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William Langeweische Discusses What It Feels Like to Fly.

William Langeweische is a writer and a pilot. He grew up around planes and learned to fly when he was a child. His father, a test pilot, wrote a text that is considered to be the bible of aerial navigation ("Stick and Rudder"). Langewiesche has written his own book about flying from a different perspective, called "Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight."


Other segments from the episode on June 18, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 18, 1998: Interview with William Langewiesche; Commentary on summer reading books.


Date: JUNE 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061801np.217
Head: Inside the Sky
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of us have come to take flying for granted. In fact, commercial air travel is more likely to conjure up images of bad food and cramped leg room than it is to spark a meditation on the beauty of flight.

My guest William Langewische has written a book that reminds you how exotic and strange it is to be in the sky. It's called "Inside the Sky" and it's based on his experiences piloting small planes. He writes with the Atlantic magazine, but before he made his living as a writer, he flew small cargo planes on the west coast and worked as an air taxi pilot along the Mexican border. He still flies private planes.

As a child, he flew with his father, a test pilot who also wrote a highly regarded text on flying.

I asked William Langewische if he feels like he belongs in the sky, or if he thinks that it's only through violating certain laws that he's able to stay up there.

WILLIAM LANGEWISCHE, WRITER, ATLANTIC MAGAZINE; AND AUTHOR "INSIDE THE SKY: A MEDITATION ON FLIGHT": No, not -- there is no violation at all. It's a natural thing to be in the sky once you accept the wing as a natural shape. I think of the wing as being something that was not invented, but discovered. And the pity is it took us so long in evolutionary terms to discover it. But it was lying out there waiting for us all along.

The airplane is a very simple thing. It's almost a force of nature.

GROSS: You write that the greatest gift of flight is to look around. What do you find most exciting and revealing about the aerial view?

LANGEWISCHE: There are various forms of the aerial view. The first aerial view is the view of the Earth from above, and more specifically the view of home from above. Since the surface of the Earth is home, I guess they're about the same thing. But I mean home in a very specific, even more specific way: Your house, your city, your block, your neighborhood.

To see that from above is compelling and interesting. It is endlessly fascinating, even for me now after so many years of looking at the Earth from above and looking at my own houses or neighborhoods from above. I never tire of it. It's a frank and unobstructed view, and it's a view in which the patterns of our lives emerge. So that's one view.

The other view is a view entirely within the sky -- an internal thing. Starts simply with the view of weather from the inside -- in the inside of a storm where the snow may fall upward or the rain may fall right toward your face; where there are lightning strikes around you and they're -- which reveal at night inner secret kingdoms in the storms and clouds -- and on and on. There are many surreal views on the inside of the sky.

And then there's another view, which is the view of ourselves, which is where really piloting comes in. I mean, piloting is largely an internal, mental process with pilots after the initial few years. They're not that interested in the actual manipulation of the controls. That's not what it's about. It's about a process of thinking and of seeing the world and of making decisions, but important ones.

And that -- that view is -- becomes a view of yourself. You begin to look in on yourself and you see yourself in difficult conditions sometimes, and you have to grapple with fear. And that's a good thing. And then in the end you also begin to see -- I do at least -- reflections of all of society in the sky; in the way we organize our life when we're in the sky.

GROSS: It seems that you've probably had your formative flying experiences in small planes as opposed to the large commercial airliners that most of us are used to flying. Do you think it's a fundamentally different experience to be in a small plane than, you know, in one of the commercial airliners?

LANGEWISCHE: No. The fundamentally different experience is to be in the front of the airplane as opposed to being in the back of the airplane. In a small airplane, if it's small enough, everyone is in the cockpit in a sense. But my experience is primarily in all kinds of airplanes in the front seat.

GROSS: Right. Now in commercial airliners when you're just flying as a passenger, which is the way I always fly, you're separated from the act of flying. You don't see the controls. You don't really see the pilot. You don't see the panoramic vista that the pilot sees if there is light.

And I think in these big planes, when you're just a passenger, it's kind of as if you're sitting still. You don't -- unless there's a lot of turbulence, you don't even feel like you're flying except for the landing and the takeoff. And I'm wondering, like, why is that true? Why does it feel like you're sitting still?

LANGEWISCHE: Well because the pilots work so hard and the engineers work so hard on providing a smooth ride. Of course, there's a lot of motion, and with a -- just a slight control movement, you can make the passengers realize right away they're in motion and they're flying, but that doesn't go over very well.

