A Christmas book list for pilots: 18 top picks

As social media and cable TV deteriorate into ill-informed shouting matches, I find myself reading more and more books. They offer a welcome respite from the toxic online environment (thankfully not found here at Air Facts), emphasizing nuanced thinking instead of hot takes, focused attention instead of frazzled multi-tasking. And as a book lover, Christmas means making my list and distributing it to family and friends: “No, I don’t want another blue shirt – but I would accept another hardback, so here are some suggestions.”

A book on aviation is sort of a two-for-one special for me, so in the spirit of the holidays I’ll offer my list of great aviation books. Don’t worry, you won’t find the FAR/AIM or the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge here. Instead, these are the books that left a lasting impact on me, either with practical flying advice or deep thoughts on the art of flying. Even if you’re not dropping hints for Christmas, consider this an aviator’s wish list, useful for your next shopping trip. For as Henry Ward Beecher wryly remarked, “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”

Classics

Stick and Rudder
Stick and Rudder is still considered the bible of aviation for many pilots.

Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, by Wolfgang Langewiesche. The language is dated and some of the analogies fall flat, but this is still one of the simplest explanations of the pilot’s role you will find. With a combination of technical detail and practical tips, Langewiesche shows how some aviation concepts are timeless.

Weather Flying, by Robert N. Buck and Robert O. Buck. The Stick and Rudder of weather, this classic was recently updated by Bob Buck’s son Rob and remains as applicable as ever. The focus is always on weather as the pilot sees it, not dry meteorological terms. From ice to thunderstorms to wind, the Bucks explain how to make your own forecast, how to update it in the air, and why you always need an out. It’s life-saving advice.

The Next Hour, by Richard Collins. Collins wrote dozens of books, and most of them are excellent, but this one sums up many of his lessons over the years. It’s relentlessly pragmatic and focused on habits that make flying safer, instead of the rules of thumb or old wives’ tales. As always, Collins backs it up with his personal experiences and his encyclopaedic memory of aviation history.

Fate is the Hunter: A Pilot’s Memoir, by Ernest K. Gann. This book is famous for a reason. Often imitated, never equaled, it reads like a novel but it’s really Gann’s personal aviation story. The classic descriptions of DC-3 trips in awful weather and World War II flights in overloaded airplanes show just how much aviation has grown up – heroic skills like this aren’t needed as much these days.

Wind, Sand, and Stars, by Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Even the most cold-hearted curmudgeon would find something to love in this moving meditation on flight. The powerful combination of Saint-Ex’s award-winning writing skill and his unique experience as a pioneering aviator will never be matched.

New Books

Mike Busch on engines
Mike Busch has some strong opinions, but they’re back up by decades of experience.

Mike Busch on Engines, by Mike Busch. Aviation’s best-known mechanic dishes out his customary myth-busting advice for keeping your piston engine running. It’s long and technical, but mostly fascinating, as Busch explains why so much “old school” advice is dead wrong. Chapters on operating lean of peak, reliability-centered maintenance, and “5 golden rules for making your engine last” are essential reading for any owner.

Pilot Weather: From Solo to the Airlines, by Doug Morris and Scott Dennstaedt. One is an airline pilot, the other is a former research meteorologist, but both are real weather geeks. As they point out, there is no such thing as a weather rating, so this is their attempt to fill in the gaps left by primary training. More technical than Weather Flying, this book is loaded with color graphics and detailed explanations of both weather theory and the view from the cockpit – there’s even a chapter on space weather!

Great story-tellers

Logbooks: Life in Aviation, by Richard Collins. Yes, Collins makes the list twice but this time with a different, more personal, book. While he never wrote an autobiography (it just wasn’t his style), Logbooks comes close. It sums up over 50 years of great airplanes, great flights, and memorable lessons, from the Concorde to N40RC.

What It’s Really Like: Flying the Alaska Bush, by Mort Mason. If you’ve read some of his stories here on Air Facts, you know what a great story Mason tells. With over 16,000 hours flying the Alaska outback, much of it in Champs and 206s, he lived through some truly terrifying flights and learned some valuable lessons along the way. An entertaining (and sobering) read.

Martha Lunken book
Martha Lunken has flown a lot of interesting airplanes, and has the stories to prove it.

Unusual Attitudes, by Martha Lunken. Her Flying magazine columns are legendary, and this book finds Lunken in fine form too. She shares triumphant stories of DC-3 flights and humbling stories of flying mistakes, but more than anything she finds the human stories in aviation. Some have called her a successor to Gordon Baxter, and this book just might have you nodding in agreement.

Unforgettable: My 10 Best Flights, by Lane Wallace. Flying is not about aerodynamics for Wallace, but about a spirit of adventure and exploration. Throughout these ten flights, you get to ride along for some truly unforgettable trips. The U-2 flight alone makes this book worth reading, and is supplemented by some great photos too.

Then & Now: How Airplanes Got This Way, by Phil Scott. Although he’s written frequently for Flying and Air & Space magazine, many pilots don’t know Scott’s work. That’s a shame, because he has a keen eye for aviation’s colorful past. This book tells the often-overlooked story of aviation’s early days, as pilots and engineers struggled to tame the deadly new machine called an airplane, including why the aileron exists and how airports came to be. It’s a surprisingly funny book, and one that will make you appreciate just how far airplanes have come.

Flight of Passage: A Memoir, by Rinker Buck. A personal story about two teenage brothers who restore and fly a Piper Cub from coast to coast, this book could easily become sappy and cliche, and yet it never does. There are some great flying passages, but the insights about a complicated father-son relationship and coming of age in 1966 are just as good. A finalist for the “Classics” category above.

