Before William Langewiesche could read, he was learning about flying by listening to some of America's best aviation writers talk about it. Those writers included his father Wolfgang, who wrote "Stick and Rudder"; Leighton Collins, who founded and edited "Air Facts"; and Robert Buck, who wrote "The Art of Flying" and "Weather Flying." William learned to read, learned to fly, learned to write, wrote "Inside The Sky: A Meditation on Flight," and now writes for The Atlantic Monthly. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with William about his father, his recent cover story on the crash of EgyptAir 990, and the kind of flying he likes best — storm flying.
William Langewiesche was born June 12, 1955 — 11 years after his father Wolfgang had published Stick and Rudder, the classic book on the art of flying. William grew up in airplanes, and learned to fly the gauges before he could see over the glareshield. He soloed at 14, flew air taxi and charters to put himself through Stanford, then moved to New York to work for Richard L. Collins at Flying magazine. After living in New York and writing about airplanes and flying for three years, wanderlust set in and he left to travel and observe the world and write about it.
He hit his stride when he sent two unsolicited articles about Algeria to The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine sent him on assignment to North Africa and he wrote the November, 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme." Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects for The Atlantic: travel in the Sahara, the Sudanese Islamic government, and the U.S.-Mexican Border — the last a two-part story that led to his first book, Cutting for Sign (1995). His writing on flight appears in his 1998 book, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight. In The Atlantic, he has published "The Turn," describing for the airline passenger the mechanics and beauty of turning the airplane, "Slam and Jam," about controller burnout, "The Lessons of ValuJet 592," and the November 2001 cover story on the crash of EgyptAir 990.
Tell us about your father.
I should admit that I've never really read "Stick and Rudder," and my father and I have never talked about it. He was over 50 when I was born, and because he was so mature when I was born, we've always had a very close relationship, and airplanes were just a small part of that relationship. He's still alive, he's very old, and now he lives under my wing. He's a very smart man, and in many ways a 19th-century German intellectual. His father was a publisher for Langewiesche-Brandt, and my father grew up in a literary, intellectual, highly educated environment. He speaks Greek and Latin and various other languages, and has the fine manners of the European tradition. He remains to this day an old-school European intellectual, although he would deny that.
So when Hitler came along, my father was as close to a pure anti-Fascist intellectual as a person could be. He remembers the fighting in his backyard after the collapse of Germany after WWI. His father was held prisoner by the Communists in Munich, then liberated, and this history passed before his eyes. He had a natural curiosity about boats, and steam engines, and at some point his uncle offered him an airplane ride, and he got the flying bug. By the time WWII broke out, he left Germany under difficult circumstances as a political opponent, and came to New York with no money. He had also discovered that America was a great liberating force, with wide-open spaces. His first base after coming to this country was Chicago, then — before WWII — he discovered the American West and airplanes. For him, airplanes were the perfect technological expression of America. Not only did they express the view of individualism and freedom, but it also was a tool which allowed you to see America better than any other tool. By the time WWII broke out he was an experienced pilot, and spent WWII as a production test pilot for Chance-Vought flying Corsairs. He loved the Corsair because it reminded him of a Cub, which was always his favorite airplane. He loved flying in good VFR weather and looking at the ground, and there's still no better airplane for that than a Cub.
Was he writing during this time?
He was working for Readers Digest, but he really wanted to write about airplanes, and he wanted more than a magazine column, he wanted to write on a higher level. After he wrote "Stick and Rudder," he worked for Air Facts magazine. It was published and edited by Leighton Collins, father of Richard Collins. Leighton Collins — who was "Uncle Leighton" to me — was a great man, southern gentleman, Harvard Business School graduate, and one of the most honorable people who ever walked the face of America. He had enormous integrity and really cared about airplanes. He created this jewel of an aviation magazine around which a few people clustered. My father was one of those people, Robert Buck was another, and I grew up in that world, with people who were at the very core of American small-airplane flying. As a child I spent hour upon hour lying on the floor while these older men talked endlessly about airplanes, and I absorbed several lifetimes of experience from listening to these men talking about what they loved.
Were there other children there listening, too?
How much flying did you do in your childhood?