So it's actually one of the more unfortunate sides of professional flying, I found in my years of flying passengers who were not interested in getting thrown around, that you have to be so concerned about turbulence, for instance, that people are so worried about it that you spend a lot of time and anxiety fighting turbulence. And if you listen to the air traffic control frequencies, a lot of the chatter you hear is not about weather in particular or about traffic, although that's out there, but largely it's ride reports. How smooth is it? How rough is it? What can I expect ahead for my precious passengers?

And I understand that, and I think it's a good thing for the passengers, but it's a little unfortunate for the pilots.

GROSS: Well, you know, when the pilot warns you that you're about to experience turbulence and to buckle up your seatbelt and all that, and then -- and then you have that kind of sinking and rising series of motions, I think most of us -- most of us passengers start to worry, like is something going terribly wrong? Are we going to be trapped ...


GROSS: ... in a storm. Is this a sign that something's going wrong? Is turbulence and that kind of dropping and rising, a sign that something's really out of control?

LANGEWISCHE: Not at all. Turbulence is -- the thing that worries people the most and should probably worry them the least. I mean, there is turbulence that will damage an airplane. There is turbulence that will throw an airplane out of control, but it's very rare and is much more severe than what people in airlines experience; much more severe.

So the threshold of the airplane and of the pilot is higher than of the passengers by a factor of, I could probably measure it, by a factor of 10 or something.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is William Langewische, and he's the author of the new book "Inside the Sky."

There are things, apparently, I learned this from reading your book, there are things that you don't feel in a plane that you would think you would feel. And that is, for example, a turn -- when a plane turns, you don't feel that it is turning and that can cause serious disorientation for a pilot whose using his physical senses and intuition to figure out where he is and what he or she is doing.

Why don't you feel a turn?

LANGEWISCHE: Because of the very simple Newtonian equilibrium, the physics of the term, because when an airplane, in order to turn, an airplane must bank and inertia comes into play. And what it really means is that inside the airplane, gravity, so to speak, the internal gravity inside the airplane, is always to the floor of the airplane no matter how steeply it's banked.

And that's a good thing for the passengers because it means the coffee doesn't spill and it's, as proved over the years, to be the core problem of flight control for the pilots. It's a problem which had to be solved before the airline -- the airlines could be born in the late '20s. It is the problem of weather flying.

Now, if you can see outside in the cockpit -- if you can see the horizon -- it's not a problem. You know when you're in a bank. But when you're inside the weather, you have to measure the turn because you cannot feel it. And if you go into a turn unintentionally, the airplane will go out of control. I mean, I think that's the word. We can simplify it by "it will go into a spiral dive." And the spiral dive is a very dangerous condition when it's uncontrolled.

GROSS: Tell us more about the spiral dive.

LANGEWISCHE: In the spiral dive, the airplane puts its nose down and gains speed and a sort of aerodynamic lock-in occurs. And that's, again, a very simple way of putting it. But in this dive, with the nose down and the wing down and the speed picking up, the airplane does more of the same. It -- the nose goes farther down; the effect is to bank -- to cause the airplane to bank more steeply and the speed to pick up.

So the airplane very quickly accelerates past its limits and quite often breaks up in flight.

GROSS: Now, you say in the book that if you see -- if the weather's clear and you can see the ground coming at you when you go into the spiral dive, you know exactly what's happening. But if you weren't looking and if -- or if you couldn't see because of the weather, you wouldn't necessarily know this was happening. I find that impossible to fathom.

LANGEWISCHE: It's very difficult for people to understand that. And you know, what's funny to me is that your honesty in saying that because that is precisely -- that -- you find that difficult to accept is precisely the problem that pilots have and that pilots historically did have. It is very difficult to accept. It is so counter-instinctive to find yourself in a condition that -- where your sense of balance abandons you completely.

To make it worse, not only is the sense of balance neutralized by the physics of the turn, but in fact because of physics inside the ear, the sense of balance sometimes begins actively to lie to you; to tell you that you are in turns when you're not; or to tell you you're in the left turn and when you're in a right turn, and it goes on from there.

So it's worse than having a neutralized sense of balance. You have a malicious sense of balance; very difficult to accept and it's something that took, oh, at least one, maybe two generations of pilots to learn. It is a humbling experience. And it was really only with World War II that this -- when masses of pilots had to be taught in a hurry how to fly and fly through weather, that this became OK; that it was OK to accept as a pilot, a proud pilot and all of that, that you need some gyroscopes; you need some instruments. You can't do this with sense of balance. If you try it, you will fail.

GROSS: Have you ever gone into a spiral dive?

LANGEWISCHE: Yes, I've gone into spiral dives. I used to teach people to fly in bad weather, and still sometimes do. And I -- sure, if you do that, you have other pilots who are flying the airplane and typically less experienced, who go into spiral dives. Have I gone into a spiral dive myself without teaching?

