannered president; and Alvin "Tex" Johnston, Boeing's swashbuckling but supremely skilled test pilot. The extraordinary airplanes themselves emerge as characters in the drama. As the Comet and the Boeing 707 go head-to-head, flying twice as fast and high as the propeller planes that preceded them, the book captures the electrifying spirit of an era: the Jet Age. In the spirit of Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World, Verhovek's Jet Age offers a gorgeous rendering of an exciting age and fascinating technology that permanently changed our conception of distance and time, of a triumph of engineering and design, and of a company that took a huge gamble and won.


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History Books The captivating story of the titans, engineers, and pilots who raced to design a safe and lucrative passenger jet. In Jet Age, journalist Sam Howe Verhovek explores the advent of the first generation of jet airliners and the people who designed, built, and flew them. The path to jet travel was triumphal and amazingly rapid-less than fifty years after the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, Great Britain led the world with the first commercial jet plane service. Yet the pioneering British Comet was cursed with a tragic, mysterious flaw, and an upstart Seattle company put a new competitor in the sky: the Boeing 707 Jet Stratoliner. Jet Age vividly recreates the race between two nations, two global airlines, and two rival teams of brilliant engineers for bragging rights to the first jet service across the Atlantic Ocean in 1958. At the center of this story are great minds and courageous souls, including Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, who spearheaded the development of the Comet, even as two of his sons lost their lives flying earlier models of his aircraft; Sir Arnold Hall, the brilliant British aerodynamicist tasked with uncovering the Comet's fatal flaw; Bill Allen, Boeing's deceptively mild-mannered president; and Alvin "Tex" Johnston, Boeing's swashbuckling but supremely skilled test pilot. The extraordinary airplanes themselves emerge as characters in the drama. As the Comet and the Boeing 707 go head-to-head, flying twice as fast and high as the propeller planes that preceded them, the book captures the electrifying spirit of an era: the Jet Age. In the spirit of Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World, Verhovek's Jet Age offers a gorgeous rendering of an exciting age and fascinating technology that permanently changed our conception of distance and time, of a triumph of engineering and design, and of a company that took a huge gamble and won.
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  1. Jill Meyer
    April 21st, 2011 at 19:49 | #1

    Rating

    but not particularly well-edited.

    The main story, about the development the modern jet passenger, is pretty well done. Author Sam Howe Verhovek tells of the early development of jet planes by the UK’s deHavilland and the US’s Boeing, which resulted in the Comet in the early 1950′s and the 707 in the late 1950′s. He goes into the back story of each of the owners as well as peripheral figures at each company. He touches on others in the race for the jet, including the Canadians and the Russians. But editing is not done well. The story of the early crashes of the Comets is loosely put in and I felt in a confusing fashion. Verhovek begins his book with the Comet crashes and then leaves them out til almost the end.

    The second part of the book – and much smaller than the first – was the story about early stewardesses. I don’t know what the advent of stewardesses had to do with the development of the jet-age, as stewardesses were introduced in the early 1930′s, twenty or so years before the jet planes began flying.

    Verhovek’s book is very disjointed. It almost feels as if it was rushed into print without any – or enough – editing. I found several grammatical errors in the text. I really hope someone edits this book in its next printing. Verhovek is a good writer and what he writes is interesting; I just wish it wasn’t presented in such a haphazard fashion.

  2. William Holmes
    April 24th, 2011 at 15:22 | #2

    Rating

    “Jet Age” is all the more enjoyable for being a book about many things besides jets. The central narrative about the competition between Britain and America is clear from the subtitle, “The Comet, the 707 and The Race to Shrink the World.” The British were the first to test a commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, in 1949. British Overseas Airway Corporation (BOAC) assigned the new aircraft to its Empire Service, and it began carrying paying passengers on regularly scheduled flights in May 1952. The American airline industry was satisfied with big, noisy, turbulent, uncomfortable propeller-driven aircraft–Boeing was the only manufacturer willing to bet the company on jet air travel, and its Dash 80 (the prototype of the famous 707) was years behind the Comet. The book is first and foremost about the race between de Havilland and Boeing, told from the perspective of national pride.

    From there, the story branches out in myriad directions. A second narrative summarizes the life and achievements of Geoffrey de Havilland, who endured personal tragedy (including the deaths of two of his three sons in company aircraft) to lead Britain into the jet age. The Americans in the story include Bill Boeing, who founded the eponymous company but left the airline industry in disgust in 1934 when the Roosevelt Adminstration broke his company into an aircraft manufacturer (Boeing Company), an airline (Boeing Air Transport, now United Airlines), and an engine manufacturer (today’s United Technologies); Bill Allen, who bet the company on the 707 and later on the even larger 747; Howard Hughes (TWA), Eddie Rickenbacker (Eastern), and Juan Trippe (Pan Am), the leaders of the airlines who would decide whether the 707, the Douglas DC-8, or the Comet won the race to become the dominant aircraft of the jet age; and Tex Johnston, the Boeing test pilot and salesman-in-chief who famously barrel-rolled the Dash 80–twice–in a demonstration flight above Lake Washington in Seattle.