I grew up in airplanes. Very early — around age two, I guess — I got used to the sensations and the view of being in an airplane. My father was skilled enough to fly in weather, but he was primarily a VFR pilot, and I didn't fly with him much in weather. Leighton Collins, though, was a superb IFR pilot, and early on I began to fly with him. This was a time when Cessna and Beech were lending airplanes to writers and editors for test flights, and often I'd go to Wichita with him on those flights. I learned a lot watching these men fly, and my initial training was on the gauges, because I was too young to see outside. I had years and years of training that weren't even recordable. I wasn't old enough to record it, and none of these pilots in my father's circle were CFIs, but there was a much more organic form of learning going on than the stamp of approval from the FAA. They taught me as an apprentice.
Did you want to be a professional pilot?
I flew in college to help pay my tuition. I went to Stanford University and learned nothing except to fly airplanes and chase girls. I think I was intellectually too young to benefit from a place like Stanford, but they showered good grades on me and I got a degree in anthropology, but it should have been in airplanes and girls. From there I went to New York and wrote for Flying under Richard Collins. I saw the ways of the world, learned about corporate life in New York, and my flying progressed a bit.
I was an ambitious journalist, and I didn't just want to write about airplanes, so I left Flying and began this long road toward mainstream American literary non-fiction. It's a very competitive business, it's very difficult, and I was just plain too young when I started. There are people that can write very well about the world when they're young, and I was not one of them. During that time I wrote a few books that were rejected by Random House, and I flew to support myself.
In Martha, Texas, I had a mentor named Fritz Kahl who was one of the great Western pilots, and a great man all around. I eventually drifted back to California, flew various corporate airplanes, flew in Oregon, and all of my flying was simply to make money. Other people trying to break into writing have to work as waiters and I considered myself as having a technical skill — like a welder — that I could use to support myself. I took jobs that would allow me to fly very hard for a few days, then I'd have a few days off to write. I wrote a novel that was rejected, and I tried my hand at fiction, which was worthless — I don't even read fiction. My writing became better as I grew up, and I came back to the mainstream journalism that I wanted to do.
Are you naturally more attracted to airplane stories?
Not really. The last two Atlantic stories have been airplane things, but they're the exception. Primarily I write about international political things.
Through this time I've continued to fly, and with greater pleasure than ever before. I no longer fly at all for a living and it seems like the less I have to fly, the more I like to fly.
One of the basic flows in my life has been to move away from an insider's view of aviation to the view of a occasional private pilot. I have very little time to fly anymore. I maintain my professional skills, but now I'm lucky if I log 100 hours a year. To my surprise, I find that I'm not getting overly rusty, but I do notice erosion in certain situations, like troubleshooting in a complex twin in IFR conditions. I fly a 414 now, and there will come a time when — with the amount of flying I'm able to do — I won't be able to fly the 414 safely and I'll have to fly something simpler, like a Bonanza.
One of the chapters of "Inside the Sky" is about storm flying. Can you describe it, tell us what you've learned by doing it, and are you still doing it?
It takes about a week to do it right, and it typically has to be in the winter when the weather is worse and more complex. We wait for a big low pressure system to form, and it takes about five days to track that system from the west to the east. It doesn't mean we just fly to the center of the low every time or fly to where the weather is worst. If you did that you'd wind up dying very fast. We watch the fronts, and we factor in the capability of the airplane we're in. I've done this in the 414, but it's not that interesting because you can go high, or go through the ice. It's not like you can exactly shrug off the weather, but almost. The ideal airplane is one with a damn good engine, and damn good radios, a damn good intercom, radar — or at least a Stormscope — and an aircraft that isn't certified for ice — because you don't want to be dealing with ice. We know about the classic icing accident where the entire airplane loads up, but that's probably a quarter of the icing accidents. With ice there are all kinds of subtleties and unknowns from airplane to airplane and from one icing encounter to another. Ice is scary stuff and it will kill you.
This sounds like one of those trips where the pilots not flying are as busy as the pilot flying.
Absolutely. It makes no difference to me at all. This is brain work and who's holding the yoke doesn't really matter.
How do you brief one of these trips?
It's like air traffic control. It's in how you talk, it's in the code words, it's in the joke you tell. You very rarely run across a pedantic guy who tells you that "VFR flight is not recommended." If you do, you hang up, call back and get somebody else. What we're doing is strictly legal, so you tell the briefer "We're doing a training run. We're looking for certain types of weather. Let's start by talking structure, and our destination isn't determined yet." Usually the briefer catches on and gives you what you're after.
Do you use the internet?
When you're traveling it's not the most efficient way to brief. Sometimes we'll stay in a places that don't have fast connections, so we use the WSI and DTN systems in the FBOs, and one of my favorite ways to get weather is the New York Times national weather page. It's generated by Penn State, it's super low-tech and it's extremely good. Often it turns out to be the most accurate forecast out there.
