Nonfiction November: Books about airplanes

Nonfiction November is my new favorite holiday.
This week, we’re hosted by Julie of JulzReads, who gives us this
Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert
Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more
books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert),
you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have
been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books
on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
I seriously love this “Be the Expert” assignment, because it lets
us fly our freak flags. And heaven knows we’ve got ’em. 
I had to decide among my obsessions: Presidents? Space? True
tragedy? The modern West?
It was a dilemma, guys.
But in the end, I went with: Aviation.  [happy sigh]
I’ve been reading about airplanes for years, and I love
airplane books
Here are two of my shelves.

And here’s me flying one of those puppies. 

Today we’re gonna look at the aviation books I’ve read in the past
several years and blogged about. 
We’ll start with…
The memoirs
I love a good aviation memoir, especially when the pilot/author
keeps it real. Here we’ve got two fine examples, one from a fighter pilot and
one from an airline pilot.

And here are two bonus memoirs, because I can’t resist. These
books don’t have blog posts about them, but they’re a couple of my favorites
from years past.
The Spirit of St. Louis by Charles Lindbergh
(3 words: lyrical, modest, triumphant)
The Fun of It by Amelia Earhart
(3 words: sprightly, forthright, conversational)
Next up: a wonderful book by a great nonfiction author, about one
of those days when things went wrong… 

Fly by Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson by William Langewiesche

If you’re more into history, check out these books about two guys with the Wright Stuff.
My favorite Wright brothers biography is this one:
For a different approach (ha! pilot pun!) give this one a whirl…

All of these books just make me happy. 
topic do you keep reading about, over and over again?

Flight the Wright way

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
3 words:
triumphant, character-driven, family
McCullough is one of my guys. Two of his books appear in my blog banner, which
I realized only when I was reading his latest, about the Wright brothers.
(courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)
Me and
Wilbur and Orville, we go back a ways, too. 
years, I’ve gotten all misty-eyed and boring at cocktail parties* every
December 17, because I regale anyone within earshot with the news that it’s the
umpteenth anniversary of the first powered flight. 
I say the words “Kitty Hawk”
and “Kill Devil Hills.” 
I say the words “muslin-covered wings” and “wind tunnel.” 
I speak in awestruck tones about seeing the Wright Flyer at the Air and Space Museum.
I’m seriously
the life of any party.
So this
book had me all in a flutter. The
flutter was worth the while.
is a wonderfully comforting writer, who is a master of his craft. His sentences
just flow.
other thing that makes him comforting is that he tends to tell the heroic
stories, in a tone that’s relatively wart-free. He’s not out to tell how the
Wright’s competitors tried to make them out as mean-spirited moneygrubbers
whose protection of their patents bordered on the obsessive.
No, this
book is about their hard work and their triumph. And it’s very much about their
personalities and their family.
man married, and they lived with their father and sister. Which sounds kind of
horrid, except that it sounds like they had rather a happy home life.
And they
were quiet fellows who largely kept to themselves, at least until fame struck.
So there
are quiet, wonderful moments like this one, when Wilbur was about to take off
on a demo flight in France:
at six-thirty, with dusk settling, Wilbur turned his cap backward, and to Berg,
Bolée, and the others said quietly, ‘Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.’” (p.
those words made me stop and clap a hand against the center of my chest and do
the heartstruck look.
is a pleasant, talented author, and he’s writing about these quirky fellows
whom he finds pleasant and talented himself, so it’s a whirlwind of goodness.
despite the theme of flight, McCullough keeps it down to earth:
nephew Milton, who as a boy was often hanging about the brothers, would one day
write, “History was being made in their bicycle shop and in their home, but the
making was so obscured by the commonplace that I did not recognize it until
many years later.’” (p 113)
heroic, and stoic.
*I avoid
cocktail parties like the plague. But anywhere else I am, I bore people with
this December 17 business. Avoid me on that date.

