Wolfgang Langewiesche, I’ll Take the High Road. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939.
Wolfgang Langewiesche’s I’ll Take the High Road became a classic of aviation literature almost as soon as it was published. It describes his experiences learning to fly in the late 1930s. He tells us almost nothing about his life away from flying. He was involved in education, first as a student at Columbia University in New York, and then as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. All he tells us about him time away from airports is that he worked in order to earn money to pay for his flight instruction and cross-country flights. According to his account, he lived to fly. We never learn why this was so, but there is no doubt that it was so. In addition to capturing the experience of flight well, his account shows what a lucky aviator he was; he could have killed himself at least three times.
The book charts his path from student to licensed pilot, flying small, single-engine aircraft. His narrative is exceptional for the details he provides about what it is like to fly (and even jump out of) an airplane. This trait is evident in the chapter titled “The Mysterious Factor X”; although he never defines what he means by the “X factor,” I believe he is referring to thinking aeronautically, developing the sense that a pilot has to develop to anticipate what will happen next in flight, whether taking off, cruising, or descending for a landing. Part of developing the X factor is becoming confident of the capabilities of the aircraft a pilot is flying as well as his or her ability to control the aircraft successfully. This sense of confidence is necessary to avoid the fear of flying, or to be more exact, the fear of what might go wrong when you are in an airplane, especially a small, single-engine plane.
His personal flight training program begins in Chicago, where he learns to fly in a “Travelair” (probably a Travel Air 4000, built in the late 1920s by Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman). After he moves to New York, he flies a “Fleet.” His third and final training stop is Al Bennett’s flying field near Princeton, New Jersey, where he develops his ability to fly a Piper Cub, the aircraft which he flies on his cross-country flights.
Two of the most engaging chapters are “Knapsack of Salvation” and “Neurosis in Miniature,” both of which describe his sensations when he intentionally jumps out of an airplane wearing a parachute. In “Knapsack,” he makes the jump in order to qualify as a stunt man at local airshows. As he approaches the ground he sees a sturdy barbed wire fence in his path and mentally considers his options to avoid it. Fortunately he misses the fence; if he had hit the fence, he probably would have been killed, but he considers this possibility only in passing. In “Neurosis” he decides he wants to free fall through the air as long as he possibly can before deploying his parachute. Again, he is incredibly lucky, as he waits almost too late to pull his rip cord. His description of his sensations as he falls through space, especially in “Neurosis,” are detailed and comprehensive. Although he was one of the first to “sky dive,” as we call it today, I doubt that there is a more accurate account of what it is physically like to fall a long distance through the air.
Sandwiched between his parachute jump accounts is a chapter called “Flying Team,” in which he ventures on his first cross-country flights with an eager female pilot, Ellen. Initially he is the navigator and she is the pilot on the outbound flights, and the roles are reversed on the return flights. Flying out of Chicago, he and Ellen fly across the Midwest, to Minneapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, and other fields of similar range. It is clear that the two of them develop a special working relationship (though he says not romantic), and he is horrified as he watches from the ground as she, flying solo, fails to pull out of an inverted spin:
Half a turn later, horribly late, she began to recover. She succeeded in stopping the turn and went into a straight dive, first nosing down at about seventy degrees, then vertically. As if coming out of a loop. She was beginning to pull out right side up, but still pointing almost straight down, when she hit the ground.
The front of the ship crumpled, and the wings cracked and folded backwards, and thus the ship stood on its head, for a moment quite like an arrow that has been shot into a tree and quivers. It was a quarter mile beyond the airport fence. Everybody started running, but there was a bit of smoke, and a slight sound saying “P!” Out of that broke a high yellow flame which kept burning for almost half an hour while the sirens wailed. (132)
After Langewiesche earns his pilot’s license, he flies a series of cross country flights down the east coast of the United States, first to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and then to Key West, Florida. In the chapter titled “You Must Beware of Hatteras,” he describes his solo flight in a Piper Cub down to Cape Hatteras, where he lands on a beach. He meets and interacts with the coastal people who operate the Hatteras light, forming a friendship based on their mutual fascination with communication from shore to ship. As a cross-country pilot, he can speak their language of navigation. He flies to Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers flew their first successful test flights, paying homage to their efforts. When he lands to investigate an abandoned shipwreck, he is almost trapped by the incoming tide as he struggles to clear his small plane from the uncooperative sands.
In “Key West with Lady,” he persuades an air-minded young lady to ride in the front seat of a Piper Cub as they fly down the coast to Miami and then to Key West. He is less interested in the tourist attractions of coastal towns than he is in the phenomenon of flying over long stretches of water with little or no possibility of landing safely if the engine fails. This episode is followed by a chapter titled “Adventure in the Forest,” in which he finds himself engulfed by dense fog while flying low over the pine trees of Georgia. Low on fuel, he determines that he should land but in the wispy fog cannot find a clearing large enough for a safe landing. So he chooses the next-best alternative: he lands in a less-heavily forested area where the tall pine trees can cushion their landing. His account reads like a make-believe story:
I kept the ship barely flying with small bursts of power just clearing the crowns of trees hoping the maneuver had been properly gauged and the clearing would appear again.
Then it opened up under me.
I cut the gas. She stalled and mushed down like an elevator; out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the trees grow up beside us. Halfway down I gave her another burst of power so she wouldn’t drop entirely out of control. Two tree trunks loomed up dead ahead: the crash.
I gave a fast kick on the rudder and jerked the stick over so as to stick the ship’s nose through between the two. This way the wings would take the shock and shear off, rather than the ship’s nose and our heads. My hand was on its way to the ignition switch. But before we reached the trees, her wheels brushed through some flimsy greenery, with a noise as of a deer breaking through some underbrush, and she stopped almost on the spot.
The forest was quiet except for the slow throbbing of our engine. I switched it off. (217-218)
Unbelievable! The aircraft comes to rest on the ground without causing injury to himself or his passenger. With the help of some enthusiastic locals, he lowers his aircraft to the ground, where he discovers that although the aircraft has suffered some damage to fabric and spars, nothing structural has been broken, and he decides to take off after the weather clears. His woman companion returns home by another means.
Although he never identifies the woman passenger who shares these challenging adventures with him in the book itself, it is unofficially dedicated to “Elizabeth Coit, passenger.” Elisabeth Coit was an award-winning architect who specialized in designing economical housing in the years before World War II. Not only did she have an adventurous spirit, she must also have had great trust in her relatively inexperienced but level-headed pilot.