Of course, a big part of this training is the judgment you place on the information you're getting. The ground-based weather people believe they're right because they often have no way of knowing when they're wrong. They don't know the structure inside the weather. Usually after a few days, we've got a better feel for the structure of a system than the National Weather Service does. By the time they realize they've made a mistake about the intensity of the speed of a front, we've known about it for hours.
And perhaps the most important briefings are the ones you do over the radio in the air.
Do you use Flight Watch?
It depends on your altitude, what kind of information you want and where you are. Flight Watch is excellent in the Midwest for radar returns, but it's not so good out West, and it's often too busy for the kind of quick information we need. You've got maybe 120 seconds off the center frequency and you don't want to spend them hearing about Airmets, Sigmets and forecasts. The key word is "Only." If you can get them to drop their checklist and give you "only" the current observations. There's a whole art of extracting information from Flight Watch or Flight Service. That's part of the training, too.
What kinds of systems won't you go near?
It depends very much on the type of airplane involved, temperature gradients, how much fuel we have, and it's hard to generalize. It's extremely rare for us not to get through to a destination, but it does happen. I do retreat, and I always have at least two levels of escape routes. You never, ever go into a situation where you don't have an out, and an out for that out. It's not thrill-seeking. It's a very technical training exercise that's a real bonding experience for the pilots you go with.
When did your interest in the Middle East begin?
But don't you agree you were a natural to handle a story about the Middle East that involved aviation.
That's why I did it. Regular reporters don't understand the technical aviation stuff so they're vulnerable to whatever line somebody might give them. It's not that the reporters aren't smart, but they can't be expected to know the language of aviation and because of how I grew up I can recognize a line of B.S. and sometimes I know enough to ask the right questions.
After reading your article I kept wondering why they just wouldn't admit the truth?
That's what I kept asking myself in Cairo. Especially when what they were saying was so obviously false. I think the answer is that maybe the truth wasn't so obvious to regular reporters, and because they sit in a political system that wouldn't allow them to admit the truth. It's an autocratic system run by Mubarek, who had his own opinions about this. Why couldn't he, who is a pilot, admit the truth? Our president would not feel personally insulted or threatened if an American pilot went haywire and pushed an airplane into the sea. I think they couldn't admit it because they come from a perspective of weakness. Egypt is a country with a 200-year history of feeling oppressed and insulted and in many ways emasculated by the West, and the resentment that that engenders is very real, and has been since the time of Napoleon. I think that goes a long way to explain why they couldn't admit the truth.
You describe the relationship between the NTSB and the press as symbiotic? Is that good for the process?
The press perceives the NTSB to be the uncompromising advocates of safety in aviation, and perceives the regulators at FAA, who have to deal with the reality of flying and the airline industry, as having sold out to industry. Because the NTSB doesn't have regulatory power, it needs the power of the press and the political process. The NTSB does an excellent job, and I'm glad they're there.
You're writing huge investigative pieces at The Atlantic. Tell us a little bit about how you like to research and write this kind of work.
Who do you like to read?
Among novelists I'd say Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and I've long been a fan of the great writer of our time, V. S. Naipaul, who just won the Nobel Prize. He's a superb writer and thinker. There are a lot of great writers.
Where were you on September 11th?
I was sleeping, and my wife woke me and told me "They're bombing New York and Washington," and as I woke up I said, "Is it nuclear?" Within five minutes the magazine was on the phone telling me to write the response, and I've been working at ground zero ever since.
In Inside the Sky you talk about teaching the aerial view to children. Have you given any more thought to that?
Often I have a feeling about how strange it would be not to fly. I ask people who don't fly, "How can you not fly when you live in a time in history when you can fly?" and, "How can you ever really know where you are if you don't fly?" I think people who don't fly have no idea of their own blindness, and of the geographic orientation of the world that a pilot does have. They'll say things to you about where you are, or the weather, or the way roads are laid out that are obvious because you have the airborne experience. There are many profound things that flying brings to pilots, and one of the most profound is simply that we know where we are. Even on the ground we have a sense of scale, a sense of direction and orientation. People on the ground, with the exception of a few really talented, naturally oriented people — maybe geographers — don't have that. I have two small children, and I don't want to impose flying on them, but it would make me sad to think about their mental outlook as adults if they didn't have the aerial view. Flying is a fundamental liberation of the mind.