From Biggles to Putmans, from Jane’s reference titles to Dale Brown, if you are an aviation professional or enthusiast, chances are you will automatically pick up a book in a second-hand bookshop if it has an aircraft on the cover. But what are the top must read aviation books that really capture the thrill and magic of flying? What books inspire you to get in the cockpit, take a flight or learn more about an aircraft, aviator or history? TIM ROBINSON offers his personal view of the best of the best.

Piece of Cake – Derek Robinson

[caption id="attachment_7487" align="alignnone" width="152" caption="Piece of Cake depicts an RAF fighter squadron, warts and all."][/caption] Though fiction, this immaculately researched novel based on an RAF Hurricane fighter squadron in 1940 highlights the ill-preparedness of Britain in the early stages of WW2. Its black humour as the misfits, heroes and bullies of Hornet Squadron discover that aerial combat is nothing like what they have been trained for, sears the reader’s brain and produces some of the finest writing on the air war ever put to paper. Also made into a TV series with the Hurricanes swapped for Spitfires and a jaw-dropping Spit under-a stone-bridge stunt.    

The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe

[caption id="attachment_7489" align="alignnone" width="154" caption="The Right Stuff examines how the cream of test pilots became the first US astronauts."][/caption] A brilliantly written look at the post-war high-speed test pilots and the early days of NASA’s manned spaceflight programme, the outstanding The Right Stuff also serves as a treatise on the nature of heroism. “What” the author asks, “makes a man want to sit atop a volatile mixture of fuel and explosive, waiting for the rocket to light?” Later made into a critically acclaimed film, perhaps no other book captures the ethos of test pilots in the risky era of pioneering supersonic flight.  

First Light – Geoffrey Wellum

[caption id="attachment_7490" align="alignnone" width="163" caption="Evocative passages in First Light could have been written yesterday."][/caption] Only published in 2002 this gripping account from an RAF Spitfire pilot of fighting in the Battle of Britain reads as fresh as if was written yesterday. Wellum, who joined 92 Squadron in 1940, was one of the youngest pilots in the Battle and eloquently describes how, to him, one year he was at school, the next he was engaged in a desperate fight with the Luftwaffe above Kent.    

West with the Night – Beryl Markham

[caption id="attachment_7491" align="alignnone" width="166" caption="West with the Night reminds us that flying is not just a man's world."][/caption] ‘Poetry in flight’ best describes this 1942 memoir from aviatrix Beryl Markham of bush flying in Africa and long-distance flight, which includes her solo flight across the Atlantic. Lyrical and expressive her descriptions of the adventure of flying continue to inspire others, including Boeing test pilot Captain Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, who said Markham's book was 'closest to her heart' in a RAeS lecture.    

Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter W.E. Johns

[caption id="attachment_7492" align="alignnone" width="165" caption="Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter draws heavily on the authors WW1 experience."][/caption] Biggles might be regarded in some quarters now as hopelessly outdated - a children’s square-jawed flying ace from a different age. However, Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter contains a collection of vignettes that draw heavily on Johns’ own first-hand flying experiences as a pilot flying DH4s with 55 Sqn in WW1, including being shot down and taken prisoner. One wonders of the tales in this book, (including a carrier messenger pigeon going through the propeller) how many of these had happened to the author himself.    

Propellerhead – Anthony Woodward

[caption id="attachment_7493" align="alignnone" width="161" caption="Flying for fun has never been as funny."][/caption] Staring grimly at British rain clouds, maintaining your own aircraft, and the fun of wind-in-your-face flying, Propellerhead captures the essence of popular flying in the UK at the grassroots level. The author, keen to impress girls at the start of the book by ‘becoming a pilot’, decides to take up flying and enters the addictive world of the weekend microlight aviators, with gently humorous results. Highly recommended.    

Bomber – Len Deighton

[caption id="attachment_7494" align="alignnone" width="222" caption="Fiction it may be, but Bomber conveys the courage and tragedy of WW2 night air raids in an unforgettable way."][/caption] A masterpiece of storytelling and research, Len Deighton’s novel Bomber focuses on a single night in RAF Bomber Command’s aerial campaign against Germany in WW2. As well as the Lancaster crews, it also includes the point of view from ground crews, civilians and the Luftwaffe nightfighters. A brutal and harrowing account of total aerial warfare.    

F-4 Phantom - A Pilot’s Story - Robert Prest

[caption id="attachment_7495" align="alignnone" width="333" caption="A fascinating account of a fighter pilot's job during the Cold War."][/caption] What First Light does for Spitfires and the Battle of Britain, Robert Prest does for the F-4 Phantom in RAF service in the Cold War. Bouncing Buccaneers at low level, the awesome power of a jet fighter at your fingertips, this book gives a day-to-day account of a fighter pilot on QRA defending the UK and NATO in the military stand-off in Europe. Superbly written.    

Night Flight – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

[caption id="attachment_7496" align="alignnone" width="200" caption="Night flight captures the solitude and risk of early air mail routes."][/caption] A classic of aviation literature, the novel Night Flight is heavily based on French aviator and writer Saint-Exupery’s experience of working as an airmail pilot, in the interwar years. The book captures the danger and loneliness of these early commercial pilots, blazing routes in the days before radar, GPS and jet engines.    

Vulcan 607 – Rowland White

[caption id="attachment_7497" align="alignnone" width="160" caption="Vulcan 607 tells the audacious story of the (then) world's longest bombing raid."][/caption] A tale of resolve, daring and improvisation, Vulcan 607 describes Operation Black Buck, the RAF’s longest ever bombing raid in 1982 by an Avro Vulcan to strike Port Stanley and deliver a message to Argentina that nothing is out of reach of the RAF. It also highlighted the sheer logistics planning needed for this raid, and the bravery of Victor tanker crews who put their lives on the line so a single bomber could reach the target. (you can listen to a great podcast with myself and the author here)    

What’s your favourite aviation book?

I am aware that this list misses out a number of noteworthy aviation and aerospace books that others might have included. These near misses include: Wings on my Sleeve – Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown Flying Fury – James McCudden Slide Rule – Nevil Shute Empire of the Clouds - James Hamilton-Paterson The Most Dangerous Enemy – Stephen Bungay Fly for your Life – Larry Forester Sigh for a Merlin – Alex Henshaw Chickenhawk – Robert Mason Moondust – Andrew Smith Apache – Ed Macy Flight of the Intruder – Stephen Coonts The Last Enemy – Richard Hilary But what is yours? Let us know in the comments!  

RAeS Aviation and Aerospace Book Fair - London 19 November

The 5th RAeS Aerospace & Aviation Book Fair offers a wonderful opportunity for both aviation enthusiasts and those with a general interest to come and browse and buy a wide selection of aviation books and publications from a fantastic range of industry publishers. With previous exhibitors returning and new exhibitors registering, this event is sure to follow on from the success of previous fairs and once again create an excitement among those in attendance. We will also have Society merchandise on sale so it's an ideal opportunity to buy some Christmas gifts and fill up those stockings. This free to attend event is being supported by exhibitors such as the National Aerospace Library in Farnborough, who boast one of the largest collections of aerospace literature with over 20,000 publications. RSVP to confirm your attendance or for exhibition opportunities, please contact the Conference & Events Team on

The Society's General Aviation Group is hosting the 2012 Light Aircraft Design Conference on the same day as the Book Fair so why not combine a trip and book to attend this event as well.


Tim Robinson
2 November 2012