In an age when every media outlet seems to be looking for the most extreme extreme sport, Time Inc.’s editor-at-large, Joshua Cooper Ramo, may just have found it in aerobatic flying. With apologies to jousting and waterfall climbing, aerobatics—the practice of executing exotic, death defying maneuvers in a small lightweight plane—is undeniably near the top of the list. In “No Visible Horizon,” Ramo, an accomplished aerobatic pilot himself, introduces the reader to the sport's most accomplished fliers, those who regularly perform physically punishing routines that subject the body to forces up to ten times the force of gravity. Along the way, he reviews the history of this expensive and potentially fatal pursuit, providing insight into why anyone would want to pursue such a hobby, especially when it offers little to no financial reward.
According to Ramo, one of every 30 aerobatic pilots dies each year in the course of practicing or competing. So it’s not a surprise when a pattern soon appears in the book: We are introduced to a new character, we marvel at his exploits, and then find out how he was killed. Along with “routine” moves like high-speed vertical dives, blackout-inducing turns and inverted loops, it seems aerobatic pilots can’t resist the truly insane stunts, such as flying upside down just a few feet off the ground. Or, as in the case of Kirby Chambliss, flying though a 150-foot-long, 90-foot-wide hole in a cliff before doing an unannounced loop and going through a second time.
Considering the risks these pilots take, it’s ironic when their “final smashup” comes outside the aerobatic arena. Champion British pilot Neil Williams—once forced to land his plane upside down, flipping over only a instant before touch down—was killed when he flew a World War II bomber into the side of a mountain in inclement weather. Or consider former world champion, Leo Loudenslager, who lost his life in an ordinary motorcycle accident.
These compelling stories, in combination with the author’s bold and brash writing, make for a brisk and captivating read. You might even say this book is the literary equivalent of aerobatic flying—filled with sharp turns and daring proclamations that usually work but sometimes go over the edge. At one point, Ramo even acknowledges that he has come to terms with the possibility that he might die pursuing his flying dreams, writing, “If anything did happen . . . it would be all right with me.”