Airline Reading

I’m sometimes asked which writers, aside from Patrick Smith, most fully evoke the spirit of aviation (whatever that is). Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask, for while I’m definitely no gearhead, I’m not the type to sit before the fireplace with St. Exupery either. Somebody once called Ernest K Gann “the Melville of flight.” Lofty praise. My personal preferences won’t inspire such heady comparisons, but if you’re looking for recommendations I can offer a few samples of my favorite nonfiction:

You can do no better than a book called The Airport by James Kaplan. I’ve plugged this title before, but its insights into the lives of pilots and the culture of commercial flight are peerlessly accurate. Kaplan’s a literary type — an industry outsider and novelist — and his writing is at least a runway’s length better than any of the pilot-penned memoirs heaped into the back pages of the aviation hobby catalogs. Kaplan’s account of the 1975 crash of Eastern flight 66 is the most eloquently suspenseful disaster chronicle I’ve ever encountered.

Meanwhile, nascent aviators and armchair students of aerodynamics will savor Wolfgang Langewiesche’s classic art-of-wflying manifesto, Stick and Rudder. If you’re an architecture buff or commercial artist, behold Building For Air Travel, a beautiful hardcover from the Art Institute of Chicago, or Keith Lovegrove’s Airline: Identity, Design and Culture. Both of these are requisite titles for serious designers and aviation devotees alike.

For briefer reading, Langewiesche’s son, William, authored a revealing and provocative piece on the crash of EgyptAir 990 for the Atlantic in November 2001. Another memorable article is Barry Lopez’s account of riding around the world with the crew of a Federal Express 747, which ran several years ago in Harper’s.

Which brings us to periodicals. My latest inventory at Out of Town News here in Harvard Square reveals no fewer than 985 airplane magazines (which for a reason I’m hoping isn’t tactical are arranged directly above the porno section). A full roundup would nudge out those valuable Mercedes ads, so I’ll keep this short. Quality and style vary wildy, from weekend aviator faves Flying and Private Pilot, to the glossy photos of hobbyist mags like Airways, to the more button-down Air and Space or Flight International. But if you’re like me and it’s fleet summaries and graphs of “revenue passenger kilometers” that get your wings flapping, the best publication on earth is Air Transport World, the industry standard for reference and statistics. If the $60 yearly subscription keeps you grounded, the next best thing is something from England called Business Traveler International. Don’t let the dry name fool you — if you’re a frequent international flyer, BTI’s airline news and travel advice is the best around.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.