Being asked to select your favorite books that you have written is somewhat akin to a mother being asked to choose her favorite child, but I’m happy to make the attempt.
A little information on my writing philosophy might help. My goal in non-fiction was always to reach the general public rather than catering to the already well informed. Curiously, my goal in fiction was just the opposite—I was writing aviation historical fiction that I filled with details that would be interesting to knowledgeable people. My fiction goal was of course entirely wrong on two counts: most pilots don’t read fiction, and most people who read fiction don’t know anything about flying.
There is another factor, too. I was apparently obsessive-compulsive about writing, for the volume of my output is inexplicable for any other reason. McDonald’s has a philosophy that every seat left unfilled today can never be filled tomorrow, and I took the same philosophy on writing, accepting contracts on many books because I knew I could do them in a relatively brief period of time. You won’t find any of those books in the following list, of course.
Here’s how and why these books of mine are my favorites:
1. Beyond the Wild Blue, A History of the United States Air Force (St. Martin’s Press) 1997, 2007.
The first edition was published in 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of the USAF, and the second, updated edition in 2007. The first edition was selected by the Chief of Staff, General Ronald Fogleman (a great leader and historian) for the Chief’s Reading List. It was also made into a five part video for the company I co-founded, Wingspan, the Air & Space Channel. I wrote, hosted and narrated the series which appeared first on the Discovery Channel and then the Military Channel. I was not aware of it for a long while, but the video version of the book was used to teach ROTC classes in colleges all over the nation. I often meet people who remember me from the video in their ROTC class..
I’m fond of the book, of course, because of my Air Force experience, and because it did what I intended the title to convey—tell the story of the Air Force beyond the wild blue of combat. Make no mistake—the mission of the Air Force is to fly and fight, and I hope I told that story completely and well. But to fly and fight you need many more people than pilots in cockpits. I especially wanted to emphasize the importance of the extremely high quality of USAF non-commissioned and enlisted personnel. No other Air Force in the world has the same level of quality in these categories that the USAF does, and the benefits are enormous. And while I wanted to highlight all the great things the Air Force has done, I also wanted to be even handed, point out times and events when I thought the Air Force was wrong. I’ll admit there were not many instances of this, for the Air Force is a great service. Its major weak point has been its public relations. It has never told the public just how remarkable it is, and has allowed it to be overshadowed in recent conflicts by both the Army and the Navy. This is strange, given that there could not even be a war if the Air Force did not establish air superiority immediately. It has gone from nuclear strikes to carpet bombing to precision guided munitions with certainty and accuracy, and has been actively engaged in combat for the past two decades—something no army, navy or air force has ever done before.
Let me give you one illustration of Air Force understatement. Just imagine that there isn’t any aerial refueling, that no one has done it befoe. Imagine that some modern Evel Kneivil came along and announced that he was going to fly a 350,000 airplane at 25,000 feet at 300 mph and HOOK IT UP TO ANOTHER 300,000 pound airplane flying at 25,040 feet at 300 mph, and take on tons of highly inflammable fuel from it. The networks would sell $5 million dollar ads to show this, and the crowd watching would be bigger than the Superbowl crowd, because it is just so damn dangerous that Evel and everybody else is certain to get killed. The truth, of course, is that each and every air refueling is a sensational demonstration of skills and it is something that the USAF does many times every night and every day, in all weathers, all over the world, and is placidly accepted by everyone. And if there were no air refueling—we would have no defensive or offensive capability at all. And the public relations people make nothing of this, or much else that is great in the Air Force, as in actually WINNING rather than SUPPORTING THE ARMY in the wars in the Middle East.
All in all, I can recommend Beyond the Wild Blue to everyone who has any interest whatever in modern air power.
2. Clash of Wings, World War II in the Air (Simon & Schuster) 1994
This book received rave reviews on publication, and was made by Wingspan into a 13 part video series for PBS. It was subsequently obtained by Discovery and appears frequently on the Military Channel. I am again the writer, host and narrator, aided by an unusual twist—on those parts of the series covering foreign air forces, John Honey, the terrific producer and director, obtained people of the appropriate nationality—German, Japanese, Russian, etc. to do the narration.
