7 great flying books for isolated aviators
PUBLISHED: 18:07 07 January 2021 | UPDATED: 11:16 08 January 2021
Editor Philip Whiteman offers a personal selection of classic books for the (still) isolated aviator to while away lockdown; pilots, we’ve got your back!
Here we are on lockdown... again. To help ward of the boredom and blues, Pilot magazine Editor Philip Whiteman offers a personal selection of classic books for the (still) isolated aviator – the stuff that will have you twitching to dance the skies again!
Words by Philip Whiteman
No ‘top ten’ here: I am not going to rank the books I’ve chosen – if the surf on my desert island threatened to wash them away, I’d save every last one of them. They cover very different subjects and periods in aviation. They are all from my own bookshelf and they are well thumbed from being read over and again. Above all, the thing that unites them is that they offer lasting inspiration. Here are my magnificent seven:
Flying the Old Planes, Frank Tallman, Doubleday & Company Inc. (1970, ISBN 0-385-09157-5, 255 pages, hardback, colour illustration)
Frank Tallman was the man who assembled the seventeen-ship B-25 squadron for the original Catch 22 movie – and it was he who braved strobing movie lights and pitch blackness, flying in the confines of a narrow valley, for that film’s night bombing sequence. It was Frank Tallman who flew a Beech 18 through a billboard for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, and it was Frank Tallman at the controls of the Stearman crop duster in the low-level dogfight with helicopters that was the climax of the space conspiracy thriller, Capricorn One.
Frank had been the young pretender to the Hollywood stunt pilot throne when he joined forces in 1961 with the king of them all, Paul Mantz. It was far from being all about smashing aeroplanes up for the camera; the two men had built up a stunning collection of historic aircraft between them and their company, Tallmantz became the film industry’s outstanding provider of aviation expertise throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Published in 1973, Flying the Old Planes is a very personal and colourful account of the history and flying qualities of not only the pick of the Tallmantz fleet, but one or two extra aircraft Frank got to fly, thanks to his acknowledged expertise with early aircraft. The writing is salted with the wisdom of a 14,000-hour aviator who’d flown five hundred different types and peppered with wit - much of it at the author’s expense. To draw from pages picked at random; on his first flight in Sopwith Triplane replica, Frank says he ‘got and unexpected torque swing to the left and went off the narrow runway, clipping the growth like a McCormick reaper’. After an equally squirrelly landing, he notes that ‘things can get out of hand a rapidly as Stan Laurel stepping on a roller skate’.
Frank personally saved an FG-1D Corsair from the clutches of the smelter at a desert bone yard. Invited at the last minute to display it at a naval air show, he cut things just a little too fine for the first loop of his display sequence. ‘Starting down, I had the same feeling that a lion tamer has when the cage door locks and he finds he has forgotten his whip, his gun and his chair, and the lions are licking their chops. As I was coming vertical, I realized I had had only about 1,400 feet to pull through. Having shown my own fair share of high-speed stalls to military students, I put the tips of my fingers on the stick so I wouldn’t haul back unconsciously. With cold sweat pouring off my brow, I came level at about 20 feet above the field, going better than 300 knots.’
Starting with the Bleriot and working through 22 other types, including rarities like the Nieuport 28 and one-offs like Al Williams’ Curtiss Gulf Hawk, Flying the Old Planes includes more adventure and anecdote that any individual flyer might reasonably expect to have accrued in a lifetime. In this sense, Frank Tallman’s story really is larger than life – and it makes wonderful reading. Perhaps because James Gilbert beat him to the drop by a couple of years with The Great Planes – a huge success and covering much of the same subject matter – Frank’s wonderful book was not a great hit and was never published outside the USA or reprinted. A quick look at Amazon suggests that copies can be found for as little as £25 or so. At that price, I suggest you don’t hang around!
The Great Planes, James Gilbert, The Ridge Press/Hamlyn (1970, ISBN 0 600 33855 X, 251 pages, hardback, colour illustration)
Past Pilot Editor and publisher James Gilbert, then living in New York and a contributing editor to Flying magazine, broke the mould with The Great Planes. Too many of the histories that came before were deadly dull, monolithic volumes dedicated to one niche or another within aviation. James was not only a skilled pilot – he’d been runner up in the 1964 British aerobatic championship – but a man with a catholic interest in aircraft of all types. He was also a very fine and stylish photographer, a great exponent of long-focus lenses and artistically blurred backgrounds. In The Great Planes he melded the best journalistic style, a pilot’s insight, a historian’s respect for the facts and a photographer’s eye for illustration in a unique and winning combination of talents.
