William Langewiesche was born June12, 1955 — 11 years after his father Wolfgang had published Stickand Rudder, the classic book on the art of flying. William grew up inairplanes, and learned to fly the gauges before he could see over theglareshield. He soloed at 14, flew air taxi and charters to put himself throughStanford, then moved to New York to work for Richard L. Collins at Flyingmagazine. After living in New York and writing about airplanes and flyingfor three years, wanderlust set in and he left to travel and observe the worldand write about it.
He hit his stride when he sent two unsolicited articles about Algeria to TheAtlantic Monthly. The magazine sent him on assignment to North Africaand he wrote the November, 1991, cover story, "The World in ItsExtreme." Since that article, from which his book SaharaUnveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche hasreported on a diversity of subjects for The Atlantic: travel in theSahara, the Sudanese Islamic government, and the U.S.-Mexican Border — the lasta two-part story that led to his first book, Cutting for Sign(1995). His writing on flight appears in his 1998 book, Insidethe Sky: A Meditation on Flight. In The Atlantic, he haspublished "The Turn," describing for the airline passenger themechanics and beauty of turning the airplane, "Slamand Jam," about controller burnout, "The Lessons of ValuJet592," and the November2001 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," andmy father and I have never talked about it. He was over 50 when I was born, andbecause he was so mature when I was born, we’ve always had a very closerelationship, and airplanes were just a small part of that relationship. He’sstill alive, he’s very old, and now he lives under my wing. He’s a very smartman, and in many ways a 19th-century German intellectual. His father was apublisher 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 mannersof the European tradition. He remains to this day an old-school Europeanintellectual, although he would deny that.
So when Hitler came along, my father was as close to a pure anti-Fascistintellectual as a person could be. He remembers the fighting in his backyardafter the collapse of Germany after WWI. His father was held prisoner by theCommunists 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 hisuncle offered him an airplane ride, and he got the flying bug. By the time WWIIbroke out, he left Germany under difficult circumstances as a politicalopponent, and came to New York with no money. He had also discovered thatAmerica was a great liberating force, with wide-open spaces. His first baseafter coming to this country was Chicago, then — before WWII — he discoveredthe American West and airplanes. For him, airplanes were the perfecttechnological expression of America. Not only did they express the view ofindividualism and freedom, but it also was a tool which allowed you to seeAmerica better than any other tool. By the time WWII broke out he was anexperienced pilot, and spent WWII as a production test pilot for Chance-Voughtflying Corsairs. He loved the Corsair because it reminded him of a Cub, whichwas always his favorite airplane. He loved flying in good VFR weather andlooking 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 aboutairplanes, and he wanted more than a magazine column, he wanted to write on ahigher level. After he wrote "Stick and Rudder," he worked for AirFacts magazine. It was published and edited by Leighton Collins, father ofRichard Collins. Leighton Collins — who was "Uncle Leighton" to me —was a great man, southern gentleman, Harvard Business School graduate, and oneof the most honorable people who ever walked the face of America. He hadenormous integrity and really cared about airplanes. He created this jewel of anaviation magazine around which a few people clustered. My father was one ofthose people, Robert Buck was another, and I grew up in that world, with peoplewho were at the very core of American small-airplane flying. As a child I spenthour upon hour lying on the floor while these older men talked endlessly aboutairplanes, and I absorbed several lifetimes of experience from listening tothese men talking about what they loved.
Were there other children there listening, too?
Occasionally my sister was there, but she was less inclined to listen, and sinceI had been a baby late in my father’s life, the other children were grown men.By the time I came along Richard Collins was already working for Air Factsand Flying. We all lived in Princeton, New Jersey, and theseconversations happened in a variety of houses around Princeton, but each time myrole was the same — to be quiet and listen. That was my childhood.
How much flying did you do in your childhood?
I grew up in airplanes. Very early — around age two, I guess — I got usedto the sensations and the view of being in an airplane. My father was skilledenough to fly in weather, but he was primarily a VFR pilot, and I didn’t flywith him much in weather. Leighton Collins, though, was a superb IFR pilot, andearly on I began to fly with him. This was a time when Cessna and Beech werelending airplanes to writers and editors for test flights, and often I’d go toWichita with him on those flights. I learned a lot watching these men fly, andmy initial training was on the gauges, because I was too young to see outside. Ihad years and years of training that weren’t even recordable. I wasn’t oldenough 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 ofapproval 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 andlearned nothing except to fly airplanes and chase girls. I think I wasintellectually too young to benefit from a place like Stanford, but theyshowered good grades on me and I got a degree in anthropology, but it shouldhave been in airplanes and girls. From there I went to New York and wrote forFlying under Richard Collins. I saw the ways of the world, learned aboutcorporate life in New York, and my flying progressed a bit.
