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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The First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe, 1939-1945 by Adolf Galland (Holt, 1954; Buccaneer Books, 1997). A history of the war from the perspective of a leading Luftwaffe ace and general. (The book includes a few of the author's less proud moments, such as the time his airplane collided with a lamppost.)
Flights of Passage by Samuel Hynes (Naval Institute Press, 1988). Hynes went into the war a boy and came out a 100-mission Marine ground-attack pilot.
Into the Teeth of the Tiger by Donald S. Lopez (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997). Don Lopez, now deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum, was just a kid when he was sent to China. By that time, the American Volunteer Group, or Flying Tigers, had been absorbed into the Army Air Forces as the 23rd Fighter Group; it was this unit that Lopez joined. Much more than a military history, this book is a detailed description of daily life in wartime China, from the grinding diet of powdered eggs to the tragedy of a young flier being pinned in a burning airplane.
Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles (Drummond, 1947; Norton, 1952). Stiles, a B-17 copilot, died over Hanover, Germany, at 23, but first he wrote this moving memoir of war.
God Is My Co-Pilot by Robert L. Scott (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943). Much-loved memoir of the war in China, written by the 23rd Fighter Group's commander.
The Big Show: Some Experiences of a French Fighter Pilot in the R.A.F. by Pierre Clostermann (Chatto and Windus, 1951). The author flew 420 operational sorties as a member of the Royal Air Force's Alsace squadron.
Bomber by Len Deighton (Jonathan Cape, 1970). The best of several air war books by the author of the better known Funeral in Berlin and The Ipcress File, Bomber describes the ghastly world inside Royal Air Force night bombers. Deighton creates a dozen or so plot lines and character threads in a masterpiece of storytelling. Most unusual is his inclusion of the viewpoint of the denizens of a tiny village in Germany that is devastated by bombs dropped off target by the RAF. The author is generous with detail; in a scene depicting the villagers trying to put out the fires ignited by the bombing raid, he even describes the local waterworks. Many people have called this the best novel written about World War II aerial bombardment campaigns. (Warning: Some of it is gruesome.)
Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson (Knopf, 1984). Stuffier Englishfolk hated this marvelous novel because it blends unexpected humor with the horror of flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain. A young British flying officer must bring some discipline, order, and a badly needed boost in morale to a dissolute unit of RAF pilots who are burned out from fighting the long, drawn-out battle for Britain's skies.
The Wooden Wolf by John Kelly (Knopf, 1983). This novel follows two night-fighter adversaries, one in the RAF and the other in the Luftwaffe, who clash in a climactic night air battle. Kelly, who flew de Havilland Mosquito night fighters during World War II, writes from experience about the weird early days of blind air combat: the arcane electronics, counter-measures, and counter-counter-measures.
In the literature of commercial aviation, one name dominates: R.E.G. (Ron) Davies, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum who has made a long and prodigious career documenting in detail the histories of Continental, Pan Am, Delta, Lufthansa, Aeroflot, TransBrasil... You get the idea. These days, Davies publishes books on individual airlines via his own company, Paladwr Press.
Of his overall histories, his grandest include Airlines of Latin America since 1919 (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), Airlines of the United States Since 1914 (Putnam, 1972), and History of the World's Airlines (Oxford, 1964). As for a few non-Davies classics:
Bonfires to Beacons by Nick A. Komons (Smithsonian, 1978). A scholarly look at the U.S. government's role in developing commercial aviation.
Sky Gods by Robert Gandt (Morrow, 1995). A Pan Am pilot recounts the dramatic story of his airline's fall.