This Week’s Word Is “Flight.”
Last year I reviewed Zack Scott’s excellent ode to large buildings, Scrapers. Now he’s back and is no longer content merely scraping the sky. This time he’s heading up above the clouds with Flight. (This metaphor doesn’t work quite as well if you know that his first book was about the Apollo missions, but I hope you’ll let me off!)
What is Flight?
It’s a visual history of man’s attempts to conquer the skies, offering a detailed look at the physics and engineering of flight. In the author’s introduction, Scott wonders why, flight, such a commonplace event (3 airplanes take off every second), manages to maintain a sense of magic. The aim Flight is to explain the engineering and physics behind that magic.
Like Scrapers, Flight runs through its history in chronological order. The book is broken down into several distinct sections. It deals very much only with winged flight. The exploits of the Montgolfier brothers and the evolution (and demise) of balloon flight is not covered.
1. The Basics of Flight.
The early “birdmen” of flight and the sacrifices they made (their lives, usually) to aid our understanding of how flight might work. This section then goes onto look at the physics of flight and the four forces acting on a plane as it vies to stay aloft. After that, we look at forces that might have seemed something like magic to the early pioneers; fluctuations in air pressure, how lift is generated, and pressure differential. All of these are explained using clear, concise, line diagrams. Flight is heavy on this style of diagram throughout.
2. The First Aeroplanes.
This section opens, inevitably, with the Wright Brothers. It offers a brief life history and a description of the evolution of their research, culminating in their first powered flights. World War I quickly spurred aviation innovation and this evolution is covered here.
Again, through the use of diagrams and text, the complicated physics of wings is explained. The cambered areofoil, boundary layer, and pressure distribution are all described in detail. From there the book moves onto how planes are controlled and the arrival of “barnstormers” and aerobatics, before discussing flight endurance, Atlantic crossings, Charles Lindbergh and the Schlesinger Race.
3. Secondary Flight Control Surfaces.
Possibly not the most exciting section heading. I certainly had no idea what it meant before reading a little deeper. It refers to newer concepts in aviation technology to help reduce the amount of force needed to move the control surfaces (rudders, wing, flaps, and such). This is harder the faster a plane is flying. Similarly, as planes grew faster and heavier, new ways of getting them into the air and back down again needed to be devised.
This period of innovation was driven by World War II and so this section is devoted to the planes of the time and statistics such as total bombs dropped, number of civilian casualties, and the kills of WWII flying aces are included.
This chapter includes a profile of Frank Whittle and discusses the invention of the jet engine. Again, there are detailed diagrams of the flaps, slats, and tabs that made flying at such speeds possible.
Stability, good or bad? Well, it depends on what you’re trying to do. I think we can all agree that we desire stability in passenger planes, but for fighter planes, the extra agility given by unstable aircraft is most definitely required. Modern fighter planes are so unstable, according to this book, they would be unflyable without the aid of computers. A sobering thought for this layman.
This chapter is dedicated to the physics of stability, again with diagrams and text to explain what keeps planes upright.
No, not queuing at airport security but the force that acts on planes (or indeed anything) that move quickly through the air.
As with the stability chapter, we’re offered a detailed look at the various ways in which planes encounter drag and the myriad ways in which it’s dealt with. The diagrams in this chapter are things of beauty. There are several pages dedicated to gliders, explaining how they remain in the air for so long.
This section includes information about modern jetliners, such as capacity and the startling fact that there are 1,250 Boeing 737s airborne at any given time.
6. Approaching the Speed of Sound.
Once we approach the speed of sound, everything changes. This section examines the lengths aircraft engineers went to to get to as close to the speed of sound as possible without encountering the complications doing so brings. This section reveals a whole new set of physics that replaces what we’ve learned so far.
7. Supersonic Flight.
I remember the thrill of the idea of supersonic flight, from when I was a child. Arguing over and boasting about, planes we’d heard of (and some we’d probably made up) that broke the fabled Mach 1. (I also remember pretending I had some sort of clue what people were talking about the first time I heard them talking about Mach speeds.)
This chapter looks at the sonic boom, delta wings, and variable sweep aircraft. There are diagrams of wing characteristics, glide ratios and aircraft ranges of modern aircraft. There are a small number of pages devoted to hypersonic flight and the NASA X-43 that reaches the staggering speed of Mach 9.6.
8. Advanced Flight Control Surfaces.
Thought you knew everything there is to know about flight control surfaces? Think again! Here you can learn your canards from your flaperons and the difference between spoilerons and ruddervators. You’ll learn lots of new words that might come in handy for scrabble and crossword puzzles.
9. Rotary-Wing Aircraft.
The end of the book changes tack completely to helicopters. Considerably fewer pages are devoted to rotary-wing aircraft but you can still learn how helicopters fly, the different types of copters, and rotor configurations.
Why Read Flight?
This is a deliciously geeky book. I’m not particularly interested in airplanes, though there is an undeniable pull of the magic of flight. Nevertheless, this book is fascinating from first page to last. I sort of take for granted that airplanes work, and never really considered the complex forces at play in keeping them in the air. This book lays everything out in an easy to understand fashion. It’s engaging text and excellent drawings make you want to explore further.
I do love infographics and Flight is filled with them and they are great to pore over. Whether it be how air acts across a vortex generator or showing climb rates of various jet engines, there are diagrams in this book that explain things that you didn’t know you wanted to know.
The text is broken up into easily digestible chunks and you can pretty much pick up the book, open it wherever you like, and start reading.
Flight is a must-read for plane buffs, and any transport geek will love it too. Much like Scrapers before it, even if you only have a passing interest in the subject matter, you’ll find yourself captivated by this well-packaged, fact-filled book.
If you enjoyed this review do check out my other Word Wednesday posts.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.