James’ choice of ‘great planes’ spanned pioneering, civil and military types, from Bleriot through Cub and Spitfire to the just-introduced Boeing 747. It was a very personal selection, but it chimed with flyers in the USA and Britain and encompassed the kind of aeroplanes one still wants to read about, fifty years since the book was published. Pick it up today, and James’ words still fire the imagination: ‘The takeoff is a moment of simple, glorious joy,’ he writes of the Beech Staggerwing. ‘There is this gigantic thundering, clattering roar as you push the power lever forward, a brief moment of directional uncertainty, an overwhelming aroma of warm oil, and then she leaps, bounds, into the air and starts upward as though all the wolves in Siberia were baying at her heels. That climb! It’s more like a jet! In level flight… the engine’s thunder is almost drowned out by the roar and hiss of airflow. You are exquisitely aware of those beautiful Spitfire-elliptical wings, one pair at your shoulders, the other at your heels, as though you were Mercury. The controls are lithe, alert, quick – almost an extension of your own thoughts, rather than a mere mechanical system you must move with your hands.’
Read 251 pages of that kind of stuff, and you are simply doomed to become a pilot – I know because that is just what happened to me.
The Big Show, Pierre Clostermann DFC, Chatto and Windus 1951 (1970 Corgi edition illustrated: 254 pages, paperback)
Among the books in the family library, this was the only one in which my late father wrote ‘please return’. He did this the simple reason that The Big Show was the most vivid account of a WWII fighter pilot’s life that he – and any of us – had come across. Pierre Clostermann was a Frenchman who flew Spitfires, Hawker Typhoons and, ultimately, Tempests. He served with the Free French Air Force and then the RAF. He was not at all sure he would survive and was determined to leave some kind of record for his parents, something that would tell the story that had to be left out the censored letters of the time. Thus, The Big Show is based on notes made after each day’s operations, lending it an immediacy lacking in so many wartime memoirs. I read it nearly forty years ago and the images invoked by Pierre Clostermann – some spectacular, many others horrific – are seared into my memory.
One example: ‘The brilliant disk of the propeller suddenly broke up as Alex switched off. He levelled out perfectly. Tail and flaps down, he approached the brick runway… With a crash like thunder the plane bounced a good 30 feet into the air before our horrified eyes, turned over and crashed on to its back, tail forward, in a sheet of flame… One of the firemen, trying to forge into the inferno, collapsed. He was hooked out from behind, like a blackened, smoking log.
‘The fire was now almost vanquished. A vague sifting red glow could be seen beneath the boiling foam. Wading in up to our knees, we rushed in. The horrible stench of burning rubber caught our throats and made us retch. A fine white dust of powdered aluminium fell. Then the sound of axes breaking into the remains of the cockpit. ‘Easy, chaps, easy!’
‘The gauntleted hands tore off the tangled fragments, threw back bits of white-hot metal that sizzled on the grass, and then… I don’t know what compelled me to press on, closer…’
What they found in the cockpit is perhaps best left to the reader to discover. Suffice to say that war is hell – and you will find few more unblinking accounts of its triumphs and tragedies than Clostermann’s Big Show.
Chickenhawk, Robert Mason, Corgi (1984, 399 pages, paperback)
Piloting the extraordinary Bell UH-1D ‘Huey’, Robert Mason witnessed and experienced first-hand the mounting horrors of the Vietnam War, and his book has become the definitive military flyer’s account of that terrible conflict. In places it makes very disturbing reading, all the more so for Mason’s ability to conjure up the sensations and stresses of helicopter air assault operations to the point that the reader’s nerves are jangling, and one almost fears to turn the page, dreading what may happen next. At the same time, the technicalities of rotary-wing flying are so well described that you almost feel you are halfway to becoming a helicopter pilot, just by reading the book. (You are not, of course – but this is the skill of a writer of Robert Mason’s stature.)
‘Leese nosed the stuffed Huey gently over, letting it accelerate across the ground to gain lift. He kept it just over the grass even as the trees approached. The gauges showed he was pulling maximum power, and we were running out of room. Then, somehow, he pulled in power beyond maximum. The ship groaned up and over the trees. I felt a tug when the skids hit treetops… “How did you know the ship would be able to do that?” I asked. “Simple. This is Reacher’s ship,” Leese answered.
“I don’t understand.”
“This is the only ship in the company that can haul a load this big. Right, Reacher?” “That’s right, sir, and more.” Reacher’s voice hissed in my earphones. Reacher had made certain, fine illegal adjustments of the turbine. I had never flown the ship before – Leese kept it to himself – so it was new to me. An army training film I saw would prove that it shouldn’t have worked, but it did. The ship muscled through an important career for the next two months, saving a lot of lives, until I destroyed it.’
The Flight of the Mew Gull, Alex Henshaw, John Murray (1980, ISBN 0-7195-3740-1, 310 pages, hardback, B & W illustrations)
Air racer, Spitfire production test pilot and outstanding aviator Alex Henshaw wrote just three books and they are all classics. Pressed to choose just one, for me it has to be The Flight of the Mew Gull, the story of his early career in aerobatics and racing, culminating with the famous England to Cape Town flight, setting in February 1939 a speed record that stood for seventy years.
