Wide Body: The Triumph of the 747 by Clive Irving
This year I will do better to share, reflect and remember the books I read. This is mostly a selfish exercise, but I hope others may find some value.
Reading a book is a daily occurrence for me. I find it a relaxing and rewarding experience. I tend to interact with nonfiction on an array of topics and only venture in the fiction realm from time to time. You’ll notice this as I go along.
Wide-Body: The Triumph of the 747 by Clive Irving was recommended to me. I was in Portland to begin a trip around Oregon and stopped at Powell’s Books to grab a few good things to read. (It was the same day that Bruce Springsteen was doing a book signing at the store. More on that another time.)
After the book store, I walked a few blocks to have lunch at Deschutes Brewery, and sat at the bar. A retired couple sitting next to me noticed I had made a purchase at Powell’s and we started a conversation about books and jazz music. The man, a retired commercial airline pilot, was beaming about this book and was hoping to find a copy at Powell’s after loaning his copy to a friend.
His recommendation was based on the engineering process Boeing went through to develop the 747, which is fascinating in and of itself, and his obvious love of all things aviation.
I kept a note of the recommendation, added it to my Amazon wish list and ended up receiving it as a Christmas gift.
The book, published in 1993, is more wide-ranging than I anticipated. It includes the history, technology, people, processes, competition and business decisions that ultimately created an environment where the 747 became a possibility. Once the environment existed, Boeing created a market for the wide-body jet when none existed and made it happen through fascinating series of events.
The characters and their personalities also are on full display. I got a sense, without it being spelled out, that the intersection of all these skilled people and the understanding each of them had about one another just worked.
“Life at Boeing can never again be as it was for the young bloods who put the unruly swept wing into the wind tunnel and persisted until it was flyable. It was one of those confluences of people, time and place that are unrepeatable. Like Icarus, they might well have been jumping off the cliff with wax wings that would melt in the sun. Instead, they jumped off the cliff and the wings stayed hole. No one gets to jump off the cliff anymore. Those who did have a certain look about them. They are the survivors of an exclusive cult. They defied gravity, and never fell to earth.”
It was more of a business and history book then an engineering one for me, although there is plenty of that especially in terms of the swept wing. Two examples are the collaboration between two executives – Bill Allen at Boeing and Juan Trippe at Pan Am – and the decision by Boeing to build its own wind tunnel. If you read it, you’ll understand that more than anything those two things were game-changers.
Along the way, you’ll learn several backstories that make for fascinating reads themselves: Boeing’s company culture and how it guides everything, how the concept for the B-52 bomber happened in a hotel room in one weekend and an inclusion of one Boeing engineer on a trip to Germany right after the end of World War II was a major, major factor in the development of the airplane wing.
The book is available through third-party sellers on Amazon.