Only once in a simulator, actually, and I was an 18-year-old cocky guy thinking that I was God's gift to flying and there was a -- actually, it was at the Redding Air Show and there was a new simulator and they put me in there because I was a young guy and had a lot of time for my years.

And I thought I'd do a good job of flying. And they put me into a spiral dive right away. And I -- I learned a lesson from that. I -- I was making some technical mistakes and luckily it happened in a simulator because soon after that, I got my first real flying job as a cargo pilot -- night cargo pilot in bad old airplanes; a dangerous job out of San Francisco.

And during that winter, I had a lot of failures and failures among other things of the gyroscopes. And if I had not been through that lucky experience of being embarrassed in public at the Redding Air Show, I probably would have gone into a spiral dive for real.

GROSS: Now, I still don't understand why in a spiral dive or on certain kinds of turns, like your coffee isn't going to spill; why you're not going to feel, you know, that you're upside down because you are upside down.


LANGEWISCHE: Well, if you actually go upside down and you stay upside down, the coffee will fall out of your cup, your hair will stand straight up, the dirt will fall off the floor and you'll know you're upside down. You'll hang from your seatbelt -- truly inverted flight.

But a spiral dive, you see, which may take you upside down and in this book it takes -- the 747 -- the Air India Kukar (ph) a 747 upside down -- a spiral dive is -- is a turn. And in the process of turning, if you go upside down in the process of turning, none of the above will happen. I mean, your hair will be normal. Your coffee will not spill. And it has to do, again, with the physics of inertia -- very simple Newtonian physics.

Don't forget that the airplane is always in motion and the best way to think about this might be to remember a curved track, a curved road, a curved race track, or maybe a curved toboggan track, and why do the toboggans go around those very steep almost 90 degree turns, banked over that way, and not slip down to the bottom? Well, for the same reason that the airplane -- that the coffee does not spill. And if you put a cup of coffee on a toboggan and it went at high speed down one of those 90 degree banks, the coffee would not spill.

And that may be instinctively obvious.

GROSS: My guest is William Langewische, author of the new book "Inside the Sky." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is William Langewische, author of the new book "Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight."

What's it like to fly at night when you can't see anything, particularly like if you're in bad weather or a lot of clouds. And you're relying completely on instruments, but you can't -- your eyes are not going to be at all helpful to you?

LANGEWISCHE: I love to fly at night. It's the time I like to fly most -- late at night.


LANGEWISCHE: It's quite. There's relatively little traffic on the frequency. You can kid around with the controllers. It's a private world and it's very, very far away from the Earth. It is the most remote and exotic destination, and that is even more at night than during the day. A night storm -- bad weather at night -- you are so far from any concern on the Earth; so far from pedestrian understanding; so far from the experience of the people you're flying over.

It is as if you -- well, it's more exotic than any earthly destination. Put it that way. I guess that out in space, there are places like that; that must be the experience of space, I don't know. But I imagine it's about as alien as going into space. It is an utterly far away place. And it's attractive to me because of that.

The solitude is attractive also. It's hard to think of a lonelier place than a cockpit at night in a storm. And that's a good thing. I like to get away from society. I like the desert and I like wilderness, and this is an extreme form of it.

GROSS: Can you tell us about a storm that you flew through? A storm that was a bad storm, a threatening storm?

LANGEWISCHE: I've flown through so many. It also depends on what you mean by "storm." I mean, we use the word "storm" in so many different ways. Does it mean a single thunderstorm? Does it mean an air mass system like a massive low pressure system?

One storm ...

GROSS: How about a storm when they were throwing everything at you? -- the rain, the thunder, the lightning, the wind.

LANGEWISCHE: Yeah. Well, I'll tell you one story. I was flying, again, cargo in an old airplane -- twin-engine airplane. And it was winter. And I was trying to get across the Sierras into Reno I suppose or maybe Cedar City, Utah. I forget where I was going. It was one of those places. I was out there in the middle of nowhere, meaning I was off somewhere far away inside the sky.

And my airplane was causing trouble. The right engine was running hot. I was looking out at night. I was inside clouds. And it was rough and it was snowing and raining. And I looked out -- the left engine, you can see the glowing of the hot turbo-charged exhaust. And I looked out to the right engine and saw a much brighter hot out there glowing, and it was running rough. And it was running hot by indications.

