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Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight Paperback – June 29, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

William Langewiesche seems drawn to those vast, open landscapes that challenge both body and soul. In Sahara Unveiled, he traversed the length of that inhospitable desert from Algiers to Timbuktu, along the way limning an intimate portrait of the environment and the people who inhabit it. In Inside the Sky Langewiesche meditates on a different wilderness as he explores the ramifications of flight. "Mechanical wings allow us to fly," he writes, "but it is with our minds that we make the sky ours."

And it is chiefly flight's workings on our perceptions and our imagination that interests Langewiesche. "Flying at its best is a way of thinking.... It lets us see ourselves in context, as creatures struggling through life on the face of a planet, not separate from nature, but its most expressive agents. It lets us see that our struggles form patterns on the land, that these patterns repeat to an extent which before we had not known, and that there is a sense to them." Flying has, in fact, changed humankind's perception of itself. Discussing the borderlands along the Rio Grande, Langewiesche points out that from the air it is impossible to disregard the great differences in wealth and environment between Mexico and the United States:

"The narrowness of the view is a problem particular to the ground. Few tourists ever went to Presidio, but those who did often got the astonishing impression that the border there hardly existed. Residents, too, because they freely forded the river, could share that illusion. But from the air the view always widens.... What the ordinary aerial view really shows is exactly the opposite of a unified world."

Langewiesche writes eloquently and at length about flight's influence on politics, environmentalism, culture, and human psychology, punctuating these musings with fascinating accounts of real people--everyone from Otto Lilienthal, a 19th-century German engineer who died while testing a hang glider, to Walton Little, a computer engineer and private pilot who happened to be an eyewitness to the 1996 Valujet air disaster. Bad weather, crowded airports, plane crashes, and the physics of flying all form part of the tapestry as Langewiesche weaves history, science, philosophy, and his own experiences as a pilot into this tough, tender paean to the miracle of flight. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The son of a pilot who wrote a classic book on aerial navigation, Langewiesche spent much of his childhood in the passenger seats of his father's and friends' aircraft, contemplating the process of flight and gazing at the landscape below. A cockpit prodigy who flew solo at 14, Langewiesche has been both a professional pilot and an author (Sahara Unveiled), and is also a foreign correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Writing with poetic authority, he uses this "meditation" to unfold, partially, the mysteries of flight, and to recommend flight as a metaphor for understanding elements of the human condition. Occasionally, the metaphor seems only tangentially connected to the subject, though overall this is an enlightening, often riveting work. What happens to an aircraft and its contents during a turn will surely prompt many an amateur physics experiment aboard commercial airliners. A familiar and curious effect of flight, in which passengers and pilots lose their senses of gravity and direction, is explored in its most tragic form, as in the case of a 1978 Air India flight from Bombay to Dubai, whose pilot, a 22-year veteran, flew "a perfectly good airplane into the water." In quiet prose whose steady meter helps build a sense of mounting terror, Langewiesche explains how the pilot managed to ignore working instruments while relying on a single faulty one. Elsewhere, an in-depth examination of the infamous demise of Valuejet Flight 592, which caught fire and plunged into the Everglades in 1996, presents an eloquent and powerful argument for re-regulation of the airline industry. Part expos?, part idyll, this is a meditation to savor.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; First Vintage Departures Edition, July 1999 edition (June 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067975007X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679750079
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #165,427 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Timothy G. Buchman on July 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
This lyrical collection of essays by an accomplished airman illuminates the pilot's soul as much as his environment. The essays on "The Turn" and the Air-India disaster are masterworks, not because they apply to the JFK Jr. tragedy but rather because they speak to the ever-changing relationship between pilots and their sky.
The reader should not be discouraged by the first essay in the volume, a meditation on perspective which probably is better read last. Rather, skip to others and absorb how the author's adopted home--the sky--has enveloped his predecessors, his contemporaries and himself.
Other reviewers have compared William to his father, Wolfgang Langewiesche. The comparison is unfair to both men. "Inside the Sky" is no more a manual of flight than "Stick and Rudder" is a meditation on the topic. Readers, airmen or not, are the richer for the writings of father and son.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is the first thing I've read by William Langewiesche. The closer you are to aviation, I believe, the more you will like it. As a pilot for 30 years, Langewiesche writes what I would, if I had his incredible ability with words. He captures so much of what how flying changes those who pursue it as their passion. Some other reviewers suggest he rambles a bit, but I felt everything was connected and after all, the subtitle is "Meditations on Flight".
I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this book. Flying is so much more that just piloting an airplane through the sky and Langewieche captures all this better than anyone else I've ever read.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 8, 1998
Format: Hardcover
The author, a self-described "child of the sky," writer of two well-received travel books and correspondent to the Atlantic, here offers seven essays exploring and demonstrating the literal and metaphoric "view from above." The essays illustrate the importance of people as a part of geography, the necessity of intimacy and trust for accurate perception, and, more practically, the limits of man's efforts to control the weather, the sky, and, finally, himself. The book is at its best describing events such as the Valujet crash, or in dense journalistic passages on the relationship between the FAA and air traffic controllers, the Fujita scale, or chaos theory. His digressions remind one of John Mc Phee in their spare complexity. At its worst, the distant and sometimes jargon-filled prose only confuses or condescends to his landlocked readers. The reader does not come to know the author, it must be assumed, by his own design. The author seems to see himself as above--exotic, more honest, in sum, betterthan his non-flying readers, or many of his subjects (he is particularly patronizing to tourists). The flying novice would have an easier time reading through to the truly wonderful parts if the author were more accessible. Pilots and pilot wannabes will love the book, however, if flying is a way of thinking, as the author contends, it is not a way of thinking he has made particularly attractive.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By B. Watson ( on August 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
An insightful dissertation on both the technology of aviation and the meaning of flight. The chapters on "The Turn" and "On a Bombay Night" tell of one of the basic challenges facing man in his journey into the sky. A challenge comparable to that of determining longitude at sea as told by Dava Sorbel in "Longitude". Organizational management and systems thinking is touched on in chapters about Air Traffic Control, the FAA, and the Valujet crash. Chapter 2, the "Stranger's Path" may tend to divert one from continuing, but read on, or skip it because the other remaining chapters are worth the effort. William Langewiesche has given us a book that alternates between a personal, intimate view of flying and a broader view of aviation as perhaps the archetype of 20th century discoveries, technologies, and systems.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
With the subtitle "Meditations on Flight," this promised to be a thoughtful look at the wonder of flight, or something along those lines. As a reader of Atlantic Monthly for many years, I knew that William Langewiesche had been writing articles for them about aviation. I remembered one article especially, Slam and Jam, about air traffic control, that I read when it first appeared in the magazine in 1997. I was an air traffic controller at the time and read the entire piece with great interest, remarking to colleagues that I thought it was quite a well-balanced look at the conflict between union and management. My colleagues disagreed.
Six years later, and four years after I left air traffic control, I reread the article which appears as one of the seven chapters in Inside the Sky. This time around, the article didn't seem quite as even-handed to me. While Langewiesche doesn't seem to find either management or the union admirable, he really does a number on the controllers, belittling the work they do.
I could go on about Slam and Jam, but I really don't imagine that anyone outside the business of commercial flight would be interested in it in any case. If I hadn't had a professional interest in the subject, I doubt I would have read the article at all.
There are two chapters devoted to air crashes. Even as someone who has more than an average interest in aviation, I do not care to dwell on air crashes and other disasters. I read them when they first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and did not feel compelled to read them again. It seems that Langewiesche has made a second career (after a career as a pilot) of examining crashes and other disasters, which is a shame.
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