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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."

During Langewiesche's fifteen years at The Atlantic Monthly he wrote about disasters such as the crash of ValuJet 592 in the Florida everglades; the spiraling dive of EgyptAir 990 into the waters off Nantucket; the unbuilding of the World Trade Center Towers; the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle. How? The organizing principle of the sky. His spatial orientation enables him to render otherwise untellable stories of crash sites, war zones, diving cockpits, and devastated people with dispassion and understatement that is fleet and spare, almost poetic. ...

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