Richard Aboulafia: August 2017 Letter

Dear Fellow Peripatetic Aerophiles,

How great is my family? Having stumbled onto an aviation book store in the least likely of places – Dingwall, Scotland, north of Inverness – they quickly realized that if I didn’t have an hour there I’d be in a foul mood for the rest of the vacation. They gave me my hour, here, I was happy. And I came away with a great souvenir: Scotland’s Aviation History, by Arthur Ord-Hume. I read it that night, in our rented wing of a wonderful castle ( with a large glass of scotch. Perfect vacation moment.

This got me thinking: what other aviation books provide perfect vacation moments, ideally in nice places to stay in other countries, accompanied by other national drinks? Here’s my list of favorite books for the aero-minded traveler:

The Netherlands. I’m starting here because I recently obtained a true oddity, the only category-killer I know in aviation books. Blue Skies, Orange Wings: The Global Reach of Dutch Aviation in War and Peace, 1914-1945, by Ryan Noppen, is just brilliant. Get this book, and you’ll never need anything else related to Dutch Aviation. I don’t know who Ryan Noppen is, but I get the feeling he didn’t write this for the money. Read with a cold glass of jonge genever.

France. There are many great books on French aviation, but here you can read a book that also offers great writing, even without the aircraft element. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Flight to Arras is about losing a battle, the human soul, camaraderie, and more things than I can count. If you have kids (or just like good literature), Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince is beautiful, but it has little to do with airplanes. He wrote other aero-related books, but I haven’t had the pleasure of reading them. Read with Chateau Dassault St. Emilion, perhaps while smoking a Gitanes.

Canada. The tragically beautiful Avro Arrow is the ghost in the Canadian aerospace machine, so books on the subject could fill a library. I liked Shutting Down the National Dream: A.V. Roe and the Tragedy of the Avro Arrow by Greig Stewart, but there are many I haven’t read. The CBC dramatization of the Arrow story is a delight. The CBC also maintains great Arrow archives: Read with Crown Royal Northern Harvest rye whisky.

Israel. Like Canada, haunted by a dead plane. John Golan’s Lavi: The US, Israel, and a Controversial Fighter Jet offers a superb account of the aircraft, from a pro-Lavi perspective. It provides a solid overview of fighter design considerations too. Ehud Yonay’s No Margin For Error: The Making of the Israeli Air Force is a good choice too. Read with Pelter Israeli wine.

The UK (in addition to Scotland). Our British pals elevate dead aircraft worship into a minor religion. To some, the UK’s legacy of cancelled planes recalls a flightpath not taken, a lost future where Britain would oversee its own destiny. In short, there’s a link between worshiping dead British planes and Brexit. If you can put aside all that heavy baggage, seek out the late Derek Wood’s brilliant Project Cancelled: The Disaster of Britain’s Abandoned Aircraft Projects. Get the revised edition…for even more tragedy. Like France, the UK aero scene offers

more books than I could ever read, but Wood’s compendium fuses politics, technology, and strategic issues into one fascinating overview of Britain’s difficult postwar transition. They went from being a global superpower with three strategic jet bomber production programs to being a modestly important island nation, soon-to-be former EU member, and manufacturer of quirky four-engine regional jets. Read with scotch, unless Scotland leaves. 

China. James Fallows’ China Airborne is far and away the best book. It’s terrific on a micro level – Fallows has flown in China as a Cirrus pilot – and on a macro level – he knows the decisionmakers who view aviation as a priority for reasons of economic and technological development, and as a source of national pride. Read with baijiu.

Since Hong Kong deserves separate treatment, Wings Over Hong Kong: An Aviation History, 1891-1998. It offers lovely images and stories, particularly resonant if you had the chance to fly into Kai Tak before it closed (the same year the book ends). Read with a Hong Kong Fizz.

Egypt. Phoenix Over The Nile: A History of Egyptian Air Power 1932-1994, by Lon Nordeen and David Nicolle, is comprehensive and interesting. That’s fortunate, because it’s probably the only book you’ll find on Egyptian aviation. Read with Egyptian beer.

Poland. The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War, by Adam Zamoyski, tells this tragic story well. Like almost everything else about Poland from 1939 through 1989, the country’s aviation story was tragic, but noble. Read with cherry wisniak.

Italy. Peter Demetz’ The Air Show At Brescia, 1909 is great history. It’s less about Italian aviation and more about the globalist nature of aviation, at a time when airplanes were innocent inventions. It also tells of a time when flight inspired many in the non-aero world, like Franz Kafka, who attended the show. Read with Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro.

Lastly, Malta, which was the single most bombed country in World War 2 (and retained that honor until Laos had this non-coveted title inflicted upon it in the 1960s). Gladiators over Malta: The story of Faith, Hope and Charity by Brian Cull and Frederick Galea is good fun. You can see Faith, the one cheerful little biplane that survived (albeit wingless), in Malta’s war museum in Valetta. Read with Primus Maltese red wine.

Two caveats: There are many great aviation books…these are just ones that provide insights into other countries. Also, I’m just proficient in English (barely). My apologies for missing great books from other countries that have not been translated from their foreign languages. Australia, for example. And apologies to Germany, Russia, and Japan…for some reason I haven’t found the right aviation book for them, even though they’re seriously important aviation countries. Recommendations gratefully received.

August Aircraft Binder updates include the Business Aircraft overview, and updates of the LCA, PC-9/21/T-6, and B-1 reports. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til I Get My Own Scottish Manor House,

Richard Aboulafia