Interviews May 2001

The Soul of a New Flying Machine

The Soul of a New Flying Machine

James Fallows, the author of Free Flight, argues that the next generation of small planes could usher in a new age of travel
Free Flight

Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel
by James Fallows
288 pages, $25.00

When former marine pilot Ken Michelsen gave James Fallows his first flying lesson in 1996, he could hardly have imagined that his pupil would turn out to be in any way important to the small-plane world. Fallows, after all, was a mere hobbyist, taking up flying relatively late in life, and not especially enthusiastically. After an inauspicious first few lessons, though, Fallows grew to love flying, eventually acquiring both an instrument-rated flying license and a small plane of his own. As his passion for flying broadened into an interest in the industry as a whole, he began to become aware of some potentially revolutionary innovations being pioneered by enthusiast-entrepreneurs.

With the help of incentives from NASA, scores of small companies had been racing to develop cheaper, safer, more comfortable small planes intended to appeal not just to hard-core enthusiasts but to the general public. If such planes were to catch on, Fallows realized, they could introduce a desperately needed measure of flexibility and convenience to our maddeningly inefficient air-transport system. Now all but the wealthiest travelers have to book seats far in advance, and end up routed through congested hubs. A small-plane fleet, however, could enable travelers to summon a small-plane "air taxi" on short notice and fly directly from the nearest small airport to the desired destination without breaking the bank.

Intrigued by these possibilities, and recognizing that very few people outside the aviation industry were aware of them, Fallows endeavored to write a book that would reach a general readership and inform the public about the potential for "a new age of travel." The result is Free Flight, which will be published in June. (An excerpt appears as The Atlantic's June cover story.)

In Post & Riposte:

Freedom of the Skies
Are small planes the way of the future for air travel? James Fallows joins the discussion on his June cover story.

Much of the book's narrative centers on the struggles of two aerospace startups. The reader follows the triumphs and setbacks of the Klapmeier brothers, a pair of pilots from the Midwest, as they set out to found a company called Cirrus and develop an attractive, easy-to-fly airplane (equipped with a whole-plane parachute), while holding down costs, obtaining the necessary government certification, and soliciting funding. Fallows also chronicles the efforts of a company called Eclipse Aviation to develop a slightly larger, jet-powered plane, reliable and inexpensive enough to serve as part of an air-taxi fleet.

Suffusing the book is Fallows's own love of flying. He strives to convey something of the exhilaration he feels aloft—his delight in the panoramic view, his appreciation for the intense concentration demanded by the task at hand, and his pleasure in the company of fellow pilots. Last September he flew from Oakland, California, to Boston with his wife and son. In Free Flight he briefly describes their cross-country adventure, recounting the marvel of watching the mountains flatten out beneath them as they traveled east, their nerve-wracking navigation of a thunderstorm, and their surprise at the vastness of America's unpopulated expanses.

James Fallows is The Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent, and has been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, Slate, and The Industry Standard. His previous books include Breaking the News, Looking at the Sun, and National Defense. He has been a presidential speechwriter, the editor of U.S. News, and a consultant for Microsoft.

Fallows recently spoke with me on the telephone from Berkeley, California, where he lives with his wife.

—Sage Stossel

James Fallows
James Fallows   

When you took your first flying lesson did you have any inkling of how important flying would become to your life?

I had no idea I would end up finding it interesting. The couple of times I'd gone on small-plane flights with people in the previous ten or fifteen years I was mildly interested, but put off by all the impedimenta and crud of the whole excercise—the planes were in bad shape, the airports were hard to get to, and so on. And then when I took my first lesson it was freezing cold, it was bumpy, I had to get ice off the wings of the plane, I was feeling mildly queasy because of the gasoline fumes, and for the first little while—probably the first five or eight lessons—I thought, Well, I've started this, I might as well see where it will lead. It was only after that that it began to become interesting. I thought, Hey, this is a whole different view on life.

You wrote an article for The Atlantic years ago about your flight in an Air Force F-15. It sounded pretty horrible.

Yeah. Flying in that F-15, with no preparation and 6- and 7-G turns, gave me chronic, low-level nausea for about the next six or eight years, really. If I got into a normal airline or even a taxi I started feeling bad because of what that had done to my inner ear. By the time real fighter pilots did that, they would have been training for months and months and months. So that gave me a reason not to pursue an aviation career for a while.

So it seems surprising that you actually did decide to take up flying after that.

It shows the power of amnesia.

It sounds as though flying is almost a meditative experience for you—requiring a levelheaded concentration that distracts you from everyday stresses. Do most enthusiasts you've met enjoy flying for similar reasons?

I think there are certain things that seem to be typical about this pursuit. For example, it's roughly fair to say that everybody who's interested in it is a man. Now, that's not really fair, because there are some very dedicated, very skillful women pilots. But it's the most male domain I've ever been in. I don't know why that is. I think it's something more than just the dreaded social conditioning, because it's always been that way.

There probably are certain people who really like hot-rodding and doing aerobatics and barrel rolling and all that, which I don't particularly enjoy. But most people, from what I've been able to sense, enjoy the combination of two things that go into this. One is a surprising satisfaction that comes from mastering some of the mechanical processes—of knowing how the engine works and at what different stages of flight the engine's supposed to be doing different things. The other is a very nonmechanical, ethereal sense of just looking down on things—in a panoramic sense. I think many people are attracted by those things. It does distract you from the mundane woes of how you're going to deal with the next business chore when you land.

I think I'm not the only one who had the childhood dream of flying over my neighborhood. You know, you spread your wings like an angel and you fly over the neighborhood. Did you ever have that dream?

I did.

It's surprisingly like that childhood dream—or like scuba diving. It's as if you could swim without having to worry about breathing or buoyancy—just being able to move in three dimensions and look at things and swirl around.

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