I was an ambitious journalist, and I didn’t just want to write aboutairplanes, so I left Flying and began this long road toward mainstreamAmerican literary non-fiction. It’s a very competitive business, it’s verydifficult, and I was just plain too young when I started. There are people thatcan write very well about the world when they’re young, and I was not one ofthem. 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 greatWestern pilots, and a great man all around. I eventually drifted back toCalifornia, flew various corporate airplanes, flew in Oregon, and all of myflying was simply to make money. Other people trying to break into writing haveto work as waiters and I considered myself as having a technical skill — like awelder — that I could use to support myself. I took jobs that would allow me tofly very hard for a few days, then I’d have a few days off to write. I wrote anovel 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 Icame 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, butthey’re the exception. Primarily I write about international political things.
Through this time I’ve continued to fly, and with greater pleasure than everbefore. I no longer fly at all for a living and it seems like the less I have tofly, the more I like to fly.
One of the basic flows in my life has been to move away from an insider’sview of aviation to the view of a occasional private pilot. I have very littletime to fly anymore. I maintain my professional skills, but now I’m lucky if Ilog 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 complextwin in IFR conditions. I fly a 414 now, and there will come a time when — withthe amount of flying I’m able to do — I won’t be able to fly the 414 safely andI’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 stilldoing it?
I realized that the kind of flying I like the most is at night in bad weather.Each experience is different, so what you learn from one doesn’t necessarilyhelp you later. But you gather a vague and large body of knowledge, with a fewbasic rules having mostly to do with escape routes. There are a few friends ofmine who are also interested in it, and realized it wouldn’t be safe to go outinto heavy weather on their own, so we do it together. After we land we’ll finda hotel somewhere, have dinner and talk about what we did, look at the weatherand figure out what we’re going to do tomorrow. This is not the kind of trip youwant to take inexperienced people on. We dress warmly and we’re not surprised ifit rains on us after we land.
It takes about a week to do it right, and it typically has to be in thewinter when the weather is worse and more complex. We wait for a big lowpressure system to form, and it takes about five days to track that system fromthe west to the east. It doesn’t mean we just fly to the center of the low everytime or fly to where the weather is worst. If you did that you’d wind up dyingvery fast. We watch the fronts, and we factor in the capability of the airplanewe’re in. I’ve done this in the 414, but it’s not that interesting because youcan go high, or go through the ice. It’s not like you can exactly shrug off theweather, but almost. The ideal airplane is one with a damn good engine, and damngood radios, a damn good intercom, radar — or at least a Stormscope — and anaircraft that isn’t certified for ice — because you don’t want to be dealingwith ice. We know about the classic icing accident where the entire airplaneloads up, but that’s probably a quarter of the icing accidents. With ice thereare all kinds of subtleties and unknowns from airplane to airplane and from oneicing 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 asbusy as the pilot flying.
Absolutely. It makes no difference to me at all. This is brain work and who’sholding 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 tellsyou that "VFR flight is not recommended." If you do, you hang up, callback and get somebody else. What we’re doing is strictly legal, so you tell thebriefer "We’re doing a training run. We’re looking for certain types ofweather. Let’s start by talking structure, and our destination isn’t determinedyet." 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. Sometimeswe’ll stay in a places that don’t have fast connections, so we use the WSI andDTN systems in the FBOs, and one of my favorite ways to get weather is the NewYork Times national weather page. It’s generated by Penn State, it’s superlow-tech and it’s extremely good. Often it turns out to be the most accurateforecast out there.
Of course, a big part of this training is the judgment you place on theinformation you’re getting. The ground-based weather people believe they’reright because they often have no way of knowing when they’re wrong. They don’tknow the structure inside the weather. Usually after a few days, we’ve got abetter feel for the structure of a system than the National Weather Servicedoes. By the time they realize they’ve made a mistake about the intensity of thespeed of a front, we’ve known about it for hours.
And perhaps the most important briefings are the ones you do over the radioin the air.
Do you use Flight Watch?
