12 aviation books I like

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.)

Aviation books

What’s on your list of favorite aviation books?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. (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?

33 Comments

  1. Kiki says:

    There are so many great books out there it is difficult to choose. Two of my favorites are Ernest K. Gann’s, Fate is the Hunter, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s, Listen! The Wind. Both highlight the magic of flight for me in different ways.

  2. Mike Barlow says:

    Nice list! We’re sharing it widely on Facebook! I would add the indispensable “Stick and Rudder,” and an obscure book entitled, “Rocket Fighter” by Mano Ziegler.

  3. Michal Junik says:

    I’d have to agree with Mike Barlow, Stick and Rudder, is defiantly a very helpful and important book

  4. Stephen Phoenix says:

    “Weekend Pilot” by Frank Kingston Smith. That had to be influential to a fair number of people getting into private flying back in the sixties.

  5. Armand says:

    How about… Lightplane Flying,by Wolfgang Langewiesche (c) 1939. A great glimpse into flying little airplanes before WWII. He also wrote A Flier’s World (c) 1943 and I’ll Take The High Road (c) 1939. Two other good aviation reads.

    If you are in need of some philosphy, then Song Of The Sky, by Guy Murchie (c) 1954 is an intersting read.

    I also like Wings Over America, by Harry Bruno (c) 1942. This is as real as it gets. Harry Bruno was involved in promoting aviation since the early 1920’s. Written at the beginning of WWII with the war’s outcome very uncertain, Bruno muses at about a secret aircraft which is being developed, he can’t discuss it but hopes it will turn the tide in favor of the Allies. If I recall correctly, my later research indicatd it was the Hellcat.

  6. W. Scott Olsen says:

    I recommend *America from the Air* by Wolfgang Langewiesche, *Aloft* by William Langewiesche, *Fly by Wire* by William Langewiesche, and from the department of shameless self-promotion, I’m rather found of *Hard Air* and *Never Land* by W. Scott Olsen. A new book, *Prairie Sky* will be out next year.

  7. Mike Savage says:

    I have only read two books on the list so I have some catching up to do.

    I would recommend the following light reading:

    “Airport”(yes, the precursor to all those bad movies)to get a refresher on what it was like to travel before the TSA and security theater were invented. Things like bringing your briefcase on board without being checked and walking your loved ones to their seat on the airliner to say goodbye was A-OK.

    “Coffee, Tea or Me?” is about being a stewardess during the jet age when male flight crew members sometimes took a too “hands on approach” to things.

    Mike Savage

  8. Shahryar Saigol says:

    I would add “North Star Over My Shoulder” by Captain Robert N. Buck,
    Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.

  9. W. Scott Olsen says:

    No one has mentioned Wind Sand and Stars yet? No one has mentioned West with the Night? Those are two foundations for all of us…

    • phil scott says:

      West with the Night is beautifully written [some call the author The Female Hemingway], and so is Wind, Sand and Stars. I also loved his Flight to Arras. [Did I just misspell Arras?] I have Stick and Rudder–a copy that I liberated from the old Flying library–but I haven’t read it. Yet. Put your weapons down, fellas.

  10. vernon fueston says:

    I am surprised nobody mentioned Night Flight by Antoine De Saint-Xupery which is about flying the mail in South America in the early days.

    I also have enjoyed the many books written by Richard Collins.

    • Dick Collins says:

      Thank you Vernon. I would add one more book to the liet. “Flight of the Intruder” by Stephen Coonts is truly a good read.

  11. ken hardy says:

    Winged Victory by VM Yeates
    The Candy Bombers by Andrei Cherny
    Air Power by Stephen Budiansky
    Palace Cobra by Ed Rasimus

  12. Mike Bogdan says:

    Without a doubt and, at the same time, the most sobering and inspiring aviation book of this century is the details of what went on in the air during 9/11.

    Touching History by Lynn Spencer

  13. Hunter Heath says:

    I agree that there are many, many great aviation books, and it’s good to learn of some new ones here. No one has mentioned a book that brought me to laughter and tears at several points, Rinker Buck’s true story, “Flight of Passage.” Two teenage brothers, sons of a crazy one-legged pilot, take a J-3 Cub from New York to California, charts-and-compass, no radio. It’s an engaging tale of brotherly and paternal relationships, colorful characters, and coming of age. You will wish your brother had taken you on such a trip. Five stars. Will post more suggestions later, off to Oshkosh shortly.

