Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: Jet Age by Sam Howe Verhovek

I recently was given the opportunity to review a new book, Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World by Sam Howe Verhovek. It was released on October 14, 2010 and is available for about $15. Grade school book reports aside, I have not ever formally reviewed a book before so I'll do my best and happily accept your criticism.

My bookshelves are full of great aviation books that I have purchased over the past few years and fully intend to read. I never seem to have enough free time and am ashamed to admit that I probably have 30+ books whose pages have never seen the light of day. So I must note that having a timeline to read Jet Age and write a review was a nice motivating factor... I might need to try this more often!

Verhovek has done a marvelous job weaving together the fabric of the players and engineering feats that produced what he refers to as the Jet Age. He successfully takes you on a journey from the tragic crashes of the de Havilland Comet in 1954 to the post-war race towards turbojets in commercial aviation and back to the Comet's triumphant return, operating the first commercial service across the Atlantic. Along that journey are exceptional personal accounts and bits of history that bring a wonderful human element to the story.

I was taken aback by some of the knowledge contained in the book. While my aviation history knowledge is reasonable, it quickly became clear just how well Verhovek can highlight the nuances that allow the reader to envision the full picture. I never realized how much parallel development of the turbojet engine was underway on both sides during World War II, for example. The scientific knowledge was there but the British government simply didn't see the potential and slowed progress through a lack of funding. We all know that the Germans felt differently and the result was the Messerschmitt Me 262.

One particularly interesting passage of the book is in regards to Bill Boeing's avant-garde way of promoting aviation prior to World War I. He once, "flew over downtown Seattle and began dropping hundreds of red cardboard propaganda leaflets shaped like artillery shells ... a few weeks later, he did it again, this time over a packed stadium of fans watching a football game..." Is it compelling to read how he helped convince citizens and the US Government of the importance of aviation in those early days. However, it is even more amazing to consider that such a stunt today would likely end with F-15s off your wingtip and a less-than-desirable run-in with the TSA, FBI, and/or FAA later on the ground!

The sudden post-war race (in some eyes) towards commercializing turbojet airplanes is where the bulk of the book is spent, and for good reason. It truly is fascinating to understand the pressure the British were under with the Comet and see how that completely transformed the feelings about jet aircraft in the United States. Boeing capitalized on this movement away from propeller-driven airliners with a particularly interesting driving force - tax breaks. Government tax rules after WWII essentially gave Boeing a reason to invest heavily in R&D and that led directly to the Dash-80 (707) program.

I loved the in-depth analysis of what really occurred on the drawing boards at de Havilland, Boeing, Douglas, and other manufacturers during this period of aviation history. Their engineers were brilliant, their leaders visionary, and their salesmen smart and adaptive. Nothing better exemplifies the era than Alvin "Tex" Johnson's famous August 7, 1955 barrel roll in a 707 over Lake Washington. The book contains a wonderful exchange Tex had with Eddie Rickenbacker following that vintage barnstorming stunt, a stunt that also helped Boeing sell a lot of airplanes.

Verhovek's branching out throughout the book is what brings such depth to the story. It's not just what happened, but who was behind it and who they were. Bill Allen, an unassuming lawyer from Montana who might now be best described as a visionary, led Boeing out of a post-war funk and transformed them into possibly the most successful aircraft manufacturer in history. From the airlines and their famous leaders like Rickenbacker (Eastern) and Juan Trippe (Pan Am) to the shifting culture, you see how much this era changed the course of not just aviation but our entire worldview.

It's sometimes hard to believe how much progress was made in such a short time. The Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and by 1958, only 55 years later, you could fly from New York to Paris under nine hours. In Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World, Sam Howe Verhovek tells the riveting tale of what transpired to make this possible.

Rating: 5/5 Cubs

Full disclosure - I was contacted by the publisher in early October and asked if I would like a free review copy of the book in exchange for writing a short review. All thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.

If you decide to purchase this book based upon my review, I would appreciate if you do so by clicking on one of the Amazon links in this post. It really helps support the blog. Thanks! -Steve


  1. Thanks for the review...this book was on my Amazon wishlist already because it looked so interesting. I'll have to add it to my Christmas list, and add it to my queue of unread aviation books :)

  2. Thanks Paul - maybe our queues of unread aviation books can be friends!

  3. Great review Steve. I'm not sure I'll be buying or reading Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World, but I sure enjoyed your "well written" book review! Thanks.