I do tend to read a lot and, I must admit, the focus tends to be on aviation. I've been asked many times to provide a top ten list, but I'm not sure how much good that would be given that what interests me may not interest you.
I first put out this page as several lists by category, and that still follows. But I got a few letters asking me to prioritize everything in just one list, so I'll start with Where do I start?.
What amazes me is that every now and then I find something that was written a very long time ago that I've only recently heard of, and that particular book becomes a favorite. So if you know of something I've missed, please let me know.
There is also, of course, the entire Flight Lessons series. More about that: Book Notes.
Of course there is a much larger list here: Links.
I was thrilled to see your list of recommended reading but the a little overwhelmed. I want to start my own aviation library and would like a hint on where to start. I am a professional pilot who agrees with you: the learning never stops.
I will appreciate a list of "where to start."
Future Aviation Library Enthusiast
What a great idea! If I were starting over, looking for the books that I value the most, I think I would blend the aeronautical with the biographical and history. Keeping technical can get wearing, so it is useful to learn from the people who came before us. Here goes . . .
I hope you find each of these, enjoy them, and learn from them. If you do, there are more to choose from below.
As the section on Case Studies makes clear, I like to dive into aviation accidents in search of clues and methods to prevent recurrence. These are some of my favorite books on the topic.
I got this book when looking for more information about United Airlines Flight 173 (the Portland, OR crash). But I got hooked by the inside view of the NTSB. It helped me learn how to really dissect an accident report.
This is the book that kindled my interest in the role Human Factors play in aircraft accidents. Though it is thirty years old, its lesson seem especially pertinent today.
This is a collection of aircraft emergencies where the crew did everything right and saved the day in the end. As such, it teaches Crew Resource Management from a positive angle, a bit of a rarity.
This is pretty broad topic, but these books make up the backbone of what it takes to fly.
About 30 years ago you could find bootleg copies of this manual with the advertisement, "Learn to fly instruments like the pros!" The Air Force used to fly instruments better than anyone else because the pilots were trained in the finest traditions of needle, ball, airspeed, and had to do that in crummy weather all over the world. Well those days are over and most Air Force cockpits haven't kept pace with technology. But if you can find one of these on eBay, it will be worth the price to learn those fundamental skills. (I've also provided an electronic copy in the link.) This manual was long ago replaced by the following, which are better but less nostalgic:
Just like AFM 51-37, this manual for Air Force navigators will teach you many basic skills that will soon be long forgotten. But the lessons are good ones for any pilots who want to stay one step ahead of the electrons. The manual was long ago updated: Air Force Pamphlet 11-216, Air Navigation, 1 March 2001.
This was a classic for pilots transitioning to large heavy jets. Some of the systems information is a bit dated, but the stick and rudder stuff is still very good.
This was my aero text from Air Force Safety School, back when that was a three month long course. It is prettier than Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators and the drawings are cleaner. But there is no getting around the fact it came after H. H. Hurt's book.
This Navy Manual, also known as NAVWEPS 00-80T-80, was first published in 1959 and remains the standard aerodynamics text book for many. I rely on it heavily for many of my articles dealing with aeronautical engineering. It remains my most heavily referenced book, bar none.
A study on how engineers (and humans) learn from failures to improve designs in the future. There are many case studies that examine our idea of perfection versus the steps to get there.
A navigator gave this book to me in 1983 when he figured out I was going to write a navigation program for our Boeing 707 squadron. If you have any interest in the math behind navigation, this is a great resource.
A wonderful treatise on the birth of early long distance navigation.
Some of these books simply fall into the "fun to read" category. But even if they are fun to read, several also fall into the "how to fly" category.
Photo: John Boyd
Written about my favorite Air Force officer of all times, this is an engaging and tragic story about the pilot who did indeed change the art of war for the Air Force, the Army, and the Marine Corps. Along the way there are great lessons in integrity and leadership. Colonel Boyd's maxim on integrity has changed the way I approach leadership. See: Integrity versus Loyalty. His OODA loop has changed the way I approach life, and that has made all the difference. This is my favorite biography of all time. (And I've read a lot of them.)
A well written story about an uncommon man who did uncommon things. You could argue that circumstances like those General Doolittle found himself in will never again be repeated. We are fortunate those circumstances present themselves to him.
