THE WORLD OF FLYING SOMETIMES SEEMS LIKE a small town where everybody knows or is connected to everybody else-until you're in a library, staring at all the books that have been written about all the people and all the inventions of that world. Then it is populous and vast.
To find in that plenitude the very best books about the world of aviation and spaceflight, we asked museum curators, scholars, historians, journalists, and authors for their recommendations and compiled a list of treasures, both old and recent, from a number of categories. (We also threw in a few of our own favorites.)
Part of the pleasure of reading, of course, is the fun of exchanging strong opinions with other readers. We hope our selection will inspire not only some trips to the bookstore but some passionate discussions as well.
-- The Editors
What year did Louis Bleriot cross the English Channel? Which B-17 model had a chin turret? A well-stocked aviation library includes reference books that can provide quick answers to even obscure questions.
When building a reference library, National Air and Space Museum archivists Brian Nicklas and Dan Hagedorn-who routinely field all manner of aviation queries posed by the public-recommend going from broad to specific. "You can start a library with general and encyclopedic works first," says Hagedorn. He suggests such titles as Jane's Encyclopedia of Aviation (Crescent, 1996) and The Chronicle of Aviation (JL International Publishing, 1992); the latter, by renowned aviation writer Bill Gunston, is a year-by-year account of major aviation and space-related events. Hagedorn notes that it has a few errors, but adds, "You can hardly point to a book on aviation that doesn't have them."
For military aircraft, Hagedorn and Nicklas recommend the Putnam Aviation Series books, in particular two by Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers: United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911 (Naval Institute Press, 1990) and United States Military Aircraft Since 1909 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), which covers aircraft of the Army, Army Air Forces, and Air Force. Hagedorn also recommends two works that are out of print but worth the search: John M. Andrade's U.S. Military Aircraft Description and Serials Since 1909 (Midland Counties, 1997) and Francis Dean's America's Hundred Thousand: U.S. Production Fighters of World War II (Schiffer, 1997), an unbeatable guide to World War II fighters. To learn about military aircraft of other nations, try German Aircraft of the First World War (by Peter Gray and Owen Thetford, Putnam, 1962), German Aircraft of the Second World War (by J.R. Smith and Antony Kay, Putnam, 1972), Aircraft of the Royal Air Force Since 1918 (by Owen Thetford, Putnam, 1995), and Japanese Aircraft of the Pacific War (by Rene Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1995).
General-aviation scholars like the nine-volume series U.S. Civil Aircraft (Tab Aero, 1993), in which indefatigable researcher Joseph Juptner provides data and photos for 817 non-military U.S. aircraft granted Approved Type Certificates between 1925 and 1957. Airlife's General Aviation: A Guide to Postwar General Aviation Manufacturers and Their Aircraft by R.W. Simpson (Airlife Publishing, 1995) gives the production histories and family trees of manufacturers throughout the world.