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Ask someone who has recently flown commercially about their experience and you'll hear a common complaint: "We spent almost as much time waiting as we did flying." The airline system has reached a nightmarish state due to a combination of economics and technology. As the average cost of a flight has come down in the last twenty years, the airlines have survived by filling all the seats and funneling traffic through a hub-and-spoke routing system. Virtually all of the technological innovation in airplanes in the last thirty years has been devoted to moving passengers more cheaply, and more safely, between major hubs. Each generation of new planes has been more reliable, and has carried more passengers on less fuel, than before. But what was left out of this equation was, of course, the comfort, convenience, and flexibility of the average traveler.
A technological answer to this logjam is underway at the moment. Free Flight will tell the story of three groups who are inventing and building the future of all air travel. There's a NASA administrator who long ago anticipated airline gridlock and began agitating for another system; there are the two brothers who created the first genuinely new small airplane in more than twenty-five years; and there is Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, which uses technologies first applied on cruise missiles to develop "cheap" jet planes for "air taxi" services that take you exactly where you want to go, when you want to go there. This book is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the airlines, airplanes, or American business.
Author Biography: James Fallows was The Atlantic Monthly's Washington editor from 1979 to 1996, and is now the magazine's national correspondent. He is the author of four previous books, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, Looking at the Sun, More Like Us, and National Defense. Fallows is a regular commentator on NPR. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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Read an Excerpt
Before I took the trip from Oakland to Boston with my family in the small plane, I had to get the plane to Oakland. The plane was normally based in Duluth, Minnesota, at the headquarters of its manufacturer, Cirrus Design. So I took a one-way commercial flight to Minneapolis and rented a car for the three-hour drive north to Duluth. Why did I drive? Because with hub-and-spoke pricing, a ticket from San Francisco to Duluth would have cost more than twice as much as one from San Francisco to Minneapolis. In Duluth I found the plane, a demo model of the one I had agreed to buy.
The plane had a bulbous front window, almost like a helicopter's, and a body with an hourglass shape. It was widest in the cabin, where four people could sit, then tapered back to a narrow waist just before its tail. It had swooping dark-green pinstripes along its side, and its registration number, N119CD, in large letters along the side. The plane's doors opened gull-wing style, exposing the interior with its leather seats in two-tone beige.
This plane was the Cirrus SR20, which I would take to the West Coast, in one afternoon and another day of flying, and then use to take my family to the east. In Duluth I was delighted to find that I would have a traveling companion. This was Chris Baker, a pilot and flight instructor in his midtwenties. By happy coincidence, he was not merely a flight instructor; he had been my flight instructor when I was training for an instrument rating. At the time Baker had been working at a flight school in Seattle. Now he was on contract to the company that designed and built the new airplanes, and was training their owners in how to handle them. He needed a ride to the west coast; I was pleased and relieved to have someone I still thought of as the voice of authority sitting next to me for the flight. As in the time when he'd been my instrument instructor, Baker sat in the right seat of the plane-"shotgun" in a car, the copilot's or instructor's seat in an airplane-and I sat in the pilot's seat on the left. We set off from Duluth in mid-afternoon, and for most of the next few hours, as we headed to our planned first stop in Rapid City, South Dakota, he let me fly the plane. In practice this meant making periodic small adjustments to the autopilot, responding to calls and instructions from air-traffic control, and keeping a lookout for other planes, even though hours would pass as we flew over farms and prairie without a single other craft in view. The emptiness of the sky, except on the crowded approach routes around airports, is one of the great revelations of the small-plane culture. The sight of another plane is as much an event as a glimpse of another ship on the open sea.
But near the end of the first day's journey, when we were less than an hour from Rapid City in fading light, Baker said, "My airplane." These are the words every student recognizes as the instructor's signal that he is taking command. By habit I said back, "Your airplane"; this is part of the protocol for "positive exchange of controls," to be clear about who's supposed to be in charge. We were flying over the Badlands when Baker took over, roughly following the Missouri River where it seemed to be a mile wide. I'd been keeping the plane 2,000 or 3,000 feet above the ground-low enough for a much more dramatic view than is available from 35,000 feet inside an airliner, high enough not to worry that turbulence, gusts of wind, or some other surprise force would bring us unpleasantly close to the ground. Baker had been patient with this-nice, prudent, behavior from a low-time pilot-but with "My airplane" he proceeded to show us what the country looked like up close.
He directed us right over the center of the vast Missouri River, and then headed the plane down. This was territory Lewis and Clark had traveled. When we were not a few thousand feet over the river's surface but a few hundred, it felt as if we were recreating their voyage. Along the banks of the river we could see stands of poplar, thickets of reeds, clouds of birds that sometimes erupted in flight as we passed by and sometimes sat unconcerned. I'd been airborne this close to the surface before-when learning to fly pontoon planes on the Puget Sound-but not at well over 150 miles an hour, nor while slaloming to follow the river's bends, nor in a place so utterly remote from any sign of human activity. To see the "flyover" zones of the American continent from an airliner is to have some theoretical awareness of how much of the landscape is unpopulated. To fly for hour upon hour at low altitude, in a little plane, and only occasionally come across an isolated ranch house or a gravel road leaves an entirely different impression. It was odd and, I'm sure, in some way dishonorable that in a modern, noisy flying machine I felt closer to nature and the wilderness than I could remember feeling when going on a hike. But the truth is that with the two of us inside that little cabin, following the river toward the setting sun with no lights or roads in view, it was like riding in a dugout canoe, a pirogue.