Ernest Gann's memoir is a wonderful account of commercial aviation in the early days. My favorite passage: "We are being paid to avoid hazard, but there are still many unexplored crevasses in our reservoir of knowledge. Our zeal for air transport is always soured when we so easily reflect on failures involving certain late comrades, who proved in the final analysis to be, like ourselves, only the tip of the arrow. We are obliged to recognize our possible epitaph — His end was abrupt."
This is probably the best treatise about the dawn of powered flight as it really took place, after that first flight. The Wright's squandered their chance to shape aviation by becoming mired in patent litigation while others, most notably Glen Curtis, innovated.
An excellent and long overdue telling of Neil Armstrong's life. Throughout the years there has been petty sniping from others that can best be summed up by one word: jealously. After multiple tellings from Chuck Yeager and Edwin Aldrin we were left wondering what the real story was. Now we know.
There are as many stories about becoming a professional pilot as there are professional pilots, but few of these are told in such an engaging manner. From my review on Amazon: This is a fascinating look into a corporate pilot's progress from novice to expert, with all the joy and sadness that the journey brings. It is especially interesting for those of us with limited experience in many of the small, secluded, and yet exotic destinations throughout Asia. Captain Luciani puts us into the cockpit for a glimpse of what it takes to get from Point A to Point B without breaking anything. Stick and rudder skills are a must, of course. But Ivan's tale gives us an insight into the real challenges with aviation at this level: the decision making skills needed.
This is a good story about the dawn of powered flight through Kitty Hawk. From that point on I think it is too charitable towards the Wrights.
Admiral Gillcrest had a front row seat for the U.S. Navy's early jet history in aircraft carriers. It is quite educational for those of us who didn't grow up in that world. My only disappointment was how the Admiral evolved into one of those senior officers willing to bend the rules for his personal benefit (all for the sake of another carrier landing in an airplane he wasn't qualified in).
Robert Winston learned to fly with the U.S. Navy and went on to command Fighting Squadron 31, flying Hellcats from the USS Cabot. He saw action in both theaters of war during World War II. This book takes us from initial training to his eventual commission in the U.S. Navy. It is an interesting book about a different time, but offers lessons that are applicable today.
I thought it would be next to impossible to make Kelly Johnson's life story boring, but he managed to do it. It is a tedious read. As the Brigadier General Leo Geary warns in the forward, the book is pretty much just the facts. I am less interested in the man now than I was when I started the book. That's the worst kind of biography.
I bounce between thinking this subject is made up psychobabble that ought to be obvious to any aviator, and after yet another crash that could have been prevented, to thinking it is absolutely vital reading.
There is a lot more to this book than CRM. But it does a good job on CRM and a host of other subjects.
You can certainly argue this book is more historical (Pan Am) or biographical (Juan Trippe). But I contend the first half of this book is one of the best texts on Crew Resource Management out there. And even if you aren't interested in that, it is a fascinating story about the rise and fall of a great airline.
This tome (500 pages) can be a bit tedious and reminds me that the academics have ruined CRM forever. But there are some fundamentals that are worth studying. But, all things considered, give the other books in this list a try first.
Yes, this list should be a lot longer. But no fiction I've read before or since stands up to Joseph Heller's classic.
Photo: Captain Yosarian, B-25 bombardier, about to bomb fish, from Catch-22
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Click here for a short video.
This is about the only piece of fiction I can read over and over again. The first time through can be frustrating unless you've seen the movie first. But the book, as is often said, is so much better. (Even though the movie is quite good.)
This is another list that should grow greatly very soon. It is just a matter of finding all those books that were from the library and never made it to my shelf at home.
Photo: The ghost of Air Force Past, (Offutt AFB Crew Dog Gazette, 1991)
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An excellent look into the inner workings of the U.S. military's acquisition process.
This has long been one of my favorite Air Force books because it documents very clearly that the USAF was founded by military men unwilling to accept military decisions.
This is the history of the U.S. Air Force, starting in 1940 and ending with the end of World War II when the birth of the youngest U.S. military service became inevitable.
