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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight by William Langewiesche | LibraryThing

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight by William Langewiesche | LibraryThing:

Langewiesche, one of my favorite technology writers, and author of the fascinating dissection of the ValueJet crash in Atlantic several months ago, is in love with flying. Inside the Sky is his attempt to convey that passion to non-pilots. He disdains commercial flight, which has reduced the experience of flying to being squeezed into tiny little seats, eliminates any sensation of flying, and suppresses the beauty of being able to see the world from a different vantage.

He's a little crazy, too. He and friends make a fetish of flying into storms, testing their ability to read the weather, avoid ice conditions, and to push the envelope, trying to gain an accumulation of experience. He has critics, of course. "I have always understood their concern. But the pursuit of such weather is an internal act, not a public one, and it is neither as reckless nor as arbitrary as it first may seem. It involves dangers, of course, but to a degree unimaginable to the critics, those dangers are controllable" His chapter recounting one such flight is fascinating, but a trip I prefer to make via page turning, never having been a fan of airsickness.

He writes about the business of air traffic controllers, noting that their job is not so much to prevent collisions - although that's the mystique that has grown up around them - but to get the most efficient use of airspace, which means actually getting planes as close together as possible. Since deregulation and the more prevalent use of hubs, airports have become extremely crowded. Helping the airlines to stay on time is a primary responsibility of the controllers. His comments on the antagonism between controllers and the FAA should be read by everyone. It may exp lain why your next plane is late.

Langewiesche analyzes several accidents to reveal certain basic lessons about flying. The crash of an Air India 747 several years ago resulted from the pilot's misreading of an instrument. Despite other instruments that gave him correct information, he flew the plane into the ground. The pilot relied too much on the instrument, failing to remember that "the cockpit's automated warnings, horns, and flashing lights provide largely just the appearance of safety and that for a variety of practical reasons no amount of automation can yet relieve pilots of the old-fashioned need to concentrate and think clearly in times of trouble." The planes themselves are incredibly strong and the traveler's fear of turbulence is misplaced. Planes are the most weather-worthy of vehicles, stronger than even pilots can imagine.

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