And I was also -- my main gyroscopic instrument was intermittent and I was having -- in other words, I was hanging onto flight by a thread. It was a night when trees were being knocked down on the ground. I don't know how strong the wind was where I was. I was probably at 15,000 feet or so; 16,000. And it was snowing. And my lights were boring these holes forward through the snow, so the snow was coming back at me at about 200 miles an hour; 250 miles an hour.

And I looked down at one point -- oh, by the way, I got put into a holding pattern. I remember that.

GROSS: Oh, great.


LANGEWISCHE: And during that hold -- yeah, right -- exactly right. During that hold, I looked down and I saw the lights of a little town. There was a main street and there was a car pushing its lights -- its own little headlights forward down that street; just a glimpse of it. But seeing that town down there gave me an idea of the vertical distance -- my own vertical distance away from that town and I -- in other words, I looked down through a sort of a canyon through the clouds and there was lightning around. And I saw how far away I was.

And I was in a hold and it came to me then, something I never would have known before, that Sant Exupary (ph), the French writer who talked so much about death and glory and all of that romantic nonsense, in flight, that Sant Exupary was right; that there is a time -- there is a time in a pilot's experience when he's so far away from the ground and so beleaguered that he may actually begin to think about death. That's something I denied before, and it scared me. It took me ...

GROSS: Did you start thinking about death during that flight?

LANGEWISCHE: I did. When I saw those lights, I thought, well, I may never come back from this one. And it was a shock to me. It was -- I think the real shock to me was not that I was worried that I would die. That's a possibility of course for all of us at all times. But that I would worry about it in flight; that as a pilot -- that I was sitting there thinking about death when I should have been flying the airplane. And that shocked me and it scared me for several weeks after that.

And it took another storm that same winter for me to come out of that. Several weeks later I was in another storm at night as usual in the same kind of lousy airplane. And I was -- I had a lightning strike, basically. That's a pretty fancy word for it, but a discharge between the airplane and the clouds. And it burned a hole in my wing and blew a hole through the top of the tail.

And I came back from that flight -- it was another rough one -- and I was at the airport in San Francisco and the cargo guys were unloading the cargo from this battered old unloved junk that I'd been flying. And I thought: You know, I have been to a place out there in this unlovely machine that is beyond even my own understanding. How can this airplane have taken me there? And my emotion at that point suddenly was to want to go back.

GROSS: William Langewische -- he's the author of the new book Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight. We'll talk more in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with writer and pilot William Langewische. His new book is a meditation on flight called Inside the Sky. It's based on his experiences flying small planes. He even spent a lot of time in the sky as a child flying with his father, who was a test pilot.

When we left off, William Langewische was telling us about his experience flying through a particularly bad storm. It was the first time he thought the possibility of dying in flight. Yet he finds flying in bad weather thrilling and sometimes goes in search of it. I told him I found that hard to understand.

LANGEWISCHE: Well, I tell you what. Why don't you come flying with me sometime and I'll show you why. It's -- it's not at all a frightening thing; I am -- in this intentional ...

GROSS: Well, you just made it sound frightening, I have to say.

LANGEWISCHE: Well that -- but you see, that was ...

GROSS: That was because of the planes? That was 'cause the planes were so crummy?

LANGEWISCHE: ... that was in -- yeah, that was a long time ago.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

LANGEWISCHE: That was -- that was when I was -- that was when I was much younger than now. And I was -- and I had to fly. And the airplanes were badly maintained. I don't take airplanes like that into bad weather. The airplanes I fly into bad weather now are superbly maintained. They're perfect. And they're maintained by -- by a man I know and trust with my life in absolute terms; a rare mechanic.

None of that was true of those airplanes before.

GROSS: So some more about why you go looking for bad weather.

LANGEWISCHE: Yeah. I think really because it's technically interesting. That's one thing. And that's something that's very hard to explain on the radio. Another reason is that I like to be -- I like to emerge from the coddling, the coddling of modern life. Not that my life is coddled, but I think that all of our lives are coddled. We're coddled by technology, by the sort of the surrounding wealth of Europe and the United States; the safety and all those aspects of modern life.

I like to emerge from that and revert to a more purely animal state. I don't think that's a real mystery. There are many people who find other ways to do that. People sail across the oceans and don't need to do that. People climb mountains. It's not scary. I'm never afraid; often tense, concerned, but let's say that my heart never beats fast.

And the pilots who go with me on these expeditions into bad weather, I'm sure -- I know -- they tell me they also afterward are never afraid and they -- the universal thing after let's say a week of this kind of flying, is finally to fold it up and say: "You know, the surprising thing here is that we never felt at risk. And by the way, during this process, we've been to a place that lies beyond the imagination."