I had a few assignments in the Air Force where we worked closed with the Navy and heard more than once that submariners are a different breed. I worked with a few of them in staff jobs and they seemed, ir a word, normal. This book provided me a look into a part of World War II that I wasn't familiar with. But after having read it I realized there was a more important lesson than the tactics shown. The lesson I took away is that you have to divorce yourself from "how it has always been done" and have to think outside the box. Admiral Fluckey did just that. Before his time in command of the USS Barb, the accepted submarine tactic was to remain submerged, look for targets from the periscope, and attack when in position to do so. Admiral Fluckey realized that the periscope had greater visual range when surfaced. There is a higher risk, of course, but this was war. The USS Barb had an unparalleled success and came away from all that combat under Fluckey's command without having lost a single person.
Like many military officers, I have been fed a steady diet of war history, most of it from a parochial point of view. (As you might imagine: air power good, everything else less good.) In my twenty years in the Air Force, "our" official view of what won World War II had changed from precision daylight bombing to support of ground troops through targets of opportunity.) I thought I had a good grasp on how World War II was fought and won. This book expanded my horizons greatly and is now my favorite book on the subject.
It has long been known that "history is written by the victors," but it is also true that history tends to be written by the powers that hold all the records. The problem is that when those records are hidden or obscured by those who controlled the history, those who made the history are forgotten. This book corrects the record about Linebacker II, the role of the President, and most importantly the role of the Strategic Air Command. Most of us in the Air Force just following the Vietnam War were taught that the results would have been different had Nixon not micromanaged the war and allowed the military to win it. At least in the case of the B-52 bombing campaign, that is exactly backwards. Nixon learned the lessons presented when President Johnson planned the war from the White House and told SAC to do it right. SAC, in turn, failed to place the effort in the hands of the theater commanders and instead micromanaged from Omaha, Nebraska. If you thought SAC was a well run command, you need to read this book.
This is like the picture version of the previous Michel book. It isn't as interesting but the photos do help illuminate what the earlier book was saying.
Was the attack on Pearl Harbor a surprise attack or as a result of deliberate provocations to allow FDR to get us into the war? I thought I knew the answer but this book, using primary sources, shows me the conspiracy preachers are sometimes right. I am happy someone has vindicated Admiral Husband Kimmel. A year before this book was published, Congress passed a non-binding resolution exonerating him and restoring his rank, but no president since has acted on the resolution.
Another one of my favorites in the "birth of the Air Force" category, it also delves into military pilot psychology. If you have an Air Force or Navy pilot background, this book can help you understand yourself.
I used to read a lot of instructional books but these days most of that happens on YouTube. So this is a short list but I will eventually comb through the library and add others.
TED Talks are about technology, entertainment, and design and are held throughout the world to give people a chance to listen to others who have a gift for something and eighteen minutes to present that. It is my favorite formula for giving a public speech, but all of my talks tend to require longer presentations so I rarely use the formula. But I do try to use the "public-speaking secrets."
I've written a lot about this subject and — shameless plug — recommend Flight Lessons 4: Leadership & Command.
Drawing: Attila the Hun, from Fredrik Sander, Poetic Edda (public domain)
This is a good primer for brand new captains, but I would recommend picking it up maybe a year into your captaincy. Some of its lessons are better absorbed after you've "been there" for a while.
The Prince is a 16th-century political treatise by the Italian political theorist Machiavelli. It is often thought of as a work of political philosophy and is where we get the phrase "the ends justify the means." I found it to be farcical until I found myself in a Machiavellian organization, where it became a survival guide. You will find that story here: Flight Lessons 4: Leadership & Command.
The author's career in the Navy as a submariner was steeped in top-down leadership styles where power was centralized at the top and subordinates spring-loaded to defer decision making to those they reported to. The author's experiment was a model of empowering leadership to subordinates. The idea is that without this kind of mentoring, the organization will fail in the long term, even with short term successes. I think most of the lessons apply to larger organizations but the ideas are good for smaller ones too.
There are quite a few leadership lessons here, so many that this was a required leadership text for many Army officers. I think the lessons are good, if taken with a grain of salt. I write about that here: Leadership Styles.
I read this many years after learning The Nick's Four Steps to Becoming a True Leader and was amazed to see "The Nick" had about the same process, only 15 years earlier. Regardless, Maxwell's rules are pretty good too.