The great thing about the Mew Gull is that it was based on contemporary notes made by Alex, simply for the family record – the long delay before publication being a consequence of the Second World War and his involvement first in intensive production test flying, and then a busy post-war career that left little time for book writing.
With a maximum speed of 247mph, Alex’s modified Percival Mew Gull was faster at sea level than a Hawker Hurricane, then of course one of the RAF’s front-line fighters. Even so, his 12,754-mile flight over desert, sea and jungle involved over sixty hours of solo flying in just four days – a fantastic feat of endurance and navigational skill in a cramped racing plane with no radio navigational aids. Had he failed to locate any of the small, poorly lit jungle-strip landing sites, the chances of Alex surviving any crash landing or being rescued were almost nil. It was the most unbelievable adventure, done for real – the supreme solo private flying achievement.
While there have been several new editions, the original John Murray hardback (illustrated) is especially attractive and these days a prized collector’s piece – I have seen asking prices of over £100, but nothing would part me from my own copy, signed by Alex himself.
Bax Seat – Log of a Pasture Pilot, Gordon Baxter, Ziff-Davis Flying Books (1978, ISBN 0-87165-016-9, 212 pages, hardback)
Gordon Baxter’s ‘Bax Seat’ column was my first port of call, in the days when I used to search out Flying magazine on the newsstands. The description of his first flight in a 450 hp Stearman, included in Bax Seat – very much the book of the column – will tell you why his stuff was, and still is, such essential reading:
‘Level now, a feeling of tearing along, airspeed reading 125, the big P&W rumbling, loafing. She sailed up in wingovers like a kite, begging to barrel roll. She nibbled at stalls, burbled, then said “oh well” and sunk flat. Power-on stalls were pointless, prop-hanging being such an awkward feeling. Jeff tapped his helmet, took it, slowed down and gently snap rolled. Gently. Right around that big engine. But there was no use in postponing the moment of truth. Sooner or later, I was going to have to land all this. I arced around for the grass, slipping to find it, to see past Jeff and all those wings and wires and engine parts, feeling her, never looking at the panel. She told me what she needed. We slipped over the fence, lined up true, and she came to rest like a warm dove in the hand. I couldn’t believe it. Two more and Jeff made the four-oh sign with his hand and I stopped and let him out. “She’s yours. Go up and use her.”
‘Above, my heart was a song. We climbed up to where it was cold. The sun was low and red, bathing the cockpit, glinting off the windshields and wires. Earth and sky tumbled, we sang, we roared, we made music and love until we were drunk with it all. Then we chain-looped down, and sighed in over the grass and met out long shadow. I parked her in a row with her sisters, hating to turn off the sound of that great-hearted horse of an engine. The 450 is for the Stearman made. I just sat there…
‘In the pilot’s room with coffee and the strong, lean faces, I felt I had graduated. I was one of them. And now I want to share it with you. I hope you can come out of your flying Chevrolets someday and know all of this, for this is not business, not transportation, or Towers or concrete or numbers. This, dear hearts, is flying.’
Gordon had for years been a radio broadcaster. Bax Seat’s dust-jacket blurb characterises him as ‘the Mark Twain of flying writers’. To me, he reads a lot like Garrison Keiller – and he has the same ability to make you laugh out loud and yearn for that simple American folk existence that perhaps never was. Either way, he has got to be essential reading for the real aviator. You may have to shell out to get a copy from the USA, but it’ll be worth every cent.
Atlantic Wings 1919-1939, Kenneth Mc Donough, Model Aeronautical Press Ltd (1966, 132 pages, B&W photographs and duotone/colour artwork)
I am breaking my own rules here; Kenneth McDonough, diligent researcher though he might have been, was not a great writer. However, he was a talented artist and illustrator who combined painterly skills, a model maker’s eye to detail and a passion for his subject. Atlantic Wings was his sole book, and it was a labour of love. There were a number of attempts to fly the Atlantic before Lindbergh’s famous solo flight, several of them were successful and many ended in tragedy. These had largely been forgotten by the mid 1960s, as had Jim Mollison’s epic first east-west solo crossing of 1932, made in standard DH Puss Moth, the pilot sitting between a pair of long-range cabin tanks holding 122 gallons of fuel (no need for crematorium fees if he’d gone in on takeoff with that lot on board).
Ken felt that Mollison and all the others who braved the crossing in the years before it became a routine airline trip should be commemorated, and with Atlantic Wings he did it. It’s a big, beautifully illustrated handsome book and a fine tribute to all those brave aviators and their wonderful machines. It is also quite easy to find, even very good original hardback copies turning up for £10 or so.