this is the 169th in my series of forgotten or seldom read books.
Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie, Riverside Press 1954 hardcover, 438 pages. Winner of the John Burroughs Medal (1956)
Truly a forgotten book, this is one of the classics of aviation and scientific literature, a magnificent book about the greatest adventure of our age, humanity’s exploration of the skies.
“She was built like a whale, for cargo and comfort. Ninety-four feet long and full-bellied, with wide tail flukes that could ease her nose up or down at the merest nudge of her controls.
Her sinews and nerves were four and a half miles of steel cable and insulated copper wire. Her brain was a set of instruments tended by radio waves, inertia, magnetic force, and atmospheric pressure, and all pivoted on sapphires and crystals of rare hardness.
She was Number 896, one of the original C-54s, the famous flying freighters designed especially for ocean transport – perhaps the most widely used long-range weight-carrying airplane to appear in the decades since man taught metal to fly.
On this night of the fifth of February she floated confidently on a mantle of black air 11,000 feet deep and bottomed by the angry North Atlantic ocean. Her wings were of duralumin, styled to cut the sky at two hundred and forty miles an hour. She rolled slightly – ever so slightly, like a porpoise sighing in sleep – just enough to tick the octant bubble from Mizar by the pole.
Inside her lighted hulk the air was twenty inches of mercury, or only two thirds the density of sea level. The temperature was 75f Fahrenheit where her crew sat in the cockpit, 52f in the fuel compartment amidships, and 8f below zero outside. Her four motors, representing the heft of 5400 horses, breathed the thin cold air with the aid of superchargers forcing the vital oxygen into their pipes at a manifold pressure of thirty-one inches. Her gross weight at that moment was 62,180 pounds – 6200 pounds of it cargo, priority 1A, battened by rope and steel rods to the cabin floor. She had taken off from Stephenville, Newfoundland, amid snow flurries in the late afternoon. She was bound for Prestwick, Scotland, 2296 miles away by the great circle.
From the flight deck we could not see the waves two miles below. There were dense clouds covering the sea and the sun was deep under the earth. In the western sky Orion and the gibbous moon swung downward at fifteen degrees per hour. And as the earth turned and the planets turned, the galaxy of the Milky Way moved on its inscrutable course through the black universe of which man knows not the beginning nor the end.
“What are you doing up here? Why is that octant in your hand?”
Because I am the navigator. I hold the needle that will pierce the cloud. I sing the song of the sky.”
Yes, times have changed. These days we seldom think about what it was like to fly the big cargo planes before the modern advancements in instrumentation available to pilots and crew now. But the flying, and the sky flown through, was filled with adventure in earlier days, and The Song of the Sky brings that to the reader, along with a host of information about the sky, the weather, the winds, currents, clouds and tales of planes both disappearing and making amazing survivals. This feels old fashioned, in a good way, and I learned or relearned a lot from rereading it. The original edition can be found, but there is an updated paperback edition, with a new forword by the author, available.