"People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence." This book was published as a satire, but many have taken it as a serious piece of management theory. I bought the original while I was in high school and over the years recognized that there was much truth in the book, as evidence by my experience during and after a 20-year military career. I think about it now and then when considering people for promotion, trying to avoid placing a competent person into a job where they will lose that competence. Or, perhaps more accurately, trying to avoid getting myself placed into such a situation. Satire or not, the book has much to offer anyone trying to navigate there way through a hierarchy.
More good stuff from someone you wouldn't think worthy of emulation, but his writings contain more than a few leadership gems. I write about that here: Leadership Secrets.
This book is pretty tedious but the story about Trump's experience rebuilding the Wollman Ice Rink (Chapter 12) makes for an interesting case study for dealing with any government agency. Chapter 2 details the "Elements of the Deal" which pretty much summarized the whole book. If you are managing a flight department and are responsible for making deals (on aircraft, hangars, etc.), this book might be worth your while.
This was a required text early in my Air Force career, and I never understood why. But once I started assuming leadership positions the rationale became clear. The lessons do apply.
The more I get into modern accident case studies, the more cause I have to dive deeper into this "touchy feeley" area.
This was a bit of a tedious read and makes me wonder about the "spinning of wheels" in academia where so many people can be employed investigating things that don't need investigating. That being said, the author cites an engineer who came of with a formula for the passage of time. That made it worthwhile reading for me.
If you believe you cannot excel at an endeavor without early specialization, this book is for you. It is true that Tiger Woods began his path to golf superstardom at age 2. But he is the exception. Take Roger Federer for example. Tennis was a favorite alongside other sports and he was never pushed to pick a sport. That breadth of experiences may explain his continued dominance in the sport. The lesson for us pilots is this: don't focus exclusively on aviation, broadening your range will pay dividends within and outside your chosen profession.
A good treatise on how to get better at things, as well as a refutation to the old maxims that "practice makes perfect," "natural talent," and the idea it takes 10,000 to become an expert at any task. Instead, the authors say your practice needs to be purposeful. I used some of this to demonstrate learning techniques for an article about Top Gun Debriefings.
A fascinating look at the benefits of using checklists from another perspective, that of a surgeon. Dr. Gawande relates his experiences and the studies he pushed in language that isn't as filled with so much jargon as to obscure the lessons, but with just enough to give you a flavor of just how difficult the adoption was at first.
There are a lot of theories about happiness in this book, from Buddha, to Lao Tzu, and all sorts of academics. You can dwell on various philosophies, such as "calm inaction" and "desireless waiting." But, being the engineer that I am, the crux of the matter happens along page 90 where the author breaks happiness into a mathematical formula. Yes, math. The idea is that we are genetically predisposed to a certain level of happiness, called a "biological set point." Some people are just naturally happy and others, not so much. But the important point is you have a level of happiness above that, and you have control over that level. So what does happiness have to do with aviation? A happy pilot is safer than a miserable one.
This book provides an explanation of what drives many of us to fall prey to our successes. More importantly, it offers a way to avoid those pitfalls. I especially liked the many stories of those to emulate as well as those to avoid.
I quite often have disparaging words for academicians but not so with Gary Klein. He has put science into figuring out why we humans do what we do, and this book is one of the best I've ever seen on decision-making.
So what does this have to do with flying? Plenty. His first rule, "Stand up straight with your shoulders back," parallels my first rule: Attitude determines altitude. There is a lot of pilot psychology that will do your inner pilot psyche good, such as "Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today." One of my Purdue AFROTC classmates is an astronaut. Several of my peers retired from the USAF and USN as general officers. But I was the last cadet in my class to solo and I am betting I will be the last still collecting a paycheck as a professional pilot when all is said and done. There is a lot more to this book than just this. Recommended.
A brief telling of the players behind what has become known as "Murphy's Law" in popular culture. The book is out of print and it took more expense than it was worth to get. But it does tell a story worth telling, I've capture some of it here: Reliability Engineering: "Murphy's Law".
This is a long (almost 600 pages) and ponderous (it took me a month to read) book, but it is worth every bit of effort you put into it. My copy is littered with Post-It notes. If you want to understand the normalization of deviance, this book is an absolute must.