Sometimes it sucks to be the wife

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
words: biographical, personal, lyrical
Since I
went through a spree of reading everything Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever published (except that horrid-sounding thing, The Wave of the Future) I approached
this fictional account of her life with a wary eye. There are so many ways a
novelist can get it wrong.

(photo: courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Melanie Benjamin has seriously impressed me here.
this is a work of fiction, but yes, she has done the research and I feel like
she’s speaking in Anne’s voice in this book. That’s high praise from an AML
thing I didn’t expect was to come away from this book detesting Charles
I already had pushed away from him once I learned of his anti-Semitic speeches
in the pre-WWII years. And then there were those other families of children he
fathered. Dude had some serious flaws. And big, unpardonable ones, too.  
this book put venom in my fangs.
think it’s because fiction did that thing it goes so well: it made things more
immediate, more personal, more felt.
Even AML’s diaries and letters, which were edited before publication (by both
AML and her husband) keep her at a greater distance.
this book surprised me with the depth and honesty of its characterization, and by the loveliness of the writing. I went in, expecting to emerge partway through, shaking my head. Instead, I was sorry when it ended, and I’m shaking my head in admiration. 

Against type

(photo credit: Library of Congress)
Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson
Recently I broke a
solemn vow I’d made to myself.
You know those
horrid little Christmas-season books—usually novellas—that are published by
bestselling authors of series?
I detest those
They’re a
combination of grotesque commercialism and sentimental tripe, and I can’t
stomach them.
Well, after
swearing I’d never read one, guess what?
Craig Johnson wrote
one of those things. 

And I read it

And, damn it, I liked it. 
But that’s only
because of Craig Johnson. This is not going to become a habit, this reading of
the Christmas-themed mini-books.
And I have to
acknowledge that even though nearly this entire book took place on a B-25
Mitchell, I still found the plot a bit thin. It was basically an adventure
story. Now I have no quarrel with that, but it didn’t result in quite the usual
Craig Johnson bliss attack I usually experience.
So the story is
that when Walt Longmire was a brand new sheriff, he needed to get a little girl
flown to the hospital in Denver
after a car accident. And the weather was ghastly and the only plane that
possibly could make the flight was this old warbird. And Lucian Connally, the
crusty old feller who was sheriff before him, had been a Doolittle Raider, so
the dude could handle that kind of aircraft. And off they go.
So there’s lots of
stuff to like there: Walt, Lucian, an airplane. And a female pilot in the right
seat. A happy (of course—it’s a Christmas book, for the love of Mike) ending. And
I liked it just fine.
Crow: eaten.*
*tasted like chicken

Unruly pilot

Fate Is the Hunter by Ernest Gann
Lucky? Yes. Yes, I am.
Case in point: My flight instructor, from my
flying days when I was but a girl, recently invited me to go flying. Hadn’t
seen the man in over 15 years, and here, just when my life could use something truly good, he invited me to fly an airplane again. 
moments before my second take-off,
which again would involve uncontrolled laughter

Seriously: lucky.

