Air Travel Was A Dash Of Excitement In The 'Jet Age'

With long lines, overbooked flights and lost luggage, there's not much glamor or excitement in modern air travel. But flying wasn't always so mundane. Host Scott Simon talks to author Sam Howe Verhovek about his new book, Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World. It's the story of the competition between two nations, two global airlines and two rival teams of engineers to design a safe and lucrative transatlantic passenger jet.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now from the open road to the open sky. You might have a fish for dinner tonight that was flown in fresh from the Mediterranean. Or get roses that were picked yesterday in Chile. For all the ways in which the World Wide Web, texting, Twitter, YouTube are celebrated for interconnecting our world, Sam Howe Verhovek tells a story in his new book about how the invention of jet travel, just over 50 years ago, is the force that first superseded borders, bringing Dutch backpackers to Disneyland and making it as easy for families in New Jersey to see the Eiffel Tower this summer as the Grand Canyon. Mr. Verhovek's new book is "Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World." He joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SAM HOWE VERHOVEK (Author): Well, thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: The period you write about, from the postwar era to the early '60s, was the Cold War.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Yes.

SIMON: But the adversaries in this struggle were old allies.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Absolutely. It came down to a great Anglo-American competition for supremacy in building a jet airliner, and I really tried to give credit to the Brits. They were the first to build a jet airliner. They were willing to go years before anybody else did. They kind of pushed the envelope and tragically they paid the price for it. The Comet - the de Havilland Comet, the first jet airliner - took the world by storm when it started flying passengers in 1952. But after a year they started having these just horrible accidents, where the plane essentially blew apart in the sky and killed everybody aboard.

SIMON: To see pictures of the de Havilland Comet today, it's an utterly beautiful airplane with the engines kind of concealed in the wing.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Yes.

SIMON: Was that part of its fatal flaw?

Mr. VERHOVEK: The engines in the wing were not really the cause ultimately of these three incidents where the plane just blew apart in the air. They were a factor in two other incidents on takeoff, one fatal, one not...

SIMON: We should explain. There was some theory that they created more vibrations that led to earlier fatigue of the metal.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Right. It took three of these accidents. After the first two, they essentially, the British authorities concluded that the airplane itself was still structurally sound. And it was only after the third one that they really conceded that this plane, you know, had a flaw, that all had to be taken out of service, and they really worked very hard to figure out what the mysterious flaw was and to be able to fix it and redesign the plane so that they could still somehow beat the upstart Americans that were coming ahead with their version of a jetliner.

SIMON: What did Boeing get right that de Havilland didn't?

Mr. VERHOVEK: You know, I think more than anything what Boeing had an advantage was the so-called second mover advantage in business. You see this over and over, where one company is sort of the pioneer and they go out into the market and they have a product that is close to being what's right but the second company that comes along is able to sort of look at what didn't quite work about the first product and improve upon it. Because the Americans were more reluctant to go ahead with a jetliner, Boeing started a couple years later and the advances that had been made, the technological knowledge at that point, really gave them a leg up. Had the de Havilland Comet not had its problems, though, I think there's a good chance that we would still be thinking of Britain as a world leader in commercial aviation manufacture today.

SIMON: Among some of the flabbergasting facts that you have in this book is that for all of the advances that have been made in everything over the last half century, there is no more quicker or comfortable way for civilians to fly across continents than the Boeing 707.

Mr. VERHOVEK: It's remarkable. How many technological innovations can you think of where 50 years later we're really not doing things all that differently? We're not flying around any faster or really any more comfortably than were the passengers in the very first Boeing 707 that flew across the Atlantic in 1958. Arguably we're flying slower because back in those days you could show up at the airport 15 minutes before flight time and that was no problem.

Continental Airlines actually started selling tickets aloft and they said that you could now show up at the airport only 10 minutes before flight time as opposed to 20. But also, the Boeing engineers, to their credit, they really got the design right the first time around. It's remarkable how good the 707 was. The jet engines of today are obviously a lot more fuel-efficient and quieter and so forth, but the essential process of flying back and forth, you know, from New York to London is really not all that different.

SIMON: Ever since I finished your book, I've been seeing the world differently, in that, you know, I look around and notice things that probably wouldn't be there within easy reach, from breakfast time on, if it weren't for the jetliner. I mean and I include the way that I live, because I fly a lot and we think nothing of saying, you know, go to Seattle one day and come back the next. That wouldn't be possible without the jetliner.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Yeah, well, I make the point in there that for all of our talk about the miracles of the World Wide Web, and it does do amazing things to bring people together, the Boeing 707 was sort of the original World Wide Web in terms of bringing people together. I guess Worldwide Wings, you'd call it. But, yeah, I feel also that air travel, despite all its hassles and all that, it is still basically a miracle, that you can so easily get from one place on the globe to another in a matter of hours. That is a pretty remarkable accomplishment. And we're so blas´┐Ż about it, but it is really only in the last generation or two that that was that was possible. Think of all - think of the choices of the heart that we are able to make, the long-distance relationships we engage in. That was just not feasible before, before jet travel.

SIMON: Well, thanks so much.

Mr. VERHOVEK: Oh, this is great.

SIMON: Sam Howe Verhovek, his new book is "Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World."

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