I’ve been inspired recently by the fantastic Arthur Williams’ show, Flying Across Britain. Putting general aviation and the spirit of curiosity and adventure at its heart, it reconnects with an essence of aviation we’ve more or less completely lost day-to-day. Tales of derring-do are very much still out there if you know where to look, such as the completely awesome Backcountry Pilot stories, but on the whole, the first thing most of us think about when it comes to being in the air is that it’s more akin to being on the bus than anything else.
Despite this, the essence of aviation more than lends itself to a well composed sentence. It should come as no surprise that many a word has been written about the magic of flight. From Leonardo Di Vinci and Shakespeare, to popular modern pilot authors such as Mark Vanhoenacker, there’s a host of reading material out there to be inspired by the daredevils of the sky. Poetry and prose of all kinds has been used to try and explain the unexplainable, to somehow try to grasp or muster the feeling of being in the air. We may be able to explain flight through science, but the soul has a big hand in our writings about aviation adventure.
In that spirit, here are some of the books that have made an impact on me over the years:
Into the Black - Rowland White
The ‘extraordinary untold story of the Space Shuttle Columbia’ is a fascinating read into a underappreciated aircraft. The Space Shuttle may not have had the romance of earlier space exploration, but it pushed us further to learn more about the great abyss out there, and is truly a remarkable feat of human endeavour and engineering.
Beyond the Blue Horizon - Alexander Frater
This book charts the emergence of aviation as we know it, albeit in a very different form. The ‘flying boats’ of Imperial Airways inspired romance and passion - the world’s longest and most adventurous scheduled air route and its history written in thrilling travel prose. A wonderful read.
Skyfaring - A Journey with a Pilot - Mark Vanhoenacker
Mark Vanhoenacker is a name familiar with most people interested in aviation and travel. He is a commercial long haul pilot, but also an outright aviation geek, travel fanatic and skilled author. This books gives a well written and fascinating insight into how aviation travel makes the world go round.
Wings on My Sleeve - Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown
Captain Brown still holds the record for the pilot with the most amount of hours in different types of aircraft ever made. A naval pilot, he helped invent and pioneer aircraft carrier launches and landings, and therefore helped changed the military aviation world in an instant. It's also by no means his only feat either. This is his story, and it’s a tale of pure British ingenuity, trial and error, and frankly, balls of steel.
Empire of the Skies - James Hamilton-Paterson
The ‘tale of how Britain rules the skies’ is admittedly a bit of a patriotic affair, but it’s also a fascinating and largely accurate account of how British technology helped push the aviation world into a new era of jet travel.
Fate is the Hunter - Ernest K. Gaan
Ernest K Gaan was a fascinating man. An avid conservationist, he was also an aviator, sailor, explorer and author. Fate is the Hunter is his tale of life in the sky and as a memoir, it’s largely unparalleled.
Flying the Knife Edge - Matt McLaughlin
A true exotic aviation adventure story.
“There are regions of the this earth that deserve every bit of hype they get for being challenging flying environments; the legend status bestowed by pilots who've been there and pilots who only dream about it. Papua and Papua New Guinea are such places; scenes of landing steep, uphill strips on densely forested highland mountainsides have been emblazoned on the mainstream consciousness by movies like Air America. One pilot who's walked the walk is Matt McLaughlin, a humble kiwi transport pilot who has penned his memoir of his experience flying there in his book Flying the Knife Edge.”
Sagittarius Rising - Cecil Lewis
Another poetic and brilliantly written air memoir, but this time of a WW1 era pilot who risked his life on the front line as a member of the famous 56 Squadron.