And I gotta tell you: that guy is brave. He
put that airplane in my hands, and man, was I rusty. The few skills that came
back… reemerged slowly.* I had us
flailing all over the Iowa
skies, laughing like a goon, and he didn’t even appear concerned. Nerves of
steel, those pilots.
And that’s what this book is about (the
nerves, not the laughing goon).
We had done some talking of books when we
were on the ground, and he said this book gives a really good sense of what
it’s like to fly on a crew. (He’s doing the airline thing these days.) And I’m
all about the workplace memoir, especially when an insider has vouched for its
veracity, so I scribbled down the title and placed a hold at my first
The fascinating thing about this book is
that it was published in 1961, but it still feels fresh today. Granted, the
aircraft and the methods are archaic (Yikes! At one point, they’re plotting
bearing fixes!) but the human dynamic rings true, and that’s the important part
of the book, anyway, in my opinion.
And Gann’s narrative voice is easy and
clever, and altogether a delight to read.
(Brief pause while we marvel at the fact
that some people who do their day job admirably also can write books!)
So this book is full of male jocularity (all
the airline pilots were male in those days [sad shake of the head]), and it’s
enormously fun to read. It really does give a sense of the camaraderie of a crew—those
that get along well, and those that are a bit less well-suited for each other.
And there are some funny moments here,
too. During Gann’s time as a military pilot, he and the others got sent to some
far reaches of the north Atlantic. Here’s their
introduction to the base:
“Boyd took my hand as if we had flown to the
moon and said, ‘Welcome to White Pigeon.’
And at once I was returned in thought to a
more tranquil period when I had served briefly as his co-pilot. We had found
ourselves flying a plane chartered from our line by a political team junketing
around the United States.
Our passengers displayed a constant and abnormal interest in their exact
location—information we seldom had ready at hand. And so we would assume a
solemn mien and point out a town, or village—any one visible would do—and we
would say, ‘That is White Pigeon.’”  (p.
I’d heard of this book for years, and I
never would’ve picked it up if it hadn’t been for the personal recommendation I
received. Again, all I can say is: Lucky.
*Yeah, just before releasing the brakes and
hitting the throttle at the threshold of the runway, I thought to ask, “What’s
the rotate speed on this baby?” 

Fighter/writer pilot

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by
Dan Hampton
If you’re all about adrenaline
and testosterone in your reading (which sometimes I am), this book will make
you very happy indeed.  
Hampton, a (now-retired) Air
Force Lieutenant Colonel, flew an F-16 as a Wild Weasel, which means that his
job was to intentionally draw enemy fire in order to locate the enemy and
destroy them. So: nervy flying.
And his book is filled with some
of the best fighter pilot writing I’ve ever read. He puts you right there with
him, and that’s a pretty spectacular feat.
Dude flew on 9/11 (scrambled and
told to take down any unidentified aircraft), in the Iraq war, and before that in the
Gulf. And some of the stories are just plain stunning. At one point, I gasped,
“No!” and nearly dropped the book into the bathtub. (Don’t worry: his wingman
didn’t actually die. It just looked really bad there for a few.)
And he gives a solid sense of
what life is like for would-be fighter pilots—the endless training and
opportunities to wash out. It’s really kind of a miracle anyone survives it and
then goes on to survive the kind of flying they do.
And this section, near the end
of the book, made me further look in awe upon their work:
     “Attacking a target in a modern fighter is
a bit like playing several musical instruments at the same time. My left hand
constantly adjusted the throttle. My left fingers worked the radar, fanned the
speed brakes, and managed my electronic countermeasures. I also changed radio
frequencies and accessed any of the hundred different functions of the up-front
control head with my left hand.
     I flew with my right hand. The F-16 has a
side stick mounted on the right side of the cockpit, not coming up from the
floor like older fighters. My right fingers danced along the Digital Management
and Target Management switches while I flew. I also dropped bombs, launched
missiles, and shot the cannon with my right hand. I really never needed to take
my hands off the controls to do anything. It was a very well-designed cockpit.
It had to be, for one pilot to keep up with five or six types of weapons, fly,
navigate, and fight.” (pp. 268-269)
Guys, all I can say is: Dang.
It’s hard enough to fly a
Cessna, for pete’s sake.
This guy? Not only can he fly,
but he can write.
Here’s the book trailer, delivered by the man himself:

We lost one today

Neil Armstrong
(Photo credit: NASA)
The world’s most laconic–yet perhaps most oft-quoted*–astronaut died today
And to me, it feels like this earth just grew duller. 
Although… this place, as they showed us, is pretty spectacular. 
Photo by Apollo 11 crew
(Photo credit: NASA)

* “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” 
“That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.” 

