Review of "Jet Age," a book about early competition in the airlines industry

By T. Rees-Shapiro
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 4:28 PM

JET AGE

The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World

By Sam Howe Verhovek

Avery. 248 pp. $27

The thrill of flying is gone. An airline, an industry executive once said, is regarded by most of the traveling public as little more than a "glorified bus operation." Just ponder: How many times during your last cross-country trip did you peer out at the prairie more than five miles below? Never mind. On your next flight, pass the time reading Sam Howe Verhovek's new book, "Jet Age."

Verhovek definitively traces the humble beginnings of commercial air travel and introduces its cast of characters, among them a cowboy test pilot named "Tex" who was really from Kansas; a suave and exotic Miami airline magnate; and Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire flying enthusiast who made Hollywood films on the side. The stars of the book, however, are the de Havilland Comet, the world's first commercial jetliner, despite its fatally flawed design; and the Boeing Dash 80, a hulking machine that came to be known as the "707" and "whose DNA can be deduced in any Boeing jetliner designed and flown since."

The Comet's progenitor, Geoffrey de Havilland, had designed fighter planes for the British air forces during World Wars I and II and was determined to push the boundaries of conventional air travel by introducing jet technology to the public. On May 2, 1952, the first passenger-laden Comet, in BOAC livery (now British Airways), took off from London bound for Johannesburg. The jet arrived two minutes ahead of schedule. Noting that momentous achievement the following December, a Pan-Am airlines representative sent a holiday card to every major American aircraft builder with a picture of Boston's Old North Church with three lanterns in the steeple window. The message was simple. The British were coming - this time by air.

American manufacturers tried to catch up, but two years went by before airline passengers could board an American-made jet, the Boeing 707, which was developed under unusual circumstances. In the 1950s, Congress enacted an excess profits tax "intended to prevent military companies from making out too well because of increased demand during [the Korean War]." Under the new system, Boeing would have ended up giving 82 cents on every dollar of profit to the government. Seeing an opportunity for both a deep investment and a tax deduction, Boeing's president, Bill Allen, called for the development of the 707 and allotted $15 million to the project - nearly a quarter of the company's net worth.

While the Comet was the first jetliner to take to the skies, the 707 turned out to be the better designed plane. A fatal flaw with the first Comet's square-shaped windows caused three of the jets to lose cabin pressure and explode in mid-flight. The success of the 707, meanwhile, transformed Boeing. Before the "Jet Age" the company had less than 1 percent of the market share, and now it is one of the leading manufacturers in the world. As Verhovek points out, the president of the United States flies on a Boeing jet.

Today, Verhovek asserts, millions of passengers take for granted how smooth, fast and quiet travel by jet can be. The first commercial propeller-driven planes were slow, loud and bouncy. A simple task such as reading a book in those days was nearly impossible, and a cross-country flight took 27 hours and stopped at least 14 times for fuel. In that same amount of time today, a vacationer can go from her Washington cubicle to a Maui cabana with hours to spare. As Verhovek notes, in 1958, about 170,000 people visited Hawaii. Today, it's more than 7 million.

We can thank Boeing for that.

-T. Rees-Shapiro


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