In Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation, freelance aviation and science writer T.A. Heppenheimer traces the bumpy flight path of the U.S. airline industry’s development-from the people who took the lead to the innovative technologies that allowed them to do so; from the early years of a cocoon-like cartel to the chaotic free-for-all following deregulation. Along the way, the author offers exciting stories of pioneers and visionaries like Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic fanned interest in passenger flying; Walter Brown and other postmasters general, who awarded lucrative subsidies to air mail routes, thereby encouraging airlines to grow; and American Airlines’s C.R. Smith, who spurred Donald Douglas to manufacture the DC-3, the craft that-as Smith himself would say-“freed the airlines from complete dependence on mail pay. It was the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers.”
Heppenheimer’s account of the technological developments that helped the industry to evolve is enlightening. He notes, for example, that a key factor in enabling early airlines to replace mail with more passengers was the development in 1926 of Pratt & Whitney’s Wasp engine, which could generate more power with less weight. Then, between 1933 and 1936, came the twin-engine revolution: faster, more easily maintained Boeing 247s, Douglas DC-2s, and, finally, the DC-3.
Nor does the author neglect the growth of the airlines’s infrastructure. After World War II, air travel took off in the United States thanks to pent-up demand, the ready availability of military-trained pilots, and the larger, faster transport aircraft developed during the war. But, as Heppenheimer points out, there weren’t enough airports, and effective air traffic control was in its infancy. He does a masterly job of outlining corrective measures instituted by the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Federal Aviation Administration-more stringent flight regulations, the use of radar, and the installation of collision-avoidance systems.
Nevertheless, Turbulent Skies contains baffling omissions, given the expectations fostered by its subtitle. Except for side glances at jet engine development, the Concorde supersonic airliner, and competition between Boeing and Europe’s Airbus Industrie consortium, the book offers primarily a history of the U.S. airline industry alone. Interesting and competent, yes, but a globally oriented “history of commercial aviation” it is not.