Building a Great Air and Space Library

To find the very best books about the world of aviation and spaceflight, we asked for recommendations.

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Flying for the fun of it still requires serious attention to detail, of course. The following books document all different aspects of an experience that, when done well, could never be called a "hobby."

The Student Pilot's Flight Manual (Ninth Edition) by William K. Kershner (Iowa State University Press/Ames, 1998). Even if you have no plans to pursue a pilot's license, you'll want to keep this book on hand for explanations of aerodynamics, cockpit instrumentation, navigation techniques, airspace classifications, sectional charts, and the occasional Kershner cartoon of a pilot who has gotten himself into a dicey situation; one is captioned: "The roughness of the engine is directly proportional to the square of the roughness of the terrain and the cube of the pilot's imagination."

Fly Low, Fly Fast: Inside the Reno Air Races by Robert Gandt (Viking, 1999). This book provides a riveting account of the 1997-98 Reno Unlimited-class air races and intimate portraits of the colorful characters who race the souped-up World War II fighters at death-wish speeds and altitudes in the high desert. Gandt's writing style is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff ("Whooooom! The T-33 flashed overhead. Hinton could see that Smoot had gotten stopped. He'd avoided the great fighter-eating abyss out there in the desert").

Skyward: Why Flyers Fly by Russell Munson (Howell Press, 1989). Scattered among Munson's stunning photos are interviews with a cross-section of pilots: a Concorde captain, a P-51 owner, a corporation president who started flying at 49, and now, at 71, flies her own Cessna Citation. A book editor admits that when weather prevents him from flying his Cessna 172, "I'll go out sometimes and just sit in the damn thing." One of Munson's own stories recounts the challenge of logging 13.5 hours in a DC-3 to get a type rating. On DC-3 brakes: "It's like the first time you stomped on the power brakes of a '55 Chrysler and launched your Mom into the glove compartment." One vertigo-inducing photo captures Munson's blue-jeaned legs suspended 1,000 feet over North Carolina's Outer Banks in an Eipper-Formance ultralight.

Flight of Passage: A Memoir by Rinker Buck (Hyperion, 1998). In 1966, the author, then 15, and his brother, 17, flew their immaculately restored Piper Cub from New Jersey to California, on a mission to emerge from the towering shadow of their father, a former barnstormer, and simultaneously earn his respect and their independence. This coming-of-age classic, told from the cockpit of an airplane with nothing more than a compass to guide it from coast to coast, reached a broad audience but was especially treasured by the aviation community.

The Airman's World by Gill Robb Wilson (Random House, 1953). The modest exterior of this book conceals a treasury of penetrating aviation poetry and prose. Each of the 33 writings is paired with a full-page black-and-white image by some of aviation's greatest photographers. Many of these pieces first appeared in Flying magazine during the 1950s. Wilson was a pilot during World War I, an ordained pastor in the 1920s, a New Jersey state aviation official in the '30s, a newspaper correspondent in the '40s, and Flying magazine's publisher and editor in the '50s and '60s. He was a co-founder of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an architect of the Civil Air Patrol, and a participant in the creation of World War II's Civilian Pilot Training Program. It is his gift of communicating that earns this unpretentious volume a place on your bookshelf.

Photography & Art books

Can the experience of flight be fully rendered with language alone? These books supplement the written literature with visual images, some so powerful they have an almost physical effect on the reader/viewer.

Steichen at War by Christopher Phillips (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1981). A master photographer's black-and-white photographs documenting World War II, including the airplanes and air crew.

Women and Flight: Portraits of Contemporary Women Pilots by Carolyn Russo (Smithsonian Institution Press-Bulfinch Press, 1997). A National Air and Space Museum staffer's strong black-and-white portraiture of women fliers, from student pilots to pioneers.

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