'Jet Age': Sam Howe Verhovek's story of how Boeing came to rule the skies
A review of Seattle journalist Sam Howe Verhovek's "Jet Age," a riveting history of how Boeing came to dominate the world of air travel. Verhovek discusses his book Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Sam Howe VerhovekThe author of "Jet Age" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World'
by Sam Howe Verhovek
Avery, 248 pp., $27
Seattle area residents proud of their metropolis and its starring role in the development of aviation will find evidence galore to justify that pride in a new Boeing-centric book about the history of jet-air travel.
Sam Howe Verhovek, a Seattle journalist and former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, has written a compelling account of how Boeing emerged victorious as a manufacturer of jet airplanes for business and pleasure fliers. Among the reasons that Boeing prevailed: the charms of the metropolitan area where it is based.
"For Boeing, its employees' fondness for Seattle was part of a cohesive force that gave the company a crucial advantage over rival manufacturers," Verhovek writes. "In Southern California, one huge problem for Douglas, Lockheed and some emerging companies in the postwar [World War II] years was that they kept hiring away one another's talent. It is manifestly difficult to design something as complex as an airliner without a stable team of brilliant engineers and skilled workers. But that was never a problem for Boeing, and to a degree perhaps unimaginable to today's worker, the company took an outsize, even paternalistic, role in people's lives."
Verhovek builds his historical narrative around five primary characters: Bill Allen, the reticent Seattle lawyer who became the unlikely chief executive of Boeing and died in 1985; Tex Johnston, Boeing's flamboyant chief test pilot, dead since 1998; Geoffrey de Havilland, founder of a British jet-airplane manufacturer competing with Boeing, dead since 1965; John Cunningham, de Havilland's chief test pilot, dead since 2002; and Arnold Hall, a British scientist tasked with determining why de Havilland jets crashed so frequently, dead since 2000.
The author began his research intending to write a biography of company founder Bill Boeing, who died in 1956. It turned out, however, that Bill Boeing's life lacked the narrative arc for a readable biography. So Verhovek shifted his focus somewhat.
Besides showing his research skills, Verhovek weaves a strong narrative around separate but merging story lines: Which of the competing jet manufacturers will thrive financially? Why did the sleek de Havilland Comet jets crash time after time, killing everybody on board? As the answers to those questions emerge, it becomes increasingly difficult to set the book aside.
Perhaps the chief reason for the book's success, however, is Verhovek's contagious passion for airplanes.
"Today the modern airliner is in so many ways a victim of its own success, such a commonplace that few of us even pause to look at one soaring in the sky or think much about jet travel at all except when it inconveniences us, when our plane is crammed to the gills with all those other people or delayed by hours as we inch forward on a taxiway, waiting for all those other planes to take off our land," Verhovek writes.
For Verhovek, taking off and landing is never commonplace. That is why he persisted to publish what he calls the only book to focus on the competing Boeing and deHavilland airplanes as their creators race to "shrink the world by being the first to carry passengers in jet service across either of the world's great oceans."
Upon absorbing "Jet Age," I am less likely to consider my future air travel commonplace.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.