Among aviation history geeks, the titles of many early written works are as familiar as their family’s names—provided they’re not so geeked-out or senile that they’ve forgotten the names of their family. Anyone who’s read a biography of the Wright brothers learns that they were deeply influenced by such works as Progress in Flying Machines by their mentor Octave Chanute, or Pierre Mouillard’s shorter L’Empire de l’air, or Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst by Otto Lilienthal. (How’s that for pretentious? Three different languages in one sentence. And I didn’t even attend one of them expensive Eastern colleges.)
Yet in recent times, few have personally gazed upon these ancient—often wildly inaccurate—texts, pamphlets and articles, except the aforementioned senile aviation history geeks or people who are writing aviation-history books. And it’s not only because they’re written in three or four different tongues. Instead, we rely upon the power of historians to describe the works to us, and something invariably gets lost in translation.
Take, for instance, this excerpt from the obscure Aeronautical and Miscellaneous Note-book by Sir George Cayley, the now-little-known English gentleman-farmer scientist who discovered the principles of flight through acute observations of nature:
“I was much struck with the beautiful contrivance of the chat of the sycamore seed. It is an oval seed furnished with one thin wing, which one would first imagine would not impede its fall but only guide the seed downward, like the feathers upon an arrow. But it is so formed and balanced that it no sooner is blown from the tree that it instantly creates a rotative force preserving the seed for the centre, and the centrifugal force of the wing keeps it nearly horizontal, meeting the air in a very small angle like the bird’s wing, and by this means the seed is supported till a moderate wind will carry it in a path not falling more than one in 6 from an horizontal one, so that from a moderately high tree it may fly 60 yards before it reaches the earth.”
Thus from a single seed sprouted the airplane. Could today’s scientist so poetically describe orbital mechanics as it applies to the retired space shuttle? Hell, I’ve interviewed a bunch of astronauts and other than talking about having to eat crappy food on the space station I can’t understand what they’re saying.
Cayley’s musings reminds me of Henry David Thoreau’s The Dispersion of Seeds, though Cayley lacks Thoreau’s Transcendentalist bent and his gentle insight into the nature of nature—but then the two do have different purposes. Thoreau built a house for a little over $20, and Cayley bankrolled a flying machine. Anyway, here is a brief list of my favorite aviation books, making special note of the practical hands-on airplane knowledge they impart. And what’s more important, they’re all in easy-to-understand English.
- The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh
This 1954 Pulitzer prizewinner is probably the best-known first-person account of a solo cross-country flight, if you’re willing to accept the Atlantic Ocean as a country. Magnificently written.
Practical Knowledge: 33.3 hours’ worth of fuel conservation tips.
- On a Wing and a Prayer, Ernie Pyle
Before he was the best war correspondent in the history of war correspondenting, Pyle wrote an aviation column for the Washington Daily News in which he honed his famous style by writing about fliers and flying. I’m a huge Pyle fan; had Pyle lived to blog, he’d be the best blogger in the history of blogging.
Practical Knowledge: Sometimes it’s just good to read a few paragraphs of genius from time-to-time. Plus it’s really short.
- The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams
In 1942 three British pilots held prisoner by Germany build a wooden vaulting horse and, while their fellow prisoners work out in the prison compound, they hide inside the horse and dig a tunnel under the camp fence (and German noses) and make their escape.
Practical Knowledge: Basic tunnel engineering using only contents found inside a prison barracks.
- The Forgotten 500, Gregory A. Freeman
To cut off Hitler’s petroleum supplies, in 1943 America launches bomber strikes on Romanian oil fields, which are ringed by withering artillery. On the flight back to base hundreds of crewmen bail out over Serbia, where peasants round the men up, then help them build an airstrip on a remote peak, where they escape in C-47s.
Practical Knowledge: Emergency aircraft evacuation, basic airfield construction, elements of radio communication, short takeoffs and landings.
- 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Ted Lawson
My favorite stories have heroes overcoming overwhelming odds and surviving. Lawson commanded one of the 16 B-25s of Doolittle’s Raiders that take off from the deck of the carrier Hornet and bomb the Japanese mainland. Badly injured crashing off the coast of China, Lawson and his crew band with Chinese rebels to elude Japanese occupiers.
Practical Knowledge: Short takeoffs, ditching, first aid, basics of amputation using only scrounged items.
- Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Marvin W. McFarland
Two volumes, 2,000 total pages from cover-to-cover, and yet it’s still a good read. So long as you’re into the subject. The majority of it consists of letters between Wilbur Wright and his mentor Octave Chanute, in which Wright describes their technical progress, then their years of legal battles to protect their exclusive patent rights to the airplane. Ultimately the patent battle killed their friendship only a few months before Chanute’s death, and just two years before Wilbur’s. There’s also plenty of badly reproduced Wright glass-plate photography and drawings, along with technical detail of Wright flying machines.
- Or if 482 pages is more your style, there’s Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Fred C. Kelly
Edited by Orville’s official biographer, unless you’re writing a book, this is the one to get.
Practical Knowledge: Come on, they’re the Wright brothers.
- They Fought for the Sky, Quentin Reynolds
A nice history of World War I airmen by a popular World War II correspondent and author of around 25 books. Written with a kind of goofy, 1950s innocence, Reynolds tells of the four years that take aviation from the frail single-seat Bleriot to the bomber capable of flying the Atlantic Ocean nonstop.
Practical Knowledge: No matter how you slice it, war drives aeronautical development.
- The Lady Be Good, Dennis E. McClendon
In 1961 an expedition searching for oil stumbles across an empty World War II B-24 bomber in the middle of the Sahara. Fresh coffee, no crew. McClendon sets out to investigate.
Practical Knowledge: Navigation, wisdom of remaining near the crashed aircraft.
- Jet Age, Sam Howe Verhovek
Kids will love the race between Boeing and de Havilland to field the first jetliner, and adults will enjoy hearing how Sperry of gyro fame fails in his attempt to become the first member of The Mile High Club. Yes, there’s something here for everyone.
Practical Knowledge: Good explanation of pressurization. And the dangers of attempting to enter the Mile High Club while you’re behind the controls.
- (and 12). And finally, the official instruction manual for whatever it is you’re flying. My personal favorites are my original Cessna Model 150 manual and my Pilots Manual for Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. I haven’t been checked out in the second one, but I’m willing to accept offers.
Whether in a big chair in front of a fire or sitting in a beach chair with your feet in the water, books can transport us, inspire us, inform us. Do you have a favorite aviation book? Why is it special to you?