Jet Age; The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World  by Sam Howe Verhovek

Reviewed by Ed Potkai

There are history books that tell you things you never knew before.  And there are history books which tell you things you “kind of” already knew but hadn’t thought about in a long time.  Jet Age is a good example of the latter.

It may be easier to tell what this book is not than what it is.  It is not a deeply researched technical history of the development of the jet airliner.  It is not a detective story tracking the mystery of the exploding Comets.  It is not a suspenseful tale of a neck-and-neck race between two aircraft companies.  So what is it?  Perhaps it could be called a guided tour of a place we visited long ago.

The book brings us back to the end of World War II where the dormancy of civilian air travel was coming to an end.  It follows the decision-making of two companies which were famous for their military airplanes but had not been successful in the civilian market.  Of course we already know that De Havilland came up with the Comet while Boeing developed the 707.  The author reveals facts that enhance our understanding of the processes.  Perhaps the best part of this book is the reminder that, in the fifties, the aircraft industry was directed by strong individuals.  Geoffrey De Havilland, Bill Allen, Donald Douglas, Howard Hughes, and Juan Trippe were some of the celebrated faces on who shaped the future of air travel. 

The reader has reason to question what Verhovek included in the book in comparison to what he left out.  Although he goes on and on about the barrel roll of Boeing’s Dash 80, much less mention is made of the Douglas DC-8 (which initially had more orders than the 707).  And he might have explored how Douglas, the darling of pre-war air travel, let its big advantage slip away.  At only 212 pages, the book seems to be stretching to reach even that meager page count.  The beginnings of air mail and stewardess concept increase the number of pages but seem to have little to do with the birth of the jet airliner. 

Jet Age is an easy read and it is satisfying in many ways.   It will be a fine primer for those with little knowledge of the era.  But for boomers who are interested in aviation, it may seem more like a script for a program on the History Channel than the deep-down story of dawn of the jet age.  It’s worth your time but let your public library pick up the tab.




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