Last month we peered into my pilot’s library and found 5 books – out of the more than 100 flying-related volumes I own. We may only get that much farther, but, what the hell, I like this exercise and none of y’all get to complain.
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller wasn’t a pilot, he was a bombardier in a B-25 based in Italy during WWII. His tragi-comic masterpiece, Catch-22, is the funniest book I’ve ever read and, I believe, was the best book written in the 20th Century. Sure, there were works by Faulkner and Steinbeck (my favorite American author), and Dreiser and Bellow and Updike and Cormac McCarthy, and whomever-the-hell-else you wanna name. But Joseph Heller wrote the most important book ever to come out of World War II (screw Norman Mailer), the most important event of the 20th Century.
It was funny and sad, brilliant and agonizing, a disorganized shamble of a novel (if you didn’t take the time to really understand it), but it was a masterpiece. It was published in 1961. I probably read it the first time in 1962 (impressing the hell out of one of my public school chum’s teachers – I was a Catholic school boy and the nuns probably would-a attacked me if they’d know I was reading something so subversive).
I was reading it for the second time in a study hall at Xaverian High School, 7100 Shore Road, Brooklyn, New Yawk. Brother Venard had assigned it to us in Sophomore English (honors) and I was taking advantage of the free study hall time. I laughed aloud once, and giggled for a bit, when Brother Patrick (the scum-sucking sonofabiitch) snuck up behind me and backhanded me upside the head. “But, Brother,” I said, shocked and confused, “It’s the book. Brother Venard assigned it … and it’s incredibly funny.” “No laughing in study hall,” the moronic asshole said, and backhanded me again.
I have no idea how many times I’ve read it, but I’m probably due another shortly. It can be read on so many levels, as Brother Venard tried to explain, hoping to enlighten our hormone-raging minds to symbolism and imagery. If you don’t like it, well … never mind – you probably won’t like anything else that I’ve read. So solly.
The Bishop’s Boys – Tom Crouch
Ever wonder why the name “Wright” never figured prominently in the panoply of aviation manufacturing giants? You’ve all heard other names, some of them rivals of the builders – and, more importantly, patentors – of the first “flying machine”: Curtiss, Fokker, Bellanca, Douglas, Mitchell, Lockheed, Boeing. All you hear about are a few Wright Flyer models, then nothing. Wright built engines for a while – the Whirlwind that took Lindbergh across the North Atlantic, the Cyclone – but no airplanes of note, except the first. There’s a reason. And you need to buy Tom Crouch’s book to learn it.
I’m not generally partial to biographies. Someone else’s life: who cares. But when a biographer writes from knowledge, takes care with the written word, and has insight, then you’re onto something. I’ve only cared about a few: William Manchester’s recounting of Douglas MacArthur’s amazing life, American Caesar; Scott Berg’s remarkable Lindbergh; and Tom Crouch’s “A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright,” The Bishop’s Boys.
The Wright Brothers were tinkerers, and thinkers, with an ability to turn ideas into useful mechanical devices. They had a moderately successful bicycle business, then decided to manufacture their own bikes because they believed that they could build them better than the competition. They were incredibly well-read and intelligent, despite the lack of college degrees.
The Wrights had been introduced to the idea of flight from a toy their father had bought them when they were young – a “helicopter”. In 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley had launched his “aerodrome” glider over the Potomac River. Otto Lilienthal had gotten great publicity from a number of glider flights in the Rhinow Hills of Germany. These events, and Lilienthal’s subsequent death later that year, got Wilbur Wright thinking about the problems of flight.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1899 when Wilbur decided to learn more. He wrote the Smithsonian Institution for any information it had on flying. In response he received a number of pamphlets, and a recommendation for further reading. He read everything published on the topic and searched for more. After spending three months immersed in the reading, he was able to deduce the heart of the problems keeping man from the sky. Couch writes, “He was the perfect engineer – isolating a basic problem, defining it in the most precise terms, and identifying the missing bits of information that would enable him to solve it.”
The brothers continued to research the problem, began to tinker with glider design, took a glider to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – where their research had shown consistently strong enough winds away from prying eyes – and began testing a glider as a kite in 1900. They returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 and 1902 with more elaborate gliders that they taught themselves how to fly. Once they had resolved all the control issues, they set about designing and building a lightweight engine that would power the glider into the air without assistance. On December 17, 1903, their effort paid off with the first flights of a heavier-than-air powered flying machine, piloted by a man.
Because of the litigious bent of family patriarch, United Brethren in Christ Bishop Milton Wright, once the brothers had invented the flying machine, they spent most of their lives defending their patent against all infringers. They gained fame and fortune from their invention, but lost the joy of their discovery because they became so caught up in the constant legal battles.
