Do you have your own library of flying books?
I’m thinking that most pilots do, but I haven’t asked the question – so we’ll just assume that all pilots have a library … and, if they don’t, they’re probably trumpkins and can’t read, or are too bizzy making amerika mediocre again.
What’s in my library? I thought you’d never ask.
This will be in no particular order of importance, or quality, or type of book – just books that I’ve read about, or heard about, or were suggested by someone I liked, or stumbled across in the endless hours I used to spend roaming libraries and used book stores. They were written by pilots, or their significant others, or about pilots. They are fact; they are fiction. They are wonderful.
Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
“If you please … draw me a sheep.” An aviator, whose engine has failed forcing him down in the desert, is awakened at sunrise by this request from “a most extraordinary small person.” What follows has become one of the most beloved children’s fables, for adults, of all time. I wasn’t introduced to the book until well into my thirties, and, after that introduction, and for a dozen years afterwards, I would read it on Christmas, and cry. (Okay, so I’m a sentimental sod. It’s probably my only endearing quality.)
If you don’t know the book, go find it, then read it. And if it doesn’t make you cry, you probably lack a heart, or a soul.
Saint-Exupery was a French aristocrat born in 1900. He learned how to fly in 1922, and wrote about many of his experiences in the French military, then as an air mail pilot for Aeropostale. His first novel, Southern Mail, was published in 1929, followed by Night Flight in 1931, which was later made into a movie with John Barrymore, Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. In 1939 he wrote Wind, Sand and Stars which received numerous awards.
He moved to America after France fell to Hitler and wrote Flight to Arras in 1942 and Letter to a Hostage in 1943. It was also in 1943 that he wrote The Little Prince, published in English and French, and since translated into over 200 languages. There were rumors of an attraction between Saint-Exupery and Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh – they had admired each other’s writing.
He returned to France in 1943, and resumed flying with a reconnaissance squadron. On July 31, 1944, he departed his base on Corsica in his P-38 and never returned. The wreckage of his airplane was discovered and raised from offshore Marseilles in 2000. In 2008 a former Luftwaffe pilot claimed that he had shot Saint-Exupery down.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach
What is it about pilots that make them write fables? A little prince who tries to save his little planet, a seagull who searches for a more meaningful life, a reluctant messiah who tries to find peace, apparitions in Lindbergh’s cockpit? Richard Bach’s most famous work, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the blockbuster of 1970, a time when many of us who survived the 60’s were searching for answers. Apparently Bach struck a respondent chord – his fantasy sold over a million copies in its first year.
Bach started flying when he was seventeen and nearly all of his work revolves around flight – or the illusions of flight. I had Jonathan rammed down my throat not long after my girlfriend read it and cried – not long after she read Love Story and cried, then dragged me, kicking and screaming to the movie of the same name.
We were searching in the 60’s and early 70’s, coming to realize that societal norms were not necessarily normal. We rebelled, as youth does, and many of us tried to find meaning by living outside those societal norms. Some of us succeeded, some succumbed.
Another Bach blockbuster was Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, first published in 1977. Among his flying titles are: Stranger to the Ground (1963); Biplane (1966); Nothing by Chance (1969). As of this writing, Richard Bach still flies, and still writes. That is good.
The Spirit of St Louis – Charles Lindbergh
Charles Lindbergh became the most famous person in the world after his solo flight across the North Atlantic on May 20-21, 1927. The record of those 33 hours and 30 minutes aloft is best told by the man who made the trip – not published until 1953, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.
Lindbergh begins his story when the idea first occurred to him on a night air mail flight in September of 1926. He relates tales of air mail operations, fog, and weather, and unreliable engines powering the inefficient wings and fuselages of WWI De Havillands.
He writes of planning the flight, all of the obstacles that he would have to overcome, the money – the danger. In 1919, a hotelier, Raymond Orteig, had offered a prize of $25,000 for the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, or the reverse. Lindbergh was drawn to the flight by the adventure and the hope of advancing the reputation of aviation, but the prize money was a consideration.
Lindbergh had competitors. Admiral Richard Byrd, who claimed to have made the first flight over the North Pole, was one, with Floyd Bennet as his pilot. French WWI ace, Rene Fonck and three others made an attempt in a Sikorsky, but crashed in flames on takeoff. Clarence Chamberlin and Bert Acosta were planning the trip in a Belanca. And Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were planning an attempt from east to west.
It is an epic adventure, and Lindbergh was up to the task of taking the reader along with him as he wrote of the flight. It’s worth the read.
Speaking of … er, writing of … Lindbergh, his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a marvelous writer (and she contributed mightily to the polish of The Spirit of St Louis).