In Clash of Wings, World War II in the Air I tried to cover every aspect of World War II with the greatest accuracy and objectivity. I also made sure to cover some of the lesser known events, people and planes. It was important to me to reveal who the real movers and shakers were in each air force—Wever and Milch, for example in the Luftwaffe, poor Air Chief Marshal Dowding in the RAF, etc—as well as telling the stories of the ace pilots. I tried to be comprehensive in the analysis of the aircraft and the tactics that were used, contrasting them with those of the opposing side. And always, I tried to bring out the human element. Overtime there had grown up a great many myths about aerial combat in World War II, and I tried to put these right wherever possible. One of the worst offenders in this process is the Stephen Ambrose style of “personal narrative” where people are quoted about events fifty years after they occurred.
I was especially careful to be very fair with all of the air forces involved, even those of the Axis. For example, it was with pleasure that I was able to recount just how good the Italian torpedo planes were, for the brave Italian fliers are often given short shrift. I had some advantage in doing this, as I had come to know the leading surviving aces of many of the participating air forces, with the major exception of the USSR. It was possible to confirm many of the stories with the actual participants, and they furnished me leads to others who could help.
The book is almost twenty years old now, but I think it still stands up well with any more modern version on the same subject. I am particularly proud of the video, not for my own efforts, but for the efforts of the film researchers who worked furiously to make sure that the aircraft shown on the screen were of the right make, model, time period, etc. They were also careful to include less well known types that you don’t see as often, such as the Henschel Hs 123 dive bomber. I can say with confidence that the Clash of Wings video is by far the most accurate and most error free of its type, and this was due to the extraordinary efforts of the film researchers. You can see Clash of Wings on the Military Channel and on YouTube, and if you like it, you can still get the book from Amazon.
3. Messerschmitt Me 262 Arrow to the Future Janes, Smithsonian Press, 1980 (Still available from Schiffer Publishing and of course Amazon.)
There are a number of really excellent books available now on the famous Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet fighter. They represent a lot of work and research by excellent writers. But Messerschmitt Me 262 Arrow to the Future remains a favorite of mine because I believe it was not only the first major book published on the aircraft, it was also done at a time when you could still interview the principals in the program. I was able to interview Woldemar Voigt, one of the chief designers of the aircraft, Ludwig BÃ¶lkow, the aerodynamicist, Adolf Galland, leader and fighter ace and many others. Voigt and BÃ¶lkow both seemed vaguely alarmed and surprised at the start of the interview process, but both became enthusiastic as the interviews progressed. Galland was of course an invaluable source able to relate exactly what the vices and the virtues were of the aircraft. I also corresponded with about ten other Me 262 pilots, many of whom responded to my questionnaire at great length. . It was also a great pleasure to interview Major General Harold E. Watson and some of his “Watson’s Whizzers.” They had not as yet received much acclaim for what they had done, and were more than happy to discuss it. They too have now been covered in separate books devoted to their work.
Being at the National Air & Space Museum at the time, I also had the privilege of relating the story of the Museum’s example’s restoration at the Paul E. Garber Facility. There Ed Chalkley, Walter Roderick and the late Joe Fichera managed the process, with young Mike Lyons being allocated most of the gritty work. All the restoration was done under the supervision of the maestro, Bob Mikesh, of course. Telling the tale of what the restoration revealed added much to the book that is not found in more recent works.
So even though there are, as I said, many newer books on the famous Me 262, I believe that Messerschmitt Me 262 Arrow to the Future was a ground breaking book with original material that is no longer available to contemporary researchers because of the passage of time
4. The Leading Edge, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1986
This was my first “coffee table” book, and was extremely well received, staying in print for years (a story which has a secondary history) and setting the pattern for a follow on book on automobiles, Power Behind the Wheel which won the Antique Automobile Associations prestigious Thomas McKean Award for the top automobile book of the year.
The great thing about writing aviation history is that a straight chronological order brings in both the great social and political events of the time along with the technical advances, and it is thus fairly easy to organize in a readable manner. The Leading Edge
takes the reader from the earliest days of flight, through its great triumphs in war and in peace. As it does, it discusses the various technological advances and the effect they had on history. All of the story is buttressed by superb photography. As always, I tried to introduce the principal players, but also focused on those who have not received the acclaim they deserve, as is the case for example with Charles J. Lawrence, Howell “Pete” Miller, Alfred Verville and many others. The photography, for which I can take no credit except for asking the right people to get it, is absolutely superb, and manages to reinforce the text in the most accurate way.
