Review: "Jet Age" by Sam Howe Verhovek
The Comet, the 707 and the Race to Shrink the World
Jet Age is the true story of the race between the US and Britain to produce the first commercial jetliner that could fly a jet powered trans-Atlantic route. Along the way, it offers a fascinating insight into the personalities, motives, aircraft and challenges of the global aviation industry after World War II.
So come fly with me back to the dawn of commercial jet travel. Back to a time when people got dressed up to fly, when airlines served real food and competed for passengers through exceptional customer service (hard to imagine now, but it really happened).
What's This Book About?
In the early days of air travel, flights were all on propeller driven aircraft. After World War II, many people, including those in the aviation industry, thought that commercial jet travel was decades away. There were concerns that jets would be too fast for air traffic controllers to track and a general complacency that flying on a propeller aircraft was good enough.
Then, in 1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) began passenger service with the futuristic de Havilland Comet. This jet aircraft flew faster than its rivals and well above the turbulence that made flying on a propeller aircraft a bumpy ride.
The race to shrink the world was on. Just one problem...a few of the early Comets broke apart in flight killing over one hundred passengers and crew.
While de Havilland's engineers worked to fix this fatal flaw, American aircraft maker Boeing was pushing the development of its first jet liner, the Boeing 707 (the same aircraft seen on the TV show, Pan Am).
Jet Age covers this international rivalry from beginning to end.
De Havilland Comet 4 vs. Boeing 707
I like watching these old news reels. This one offers a British comparison of the Comet 4 (built after the cause of the Comet crashes was determined) and Boeing 707.
Thoughts About "Jet Age"
This book is a good overview of commercial aviation history before and after World War II. The focus is on the race to the first trans-Atlantic jet powered route but it covers other areas that set the stage for that race. It should be interesting to almost anyone who's flown on a commercial flight.
I enjoyed reading the sections about the early days of commercial air travel when airlines were trying hard to encourage people to fly. One airline ran a "wives fly free" promotion that had unexpected consequences. Another introduced the first stewardess service on a flight in 1930. Did you know that the first stewardesses were required to be registered nurses and had to "be strong enough to help the pilot pull an airplane out of a hangar"?
Several of commercial aviation's legendary figures are covered in the book: Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, the builder of the Comet; Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, the heads of TWA and Pan Am. Bill Allen, the president of Boeing, who bet his company's future on the 707. And Tex Johnston, the test pilot who shocked his boss at Boeing and the airline industry when he barrel rolled a prototype of the Boeing 707 airliner to demonstrate its performance (see video below).
It was surprising and disappointing that Verhovek didn't go into more detail about the cause of the Comet crashes and the fix for it. The incidents and investigations are covered thoroughly but the resulting findings are breezed through quickly.
Tex Johnston and the 707 Barrel Roll (Includes Video of the Roll)
Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston talks about the infamous day he barrel rolled a Boeing 707 at an air show in 1955 without permission. Tex's reply when Boeing's president asked what he was doing was, "I was selling airplanes."
It must be a challenge writing about a race where the reader already knows who won (hint: how many de Havilland aircraft have you flown on?).
Jet Age weaves a wealth of information about this period of aviation history into an interesting and comprehensive story. Verhovek does a good job of explaining what happened and, most interestingly, why.
It's not written as a sequential series of events. The story jumps back and forth in time as Verhovek presents different elements. This writing style flows pretty well, but I did have to pause and figure out where I was in the overall timeline a few times. There was also some repetition of facts or events.
The book is an easy and enjoyable read. It's perfect for reading on a flight or while waiting in the airport.
Life Aboard a 707: Promo Clip From Pan Am
Here's a glimpse of what air travel was like back in 1958 on a Pan Am Boeing 707 Clipper flight. Fans of ABC's show Pan Am will recognize the aircraft's interior and the friendly service of the stewardesses.
My Review of Jet Age
I gave Jet Age 4 stars because I enjoyed reading it a lot. It kept my interest and I learned a lot about the early history of commercial aviation.
There were key areas regarding the race where I wanted the author to provide more detail and it seemed that some of the other info was repeated unnecessarily.
Please share your rating of Jet Age if you've already read it. If you haven't, go read the book and come back later to rate it.
How Do You Rate "Jet Age"?
De Havilland Comet Tribute
This video has lots of old footage of the Comet, from early test flights up to the Comet 4.
More About Jet Age
- Jet Age - The Website
Official website of the book. Includes a bio of the author, Sam Howe Verhovek, with contact info. There's also info on how to get a signed copy of the book.
Crash of Comet "Yoke Peter" in 1954
Recreation of the crash of BOAC flight 781 off the coast of Italy in 1954. One of the Comet crashes covered in the book.
Thanks for reading my review of Jet Age. Please share your thoughts below on the book or anything aviation related.