Airlinercafe Home Page

Caravelle: the Complete Story
Author: Peter Skipp
Submitted by: skippiebg   Date: 06-09-2008
Comments: (1)  

Caravelle: the Complete Story

by John Wegg

Published by Airways International Inc. (airlinersmag.com)
ISBN 0-9653993-1-0
hardback with dust jacket
576 pages, 900-plus illustrations
150-plus drawings, 2005;

Caravelle: la française de la jet set

translated by Laurent Gruz
Avia Éditions
ISBN 2-915030-09-X
2005

caravelle bookA review by Peter Skipp

There are coffee-table books – and then there are spotters’-and-modellers’ books. The former are lavish, colourful “lifestyle” items intended to impress and entertain one’s visitors. The latter tend to be sombre collections of dry historical or dimensional data which represent as much interest to one’s average visitor as mean annual rainfall tables for 1860s’ Outer Mongolia.

So, on encountering John Wegg’s tour-de-force, we are immediately at a loss as to how to categorise it. True, a handful of lavish coffee table histories of US airlines did appear a decade or so ago, but comparing these rather bland “approved” corporate eulogies with John Wegg’s work is to insult the latter egregiously. It is a vivid, bursting-with-information labour of love which, though not cheap, leaves one with the gratification of having invested properly and with the wish that other similar volumes were available on other aircraft types.

As one may expect, the volume covers the history of the historic Caravelle jetliner from its post-Second World War conception, through design, development, and testing, to market success, into service, and on to retirement. In itself this story is, of course, all too well-known and moreover available from sources ranging from (inevitably...) Wikipedia, through the annual volumes of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft residing at local reference libraries, to literally dozens of magazine articles and aircraft profile booklets, not to mention a none-too-shabby 30-year-old book on the type by M Avrane. So it was not without some trepidation that I began leafing through Wegg’s work. It did not take long for me to realise, however, that it wins handsomely over the above-named sources on every single count.

First (and all too rare in aviation publishing!), journalist Wegg actually did his homework, checking, cross-checking and confirming information, rather than accepting it at face value. He thus corrects the untruths, half-truths, “spin,” and ungrounded assumptions which have been injected into the narrative over the decades by less careful authors. Second, he enlivens the dry facts by many no-holds-barred personal accounts by (and about) the engineers, pilots and technicians who were personally involved with the Caravelle. Third, he includes in the book several excellent period articles from the better aviation magazines of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Fourth, he covers background issues, such as competing aircraft types or Caravelle operators, very thoroughly. Finally, (and also sadly too rare in aviation publishing, much of whose output is fit for reference only), Wegg’s “copy” is actually a pleasure to read, being articulate and entertaining; why, the man even knows how to spell and punctuate – reason enough to be banished from the average internet forum nowadays!

All this gives the book the homely and satisfying feel of a personalised “scraps file” such as an aviation fan may compile on an aircraft type (this one certainly does!). Nothing important is missing, no blanks are left unfilled, no revealing pictures or drawings are omitted; each perusal delights one with a long-forgotten jewel or an unsuspected find. So complete is the book that it is even supported by online updates!; that is what I call truly exhaustive!

It has to be said that the book can also be quite exhausting. Weighing a good six pounds/three kilos and cut rather larger than the average magazine, it definitely needs to rest on a coffee table and firmly refuses to be read in bed! Other mild irritations include the “rag-bag” nature of the layout design with its scattering of (otherwise interesting) sidebars, and Wegg’s strange insistence on native place name forms such as “Lisboa” and “Roma” instead of “Lisbon” or “Rome.” A few very minor factual errors have also crept into the exceptionally comprehensive engineering description of the Caravelle: something entirely understandable in what is a true encyclopaedia on the elegant French machine.

While the book is a true find for Caravelle enthusiasts, its value for modellers cannot be underestimated. It contains clear and large technical drawings of much of the Caravelle’s airframe, with detailed narratives of progressive modifications and a tabular technical description with a scope which is at least ten times broader than that of Jane’s volumes. Still, when one considers that Wegg clearly had access to so much Sud Aviation documentation, one cannot help regretting that yet more drawings and data were not included. This is a petty carp, however, and your reviewer is conscious that such amplification would have made the resulting volume even less “manoeuvrable.” The book sold out within months of its 2005 release. I obtained my as-new copy at an aviation swap-meet for 35 pounds/50 euro/80 dollars. I note, however, that the authoritative French translation is still available. Go for it! If there is a pleasurable way, or else a pleasant motive, to learn a foreign language (in this case, French), then this book must be it!

by Peter Skipp

Member Comments :

 comment by: skyking918 posted on 07-25-2008, comment #6368


Excellent review, Peter. This would seem to be the airliner book against which all others should be measured.