I mentioned earlier that staying in print for years had a secondary story. The original publisher (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) did a great job and printed several editions. The book was then sold to a series of other publishing houses in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. These all continued to publish the book in large numbers. Unfortunately none of these publishers felt obliged to pay royalties. My agent and I took issue with one and asked why they continued to print the book in 10,000 copy lots if they didn’t make any money on them, or at least not enough to pay a royalty. They responded by saying “you can examine our books.” Whereupon they wheeled into the room two huge four wheel carts piled with the large printouts of the time, and said “have at it.” It was of course impossible to do, and we had to just accept that they were going to sell the book as long as they wished, and not pay any royalties on it. I’m sure many other authors reading this have had similar experiences.
None the less, The Leading Edge has a warm spot in my heart for the many people I met, for the many people who helped me, and for the stunning beauty of its photography. It is still available as a used book on Amazon and elsewhere, with some copies commanding very high prices.
5. Boeing B-52 A Documentary History, Janes, 1982
This is sort of a natural choice, having flown and admired the B-52, even though it was written at a time when no one would have anticipated it’s still being in service more than thirty years later. But the real pleasure I had was in working with the Boeing Company and its superb personnel in the Washington D.C. area, Wichita, and Seattle. They included George Weiss, Gordon Williams, Al Hobbs, Herb Hollinger, Larry Lee and of course the design and test team. The late, and truly great, Guy Townsend was an enthusiastic supporter who read and re-read many drafts of the book. Then there was the stellar engineers, men such as Ed Wells, George Martin, George Schairer, Vaughn Blumenthal and others—great personalities, always patient, always polite, and always exact. It was a true privilege to get the inside story from Colonel Pete Warden, who exercised unparalleled authority to get the aircraft and its superb engines for the Air Force
So, as with the Me 262 book, I had an advantage unavailable to modern researchers because of demographics—sadly most everyone named above passed on, years ago. In addition, I also received tremendous cooperation from pilots and commanders who took the B-52 to war for the first time, in Vietnam. These included Brigadier General J.R. McCarthy, Lt. Col. George Allison, Major Dwight Moore, and many others. As I was stationed at U Tapao, Royal Thai Air Base in 1968 and 1969, I also had considerable first hand experience with the great bombing effort.
The creation of the book established good relations with the Boeing Company, who purchased many of them, and who subsequently employed me on some projects based on the results of the book. I also received many compliments from the field, for while there had been other books on the airplane, this was, I contend, the best so far by a considerable margin. Previous books had not had the insight and the careful tutelage I was given. The book Boeing B-52 A Documentary History, is still in print from Schiffer and also available of course on Amazon. It is a companion book to the Janes published Phantom in Combat for which I received similar assistance from McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in St. Louis.
In my opinion, fiction is easier to do than non-fiction and more fun to do as well. I’ve written essentially historical fiction, in which I try to cover certain eras of aviation using the famous fictional device of Herman Wouk in “Winds of War.” This device has a family of characters just managing to appear in the right spot at the right time for major events.
In both trilogies, I use a basic family unit or basic characters to carry the story over many decades. It goes a bit beyond the Wouk technique in that the family is not only present at all the great events, it also actively initiates or participates in some. In the Eagle Series, it goes from 1927 through until 1957. In the Thunder series, it goes from1939 into the future, for the first time, of hypersonic flight. Over these many decade periods, people get laid, get married, have affairs, have children, get divorced, get killed, not necessarily in that order. As they do so, the panoply of aviation history unfolds, with the great names—Lindbergh, Earhart, Hughes, Doolittle, Tex Johnson George Schairer—are portrayed in realistic light, based on insider knowledge. Now anyone familiar with aviation history will also recognize when fictitious names are substituted to “protect the innocent or not-so-innocent.” The fictitious McNaughton aircraft, which are often in trouble, tell the back story behind difficulties of other famous airplanes so that I wouldn’t be sued. Doing it in this way enables me to tell what really happened on famous failures without hurting anyone’s feelings. One other comment, I believe that The Wild Blue and the third novel in the Eagle series (Air Force Eagles) are the first popular aviation fiction books that have Black characters playing major roles.
