James Fallows

February 1, 2004

Author and pilot James Fallows admits he's thrown up three times in an airplane. The third time he was doing some spin training in a Cessna 152. You ought to know how to recover if you accidentally get into one, right? "[Spinning] was useful to have done but not enjoyable," he says. Barfing sounds like a reasonable reaction. The second time he was getting his instrument ticket, and he was flying in actual instrument meteorological conditions. Who wouldn't toss their cookies?

And the first time? For more than 20 years Fallows has been a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. In a piece published back in 1981 he wrote, "The Air Force is well known for embracing its antagonists with hospitality and with technical displays. I had become eligible for such embrace by writing (in the May issue of The Atlantic) about the harmful consequences of the American military's progression toward more complex, sensitive, and expensive weaponry — of which one of the most complex, sensitive, and expensive specimens is the fighter plane known as the Eagle, or F-15."

So to give him a "technical display" the USAF hospitably took him for a ride in an F-15 during simulated combat with a couple of F-4 Phantoms. "Of the next 55 minutes I have only the most confused and distressing of memories," he added. Part of the distress was repeatedly throwing up into the plastic bags that Air Force personnel so thoughtfully tucked into his flight suit.

Really, though, most journalists' first flights in jet fighters end up with the confused and distressed passenger getting sick or passing out from the high Gs. Despite that introduction to airplanes Fallows decided to get his pilot certificate nearly two decades later. An aircraft aficionado all his life, Fallows was 48 and the year was 1998. He had his house paid for, one kid out of college, and a steady job at a magazine that gave him the weekends off. So on Saturdays he went to Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and took lessons in a 1970s-vintage airplane.

"It was because of these sorts of happenstance that I learned about how flying worked," he says. "The [technical] developments are common knowledge in the GA world. But SATS [NASA's future small-aircraft transportation system] — there's no reference about it in the general press. It was a classic journalistic opportunity." In June 2001 Fallows published a nonfiction book (one of 10 in his career thus far) titled Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. It sold pretty well, reaching number 30 on Amazon.com's sales list while The New York Times named it a Times Notable Book of the Year.

An excerpt from the book published in the June 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly earned Fallows AOPA's 2002 Max Karant Journalism Award for nontrade print media. In the 13-page article Fallows told how inventors, entrepreneurs, and government visionaries are teaming up to create a bright new future for general aviation.

Recently released in paperback with a new post-September 11 subtitle, Inventing the Future of Air Travel, the book covers its thesis in two main anecdotes. The first is the trials and tribulations of Cirrus Design, the aircraft manufacturer founded by the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale (see " Alan and Dale's Excellent Idea," page 92). Fallows points out that while you can start up an Internet company with a dollar and a dream (at least when he originally wrote the book) you have to invest maybe tens of millions in an airplane company before its first model can take off from the factory's runway.

Fallows also briefly examines the development of the Eclipse 500, a small jet with powerful, lightweight engines that's designed to act as a six-passenger aerial taxi (see " Pilot Products: Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel," September 2001 Pilot).

Some may call Free Flight pie in the sky, but Fallows, an 800-hour-plus pilot, put his money where his book is. He owns and flies a Cirrus SR20. Still more of an ethical journalist than a bold pilot, "I bought [the airplane] at full list price," he says. "I felt obligated to have above-board commercial dealings with the company." But most of all he wanted to write a straightforward book that brought more prospective fliers into the fold. And with the total number of books he's sold, Fallows has no doubt interested more than a few potential pilots in the concept.