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God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2008

    A reviewer

    James R. Chiles¿ The God Machine takes an important place among a very small literature on a vital piece of modern technology ¿ the helicopter. Writings about helicopters are plentiful. A Google search using helicopter and history turns up 10 million hits. Just a listing of books in Barnes & Noble turns up a thousand. When you include just those that really try to cover the breadth and depth of the subject -- the ideas underlying, development, application, and impact of this technology ¿ numbers drop to a handful. Most are either dated ¿ which only takes a few years, given the pace of change in the world -- or focus solely on military aspects. So, even if it did nothing more than just try to cover the waterfront, The God Machine would be valuable. Chiles has gone well beyond that. He¿s presented key issues and a fair amount of technical information in terms that almost any lay reader can grasp. An example is his discussion of controlling in a hover ¿ the invaluable characteristic that distinguishes a helicopter from almost all other aircraft. He explains how this problem frustrated early visionaries and inventors, and how it was finally overcome ¿ down to the specific hardware and how it works this magic. In taking a broad view, Chiles also discusses the huge gaps between vision and reality that have been a persistent part of the story. One of these gaps involved the idea of a simple, cheap device that would displace the family car and reduce highway congestion. This vision foundered on the reality of a technology that defied finding a practical combination of cost, capability, and reliability that could put the product in the hands of the masses. Chiles shows how these same factors restricted ownership and use to the wealthy, companies, and public agencies meeting special needs. He shows how various inventors tried, always unsuccessfully, to overcome these obstacles. Chiles also shows how the helicopter achieved a unique place in meeting special needs ¿ especially for the military and in such activities as arctic exploration, servicing offshore oil platforms, civilian search-and-rescue, and real-time news gathering. He also shows how evolving social and political contexts have shaped attitudes toward helicopters ¿ especially opposition to their noise, as well as concerns about government spying on private citizens. Finally he shows, as in the case of helicopters rescuing mountain climbers in Alaska, how this technology has sometimes led to a false sense of security and personal recklessness that the public winds up paying the bills for. This book lacks citations to sources for specific information. Having worked extensively on history involving helicopters, I know that Chiles has made accessible information found only in some rare and expensive sources. Beyond that, he¿s drawn on interviews with and direct observation of helicopter pilots and users. He even learned to fly a helicopter. Anecdotes flowing from these sources give his writing an immediate, human touch that entertains as well as informs. No book will ever be the last word on rotorcraft, but The God Machine meets a real need. If you buy only one book on helicopters, this is the one. [Dr. James W. Williams is the former U.S. Army Aviation Branch Historian and author of A History of Army Aviation: From Its Beginnings to the War on Terror (2005)]

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