5 best books about flying

A few people commented on my reference to the Cannibal Queen book in a recent post about my favourite aeroplanes and asked what other books about flying I like. Apart from my (very) early years reading ‘Biggles’ books, I have read only a few really good books about flying. Here is a list of five of the best, in no particular order. Having already mentioned the Cannibal Queen, although it is a favourite, I have not included it in the list.

The Wild Blue Yonder – Book of Aviation.
Wild Blue YonderThis is a non-fictional account of aviation in the 20th century, originally published in 1997. Allowing for the almost 20 years since its publication, this is an still an engrossing account of flying and aeroplanes – from the early pioneers like Saint-Exupéry and Markham and their lonely solo flights through to breaking the sound barrier with Chuck Yeager and many before, after and in between. Even including Biggles! It’s not a cheap book at over A$75 (if you can find a new one) but is completely absorbing and a marvellous compilation which you can dip into time and again and still find something new. Searching the usual book websites will turn up secondhand copies of varying qualities from as little as A$5 but make sure you know who you’re ordering from before leaping to buy!

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Wind sand stars
Against a backdrop of flying the mail routes in the Sahara and South American Andes, Saint-Exupéry writes of friendship, death and heroism. The book describes his exploits and, in particular, his near fatal accident in the Sahara Desert, when he and his navigator/engineer almost died of thirst and dehydration after surviving the initial crash. The book was originally published in French in 1939 but was soon translated into English – and, shortly afterwards, significantly changed, as the author felt some of the content was not appropriate for its USA readers. In French, the book was titled ‘Terre des hommes’ (‘Land of men’) with the English ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ suggested by the translator. Although the translation is many years old, the book is still a good read, telling of times when aviation was still an extremely risky business.

Zero 3 Bravo
by Mariana Gosnell
Zero three bravoAnother non-fictional account of flying across the USA in a small aeroplane – this time a 1950 Luscombe Silvaire (registered Zero 3 Bravo of the title), which, to the uninitiated, is a 2-seat metal high wing aircraft with a cruise speed of about 85 knots. This is the true story of 60 years-old Mariana Gosnell, who set out in the early 1990’s for a three-month trip from New York across the USA to the west coast and then back again. It recounts her experiences of the people she met along the way and is well-illustrated with photos she took. It’s one of those books that are very enjoyable and easy to read – the only downside (if you’d call it that) is that it will start you dreaming of (even planning) your own trip! Highly recommended.

The Spirit of St Louis by Charles Lindbergh
Spirit of St LouisI suppose no collection of aviation books would be complete without the amazing tale of the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in a single-engined aeroplane. This is the book, written by Lindbergh, which was published many years – in fact over 25 years – after his epic flight. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954, the year after its publication. Apart from covering the flight itself, the book also describes in detail the preparation and planning for the flight and, in particular, overcoming the almost insurmountable problem of building an aircraft with enough speed, yet still able to carry a pilot and enough fuel for the journey. In the end, the aeroplane was filled with over 450 US gallons of fuel (that’s over 1,700 litres) and just about managed to take off at almost half a ton overweight – that’s a lot for a small single engine plane. How Lindbergh stayed awake during his long solitary night flight towards Europe is recounted so well, you could almost be there yourself. New copies of the book can still be found with a little digging – it was reprinted at least in 2003. Here’s a link to s short video, with subtitled commentary on the take off: ‘Well then I might as well go’

Propellerhead by Antony Woodhead
PropellerheadLast but not least is this funny, charming, part fiction, part autobiographical tale, of a young man and his friend (only one of whom knew how to fly) who decide that owning an aircraft will make them chick magnets (his words, not mine). So they set out to buy a microlight/ultralight in the form of a tube, fabric and wire ‘Thruster’ aircraft – described as a flying lawn mower with two plastic chairs. Along the way, he learns about and makes lists of all the various microlighting paraphernalia and in particular, falls in love – not with a lovely young damsel – but with being up in the air and the sheer joy of flight. Captivatingly amateur in its approach, this is at the root of the book’s appeal, along with all the views of the world common to young men. In a way, it’s a ‘coming of age’ story which is well-told and, in parts, hilarious along the way.

Happy reading!

PS – have you any aviation good reads?

3 thoughts on “5 best books about flying

  1. Wind, Sand and Stars is my all time favourite book – not just among aviation books – among ALL books (though Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series follows closely). I have 5 paperback copies as I regularly pick it up when travelling. It’s a classic of the human spirit in every sense. Aviation is just a way Saint-Ex expanded his world – and that of his readers. Read his description of being lost in the Saharan desert, fighting a Hurricane over the Andes (ranks with Joseph Conrads “Typhoon” in my view) or the liberation of an old Moroccan slave.

    Others ? Richard Bach wrote many beautiful aviation books but “Night Flight” is my favourite – an account of a flight across a dark Europe in a single engine fighter bomber during the cold war. Navigating around bad weather, reflecting on the cost of peace time vigilance in lost friends, recanting his own military learning to fly journey. Exciting, moving and thought provoking. Richard went a bit…err “new age” later in life and I could not personally recommend books he wrote at this time. But “Night Flight” should not be missed.

    Robert Mason’s “Chickenhawk” is again a book that, while aviation focussed (helicopters in Vietnam mainly) says something poetic about life in general. Robert was one of those people who didn’t cope well with the return to normal life, got involved in drug running and spent time in jail. Writing “Chickenhawk” was part of his redemption and we can all be grateful for his simple but compelling account of his time flying the big Huey.

    I look forward to reading “Cannibal Queen”. Unfortunately it’s not available electronically as far as I can see so I have ordered a paper back copy through Amazon…have to wait several days !


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