Hidden gems

Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America, by Alan Meyer. I was completely unfamiliar with this book until a colleague suggested it to me, and I’m glad he did. It explains how the United States went from 34,000 pilots in 1939 to 580,000 pilots just 12 years later – and how that military-driven boom left a lasting impression on general aviation. Meyer offers some opinions that may not sit well with all readers, especially those who long for “the good old days,” but he backs it up with serious research and detailed statistics. A must-read for anyone worried about the future of private aviation.

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, by William Langewiesche. Wolfgang’s son is a fine writer in his own right, but whereas Stick and Rudder‘s explains the how of flying, this short book explores the why. There are lessons for pilots and passengers alike, including the simple but powerful argument that “Flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around.”

Skyfaring
Mark Vanhoenacker writes in the tradition of Saint-Ex.

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, by Mark Vanhoenacker. OK, this isn’t much of a hidden gem (it was on a number of “best book” lists in 2016), but I’m surprised how many pilots haven’t read it. The author is a 747 pilot for a living, but he’s also an immensely talented writer. Vanhoenacker writes for a non-technical audience, but even the most experienced pilot will find passages that inspire. If you’ve ever tried to explain to a non-pilot why flying is so engrossing, but couldn’t find the words, this is the book for you.

The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, by Paul Craig. The title isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, but this book, now in its second edition, is a thought-provoking read. While I don’t agree with all of Craig’s statistical analysis, his basic insight is worth coming to grips with: there is a range of experience between roughly 75 hours and 350 hours where pilots are more likely to get into trouble. Is it a case of, “a little learning is a dangerous thing” or something deeper?

The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, by David Edgerton. This is not an aviation book per se, but it repeatedly touches on themes that relate to airplanes. The headlines are filled with breathless predictions about new technology, and yet Concorde failed, B-52s are still flying, and the horse probably contributed more to winning World War II than the atomic bomb. If nothing else, you’ll feel better about flying a 50-year old Cessna after reading this book.

Your suggestions

This is hardly a comprehensive list of books – that article would be many pages long. Notably, I’ve included no fiction books and very few biographies here. That’s mostly because these genres have a lot of mediocre aviation books in my opinion (Flight of the Intruder by Stephen Coonts and West with the Night by Beryl Markham are notable exceptions in those categories). There are also dozens of interesting history books on the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, World War II, and many other topics.

But any list like this is really just the start of a conversation. So let’s hear from you: what books would you add? Share your comments below.

26 Comments

  • I know you probably didn’t want to stack the deck with books from Richard Collins, but Flying the Weather Map is by far the best aviation-weather book I’ve read, and its format as a year’s worth of flying stories with a simple map for each flight makes for an easy read.

    • You’re right – I was trying not to overdo Collins, but that is a great book. I read it as a new instrument pilot and it was a revelation. I finally understood how to read an upper air analysis chart, and why Collins was always going on about being “east of a low.”

  • Recently finished “Viper Pilot” by Dan Hampton and thought it was a terrific read. Great first-hand accounts and insights on modern USAF combat flying, especially regarding the Wild Weasel mission.

  • Allow me to add my voice to the previous votes for Murchie and Lindberg. It might take some searching to locate a good copy of their books, but what a great present for a dedicated pilot – even if it’s yourself!

  • The three books by Jame Salter-The Hunters, God’s of Tin and Cassada offer insights into the early jet age of aviation so life.

  • God, Me, and Those Flying Machines by Lowell Farrand as told to Becky McClendon is excellent. From teaching himself to fly in a J-3 Cub, to numerous off-field landings ferrying WWII training aircraft barely flyable, to being the first man to fly a controlled parachute and paraplane, to being inducted into the EAA Ultralight Hall of Fame, Lowell’s aviation story is an excellent read.

  • West with the Night, Beryl Markham. A review on Wikipedia calls it “A classic of outdoor literature” but it’s heavy on experiences as a Kenyan bush pilot. One of those that you finish and close the cover very reluctantly.

  • “North Star Over My Shoulder” Bob Buck.
    “Fate is the Hunter” is still a great decision making guide and the risks involved in flying freight or charter in old underpowered planes is still similar to the DC3 days.

  • Jason Miller’s “Setting the Standard” is thought provoking and motivating. If you can overlook the grammatical errors (I’m a stickler for proper English), it’s a fantastic read. It’s available only as an e-book.

  • I found “Flights of Passage” by Sam Hynes (not to be confused with Rinker Buck’s “Flight of Passage”) to be a very enjoyable read. Although it covers familiar territory (WW II Avenger pilot), his style lends a fresh feel to the tale and has a number of amusing observations about coming of age when your country is at war. Also, “Nanette” and “Angels Twenty” by Edwards Park were very good in recounting the author’s experiences as a P-39 & P-47 pilot in the Pacific Theater. None of these books have the swagger that some memoirs have, which to me makes them feel more authentic.

  • I always like “The Weekend Pilot” by Frank Kinston Smith. Great read on how a Philadelphia lawyer learned how to own and fly a Cessna 140. Classic story how it us to be!

  • I always like “The Weekend Pilot” by Frank Kinston Smith. Great read on how a Philadelphia lawyer learned how to own and fly a Cessna 140. Classic story how it use to be!

  • A couple worth checking out, particularly for those interested in WWI aviation- Sagittarius Rising and Winged Victory. Night Flight is also another favorite.

  • First Light by Geoffrey Wellum
    A work of exceptional quality…first hand account of becoming a fighter pilot in the RAF…he and fellow pilots living life fiercely, flying the Spitfire, and finding out what it takes to be an ace, and in the midst of the Battle of Britain. Won’t disappoint!

    And anything by Saint Exupery, including Le Petit Prince, and the background of St. ex’s life when he wrote it in NY.

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