You might think Tom Wolfe is a fiction writer but the truth is he got his start in non-fiction and sometimes ventures back from whence he came. This book is about the search for proof of the evolution of language, demonstrating how it had been accepted as fact but after 150-plus years remains an enigma to those who believe in these types of things. Where this applies to us aviators is in developing the tools to detect Sophistry, the dangerous act of stating a lie as if it were true. Here's a beauty from my past: "You have two seconds AFTER V1 to initiate a takeoff abort." Be careful out there.
The number of books I've got going at any given times must be an indication of some kind of attention deficit disorder. Some of my poor focus has to do with the number of writing projects going on at any given time (hence the amount of research required) but some of it is just that, a lack of focus. Oh well, I must plod on . . .
Job, Macarthur, Air Disaster Volume 1, Aerospace Publications PTY, Fyshwick, ACT, Australia, 1994.
Lutat, Christopher J., Swah, S. Ryan, Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft, McGraw Hill, New York, 2013.
Singh, Simon, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2013.
This list has never been empty, but of late it seems to be growing . . .
Abzug, Malcolm J., Larrabee, E. Eurgene, Airplane Stability and Control, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002.
Bradbury, Tom, Meteorology and Flight, A & C Black, London, 2000
Cengel, Yunus A., Boles, Michael A., Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach, MacGraw Hill, New Delhi, 2016.
Charles, Michael Maya, Artful Flying, Artful Flying LLC, Erie, Colorado, 2005.
Craig, Gale M., Introduction to Aerodynamics, Regenerative Press, Anderson, Indiana, 2002
de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002.
Feynman, Richard P., The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Basic Books, New York, 2011.
Hackworth, Colonel David H., About Face: The Odsysey of an American Warrior, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989.
Hansen, Victor Davis, The Second World Wars, Basic Books, New York, 2017.
Heath, Chip & Dan, Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Random House Business Books, London, 2011.
Hoover, R. A. "Bob," Forever Flying, Atria Paperback, New York, 1996.
Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore, Vintage Books, New York, 1986.
Hüneke, Klaus, Jet Engines: Fundamentals of Theory, Design, and Operation, Airlife Publishing, Wilshire, U.K., 1997.
Job, Macarthur, Air Disaster Volume 2, Aerospace Publications PTY, Fyshwick, ACT, Australia, 1998.
Job, Macarthur, Air Disaster Volume 3, Aerospace Publications PTY, Fyshwick, ACT, Australia, 1998.
Job, Macarthur, Air Disaster Volume 4, Aerospace Publications PTY, Fyshwick, ACT, Australia, 2001.
Johnston, A. M. "Tex," Tex Johnston: Jet-Age Test Pilot, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1984.
Lester, Peter F., Aviation Weather, Jeppesen Sanderson Training Products, Englewood, Colorado, 2004.
Lester, Peter F., Turbulence: A New Perspective for Pilots, Jeppesen Sanderson Training Products, Englewood, Colorado, 1993.
Lindbergh, Charles A., The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner, New York, 1953.
Manchester, William, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932-1940, Bantom Books, New York, 1988.
Manchester, William, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, Bantom Books, New York, 1988.
Manchester, William, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, Bantom Books, New York, 1988.
Manno, Chris, Voodoo Rush, White Bird Publications, Austin, Texas, 2016.
Makos, Adam, A Higher Call, Berkley Calliber, New York, 2012.
Makos, Adam, Devotion, Ballantine Books, New York, 2015.
Offerman, Nick, Good Clean Fun, Dutton, New York, 2016.
Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, The Aircraft Gas Turbine Engine and Its Operation, East Hartford Connecticut, 1970.
Schiff, Barry, The Proficient Pilot, Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc., Newcastle, Washington, 1997.
Schultz, James T., Fielkow, Brian L., Leading People Safely, North Loop Books, Minneapolis, 2016.
Sebag, Simon, Jerusalem, Vintage Books, New York, 2011.
Smith, H. C. "Skip," The Illustrated Guide to Aerodynamics, Tab Books, New York, 1992.
Stimson, George W., Introduction to Airborne Radar, SciTech Publishing, Inc., Hong Kong, 1998.
Webb, Jim, and Walker, Billy, Fly the Wing, Aviation Supplies & Academics, Inc., Newcastle, Washington, 1997.
Williams, Jack, The Weather Book, Vintage Books, New York, 1997.
Young, John W., Forever Young, University Press of Florida, Gainseville, FL, 2012.
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