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.
A Cloudy Crystal Ball
A real history of the type Heppenheimer has purported to write would have included a comparative summary of the growth of major international flag carriers such as Air France, Lufthansa, and BOAC, whose Comet was in 1952 the first jet airliner to enter service, and whose descendant, British Airways, now owns 25 percent of USAir. The former Soviet Union’s achievements in commercial aviation also deserve a mention-for example, Aeroflot was at one time the world’s largest airline and the first to fly a supersonic airliner, its Tu-144 lifting off two months before the British/French Concorde.
Heppenheimer never talks about the explosion of air travel markets in the Pacific Rim, or the proliferation of start-up airlines in such new centers of tourism and expanding industry as Africa, West Asia, and Australia. We read of rapid postwar growth problems in U.S. air travel but nothing of the difficulties Europe has faced because of rigid ticket pricing, bad weather, and crowded skies. And except for a brief account of the founding of Federal Express, Turbulent Skies fails to discuss the world’s booming air freight industry.
The worldwide transition from piston to turbojet engines is similarly conspicuous by its absence. During the period when jet engines were not powerful, reliable, or fuel-efficient enough for commercial use, the industry employed turboprops, a technology in which smaller jet engines drive propellers. The result was airliners that were faster than prop aircraft yet more fuel-efficient than military jets. But Lockheed’s turboprop Electra is barely mentioned, even though 127 Electras flew with six major U.S. carriers, as did 88 British Viscount turboprops, which also served in many other airlines throughout the world. In fact, numerous turboprop designs still ply shorter routes in exWarsaw Pact countries, and cost-effective turboprop twins now dominate the U.S. “feederline” markets that connect smaller airports with major airlines’s hub cities.
Finally, Heppenheimer projects that, worldwide, airlines will be placing orders for almost $1 trillion in new aircraft over the next 15 years, but he neglects to mention how the growing viciousness of global competition has forced U.S. companies to team up with foreign manufacturers. For example, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing have forged subcontracting arrangements with China and Japan in the scramble for crucial Pacific Rim orders. And GE has joined with SNECMA, France’s engine manufacturing giant, to produce the CFM-56 turbofans on late-model Boeing 737s, as well as larger derivatives used by other aircraft around the world.
Yet despite all that is missing from Turbulent Skies, Heppenheimer’s closing account captures some of the intertwined swirls of excitement and anxiety that cloud the crystal balls of airline forecasters. Yes, annual industry revenues now exceed $200 billion worldwide. Yes, still-rising passenger demand and the vast distances of an expanding Pacific Rim market may well prompt the launch of an 800-passenger jetliner as well as a second-generation supersonic transport that is bigger, more environmentally friendly, and more profitable than the Concorde. But even so, unprecedented development costs will impose tremendous financial risks. Who will get the orders-Boeing, Airbus, a multi-company U.S. team, or an expanded European consortium that includes Russia’s Tupolev or Antonov design bureaus? Will they drive one another into bankruptcy?
To complicate matters further, we are now witnessing the beginnings of airline deregulation in the countries of the European Union. Will the outcome echo the chaos the U.S. industry experienced in 1978? And on the other side of the world, what impact will recurring political disagreements with China and trade rivalries with Japan have on aircraft orders from those two regions-or on the flow of their jetliner subassemblies to U.S.-based manufacturers? The outlook is not optimal-not what fighter pilots once called CAVU: ceiling and visibility unlimited. Thunderheads of uncertainty mass on the horizon. The seat belt sign may be off for now, but it may not be long before it goes back on again.