GROSS: Practical concern -- what about things like ice on the wings and I can think of at least one recent airliner crash that that was responsible for.

LANGEWISCHE: Yeah, the ATR. The -- ice is the scariest thing out there to me, and I think to a lot of pilots. A thunderstorm you can deal with. You can go around it. You can go through it. But ice takes you down and it -- it destroys the lift on the wings. It also weighs the airplane down, but the primary problem is it destroys the lift on the wings and on the tail, which may be more critical.

The consequence is that eventually you are flying a machine that doesn't have wings or a tail; that is, that beautiful shape of nature is gone and you go down.

So ice is the enemy. Now, if you're flying an airplane which is equipped for it -- modern airliners have hot leading edges or in the case of that ATR, rubber boots which inflate and knock the ice off or are supposed to, then it's less of a problem. Even then, you're worried about it. You think about it. You move through it rather quickly in a jet. You climb above it and you come down through it. You don't linger.

In the storm flying, one of the things I do, partly for economics and partly because it -- partly for technical reasons -- I take airplanes that are not protected and are -- cannot climb through the weather and are exposed and vulnerable; small airplanes; slow airplanes; and move them into weather.

On those airplanes, in those airplanes, ice is a very, very serious problem and I never play with it. I mean, the minute I hit ice, I get out of it and there are various ways to get out of it, and you think about that in advance. If you don't, you don't survive.

GROSS: William Langewische is my guest and he's the author of the new book "Inside the Sky," which is filled with his personal experiences and with some of his reporting on flying.

You know, you were telling us a little bit about the period when you were flying I guess it was cargo planes in -- along the west coast in like cheap, run-down planes. But you also went through a period of your life when you were younger when you were a taxi pilot along the Mexican border of West Texas. And this is an area in which there were a lot of drug and gun smugglers.

And you say in your book that the danger wasn't the flying itself. It was the same dangers that face other taxi drivers -- bad neighborhoods and aggressive passengers. What kind of -- what kind of suspicious offers and bribes were -- came your way, you know, when you were working in this area filled with drug and gun smugglers?

LANGEWISCHE: Well, the first thing is no one works down in that area for long without getting offers from strangers ...

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

LANGEWISCHE: ... to run dope. And they -- how that is worded depends. In my case, somebody offered to pay me to go down to Mexico and "repossess" an airplane. That's the term he used. Now, it was pretty clear what was going on and of course I refused him absolutely, to do anything like that.

But the -- those people are always nosing around looking for pilots who would be willing for a lot of money to make a run. That's not too much of a problem because I don't think a pilot gets into that without knowing what he's getting into.

That's a conscious decision. But the problem for me was that we would get calls from the river -- from people we didn't know, who wanted to leave the river. Now, we don't know what's in their suitcases. All we know is somebody who's just come across the Rio Grande, maybe by boat, maybe by foot, maybe by swimming, maybe by car -- who knows how. And you get a call and you're the public air taxi pilot and you go down and pick them up.

If those people are carrying dope or if they're doing something with guns or money, you may as a pilot get in trouble yourself legally, even though you don't know what's on board. And worst than that, there are cases in which the pilots have been taken out in the desert and simply shot. That is, the guy pulls a gun out in flight and he's got a valuable load and doesn't want any witnesses and he wants to go to some remote area where he can unload it. There is some truck waiting for him. And the pilot is disposable.

So I -- of course, I was very concerned about that. I mean, very concerned -- I was concerned about that.

GROSS: And how did you protect yourself?

LANGEWISCHE: Well, the one -- my best protection was a 250-pound or 220 pound mechanic friend of mine named Tweeter (ph), who worked at the airport. And on flights like that, of course, they had a certain signature to them. You didn't know the people, that's one. Tweeter would come along and Tweeter was a guy that nobody messed with. Tweeter had a great big mustache and he had a baseball cap and a fire extinguisher in one hand and a baseball bat in another and nobody messed with Tweeter.

And that's true not just in airplanes. So as long as I had Tweeter along, there was no real problem.

GROSS: Did you ever do any fancy daredevil flying things to intimidate your passengers if they were trying to intimidate you?

LANGEWISCHE: I once was stuck with some people out of Presidio, Texas on the river, who -- a man and a woman -- who frightened me and I thought really threatened me. I found that they were carrying a gun in a little satchel they had.

And Tweeter was not along. It was a weekend and Tweeter had gone off to El Paso for the weekend. And I picked them up and they frightened me. And after takeoff, I took them to Odessa -- about 200 miles away. After takeoff, I leveled off inside the landscape at fencepost height, on a route I knew well and on a route that I often flew low so I knew all the wires, of which there were very few by the way. It's pretty wild country. I knew all the canyons.

