Building a Great Air and Space Library
To find the very best books about the world of aviation and spaceflight, we asked for recommendations.
- By Our Panel Of Experts
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
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Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos (Little, Brown, 1994). As much a portrait of Lockheed's legendary Skunk Works, which the author eventually headed, as it is an autobiography of Rich.
Burning the Days by James Salter (Random House, 1997). A literary writer recounts his life's story, including his service as an F-86 pilot in the Korean War.
Jet: The Story of a Pioneer by Frank Whittle (Frederick Muller, 1954). The author's fascinating struggle to invent the gas turbine engine.
In the bountiful realm of aviation biography and autobiography, the best of the lot was written by the man who stood literally head and shoulders above the rest. Charles Lindbergh's The Spirit of St. Louis (Charles Scribners, 1953) "is one of the few books written by a celebrity that won and deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize," says A. Scott Berg, whose own biography, Lindbergh (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1998), also won the Pulitzer. "The book was written 25 years after the epic flight," Berg says, "and his passion for aviation and his excitement over what he had done still came through 25 years later.
"He cared so deeply about that book because the book that really hooked a generation of young men into aviation was We [written days after his 1927 transatlantic flight], which he never really liked. Lindbergh himself took over the writing of the book from a ghost writer and had to deliver it to Putnam. He was never happy with it. It was the best he could do under the circumstances." At the time, Lindbergh was a 25-year-old college dropout, and he had had to finish the book in just a few weeks.
Berg's biography, destined to become a classic itself, is the only one of the 30-some books published about the aviator to have plumbed the archive of the Lindberghs' unpublished papers, which reside at Yale University. In addition to receiving permission from the pilot's wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to quote from the archive, Berg interviewed her and the Lindbergh children, and that enabled him to present a rich picture of the aviator's life, including his loving but troubled marriage.
Anne Lindbergh, of course, published several landmark memoirs. The two of most interest to aviation-minded readers--North to the Orient and Listen! the Wind--are both recollections of survey flights the Lindbergs undertook for Pan American Airways. "For me, they are the most vivid and vibrant of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's writing," says Berg. "I think people who are not pilots will catch the fever that gripped her. And her own sense of awe makes those books so wonderful.
"While Anne was always this great literary figure, I'm not sure she would have had an important book career had her husband not pushed her into it," Berg continues. "As she herself said, he gets a lot of the credit for making a published writer out of her. And while that's going on, she helped him find his own voice. In his early attempts at writing, he was self-consciously literary, and she basically said, 'Write it the way you talk it.' "
Aviation's other great celebrity, the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic, has also received considerable attention from biographers. Doris Rich says that before she began Amelia Earhart : A Biography (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), she visited the local library, and what she discovered was discouraging. Do you know, the librarian asked her, that there are approximately 30 books and countless magazine articles already published about Earhart? "Well," Rich told her, "I guess I'll have to read them all."
"But no one, except her sister, wrote about her life," says Rich. "Everybody wrote about her death." Rich's book tells Earhart's story from childhood to celebrity-hood, as does another biography published in 1989, Mary Lovell's The Sound of Wings.
Rich, who has written biographies of three other women pilots, Harriet Quimby, Mathilde Moisant, and Bessie Coleman, and is now working on a biography of Jackie Cochran, says the work that most inspires her as a biographer is The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (Norton, 1989) by National Air and Space Museum curator Tom Crouch. "Tom Crouch can meld the times with the person's life he's writing about in a wondrous way," says Rich. "You know," she confides, "the 'bishop's boys' couldn't have been two more boring men, and he managed to make them interesting."
Early Flight: World War I
Part of the fun of reading about this period is that the reader can experience how wild and mysterious the world of aviation once was, both for those who flew and those who built the aircraft.
Contact: the Story of the Early Birds by Henry S. Villard (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987). Written in an engaging style, this is probably the best one-stop overview of the pilots and competitions of the period.
A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination 1908-1918 by Robert Wohl (Yale University Press, 1994). An excellent scholarly account of early flight, written by an eminent historian.