North to the Orient – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
One could pick any of her works and find brilliance. I chose North to the Orient because of it’s marvelous title and the concept: flying north to get to the east. I am a particular dope about navigation – at least long-range navigation. I could never figure out why airliners would start by flying north to get to Asia from New York.
Charles Lindbergh, in the opening chapters of The Spirit of St Louis, explained that he was a dope about long-range navigation, too. And, in an effort to be less of a dope, he went to a map maker while the Spirit of St Louis was abuilding, in order to plan his route. Whilst there, perusing charts of the North Atlantic, he found a gnomic projection map that made instant sense of his task – and his description turned on a light in my brain. (You’ll just have to read his book to find out.)
Back to the chase. The purpose of Charles and Anne Morrow’s trip north to the orient was to explore an air route to Asia – and to find new adventure. Anne learned morse code and the operation of the radio in their Lockheed Sirius.
“Someone had once told me that I was incredibly stupid in mechanical things,” she wrote after describing her travails trying to send her first radio message. (Ah, I think, a soul mate. Would that we had been able to meet.)
They had taken off from College Point, Long Island, on 27July1931, enroute to Washington DC to pick up their passports and final authorizations before beginning their adventure.
Their trip was amazing, and her writing sublime. You’re a dope if you don’t read it – or anything she ever wrote. She cared about words and their meanings, and she blended them with care.
She wrote diaries of their early married life, the second of which was Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, dealing with her marriage, then the birth, kidnapping, and death of their firstborn child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. It’s inconceivable to me that anyone could write about a horror such as that, yet it was a beautiful and poignant work.
Another wonderful work from Anne Morrow Lindbergh is Gift from the Sea a contemplation and memoir on life as the author was turning fifty. If you have a woman in your life, Gift from the Sea will be a gift that keeps giving.
The High and The Mighty – Ernest K Gann
As a frustrated fiction writer, I admire those who succeed. When the writer was a crack pilot as well, it’s hard to beat.
Ernest K Gann wrote from experience. He learned to fly in his twenties while working in the movie business. When the depression killed his job, he move to the west coast, teaching people to fly in and around LA. He found part time work with local airlines, then got a job with American Airlines flying DC-2’s and DC-3’s on routes throughout the Northeast.
At the start of WWII, he and other American pilots volunteered for service with the military’s Air Transport Command. He flew C-47’s, C-54’s, and C-87’s across the North Atlantic to Europe, and then flew in Africa, South America, India and over the “Hump”, the Himalaya Mountains, into China.
After the war, he hired on with Matson Airlines, the airborne complement to the Matson shipping line. With Matson, he regularly flew from San Francisco to Honolulu and back. And, after Matson folded, he parlayed his experience into the best flying novel ever written, The High and the Mighty.
Published in 1953 (the same year as Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St Louis), it was an instant best-seller, and was made into a movie the following year, with the author writing its screenplay. It tells the story of an airliner enroute from Honolulu to San Francisco, and the stories of all the passengers and crew on board. It’s the novel that started the attack of the disaster movies.
Gann first novel, Island in the Sky, was published in 1944. It involves a rescue operation to try and find, and then save the lives of the crew, of an Air Transport Command flight lost in Canada. It, too, was made into a movie.
Gann wrote a number of novels and books on flying topics: Blaze of Noon (1946); Fate is the Hunter (1961); In the Company of Eagles (1966); Band of Brothers (1973); Ernest K Gann’s Flying Circus (1974).
Gann was a good writer, and a very good read.
So I started this endeavor as a list of some of the books in my library. If you’re a reader, you can’t reminisce about books you’ve read without rereading parts. After picking up each of the first five works, I’ve been unable to just list them, as you’ve seen – I’m pushing two thousand words and have yet to compile much of a list.
What to do? I’ve named five and just counted over 100 volumes within five feet of me. I haven’t even mentioned my favorite novel, ever, Catch-22. I haven’t discussed Wolfgang Langewiesche, or his son William. The best biography ever written about the Wright Brothers, The Bishop’s Boys by Tom Crouch, lacks mention. Lindbergh, by A Scott Berg, one of the best biographies ever written, hasn’t received credit. Anything written by William K Kershner – including my copy of the dog-eared, highlighted, bookmarked, falling apart The Flight Instructor’s Manual – needs attention.
I’m at a loss. January is ending and this needs posting.
Okay. Over the next whatever, I’ll start trying to summarize my library and post it when I’ve finished. I’m sorry that I’ve prattled on, but there are so many works to be reread, re-enjoyed, relived, and time’s fleeting. Next time.