And I went down inside the landscape and I used it as a weapon myself or as an ally. My idea was partly just malicious. I didn't like these people and I was mad that they had threatened me, in a way. And also that my idea was that if I flew that low and fast, even if they were pilots, they would not dare come after me. They would not dare try to take control of the airplane or shoot me in flight or attack me in any way because we were so close to hitting the ground. We're talking about flying at 200, 250 miles an hour at about six feet.

GROSS: Whoa!



... that's very low. Yes.

GROSS: That's very low. You were confident that you could pull this off?

LANGEWISCHE: Oh yeah, I did it all the time. Everybody does out there. That's no big deal. That's wide open country. You can do it no problem. It's perfectly safe.

GROSS: Right.

LANGEWISCHE: I mean, of course, officially you're not supposed to and there are many rules and this and that. But no, it's no problem.

GROSS: So were your passengers duly intimidated?

LANGEWISCHE: Well I didn't spend a lot of time turning around and looking at them, to tell you the truth, 'cause my eyes were forward ...

GROSS: Right.

LANGEWISCHE: ... flying that low, but I did get one glimpse of them. They were sort of huddled in the back of the airplane. They did not mess with me and in the end, they paid me in cash and sort of ran away ...

GROSS: Right.

LANGEWISCHE: ... in Odessa.


GROSS: That's good all the way around.

LANGEWISCHE: In the end, I had -- of course, had to pull up -- about 50 miles out of Odessa, I had to pull up and act like a civilized pilot and -- (unintelligible) that problems are over.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is William Langewische and his new book is called "Inside the Sky" and it's about flying. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with William Langewische. His new book about flying is called "Inside the Sky."

I -- I know that, you know, just about all your life ever since you were a teenager, you've flown small private planes. How often are you a passenger like the rest of us in the big commercial airliners?

LANGEWISCHE: Well, let's see. Last night, I left Washington, D.C. I tried to. And I think I had -- I was on five flights that were canceled.

GROSS: Yes. So you were in the position we're in.



Oh, yeah. No, I fly on the airlines all the time. Sure. You know, as a writer, I travel all over the place and not as a pilot. And sure, I'm on airlines all the time.

GROSS: Do you always feel confident in the commercial airliners?

LANGEWISCHE: Yes. I am not ever worried when I'm on the airlines. I recognize big differences in the way the airplanes are flown. Some airplanes are flown well. Some airplanes are flown poorly, kind of rough -- cowboy, you know, that sort of thing; high roll rates. I'm thrown around.

And some airplanes -- some airplanes are flown -- airliners are flown even maybe dangerously, especially if you're in the third world, where I often am. And you're in some small rinky-dink airplane, being operated as an airliner. You may see dangerous things going on.

So I see the full range. For the most part, of course, airline pilots are extremely good pilots and there is no problem at all. But even when I personally as a passenger am sitting on an airplane that is being flown poorly, it may either surprise or annoy or possibly even amuse me.

When I'm sitting on an airplane that's being flown dangerously, which has occurred to me, I -- I have a strange fatalism which I cannot explain. I'm completely unafraid. I don't care. And I -- even if I recognize that something quite serious is happening, which has happened a few times to me, where there's a real potential of an accident, I don't care. It's a -- I cannot explain that. I don't know why that is.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you've ever listened to tape recordings of pilots' last words before a crash, and what reaction that gives you?

LANGEWISCHE: Yes, I -- I have listened to it. And it's a very emotional thing to listen to something like that. It is -- I have physiological reactions to it. It -- almost -- it's not that I want to cry, but it's a very powerful emotion. And I don't like it very much. It is very, very sad and horribly voyeuristic.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

LANGEWISCHE: It is not a good thing and I don't recommend it and I try not to do that. I'd rather read the transcript. That's bad enough. But to listen to it is an unpleasant experience.

GROSS: What -- are there kind of typical last things that are said by a pilot before...

LANGEWISCHE: Well, the famous one we can't say is "oh, shit." You know, that's the famous one.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

LANGEWISCHE: That's what people say. And then it depends on your culture. You know, you can say that in various forms in different languages. Then there is -- there are variations. I mean, there was the really incredible thing, which was the PSA 727 I believe that went down over San Diego years ago now, an airline that doesn't exist anymore, PSA. And they -- they actually hit another airplane going into San Diego and I think it was the right wing that was hit.

