Review Corner: “Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation”

1 Oct

Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. T. A. Heppenheimer. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York. 1995. ISBN 0-471-19694-0. Notes. Images. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xii. 388.

 Reviewed By Simon S. Sundaraj-Keun

            Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation is a scholarly analysis on the evolution commercial aviation doctrines and infrastructures. The author, Dr. T. A. Heppenheimer, an aeronautical engineer with an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics is an expert and has published numerous books on Aerospace history.

            Heppenheimer’s thesis is to explore the economic, strategic, scientific, and political factors that commercialize civil aviation. This book discloses the technical trials, financial tribulations, and human tragedies that plague the development of commercial aviation. It also elaborates on the importance of commercial airlines in narrowing the traveling gap between time and space.

            This book begins with the symbiotic relationship between military and civil aviation. Heppenheimer points out that the development of the present day commercial airlines industry began its infancy as a postal service. Politicians and businessmen alike then saw its market potential as a new form of transportation. New ideas in commercial aviation industry sprung as aviation pioneers broke records and reached new horizons. The economical power of the civilian industry invested and tested new aviation technology. The book also explored the development and transition of military technology into commercial aviation in places like Europe and the United States of America (Chapter 11).

 Heppenheimer attributed commercial aviation growth to the importance of developing new scientific technologies out of tragedies. This book points out such tragedies occurred due to the lack of communication and cooperation in ‘safety protocols’ between American civilian agencies and military services that jeopardized commercial aviation safety. The Grand Canyon disaster (1956) was one such incident that shook and reshaped aviation safety standards. The author analyzes the notion of supersonic commercial flights and the reason behind the Anglo-French successful collaboration in its market. The book elaborates on the progression from piston engine to jet power planes through trial and error. This book mentions in detail the ongoing financial problems that continue to shake and shape today’s commercial aviation industry (Chapter 12). Finally, Heppenheimer leaves the reader wondering the next possible evolutionary direction of today’s commercial airlines industry.

             Heppenheimer’s book contains some cited materials along with slim end notes. The book contains images of aircraft and individuals that contributed to the commercial aviation industry. Along with an index section, the illustrations of engine designs and flight routes give the reader a chronological sense of technological evolution in the civilian aviation industry. The bibliography section is an excellent collection of primary articles, journals, blueprints, and with numerous secondary source materials that could be used as a point of reference.

The strength of this book demonstrated Heppenheimer’s ability and dedication in gathering sources in order to depict an unbiased picture on the history of commercial aviation. Heppenheimer did an amazing job in researching a complex topic and breaking it down to an easy read by investigating every conceivable avenue that contributed to the present day commercial aviation industry. I firmly recommend Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation by T.A. Heppenheimer for aviation historians, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts in general.


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