Eventually the sun set, and the terrain rose as we continued toward the mountains, and our destination of Rapid City neared. Baker said, "Your airplane," and I took the controls and returned to staid, normal flight as I prepared for the approach to the airport. But after landing and going to the hotel for the overnight stay, I remembered the voyage down the Missouri.
The next morning, Baker and I climbed into a van outside the Rapid City Radisson and took the brief ride back to the local airport. There were other vans and RVs on the road, many of them containing tourists on their way to visit Mount Rushmore, two dozen miles to the west. We were headed to see Mount Rushmore, too, but from a different perspective.
We loaded our bags into the plane; I started the engine; I took off and guided the plane toward the west. Then I said "Your airplane" to Baker. I said it at the moment Mount Rushmore came into view. For the next ten minutes, Baker flew the plane in among the peaks of the Black Hills, touring Mount Rushmore more or less the way it looked in the movie North by Northwest.
In a book of essays called Inside the Sky, the writer and veteran pilot William Langewiesche describes "the aerial view"-the sense of the landscape's knit-together nature that you can get neither from ground level nor by looking out the side window of an airliner but uniquely from a small plane a few thousand feet up. Langewiesche's father, Wolfgang, was a career pilot and the author of the most influential single book on the art of flying, Stick and Rudder, never out of print since its publication in 1944. William Langewiesche had grown up in airplanes, and he wrote that his long childhood experience with low-altitude views from his father's plane taught him to take for granted the "pilot's integrated sense of the earth's geometry":
It wasn't until college, when I took an air-taxi job and began carrying passengers for hire, people unaccustomed to flight, that I realized that there was anything unusual about the view…. For me it was like witnessing Stone Age people seeing photographs for the first time, getting used to the scale, then turning with growing excitement from the magic to the content of the picture. These passengers had ridden on the airlines but had been herded into their cabin seats, distracted by magazines, and given shoulder-height, triple-pane windows at right angles to the direction of flight.
And now suddenly they found themselves in a cockpit wrapped in glass, awash in brilliant light, in a small airplane lingering near the ground.
The most dramatic surprise in the low-altitude aerial view is the connectedness of physical features that seem separate from the ground. The route you're on never comes to a dead end, there are no walls over which you can't look. The central city spills into the suburbs, the suburbs spill into the farmland; everything is closer and more intimate-seeming than even on a map, with its emphasis on roads and boundaries. But there are many other surprises, including the foreshortening of features that look imposing when seen from below. The physical features of a landscape have a scale best appreciated from a low-altitude plane; the human constructions usually seem overmatched. Once, with a friend, Sam Howe Verhovek, I was flying a little rented plane through the eastern hinterland of Washington State-the rangelands on the far side of the Cascade mountains from Seattle. Something too big to comprehend from the ground was unmistakable from the air: the enormous gorge that was carved tens of thousands of years earlier by the sudden emptying of "Lake Bonneville," which during the last Ice Age had covered much of the mountain northwest. The part of this gorge that cut through the Columbia Plateau in central Washington was known as "the Grand Coulee," from the French word for gorge. The lake created by the Grand Coulee dam fills up part of it. From the air, the original Coulee itself has the clarity and drama of a crater on the moon-while the man-made Grand Coulee dam, largest concrete structure ever built, seems squat and compact rather than overwhelming from above.
Something similar was true of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. As we came around a bend and saw the famous four carved faces, they were like scrimshaw, or Japanese netsuke. The carefully worked figures were impressive for being embedded in, almost concealed by, such a vastly larger, natural background. There was a backstage quality to this look. From just above, we could see how rock debris had been unloaded in the area behind George Washington's head, giving it the appearance of a construction-zone dump-and that the backs of the heads were entirely unfinished. Baker swooped through the hills to the far-less-finished monumental statue of Crazy Horse, under construction for more than fifty years, by three generations of the Ziolkowski family of sculptors, and with many years of work still ahead. Yet if the monumental carvings seemed small, almost cute, the mountains had a coherence about them. They looked not like separated peaks but like the connected crests of waves on the sea.
Weaving through the mountains, at an altitude that gave him a comfortable margin but would have frightened me, Baker suddenly put the plane into a steep turn. It was if the plane were suspended by one wingtip, while we circled around a site on the ground pointed out by the other wing's tip. In the middle of nowhere-a cliché that seems literally true countless times on flights in the American West-Baker had spotted a structure. It was on the top of the highest peak for miles around. At first I thought it was a house, and then I realized it was an elaborate lookout post, made of stones fitted together as in some Norman castle tower. There was no road leading to it and we could barely make out even a footpath.
Its prominence over the surrounding landscape was so great that I could not help myself. I said what anyone naturally would say on encountering such a scene. "Would you look at that! Can you imagine the view they must have from there?" Baker looked at me with dismay, an expression I recalled from many episodes during instrument training. He seemed to be hoping for a sign that I was being sarcastic and therefore hadn't said something as obtuse as it would seem at face value. He saw no such sign and burst out laughing-as I did half a second later. "You don't have to 'imagine' anything about it," he said when he stopped laughing. "Just look around!"
Just looking around is the heart of what has fascinated people about flying. It inspired the enthusiasts who will create a new way to travel.