Anyway, they went out of control. They were going down and they knew they were going down. And they radioed that. And then the last word as I remember it was one of the pilots -- there were actually two crews in the cockpit, so I don't even know which pilot it was -- but one of the pilots, speaking for the record into what he knew was the cockpit voice recorder, said: "I love you, Mom." Now, that's pretty sad stuff.

GROSS: Mmm-hm. Well just one other question about pilots who are going down.


GROSS: Do they often have like one last plea to whoever they're talking to if they're still in touch with, you know, with someone on the ground, to like help guide them or help land them or help get them out of this situation?

LANGEWISCHE: I'll tell you something that I've never clearly thought about before. There's a distinction between pilots who belong in the sky who are going down and pilots who don't belong in the sky who are going down. Those who don't belong there are the ones who are going to make that plea to help from the outside, typically from a controller. Controller's can't help with that kind of thing.

And when I hear those or read about them, I don't feel the same emotion. I feel anger, actually, and sort of disgust; impatience. Don't ask that question. Fly your airplane. Pilots who belong up there -- who are doing a job and approaching the problems, the machine and the environment, with the severity and discipline that is necessary in that particular pursuit, will not plead -- make pleas. They will not call to God or to controllers, but will fly the airplane all the way down.

And that's set in stone. The one thing I know if I'm going down in an airplane some day is that I will fly it all the way down. I'm sure of that. That's not a -- I'm not bragging about that. It has to do with the very nature of what you're doing out there in the sky and the approach you take toward problems when they come up.

GROSS: You ...

LANGEWISCHE: It may be melodramatic ...

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

LANGEWISCHE: ... I mean, I'm worried about that sounding too melodramatic, but it's the truth.

GROSS: Your father was a test pilot. What are some of the things he had to test?

LANGEWISCHE: You know, I don't know very much about his flying. He was a test pilot during World War II. He was a German who came to this country. He is a German. He's alive and well. He came to this country when Hitler was rising in Germany. He's an opponent to Fascism and he ended up flying for the -- essentially for the U.S. Navy. And continued to fly as a test pilot after the war.

GROSS: So was he -- was he still being a test pilot when you were a boy?

LANGEWISCHE: No, he was -- he was not. Although he's a well known fellow in aviation. He wrote a book which is very famous and -- a technical book called "Stick and Rudder." And because of that, when I was a kid, I sort of grew up in the -- in the -- at the heart of American flying, in sort of a small core of very serious pilots -- his friends and he himself.

GROSS: And he'd let you take the controls when you were a kid?

LANGEWISCHE: Oh, absolutely. No problem. I mean, I -- I started letting my little boy -- my little boy now is eight, Matthew -- he's, oh, I started letting him take the controls when he was about two maybe? And he was a little wild in the beginning. And he would bank steeply and my wife did not like this at all. She thought it was -- I was breeding the wrong attitude in the boy and teaching him to be a cowboy. And actually, I thought it was sort of good because he was exploring the airplane and the way it should be explored.

And what I really wanted to let him do was to roll the airplane upside down. He was -- he did this in a very unconscious way. He was not aware that he was doing anything radical. He was just in this machine. And I remember once he banked over to about 90 degrees, just about all the way -- well, 90 degrees, wing down -- and noticed below him a truck moving down the freeway in California.

And he could barely say the word "truck," but he pointed out it was a truck and that's what interested him. He wasn't interested in the machine, in the airplane. He was interested in the view of the ground. And I like that.

So there's no problem. I mean, airplanes are inherently -- in good weather, airplanes are docile, well-behaved. The engineers have done a wonderful job with these machines. These are -- these airplanes are not difficult to fly. That's one of the -- the inner secrets of flying and a lot of people don't want that said because it tends to erode the mystique about airplanes.

But these machines are not difficult to control. They're designed to be flyable and by God they are flyable.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us and good flying to you.

LANGEWISCHE: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: William Langewische is the author of "Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight."

Coming up, more summer reading suggestions.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: William Langewische
High: William Langewische is a writer and a pilot. He grew up around planes and learned to fly when he was a child. His father, a test pilot, wrote a text that is considered to be the bible of aerial navigation ("Stick and Rudder"). Langewische has written his own book about flying from a different perspective, called "Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight."
Spec: Lifestyle; Culture; Entertainment; Books; Authors; Langewische; Inside the Sky; Aviation
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Inside the Sky
Date: JUNE 18, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 061802NP.217
Head: Summer Reading List
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Our book critic Maureen Corrigan figures you may be looking for some good books to read this summer, so she's put together her suggestions. She made some of her recommendations last week. Now she has more, including some new novels, a book of gardening essays, and a biography that describes the greatest literary beach parties of the century.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Any reader whose ever become fascinated with the literature and lives of the Lost Generation has stumbled across the names Gerald and Sara Murphy (ph). The Murphys were a wealthy couple who were the friends and patrons of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeash, Dorothy Parker, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, and in short, just about everybody who was anybody in the 1920s.

