Are you experiencing less or no flying and far more sitting around these days? Certainly, one upside of pandemic requirements for a slower paced existence is more time to catch up on your aviation reading (as much for pleasure as for study). If you cannot fly enough to fill your aviation needs or are experiencing more FBO downtime than ever, try living vicariously through some of the most interesting pilots in history.
I’ve been collecting and reading pilot biographies and autobiographies for years. To list them all would be impractical here. However, below are five of my favorites. I’ll skip the typical old favorites like Bob Hoover’s “Forever Flying,” Chuck Yeager’s “Yeager” and the quintessential aviation masterpiece, Earnest Gann’s “Fate is the Hunter.” All are great, but also already very well-known. Most of the following, on the other hand, are far less famous or even out of print. You’ll probably not find them in a mainstream bookstore. But, thanks to online resources and used book sellers, nearly anything is obtainable these days via just a few mouse clicks.
“Jimmy Stewart; Bomber Pilot” by Starr Smith. Many know the Hollywood version of Jimmy Stewart; some probably even know that he was also a pilot. But, few understand just how serious he took his role as military bomber pilot or the details of how his military career took him from an enlisted private in the Army Air Corp to a general in the U.S. Air Force, across the span of more than three decades.
“Calculated Risk; The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle – Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero” by Jonna Doolittle Hoppes. Many bios of Doolittle exist, but none intertwine his incredible accomplishments with the personal touch and the family side better than this one. Written by his own granddaughter, this look at Doolittle’s life and exploits is better than most because it sheds light on his private life and what drove him to become both an aviation and an American hero.
“Magnificent Failure; Free Fall from the Edge of Space” by Craig Ryan. Nick Piantanida was not a traditional pilot, but an aerial adventurer, as both a record-setting balloonist and skydiver. His story is incredible in its pure audacity. As an underfunded civilian, with zero cooperation from the U.S. government, he actually managed to best the U.S. Air Force record for highest altitude ever achieve in a manned balloon. In the midst of the Cold War, his attempts to set a new free fall parachute altitude record would fade into history almost unnoticed. Learn why his records were deemed unofficial and why you’ve never heard of him. If you were drawn to the similar missions in recent years by Felix Baumgartner and current record holder, Alan Eustace, this story will hold your attention from bold beginning to tragic end.
“Glacier Pilot” by Beth Day. First published in 1957 and out of print since the mid-1960s, this is a true gem of an aviation biography. Bob Reeve was the founder of Reeve Aleutian Airways and essentially invented glacier flying. This story of Mr. Reeve and the other Alaskan aviation pioneers is captivating in its writing style, its completeness, and most of all in the harrowing tales it contains.
“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. This is the newest book on my list (released in 2016) and became an instant favorite when I read it. Some might wonder what could possibly be left to say about the Wright Brothers. I can assure you if there had been little more to add to their story, it would not have attracted the attention of Mr. McCullough (who is probably the most gifted combination of writer, biographer, historian and storyteller of the last half-century). It’s not often that two-time winners of the Pulitzer Prize dive into aviation writing, but McCullough did so with this book and made it a #1 New York Times Best Seller. I’ve read many biographies on the Wright Brothers, but none use such unfettered access to the Wright family archives to create such an eloquent, yet totally readable, weaving of personalities, technical details, history and perspective. Hands down, I think this is the best biography on the Wrights available today.