    • Dale Bender says:

      Thanks, this is my all-time favorite book, just so happens to be about flying! I was going to put this book in the comments and happened to see somebody did! Thanks!

  14. Bill Palmer says:

    “The Years Of The Sky Kings” by Arch Whitehouse, “Slide Rule” by Nevil Shute, and “Full Circle” by Group Capt. J.E. Johnson. These books, among others, were books I read at 12 and 13 years of age, and they really got my head up in the clouds, fueled my thirst for aviation. They are dear treasures from a time when my days were filled with magic and I was awestruck by aviation. I still have these books in paperback form. “Years” was printed July 1964, “Slide Rule” in November 1964, and “Full Circle” in July 1964. I also loved the movie “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.” The book was better (always is, IMHO), but the paperback I have probably took the movie script and turned it into a book. Another movie that era was “The Blue Max,” which had good flight sequences but a sucky plot.

    • phil scott says:

      You got that right! I had to sit through all those sucky love scenes to get to the good parts.

  15. Hal Becker says:

    I would add to the list “Anvil of the Gods” by Fred McClement that vividly describes several aviation accidents that resulted from encounters with thunderstorms. Another recommendation is “Pylon” by William Faulkner.

  16. Chuck Losinski says:

    I agree that Robert Buck’s North Star Over My Shoulder is high on my list as is his Weather Flying. But how about Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck? No relation to Robert Buck. Excellent summer read. It has been around since the 90’s but is a first person account of an aviation event by two teens in the 1960’s. Should be on the top 10 list.

    Happy reading

  17. Sam Heiter says:

    I’ll add Stranger to the Ground by Richard Bach. Flying Forts, Everything but the Flak plus many others by Martin Caidin.

  18. John says:

    Gordon Baxter’s ‘How to Fly’

    now those were the good old days. I miss him.

  19. Mark Wyant says:

    “Anyone Can Fly” by Jules Bergman changed the course of my life and led to 38 years of flying and an airline career with American Airlines and most recently to obtaining my helicopter license and my first helicopters – a Robinson R44.

  20. Lex Baer says:

    Beryl Markham: West with the Night. A memoir of growing up in British East Africa at the time of Out of Africa. She trained race horses, then learned to fly, and scouted elephant from the air. Finally, hers was the first solo flight over the Atlantic from east to west.

  21. James says:

    Ernie Gann’s Band of Brothers.

  22. liam davis says:

    Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche is a must read i reckon.

  23. mistercrisp says:

    I second both”Fly By Wire” about the landing on the Hudson with so much fascinating information, and “Stranger to the Ground” by Richard Bach.

  24. Hunter Heath says:

    This could go on for months. Here are three more highly recommended books:

    1.”Glide Path,” by Arthur C. Clarke, c1963. I have it in a decaying paperback, bearing the promo “A high-voltage novel of the Air Force during WWII.” The technical material on Ground Controlled Approaches and radar add spice to the story.

    2. “The Don Sheldon Story. Wager with the Wind,” by James Greiner, c1974. Sheldon spent his life flying Alaska, Mt. McKinley,glaciers, and more. As a flatlander, I found the stories of flight in impossible conditions fascinating. Sadly, Sheldon died of cancer at age 53.

    3. While not an “airplane book,” I highly recommend “Rocket Boys. A Memoir,” by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. c 1998. Hickam’s growing up in a West Virginia coal mining town and making rockets led him to a career as a NASA engineer. Wonderful coming of age story.

  25. Shahryar Saigol says:

    If you have young adults interested in flying the the Biggles series by CaptainW.E. Johns is strongly recommended.

  26. Peter T says:

    Must reads to add to the list:

    Stranger to the Ground and Nothing by Chance (Richard Back)

    One Zero Charlie (Laurence Gonzales)

    No Visible Horizon (Joshua Cooper Ramo)

    Inside the Sky (William Langeweische)