Not so wild about the criminals

The Barefoot
Bandit: The True Tale of Colton
Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw
Bob Friel
Since I’m no fan of true crime (it freaks me out*) and since I disdain books that take the side of the
bad guys, there’s no way I’d’ve read this book if it hadn’t been our book club
That having been said, this book actually kinda worked for me.
And here’s why:
First off, Friel is quite a nice writer. He’s a journalist, and I
just love the way journalists write books. His tone is conversational, which
makes the book’s words just glide easily past one’s eyes.
And despite my concerns that Friel would glorify the Barefoot
Bandit, he really doesn’t. He’s clearly somewhat sympathetic, particularly when
he learns about the kid’s horrible upbringing (if we can even call it that) by
an alcoholic mom. But Friel lives on Orcas
Island, so for him, it
started to feel way more personal because this stuff was happening on his turf.
Orcas was one of the earliest places Colt burgled and pulled some of his Goldilocks/home-invasion
And that’s the part where I started to get ticked.
The guy was breaking into people’s houses and living there while
they were out of town. He was sleeping in their beds and eating their cereal!
This really pushes my buttons.
And then, he did even worse things. He stole—and crashed—people’s
This is truly Not OK in
my worldview.
Sure, yeah, it was amazing that he could fly at all, given his
complete lack of flight training. And I empathize with his yearning to fly. But
still. I Am Honked Off that that guy ripped off people’s airplanes!
So, yeah. He violated two of the most sacred spaces one can claim:
home and aircraft. So I was like, yeah, go capture that guy and Lock.Him.Up.
So they did (the capture actually felt somewhat anti-climactic,
despite the fact that it happened onboard a boat in the Bahamas), and now he’s in jail
until he turns 26. Again, not very satisfying.
OK. So, the book. It started to feel a little bit too long, though
I honestly don’t know where to recommend any editing. I think the story just
dragged on too long, because the guy evaded capture for so long.
But overall, the story was surprisingly captivating. Back when
Colt was Bandit-ing, I didn’t pay too much attention, so most of the story was
news to me. And Friel’s writing style is sufficiently engaging that the book
was sometimes hard to put down.
For this true-crime-phobic reader, this book’s a success.

* I read this book only during daylight hours, and never after dinner.
Not because it’s a scary or freaky book, but because I am just that weirded out
about true crime.

Hellish heavens

Hell Above Earth:
The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot
Ordered to Kill Him
by Stephen Frater

OK, this story is nothing short of amazing. And the fact that it’s
true is just flipping me out.

Here’s the deal: #2 Nazi Hermann Goring’s nephew was an American
B-17 pilot. The young fellow was named Werner Goering, and he was born in the
States to parents who’d emigrated from Germany shortly before his birth.
(And the dude was a Mormon, which I think is also a little bit unexpected.)

So… the U.S.
government was a little bit weirded out about what would happen if:

– Young Werner’s plane went down and he got captured by the Nazis,
thus creating a huge p.r. coup for the bad guys, or
– Young Werner decided to join his uncle Hermann’s cause, mid-war,
in his highly valuable B-17.

So the government found a guy who’d agree to shoot Werner if
either thing were to happen. And this guy—Jack Rencher—became Werner’s best

Holy crap. That’s all
I’m saying.

So that whole story is downright unbelievable (except it’s true).

(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)

And then add to the mix the B-17 lore the author tosses in for
good measure.

At the EAA Museum in Oshkosh,
there’s a B-17 you can walk through (actually: crouch through) and I
can tell you, those are some seriously tight quarters. Not only that, but they
were flying at 30,000 feet, and it was hella cold up there. And then they’d get
shot at, and lots of them went down in flames. Not great.

Those were some tough fellas.

So the book doesn’t stay on course, because the author deviates
plenty to tell all kinds of great B-17 stories. And for me, that really worked.
But if you’re wanting just the narrative of Werner and Jack and the rest of the
crew, you just might frustrated by the other tales that accompany their strange

But if you’ve got the aviation bug, you’ll just marvel at the ways
people can survive (and the valiant way others died to save their buddies).

Of course, in the end, we learn that some of the story was indeed
too good to be true.

But still. I’m stunned by this book.

(If this sounds intriguing, you can cruise on over to Macmillan, where there’s an excerpt available.)

Definitely the Right Stuff

Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…

Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.*

(photo credit: NASA)

Recently I spent a weekend re-reading Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, forsaking all other books.