I'd always had this dim impression of the Murphys as artistic parasites -- sleek fat cats who fed off others' wit and talent. But in Amanda Vale's (ph) shimmering new biography of the Murphys and their circle called "Everybody Was So Young," it's the artists who come out looking like parasites. Vale's account is full of gossipy anecdotes about ingrates like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other class acts who pocketed the Murphys' money, basked in their encouragement, and then gratuitously maligned them in books like "A Movable Feast" and "Tender is the Night."

In addition to their boundless tolerance of their famous friends' bad behavior, Vale makes it clear that the Murphys deserve to be celebrated in their own right for single-handedly bringing to perfection the concept of summer vacation.

The most delightful chapters of "Everybody Was So Young" are those devoted to the mid-1920s when the Murphys bought a sprawling villa on a then-sleepy backwater called the French Riviera. In this villa, which they whimsically decorated with stainless steel furniture and vases filled with parsley, they hosted their mooching artist pals to a stay in paradise.

A typical early afternoon would find the Murphys and their friends at the beach, swimming in the clear salt water, chatting, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and drinking dry sherry. After lunch, a siesta and a late afternoon excursion, everyone would enjoy dinner by candlelight out in their fragrant garden.

Late in life, Archibald MacLeash recalled the atmosphere the Murphys created. "There was a shine to life wherever they were," he said. "Not a decorative, added-value, but a kind of revelation of inherent loveliness."

Reading about these magical summer sojourns at Chez Murphy has curdled the anticipation I once felt for my usual week in August at the Jersey shore. But Vale's captivating biography is well worth a dampened vacation.

The Murphys had a full staff of garden gnomes to attend to their flowers and vegetables, but if you're one of those nature lovers who relish the feel of topsoil under your fingernails, you'll appreciate Allen Lacey's (ph) gorgeous book "The Inviting Garden." For years, Lacey was the garden columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

He's also a professor of philosophy, which explains why his thoughts here leap from observations on the lowly guinea hen flower to ruminations about how a garden offers a retreat from the world, yet paradoxically how in one small garden on a midsummer day, the entire world is to be found.

I fled in horror from my one attempt at gardening, after I dug up my first trowel full of worms. But Lacey's thoughtful essays, accompanied by photographer Cynthia Woodyard's (ph) luscious pictures, give even a nature-phobe like me much of the pleasure of gardening without any of the mess.

Gerald and Sara Murphy were such keen-eyed spotters of talent that if they were still around these days, they'd surely be inviting novelists Richard Powers and Rose Tremaine (ph) to those Riviera beach parties. Powers, who's received the MacArthur Award, among other prizes, has just published "Gain" (ph) -- an ambitious, engrossing novel about capitalism and its casualties that oscillates back and forth between two narratives.

One chronicles the growth of the Claire (ph) Soap Company from the early 19th century to the present. The other focuses on the life of Laura Bodley (ph), a resident of the Illinois town where Claire's agricultural operations are headquartered. When Laura discovers she has ovarian cancer, her future becomes intertwined with the company's in a fight for survival.

In contrast to Gain's historical sweep, "The Way I Found Her," Rose Tremaine's eighth novel, is a small jewel of a story. One summer, a 13-year-old British boy named Louis Little accompanies his mother to Paris where she's been hired to translate the latest novel by an eccentric, bestselling Russian author named Valentina Gavrilovich (ph). Louis falls under Valentina's erotic spell, while an existentialist roofer falls for Louis' mother.

There's a kidnapping here, as well as other agreeable plot complications, but it's Louis' adolescent narrative voice -- at once wry and smart-alecky and melancholy -- that makes "The Way I Found Her" so memorable. For instance, describing the way Valentina laughs, Louis says: "Hers was the kind of laugh you imagine women having long ago, before they realized they were an oppressed category of people."

I'm not even sure if I could like that description as much as I do. But I know the kind of laugh Louis is talking about and it echoes throughout the pages of this odd and lovely novel.

The Murphys may have perfected the concept of summer vacation, but the books I've just mentioned come pretty close to perfecting the experience of summer reading.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan figures you may be looking for some good books to read this summer, so she's put together her suggestions. She made some of her recommendations last week. Now she has more, including some new novels, a book of gardening essays, and a biography that describes the greatest literary beach parties of the century.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Books; Authors; Hemingway; MacLeash; Tremaine
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Summer Reading List
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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