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Interview by Wendy Murray

Disaster Man

A conversation with William Langewiesche.

On a short runway in northern California, William Langewiesche is in the pilot's seat of his Husky A-1B bush plane. He's saying, "It's 38 degrees on oil. I won't take off with less than 100 degrees." We wait.

"L-M-N-O-P"—"They're putting in navigation points"—"Oscar 5"

"You hear that guy? Radios here are really busy. You hear a lot of chatter, which is really annoying."

We're still waiting for 100 degrees on oil. He's saying, "I just put on a new propeller. It's the best propeller out there, better climb performance, better drag performance. It's the sexiest thing around if you're into propellers. I was just in Russia doing all this stuff on nuclear proliferation and all I could think about was my new propeller."

From the sky over Northern California, flying at 2,000 feet with William Langewiesche, you see farmland in quadrants, the alluvial plain of the Sacramento Valley, coastal mountains and low clouds to the east. Then he flies low where the Husky is happiest. You see treetops, "red-neck trailers" on isolated hilltops, and cows. He says, "Okay, you're going to feel some disorientation now." At 1,901 you see only the red-lighted numbers 1-9-0-1 on the instrument panel because you're feeling g-load—negative 2 gs—and focusing on the instrument panel keeps you from throwing up. Soon he's saying, "When you're upside down it's all positive gs. You don't feel upside down. You're upside down now."


His best pieces, he says, are stories that are metaphors conveying "the power of a tangible narrative that has a deeper meaning." His Atlantic cover story "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," which appeared in the aftermath of 9/11 (November 2001), was a metaphor for war. It was also The Atlantic's intentional response to the attacks of September 11. His piece titled "Eden: A Gated Community" (June 1999), about entrepreneur-turned-ecologist Robert Tompkins (champion of saving Chile's rain forest by buying up land and imposing his conservation experiment on the indigenous ...

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