    The Comet was first out of the gate but turned out to be an aircraft too far ahead of its time–a fatal structural flaw caused by metal fatigure sometimes without warning caused the jetliner to disentegrate in the upper atmosphere, leading in 1952-53 to three mysterious high-altitude disasters that killed over 100 people. Part of Verhovek’s story is about how the British swallowed their considerable national pride, grounded the Comet, and figured out what had gone wrong. Boeing learned from these tragic lessons and designed the 707 with a fuselage able to withstand a “guillotine test” without shredding.

    To tell the story of the “race to shrink the world,” Verhovek disgresses to a number of interesting subtopics, including Boeing’s invention of “the stewardess,” (who was at first required to be an unmarried registered nurse), the first encounter between a British Mosquito and Germany’s Me262 jet fighter near the end of World War II, the establishment of the American air mail industry, and the growth of commercial airlines in the United States in the 1930s.

    It’s clear that Verhovek has a lot of passion for his subject and has taken the time to master its many interesting facets–it’s as if Simon Winchester decided that he wanted to write about the aircraft. The result is a very readable book that I highly recommend.

    If you enjoy Verhovek’s story of how our modern jet airline industry came to be, you might want to have a look at Jay Spenser’s The Airplane: How Ideas Gave Us Wings.

  3. Theodore A. Rushton
    April 26th, 2011 at 16:40 | #3

    Rating

    Few books are this good; it is a masterful story by a former New York Times reporter who shows why it is one of the world’s great newspapers — a type of publication often referred to as the first rough draft of history.

    But it misses intense spirit of ‘The Soul of a New Machine’ by Tracy Kidder, a classic description of the obsession to create a new product. Verhovek often hints at military research and contracts which seem to be basic research for the 707; any company that could build the B-29 and B-47 was surely poised to build an “aluminum tube” to carry passengers.

    Instead, his focus is on efforts to build a jetliner. Competition included a last great gasp by a fast fading Britain, a blithely baffled Canadian leap of imagination (barely mentioned) which quickly failed in a truly clueless society, and the final brilliant success of Boeing which uniquely combined gutsy nerve, technology, markets, salesmanship and timing.

    Why does Boeing succeed? As Verhovek explains, it is part of the soul of Seattle. Boeing creates pride in its products, plus pride in its employees and the city where they live. It is more than the sum of its parts, basically an American company that bends aluminum into useful shapes and attaches other parts to create a quality product. In addition, Boeing reflects the confidence of workers who are able to conceive and build “impossible” products for tomorrow’s world.

    As a former de Havilland Canada employee, I saw the pride in building the world’s best STOL aircraft. DHC employees had pride in their work, Toronto was largely indifferent. Some projects DHC launched in the 1960s evolved into today’s best commuter aircraft. Indifference doomed DHC, just as it killed the Avro C-102 jetliner which first flew in 1949. Avro vanished; the remnants of DHC were taken over by a snowmobile company which is an emerging competitor to Boeing and Airbus.

    The secret is pride in the work, the product and knowing the market. As Verhovek shows, Boeing built jet bombers to fly half-way around the world, it applied this talent to commercial aviation, then assiduously courted and respected customers. It expanded the realm of leisure; instead of once-in-a-lifetime trips, Boeing gave people this easy ability to visit any part of the globe whenever they wish.

    It’s the story of all great successes. Make life better for people — i.e. “build a better mousetrap” — and the world will fly to your door. It applies to aircraft, newspapers, cups of coffee and books of this quality.

    Read this and you’ll get an insight into the culture of excellence in contrast to an “it’s good enough” attitude. Seattle, shaped by Boeing, produced Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Filson, Microsoft and Amazon.com. Los Angeles area gave us McDonalds, Disney, reality TV and smog. But who wants a Mickey Mouse aircraft rather than a Boeing product?

  4. Clark
    April 27th, 2011 at 22:47 | #4

    Rating

    If you are interested in the history of aviation and how jet transportation forever changed our world, this is the book to read…and even if you hadn’t thought about it, check it out. Global air travel is now taken for granted and this book details the trials and tribulations of those who were in competition to shrink the globe by developing the first jet transport.

    I took a bit different approach to reading the book, skipping to the end to read about the genesis of the book in the Epilogue. Author Sam Howe Verhovek has conducted extensive research on Boeing, de Havilland and the people who were the visionaries within those companies. He located great resources in libraries and company archives and crafted a history that is very readable. His writing skills allow the technical information on the 707 and the Comet to be interleaved with the personalities of the engneers, test pilots and executives in a way that personalizes the technical nature of the endeavor. The book is broken down into chapters that detail the efforts of both manufacturers, the aviators, the companies and the race itself, and each story is covered nicely.

    There is a lot of entertainment packed into 272 pages, I highly recommend taking it along on your next flight to learn how people and planes forever changed our world.

    Kent Lewis

    Signal Charlie

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