Langewiesche strikes again.
02 March 2010
Here's a real shocker: I enjoyed William Langewiesche's short book Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson, about US Airways flight 1549, piloted by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, that crash-landed in the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009.
Now, if you know me at all, you know that I love William Langewiesche's writing beyond all reason. His writing is what I think of when I think of "well-crafted nonfiction prose." I am particularly enamored of Langewiesche because he can make highly technical information sing, and he can make any subject interesting. I promise you that I've read nothing else about the Hudson crash, and I have no real interest in the story whatsoever.
Langewiesche starts the story with the investigation of the crash, and then offers short chapters describing what happened on every step of the short flight, which took off from LaGuardia around 3:30 p.m., hit a flock of Canada Geese mere minutes after take-off, and made the emergency landing in the river a few minutes after that. He also manages to discuss the airline industry and its labor issues, as well as (and I found this the most fascinating part) the differences between Boeing and Airbus airplanes, and how Airbus has endeavored to engineer not only "crash-proof," but also, to some extent, "pilot-proof" planes (which are referred to as "fly-by-wire" planes). This is how he begins his description of the Airbus A320:
"Without doubt, it is the most audacious civil airplane since the Wright brothers' Flyer--a narrow-bodied, twin-turbofan, medium-range jet with the approximate capacities of a Boeing 737, but with extensive use of composite materials, a brilliantly minimalist flat-screen instrument panel, sidestick controls without tactile feedback, and, at the core of the design, a no-compromise, full-on digital fly-by-wire control system that radically redefines the relationships between pilots and flight." (p. 103.)
All right, I may not have picked the most exciting bit to quote, but I found it all very interesting nonetheless. The book will probably face the same criticism that Langewiesche usually faces--that it was first published as a series of magazine articles and is not as cohesive as a book, but I'm never really bothered by that. Mainly I enjoyed his writing about flight and the insight into the airline business (the author is a pilot himself, so he knows his stuff) and the fact that he got his story told in fewer than 200 pages.