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Aviation Page-Turners: The Top 10 Aviation Books of All Time (Probably)

November 22, 2019 | by Taylor Frommeyer
On National Read A Book Day in September, we asked our Instagram and Twitter followers to name their favorite aviation-related page-turners. As you can imagine, the response was strong. To distill the list, we asked GE Aviation employees to rate the top 20 books on a five-star scale. The Aviation must-reads you see here were ranked based on the total number of stars each book received.

Far be it from us to claim that this list is definitive. (How could it be?!) But as far as #avgeek literature goes, it comes pretty darn close. If you don’t see your favorite aviation book on here, we want to know! Leave a comment so that the rest of us can check it out.

1. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Having tackled a parade of epochal events in American history—from the Johnstown Flood and Manifest Destiny to deeply researched bios of Harry Truman and John Adams—it seems only natural that two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough would train his sights on Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers explores the courage and curiosity of the seemingly ordinary bicycle-manufacturing brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who went on to “invent the future of flight” for all humankind. McCullough’s gifts as a biographer and storyteller are in full effect, especially when writing about the brothers’ unwavering support for one another during times of both success and misfortune. As McCullough makes clear, Orville and Wilbur exemplified resilience in the face of adversity. It’s no wonder GE Aviation employees gave the book top marks!

Bonus: Call it luck, coincidence or divine providence, but just up the road from GE Aviation’s Evendale, Ohio, headquarters sits Wright State University’s Special Collections and Archives, home to the Wright Brothers Collection. We tracked down Dawne Dewey, who oversees the archives and has spent 30 years becoming an expert on all things Wright, to find out what it took to aid McCullough in his research for the book. Check out her fascinating reminiscence in this video.

2. Herman the German: Just Lucky I Guess by Gerhard Neumann

Nicknamed “Herman the German” by his fellow volunteers in the Flying Tigers, Gerhard Neumann was more than a fan of flight—he was an avatar. Neumann catalogues his adventures, achievements and contributions within the tight-knit but burgeoning world of aviation in this winning memoir, which follows his journey from aircraft mechanic with the legendary Flying Tigers in China during World War II to a “master aircraft engineer” and eventually a highly influential executive in the post-war glory years at GE Aviation. As a perfect encapsulation of his daily philosophy, Neumann’s desk décor included a poster stating, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

3. Fate Is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann

To walk in the shoes of an airplane pilot is nothing less than invigorating. To feel connected to such an experience, you have to read Fate Is the Hunter. Gann invites his readers into the cockpit and takes them back to a time when the air travel business was just beginning. Gann traces the arc of his experience, from fledgling pilot for American Airlines in the 1930s to flying C-54s, C-87s, and Lockheed Lodestars during World War II, and walks you through the challenges the aviation biz faced as it was transformed. Fate Is the Hunter is an introduction to the guild of the airline pilot, with all its inherent intensity, refreshing openness, and latter-day nobility.

4. Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed by Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos

Another memoir! This one recounts Ben Rich’s experience as the boss and chief engineer of what’s known as “America’s most secret and successful aerospace operation,” a.k.a. Skunk Works, a pseudonym for Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs. (Odd factoid: the name “Skunk Works” originated from a newspaper comic strip.) Rich looks back with candor at Lockheed’s work during the Cold War, from the 1950s up through Operation Desert Storm, relating top-secret military initiatives—both successes and failures. Risky air combat missions abound, and Rich doesn’t hold back when telling stories about the CIA and Air Force pilots who were crucial to some of the classified missions during Skunk Works’ peak. For a vivid record of odds-beating acts of derring-do that revolutionized aviation, it’s hard to beat Skunk Works.

5. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

If you’re looking for a rollicking narrative that gets to the red-white-and-blue-blooded heart of what it took to get America’s aerospace ambitions off the ground, this is the book. Told in Wolfe’s inimitable kaleidoscopic style, The Right Stuff chronicles the feats of an elite crew of seven United States military test pilots who are called by NASA to serve as the country’s first astronauts for Project Mercury. The project goal was to send a human into Earth’s orbit and return him and the spacecraft safely to the planet’s surface. Wolfe focuses on the subculture that forms around the seven astronauts and their families. The Mercury Seven eventually completed six space missions from 1961 to 1963, in the heat of the Cold War and on the cusp of massive societal change in the country. In chronicling their shared successes, struggles, dark nights of the soul and scientific breakthroughs, Wolfe captures what it means to have “the right stuff.”

6. GE Aviation: 100 Years of Reimagining Flight by Rick Kennedy

As former head of media relations, Rick Kennedy spent 30 years getting to know the people and personalities who live and breathe the engine programs at GE Aviation. So, it was only natural that he be the one to wrap everything he learned into a fast-paced history of this world-changing company. It also happens to be a thumping good read. Kennedy covers 100 years of engine evolution—from Sanford Moss’s invention of the turbosupercharger to the advent of the LEAP engine, additive technology, CMCs and beyond. Released in time to herald the company’s 100th anniversary, 100 Years of Reimagining Flight has caught the attention of countless #avgeeks, GE employees and retirees around the world. Haven’t cracked it yet? Get your very own copy on Amazon. (Note: all proceeds go to charity.)

7. The Power to Fly: An Engineer’s Life by Brian H. Rowe with Martin Ducheny

Brian Rowe began his career as an engineer at GE Aviation and ended it as the president of the company. In between he devoted himself to the advancement of jet engine technology, championed a series of important engine lines, from the CF6 to the F101 to the GE90, and never stopped learning. The book is a free-flowing collection of anecdotes, remembrances, insights and lessons that all serve to pass along Rowe’s business and management philosophies while also telegraphing his zest for life. What makes it so valuable is his blunt honesty; Rowe does not hold back, whether dissecting the arduous process it took to get an engine program off the ground or dissing politicians (“Generally, I find talking with politicians something like talking to pieces of wood.”). It’s an insider’s view, for sure, but one where the insider is as open about what he learned from failure as he is about the demands of success. “The legacy of the GE90, or of any engine project, is that improvement never ends,” he notes. “The need to strive for just a little bit more is the curse and the joy of the engineer’s heart.”

Brian H. Rowe, mastermind behind the original GE90 concept, stands in the cowl of a GE90.

8. Fundamentals of Aerodynamics by John D. Anderson, Jr.

Considering the concentration of brainiacs walking the halls, production lines and grounds of the test facilities at GE Aviation, it would be bad form indeed if this list did not include at least one classic engineering textbook. Fundamentals of Aerodynamics provides fascinating intel on the ins and outs of aerospace engineering, and is written in a conversational, comprehendible style. If you’re looking to brush up your aerodynamic knowledge, read (or perhaps re-read) this aviation fan favorite.

9. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From the same author who brought us the far-out children’s book The Little Prince comes this memoir of his time as an airmail pilot for Aéropostale in the 1930s. Saint-Exupéry describes his adventures—equal parts terrifying and exhilarating—flying above the Sahara Desert and the Andes Mountains and relates the deeper meaning behind the experience. Weaving in themes of bravery, friendship, loss, strong spirit and the wisdom that follows—especially during the trying times in his life—Wind, Sand and Stars is regarded as one of the finest pieces of writing about flying in our time.

10. Sled Driver by Brian Shul and Sheila Kathleen O'Grady

Developed by Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works team, the SR-71 Blackbird was known as the fastest and highest-flying jet in the world. The aircraft flew so high that the pilots had to wear space suits. Best of all, the jet was top secret from the moment it first entered service for the United States Air Force in 1966—its alias being “The Sled.” Whether you’re an #avgeek or not, few humans walking this earth know what it was like to fly the SR-71, but in Sled Driver author and retired Blackbird pilot Brian Shul takes you on an exciting ride. When you read about Shul’s experiences, your mind is blown by the scientific leaps that the aviation industry has made in such a short time.

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