by Langewiesche, William
William Langewiesche seems drawn to those vast, open landscapes that challenge both body and soul. In Sahara Unveiled, he traversed the length of that inhospitable desert from Algiers to Timbuktu, along the way limning an intimate portrait of the environment and the people who inhabit it. In Inside the Sky Langewiesche meditates on a different wilderness as he explores the ramifications of flight. "Mechanical wings allow us to fly," he writes, "but it is with our minds that we make the sky ours."
And it is chiefly flight's workings on our perceptions and our imagination that interests Langewiesche. "Flying at its best is a way of thinking.... It lets us see ourselves in context, as creatures struggling through life on the face of a planet, not separate from nature, but its most expressive agents. It lets us see that our struggles form patterns on the land, that these patterns repeat to an extent which before we had not known, and that there is a sense to them." Flying has, in fact, changed humankind's perception of itself. Discussing the borderlands along the Rio Grande, Langewiesche points out that from the air it is impossible to disregard the great differences in wealth and environment between Mexico and the United States:
"The narrowness of the view is a problem particular to the ground. Few tourists ever went to Presidio, but those who did often got the astonishing impression that the border there hardly existed. Residents, too, because they freely forded the river, could share that illusion. But from the air the view always widens.... What the ordinary aerial view really shows is exactly the opposite of a unified world."
Langewiesche writes eloquently and at length about flight's influence on politics, environmentalism, culture, and human psychology, punctuating these musings with fascinating accounts of real people--everyone from Otto Lilienthal, a 19th-century German engineer who died while testing a hang glider, to Walton Little, a computer engineer and private pilot who happened to be an eyewitness to the 1996 Valujet air disaster. Bad weather, crowded airports, plane crashes, and the physics of flying all form part of the tapestry as Langewiesche weaves history, science, philosophy, and his own experiences as a pilot into this tough, tender paean to the miracle of flight. --Alix Wilber