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Sky Writing
All writers have a point of view. For William Langewiesche, it happens to be an aerial one

June 30, 1998

langebk picture Few people are as qualified to write about flight as The Atlantic's contributing editor William Langewiesche, whose new book, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, was published this month. Under the tutelage of his father, Wolfgang Langewiesche, a test pilot who wrote a highly-regarded text of aeronavigation, Stick and Rudder (1944), William took the controls at age five and flew his first solo flight at fourteen. A professional pilot for more than two decades, Langewiesche has flown air taxis, air ambulances, cargo planes, and corporate planes over four continents.

But Langewiesche's real passion is writing. His style is spare, powerfully evocative, and infused with the sensibility of one who has seen things from above. This aerial perspective informed Langewiesche's two previous books, both of which were drawn from articles published in The Atlantic. In Cutting for Sign (1994), an account of life along the U.S.-Mexican border, Langewiesche relied heavily on his experiences flying in the region for an air-taxi service, and in Sahara Unveiled(1996) he chronicled his journey through the world's most unforgiving desert -- much of which he has also seen from the sky.
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

The "What If?" Business (June 1998)
For the novelist John Irving, storytelling has been a "necessity" since youth -- and the mother of three decades' worth of unrelenting literary invention.

The Adventures of Jane Smiley (May 1998)
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance.

Speaking of Race (May 1998)
Patricia Williams, the author of Seeing a Color-Blind Future, suggests that when it comes to the trauma of racism Americans have not yet learned how to speak.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
When he spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally, Langewiesche was holed up in an Oregon hotel room, waiting to fly into a storm -- a pursuit he cultivates as essentially an "internal act" demanding self-discipline and mental concentration.

You state at the outset of Inside the Sky that "Flight's greatest gift is to let us look around." What's so special about the aerial view?

First, and most simply, it's a view from above. The places and sights that confuse people on the ground -- whether they are intentional, like a store front, or unintentional, like the clutter of suburban sprawl -- don't apply. We can't see the patterns of our lives very easily from the ground; it takes too much imagination. But from an airplane, especially within the first few thousand feet, it's all laid out very clearly below. Beyond that, airplanes also allow you to look inside an entirely new realm: the inner world of the sky, which in evolutionary terms is still an entirely surprising environment to find ourselves in. Finally, flight lets you look inside your self as well.

Your father remarked that your learning to fly at an early age taught you "not to give in to fear or confusion and ... to keep your wits about you." In your previous book, Sahara Unveiled, you wrote about your 4,000-mile trek through one of earth's most hostile places. In difficult situations on the ground, do you hark back to lessons learned in the sky?

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William Langewiesche

I'm sure that the experience of flight -- especially those times when I have been alone in an airplane in difficult conditions -- has affected my personality. When I'm flying an airplane I have complete tactile and intellectual control. Obviously I can't control my environment, but I can control the airplane -- to a level far beyond the understanding of most nonpilots. That sort of absolute control helps me to dominate the fear that I might otherwise feel. Basically, I don't get afraid in airplanes. On the other hand I don't think of myself as particularly brave. In certain places in the world, especially in my travels for The Atlantic, I have put myself into conditions that are far beyond my control and much more dangerous than any storm that I could fly into. In those conditions I've experienced a great deal of helplessness and vulnerability, much worse than anything I've felt in an airplane. And I've known true, sustained fear.

Articles on flight by William Langewiesche that have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly:

The Lessons of ValuJet 592 (March 1998)
As a reconstruction of this terrible crash suggests, in complex systems some accidents may be "normal" -- and trying to prevent them all could even make operations more dangerous.

Slam and Jam (October 1997)
For all the reports of equipment failures and "close calls" and controller burnout, the nation's air-traffic-control system is in fact far less precarious, in terms of safety, than people imagine it to be. The real threat to the system's integrity has as yet received little attention.

The Turn (December 1993)
At the very heart of winged flight lies the banked turn, a procedure that by now seems so routine and familiar that airline passengers appreciate neither its elegance and mystery nor its dangerously delusive character.

In Inside the Sky's second essay, "The Stranger's Path," you profile the late essayist J. B. Jackson, who insisted on the worth of the "vernacular" landscape, or the spontaneous disorder caused by the casual human touch. This theme echoes throughout your book. Why is it so important to you?