Wilbur died of typhoid fever in 1912. Orville lived on until 1948. The label on the 1903 Wright Flyer, hanging in display at the National Air and Space Museum reads as follows:
THE ORIGINAL WRIGHT BROTHERS AEROPLANE
THE WORLD’S FIRST POWER-DRIVEN
HEAVIER-THAN-AIR MACHINE IN WHICH MAN
MADE FREE, CONTROLLED AND SUSTAINED FLIGHT
INVENTED AND BUILT BY WILBUR AND ORVILLE WRIGHT
FLOWN BY THEM AT KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA
DECEMBER 17, 1903
BY ORIGINAL SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH THE WRIGHT BROTHERS
DISCOVERED THE PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN FLIGHT
AS INVENTORS, BUILDERS AND FLYERS THEY
FURTHER DEVELOPED THE AEROPLANE,
TAUGHT MAN TO FLY, AND OPENED
THE ERA OF AVIATION
Stick and Rudder – Wolfgang Langewiesche
In print since 1944, Wolfgang Langewiesche’s Stick and Rudder is the seminal work on flight training. Langewieshe soloed in 1934, became a test pilot, and realized that aviation was a field that lacked worthwhile writing on the subject. In a series of articles published in Leighton Collins’ Air Facts magazine, Langewiesche corrected that problem. Then he published Stick and Rudder.
It’s a tad dated. Early on, Langewiesche tells you to toss Bernoulli out the window and rely on good old Sir Isaac Newton. The shape of the wing forces the air down, and Newton’s third law – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – says that if the air is forced down, the wing must be forced up. He also calls the elevators, “flippers,” but does it really matter? The man wrote a book in 1944 that’s still teaching people about the sky.
His son, William Langewiesche, is another fine writer who knows a bit about the sky, as well.
Inside the Sky – William Langewiesche
William Langewiesche paid his way through college flying freight. I don’t know if you know any, but freight dogs get to see some sky – and not all of it very friendly. Langewiesche continued to fly and wrote about it, first for Flying, then as national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. As such, he was the only writer allowed free access to Ground Zero, the devastated World Trade Center complex. Since 2006, Langewiesche has been the international correspondent for Vanity Fair.
Inside the Sky is a collection of articles that he wrote while working for The Atlantic. The article called “The Turn” is a marvelous discussion of what goes on in a turn and, although written for the lay man, can teach of us something about it. “Inside an Angry Sky” discusses the author’s love of flying into storms – since he keeps doing it and hasn’t come to grief, he must know a thing or two.
I particularly liked the following “Inside an Angry Sky”. Langewiesche and some pilot friends were on board a Bonanza. They had willingly flown into a cold front with massive build-ups over the Smoky Mountains. He writes, “It was like flying into a slow, sustained explosion. The rain pounded at the windshield and tore paint from the wing’s leading edges. Turbulence slammed the airplane from above and below, rocked it onto its side, stretched us against the seatbelts, and at times shook the instrument panel so violently that we had trouble focusing on the instruments. But that makes it sound worse than it was. You can fly an airplane like you ride a horse, refusing to be intimidated. It is one of the inside tricks of storm flying – based on the knowledge that airplanes are the most weather-worthy of vehicles, strong and capable beyond the imagination even of their pilots.”
He’s an accomplished writer who knows what goes on Inside the Sky. You should find a copy and read it.
Glory for Me – MacKinlay Kantor
Who hasn’t seen The Best Year’s of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece film about three service men returning from World War II, and the impact their return has on their families, their friends, and themselves. It won 9 Academy Awards, and if you haven’t seen it, buy it now. It is one of the finest films ever made, perhaps a very close second to my all time favorite, Casablanca.
After you view The Best Year’s of Our Lives, try and find the gem from which it came, Glory for Me. The characters are mostly the same as those portrayed in the movie, but with some differences. Fred Derry sheds his wife, Marie, early on. Homer Parish’s last name was originally “Wermels” in the book – too German, maybe?
The book is written in free verse, which is a bit jarring at first. Once you get the rhythm, though, it scans perhaps even faster than prose. The book’s plot is essentially the same as the movie’s, but a lot of the situations you find in the movie don’t exist, and the one’s you find in the book are a lot tougher. The wonderful thing about the book is that, if anything, it’s even more hopeful than the movie.
Fred Derry was a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force flying B-17’s over Europe. The story opens with three strangers – Derry, Al Stephenson an Army Sergeant who saw action in North Africa and the European Theater, and Homer Wermels, a sailor who suffered a severe injury when his ship was torpedoed off Oran. They meet at an air base and manage to finagle their way onto a B-17 flying to their hometown, Boone City. And that’s the only bit of flying in the entire book, aside from Derry’s lingering nightmares of friends’ violent deaths in the skies above Germany.
Is it a flying novel? No. But it’s perhaps the best account of men returning from the horrors of war, who now must struggle to adapt to the now-unfamiliar horrors of peace. It is a marvelous read and I’m so delighted that my wife found it for me because it’s outta print and hard to find. Search for it. You’ll thank me after you’ve read it.
How far have we gotten into my pilot’s library? 10 books. Less than 10%. Are there more worthy of discussion? I wouldn’t own them if they weren’t. We may revisit this topic in the future – or, if I’m really lazy, next month. Please check in and find out.