It depends on your altitude, what kind of information you want and where youare. Flight Watch is excellent in the Midwest for radar returns, but it’s not sogood out West, and it’s often too busy for the kind of quick information weneed. You’ve got maybe 120 seconds off the center frequency and you don’t wantto 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 extractinginformation 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 usnot to get through to a destination, but it does happen. I do retreat, and Ialways have at least two levels of escape routes. You never, ever go into asituation where you don’t have an out, and an out for that out. It’s notthrill-seeking. It’s a very technical training exercise that’s a real bondingexperience for the pilots you go with.
When did your interest in the Middle East begin?
It started with an interest in the Sahara and led to the only decent book I’vewritten. I was writing for the New York Times and crossing that desert manytimes led to an interest in oasis towns. I also happened to be in Algeria duringthe opening of the Islamic revolution there. I was there for the bread riots,and the killings, and I had an insider’s view from its birth pangs to the fullcivil war to the situation now. I also got to see the misreporting and themisunderstanding of it not only in the United States, but in western Europe aswell, especially France. I’ve written about Islamic law in Khartoum and theSudan, and written a lot about north Africa and west Africa, but it’s not like Ispecialize in the Middle East. Over the past year I’ve also written aboutshipping in Bangladesh and India, about wine in Bordeaux and the U.S., and ahuge piece on peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the November 2001 coverstory on the crash of EgyptAir 990. Right now I’m writing about New York’sresponse to the World Trade Center attack. I’m also writing a book about afarming family in Montana, which will be in The Atlantic, and there’s noaviation story in sight.
But don’t you agree you were a natural to handle a story about the MiddleEast that involved aviation.
That’s why I did it. Regular reporters don’t understand the technicalaviation 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 thelanguage 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 admitthe truth?
That’s what I kept asking myself in Cairo. Especially when what they weresaying was so obviously false. I think the answer is that maybe the truth wasn’tso obvious to regular reporters, and because they sit in a political system thatwouldn’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 thetruth? Our president would not feel personally insulted or threatened if anAmerican pilot went haywire and pushed an airplane into the sea. I think theycouldn’t admit it because they come from a perspective of weakness. Egypt is acountry with a 200-year history of feeling oppressed and insulted and in manyways emasculated by the West, and the resentment that that engenders is veryreal, and has been since the time of Napoleon. I think that goes a long way toexplain 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 inaviation, and perceives the regulators at FAA, who have to deal with the realityof flying and the airline industry, as having sold out to industry. Because theNTSB doesn’t have regulatory power, it needs the power of the press and thepolitical 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 alittle bit about how you like to research and write this kind of work.
The Atlantic Monthly is right now the best magazine in the United States.They give me carte blanche. I go where I want to go, spend whatever time isrequired, I produce what I want to produce and they give me the space to saywhat I want to say. It just so happens that the last two covers have been mine,but that’s very rare. The piece on Bosnia took me about a year to do, and thepiece I’m writing now — the World Trade Center project — will be a one-yearproject. I was in Cairo for three weeks on the EgyptAir piece, and I’m justlucky to be working for a magazine that believes in this kind of work. TheNew Yorker also supports this kind of work, and together they’re defying thewisdom that people don’t have time to read anymore. The high-quality readers aredefinitely there, it’s just a question of providing the material that honorstheir intelligence and perspective on the world.
Who do you like to read?
Among novelists I’d say Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and I’ve long been afan of the great writer of our time, V. S. Naipaul, who just won the NobelPrize. 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 NewYork 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 theresponse, and I’ve been working at ground zero ever since.
In Inside the Sky you talk about teaching the aerial view tochildren. Have you given any more thought to that?
Often I have a feeling about how strange it would be not to fly. I ask peoplewho don’t fly, "How can you not fly when you live in a time in history whenyou can fly?" and, "How can you ever really know where you are if youdon’t fly?" I think people who don’t fly have no idea of their ownblindness, and of the geographic orientation of the world that a pilot doeshave. They’ll say things to you about where you are, or the weather, or the wayroads 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 mostprofound is simply that we know where we are. Even on the ground we have a senseof scale, a sense of direction and orientation. People on the ground, with theexception of a few really talented, naturally oriented people — maybegeographers — don’t have that. I have two small children, and I don’t want toimpose flying on them, but it would make me sad to think about their mentaloutlook as adults if they didn’t have the aerial view. Flying is a fundamentalliberation of the mind.