I think it's important to truly look at the world. The most obvious reason is that it's damned interesting. People who are always seeking the wistfully pretty, the cute, and the fixed-up don't see much -- and what they're looking for quickly becomes boring. But if you embrace the full range of the view -- which is largely the vernacular view, to quote Jackson -- it can be fascinating. You begin to see things that are not designed, but are instead the unintended consequences of our actions on earth. It's simply a question of opening your eyes and mind to the full richness of the view. Airplanes allow you to do that spontaneously and with relatively little effort. It's harder to open your eyes when you're on the ground.

You repeatedly point out the stilted language that abounds in the airline industry. It's certainly evident to any passenger during the course of a flight. Why does it have to be this way?

I don't think it has to be this way. The only argument you could make in its favor is that there are certain words in flying that had to be invented to describe things that hadn't previously existed. But the real reason is that flying has long been closely related to the military and engineering. Throw in the average pilot who doesn't have the full traditions of either and you get this strange hybrid language. I know that as a writer -- which is much more important to me than being a pilot -- I avoid the use of jargon when writing about flight, out of respect for my readers.

You write at one point, "Because flying requires social organization we see reflected in it many of the raw attributes of our civilization, undiluted by history, the raw attributes of modern life." This is especially evident in your last two essays on air-traffic control and the ValuJet crash. How would you characterize these "raw attributes"?

Since society is inherently chaotic, its raw attributes must also be similarly disorganized. Certainly the airline industry and air-traffic control are chaotic, but in both cases I applaud the chaos. In air-traffic control chaos is necessary for efficient operation. If it weren't for the chaos, with all of its looseness and unpredictability, we'd have gridlock. The same holds true in the airline business. If it weren't for the chaotic aspects we would have a rigid, overpriced, impractical airline system.

The two final essays in the book address the part of modern society that is "undiluted by history." I often have a feeling as a pilot that I'm observing the modern American relationship with government. That is not necessarily a good thing. Big government in its current form is very much a twentieth-century phenomenon. When I say that flight is "undiluted by history" I mean that it is such a new activity that it doesn't have any of the old traditions that might counterbalance its relatively new relationship with the government. While we have jealously protected individual independence in matters within the cockpit, we have invited the government into the industry in general as a higher intellectual authority without significant questioning. It's an assumption about government which I find interesting and, for better or for worse, somehow un-American.

In Sahara Unveiled you reported on how the people of the desert cope with vast distances and the extreme solitude these distances produce. Aspects of isolation and unrelenting movement appear time and again in your writing on flight. What draws you to the solitary, nomadic existence?

The austerity and spartan nature of such an existence appeals to me. It's something I find so lacking in modern life -- a feeling of complete personal responsibility for oneself. There's an animalistic quality to being alone in an airplane, especially in bad weather, or being in a place like the Sahara in adverse conditions. I thrive on that. In normal daily life I often feel irritation at society's coddling. In fact, I often get the urge to shrug off the recommendations to "have a nice day" or "have a safe flight." The pursuit of safety and certainty, of the perfect retirement and a comfortable life, becomes suffocating after a while. Flying an airplane, like taking a long solo trip through a wild part of the world, helps remind me that after all is said and done I am just an animal like any other -- and a fully vital one.

Air travel is expected to double by the year 2010. What will be the effect on our current aviation infrastructure? On the human psyche?

As far as the aviation infrastructure in the United States goes, it's already taxed, but I have faith that the system will muddle its way through -- that is, that we will build a new airport here and there, as is the case in Denver, or that we will change the nature of air-traffic control to allow tighter spacing. Another thing we're seeing are more airlines moving out from major hubs and forming new smaller hubs. All of this helps to absorb the increase in traffic. I hope that this will be accompanied by cheap airline fares. If that's true the effect could be a powerful one. As recently as twenty years ago airline flying was reserved for businesspeople and the rich. Now even the poor fly. During work I did recently on illegal immigrants in California, I noticed that many of them now choose flying to and from Mexico over other less-convenient forms of travel.

As far as the effect on our psyches goes, I think it will be powerful if aviation continues to expand -- it means that, to an even greater degree than now, everybody will be flying. That's a great thing. It means geographic liberation. People will no longer be confined to their neighborhoods.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Langewiesche photograph © Robert Lindley.