By MICHAEL COHEN, For General Aviation News
I wish I could fly all the time, but weather and finances won’t let it happen. Happily, for those times that I have to be flying an armchair, there is a large library of books by aviation’s greatest, and these pilots write so well that reading them is the nearest thing to being in the cockpit.
I’ve put together a list of a dozen books, six classics and six more recent good reads that I consider necessary parts of my flying library. You probably have a few of these books already. If, though, you are building a library from scratch, consider this: Used copies of all these books can be bought for just a few dollars. New copies, or new reprints of old titles, will still be modestly priced.
There are half a dozen books that most flyers would consider must-haves, beginning with Charles Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis,” a description of his nonstop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Because Lindbergh’s hourly log of the flight was stolen by someone in the huge crowd that rushed the Spirit of St. Louis at Paris’s Le Bourget airfield, he had to reconstruct it using memory, his maps, the engine’s performance curves, and whatever other information he could recover. Lindbergh narrates in a clear style in the present tense, which keeps us in the moment as he encounters squalls, climbs to avoid weather, and fights sleepiness. First editions can be bought for under $10, because so many of the books were printed.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Antoine de Saint Exupéry flew mail and passengers for Latécoère, which became Aéropostale, flying from Toulouse into Spain and across to French West Africa and later flying in South America. He describes these flying experiences in “Wind, Sand, and Stars,” which was published in 1939 and translated the same year.
The most remarkable part of the book describes a 1935 Paris-to-Saigon flight St. Exupéry attempts with his mechanic, Prévot, in a Caudron Simoun, one of the fastest planes of the time. They lose landmarks in clouds and encounter adverse winds in Libya. They crash at full speed onto a gentle slope covered with “round black pebbles which had rolled over and over like ball-bearings beneath us.” Their water tank is pierced and they survive for days on a couple of oranges and a tiny amount of water, hiking away from the plane by day and building signal fires near it by night. Eventually they are rescued by a Bedouin caravan, and the next day they are in Cairo. The book is available for around $200 in its first American edition (1939), translated by Lewis Galantiere.
In “North to the Orient,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who married Charles in 1929, describes a flight the couple took through Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Japan to China in 1931, flying a Lockheed Sirius low-wing monoplane with a 700-hp radial Cyclone engine, pontoons, and enough fuel capacity to extend its range to 2,000 miles. Anne learned to send and receive Morse Code and operated the radio on board. This is the book that Rinker Buck (see below) thought was “the best flying memoir of all.” Copies of the first 1935 edition are available online for about $6, including shipping.
Beryl Markham’s “West with the Night” (1942) impressed Hemingway with its style. Markham was flying an Avian biplane as a freelance pilot in 1935 in Nairobi; she believed herself to be “the only woman professional pilot in Africa at that time.” Markham grew up in Kenya, where her father raised thoroughbreds, and she trained horses for a living before she learned to fly. In 1936 Markham became the first woman to fly from east to west across the Atlantic, and ended by crash-landing her Vega Gull in Nova Scotia. Early editions are scarce, so they begin at about $400.
In “Last Flight,” Amelia Earhart describes her various trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights, as well as each leg of her around-the-world flight except the last one. On July 2, 1937, she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, took off from Lae, New Guinea, in their two-engine Lockheed Electra and never reached their destination of Howland Island in the Pacific. This book, which also contains Earhart’s reminiscences about growing up and learning to fly, was put together by her husband, George Palmer Putnam, from narratives she worked up from notes at each stop in her flights and sent Putnam. First edition (1937) copies start at around $45.
In “Fate Is the Hunter,” Ernest K. Gann writes about his decades of flying with various airlines and with the Air Transport Command during World War II. Throughout the book he lists the names of pilots killed in various mid-air collisions, flights into mountains during instrument conditions, mishaps during storms, equipment failure, or the mistakes of ground crews. His last chapter is a story designed to make his point about fate choosing favorites: Gann survived a flight even though an elevator-securing rod had been left off his airplane, while the same day two fellow pilots died because of the same problem in theirs. But the book is more than a cautionary tale about the risks of flying: It’s a memoir of a life in aviation and of the life of aviation itself, from DC-2s and DC-3s to modern jumbo jets. First editions can be had for around $25.
SIX MODERN READS
Beyond these classics, there are many good books that might be included in a flying library. The ones I have chosen have the advantage of talking about a kind of flying that is likely to be nearer the reader’s experience than the flights of the Lindberghs, Markham, and St. Exupéry. For the collector, another advantage is that all these books are still available in their first editions at relatively low prices of $10 to $20.