It was one of the best reading experiences of my adult life.

’Twas my second time reading The Right Stuff, and I think it was even better this time around. Last time I read it, it launched me (ha! space pun!) on a space reading kick that’s lasted ever since. But when I first read it, back in 2007, I didn’t know much about most of the people in the book. Pete Conrad, Gus Grissom… who were they?

Well, now I’ve read about those fellows, and I’ve read John Glenn’s autobiography (and I just bought a copy of Chuck Yeager’s, but I haven’t cracked it yet—thus bolstering one of Wolfe’s points about the astronauts getting all the glory while the other pilots were treated more or less like chopped liver) and lots of other space books.

But this one… this one is the Thing.
The first time I read it, and the second time I read it, this book had me at page 11. Here’s the sentence that just killed me: “And the bridge coats came out and they sang about those in peril in the air and the bridge coats were put away, and the little Indians remarked that the departed was a swell guy and a brilliant student of flying; a little too much of a student, in fact; he hadn’t bothered to look out the window at the real world soon enough.” (p. 11)
It’s the third time the bridge coats are evoked, and those fine bridge coats mean death. They’re funeral clothes, and the image of those young pilots hauling out their best uniform coats and then storing them again, then pulling them out again… it gets a person, you know?
Wolfe is a gorgeous stylist—an utter genius at putting together a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. This book is a masterpiece.
And the thing is, it’s so darn readable!
Often, when people speak of a writer’s gorgeous writing, it seems they’re talking about writing that is all lush and overblown and complicated and hard to read. This book is not like that. It’s easy to read, it’s a pleasure to read, and it just flows. But it’s not at all simple
While the writing is stunning, the thing about this book that makes me love it is the sense of heroism. And the way the actual pilots and astronauts were horrified by such a word.
For example: After Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, journalists descended upon Muroc Field. “The real problem was that reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about… all the unspoken things!—about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene!” (p. 47)
I love and adore this.
Quiz 2: Who is in the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang in the picture on the left? Hint: He’s the guy wearing the tan shirt and white cap in the picture on the right.**

(photo credit: My dad, who took the pictures because he’s hella tall. But I was there, too, back in 1992, and saw, with my very own eyes, Chuck Yeager flying an airplane and then riding down the flight line in a convertible!! I know: Lucky, right?)
(Oops. Just gave away the answer to Quiz 2 in its photo credit)
So we’ll try another one…

Quiz 3: The Mercury 7 again! Name ’em!***

(photo credit: NASA)
And now, just because he makes my heart throb:
Gratuitous photo of John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
(photo credit: NASA)
Wolfe also describes the way grown men—hardened men: police officers along the parade route—would weep upon seeing John Glenn after his successful Earth orbit. Wolfe (correctly, I think) chalks it up to the notion of the single combat warrior: the designation of a single man to represent his tribe in a fight to the death against a single warrior from another tribe. We simple beings tend to get overwhelmed by such things.

And I get it. I still get choked up every single time I hear Scott Carpenter say, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as the countdown begins. (I actually can’t even think of those words without my face crumpling up.)

The only other things that can create the same feeling of ecstasy are visiting the National Air & Space Museum (where I have been known to do the following: a) stand with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe; b) blink rapidly and look at the floor in order to avoid embarrassing crying-for-joy episodes; and c) smile so broadly my face nearly cracks) and the spectacular documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (to which I am fully addicted. I’ve watched it at least 1o times, and I’ve only just begun.)

So, here it is. A book with that kind of power, it’s going on my Top 10 list. And now I own a copy, so I can rest easy, knowing it’s under my roof and available to re-read at a moment’s notice.
And in these ways, I know life is good. 

* Quiz 1 answers—Back row, l-r: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, l-r: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter

** Quiz 2 answer—Just in case you missed the way I spoiled the quiz by answering it in the photo credit note, that dude is Chuck Yeager himself!

*** Quiz 3 answers—l-r: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton
If you named ’em all, you have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re now a certified space geek.