In 1966, Rinker Buck was only 15 and his brother Kernahan just 17 when they set out to fly a Piper Cub across the country from New Jersey to California. More than 30 years later Rinker Buck wrote the story of that trip in “Flight of Passage: A Memoir” (1997).
The fourth day of the six-day flight is the most exciting as the boys take on the Rockies at Guadalupe Pass, a narrow ravine between two 8,700-foot peaks, coaxing the Cub to its service ceiling of 10,000 feet and higher, through midsummer density altitude conditions. At each stop from El Paso to their California destination, reporters and cameramen make much of them, sometimes comparing them to Jack and Bobby Kennedy, whom they resemble slightly. Because it was written in the 1990s, the book has the feel of an elegy for simpler flying times and less crowded skies.
You would think it would be easier to teach a poet to fly than to teach a pilot to write poetry, but poet Diane Ackerman had a lot of trouble in the early stages of her flight instruction, as she recounts in “On Extended Wings” (1985), and it took her 35 hours to solo. She is very good at remembering what instruction was like, how learning comes in plateaus of achievement, and how instructors talk (“dance the rudders…fly the plane to the ground”). Just as Ackerman is getting ready to take the written, her instructor is killed in a plane crash. She stays on the ground for a month. Finally the dead instructor’s friend gets her flying again, and she goes on to get her license. Ackerman’s book will take every pilot back to the experience of learning to fly.
Henry Kisor was the book-review editor for the Chicago Sun-Times until his retirement. When he was 53, he decided to learn to fly. In “Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet” (1997) Kisor describes his retracing of the New York-to-California flight of Calbraith Perry Rogers in 1911, the first transcontinental flight. He flies into small airports and an occasional larger one, and he reports on the sometimes languishing, often flourishing state of general aviation in America. Because Kisor is deaf, he usually flew in and out of non-towered aiports, but prearranged light-gun landings and takeoffs let him use larger ones as well. He narrates his adventures with a zestful, “if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you” style.
Another journalist, Mariana Gosnell was working at Newsweek as the medicine and science reporter in 1977 when she took three months leave to travel and take the notes that eventually became “Zero Three Bravo: Solo Across America in a Small Plane” (1993), named for her Luscombe Silvaire 8F, N803B. She flies a huge circle around the United States, down the East Coast into the deep south, to the Gulf Coast, to Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, then north and across the northern tier of states and down through Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and back to Spring Valley Airport near New York City where she keeps her Luscombe, which a refueler along her way calls “the perfect vagabond airplane.” She stops at small airports, meeting many characters, describing the details of cross-country flying in a small plane, and revealing the mixed feelings of apprehension and joy that flying inspires in her.
“Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight” (1998), is a collection of essays by William Langewiesche, the son of Wolfgang Langewiesche, who wrote “Stick and Rudder,” one of the classic books about the mechanics of flying. Early in the book, Langewiesche declares his belief “that flight’s greatest gift is to let us look around,” and he illustrates by describing the view from various kinds of airplanes — paragliders powered and unpowered, jets, and small airplanes flown just high enough. “The best views are views of familiar things,” he writes.
He describes flying in bad weather, straightens out some misconceptions about air traffic control (“controllers don’t guide airplanes”), and considers the possibility that in very complex systems such as commercial air travel, accidents may be inevitable.
William Kershner died in early 2007. “Logging Flight Time” is a collection of his short pieces that talk about his 50 years of primary flight instruction, military flying, flight testing, and aerobatics instruction. When I was taking lessons for my private certificate, a Tucson CFI asked me what book I was using for preparation, and when I said Kershner’s “The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual,” she said, “Oh, he’s the technical one. He’ll give you graphs and tables for everything.” I was grateful for the graphs and tables, being a person who thinks more information is always better.
But Kershner entertains as well as informs. One chapter describes a night launch and landing on a carrier. In the military, Kershner flew Corsairs, Bearcats, Hellcats, Panthers, Cougars, and Banshees. Once out of the service, he started a flying school and an aerobatic school in his native Tennessee. After you’ve read Ernest Gann and William Langewiesche on the risks of aviation, William Kershner will remind you that flying is fun, and sometimes funny as well.
This very basic library will get you started in reading about flying. Once you begin to haunt the aviation section in your library and bookstore, you’ll find dozens of entertaining books. Follow your own interests and happy reading!