1. The Wild Blue, co-authored with Stephen Thompson, published by Crown, 1986.
Steve and I originally planned to do a non-fiction history of the social mores of the Air Force, and the publishers yawned. We then decided to do a novel, based on our mutual experiences in the Air Force. In many ways the book is semi-autobiographical, and every character, without exception, in the book is based upon a real personality. When possible, we used real names and places to describe events. But for the most part, there were fictional people doing the real things that happened in the Air Force.
We were extraordinarily fortunate that Carl Apollonio was a Vice President at Crown. He liked the book because he was a pilot, and he did what was necessary to make it a best seller on the New York Times best seller list, i.e. big advertising budget, follow up, etc. Steve and I owe Carl a million thanks!
The Wild Blue is an unapologetic salute to the men and women of the USAF and their families, but it also points out some of the problems, and the failures of that service in an honest manner. I think the extremely careful way in which we stuck to the truth accounts for its continuing popularity with Air Force veterans of the time.
In The Wild Blue the story revolves around a large number of characters, including devoted enlisted and non-commissioned personnel, who are drawn from real life and real situations. One of the great benefits of the book to me personally is the number of Air Force people who applauded the book, and many of whom remarked that they had experienced exactly the same thing. Some claimed to be on the spot and personally participated in the action in the book. Because there is some fairly red-hot sex in the book, and because some general officers were portrayed as careerist, I found out a few years ago that the book had been banned at the Air Force Academy. I wish I had known—it would have been great publicity. The book, of course, is positive about the Air Force as a whole, and of flying, and it displays the many different types of pilots and officers and enlisted personnel who make the Air Force great. We probably made a mistake in the book, because we had the principal protagonist, a great pilot named Mike Kelly, killed. He would have been good for a follow-on book had we not done so. But we also wanted to make the point that flying in the Air Force, particularly combat and test flying, is dangerous business and it costs lives and costs families.
On a personal note, I wrote in the book of a young Black Sergeant who worked for me at U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base when I commanded the 635th Services Squadron. Tommy Daniels was young, intelligent and had great potential. A few years later I got a call from him that working with me at U-Tapao had inspired him and he had received his commission as a 2nd Lt. And not many years after that, I was at his swearing in ceremony as a Brigadier General.
If you served in the Air Force any time during the “ first blue suit” era, you will recognize many people and events in The Wild Blue. If you did not, you will get an education in how the Air Force was during a time when budgets were not a problem, when people were not politically correct, when air power meant air power with no nonsensical worries about “collateral damage” and when flying was the name of the game.
The Wild Blue is available still through Amazon, and I believe it is also on audio-books.
(2). Trophy for Eagles Crown Publishing Company, (Followed by Eagles at War and Air Force Eagles)
This, the first of the Eagle series, starts with the Lindbergh era and winds up in the Spanish Civil War over Guernica. Bandy Bandfield is the protagonist, a self-made engineer who, with his partner, Hadley Roget, is drawn from such brilliant personalities as Charles Rocheville, Benny Howard, and Frank Hawks. They struggle to survive in aviation during the Great Depression years, failing sometimes and succeeding just often enough to stay in business.
For many people, the most interesting aspect of the book is the exposure I gave to the human side of such personalities as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Richard Byrd and Roscoe Turner. Other people will see in fictional characters, such as Major Henry Caldwell, a portrayal of real life unknown heroes such as future Major General Franklin O. Carroll and future Lt. Gen. Kenneth B. Wolfe. These men bucked the system, bucked Congress, and fought to keep the industry alive with a minimum budget to get the best product. And of course there has to be a villain, to be shot down on the last page, and he is Bruno Hafner, a sadistic WW I ace who became a successful American industrialist modeled on the image of Amelia Earhart’s manager/husband, George Putnam. One thing about Bruno, he was a mean SOB, but he loved his dachshund.
The book got great reviews and blurbs, including one from George McGovern, a WW II pilot just deceased. The great Ernest K. Gann wrote “An invaluable contributionâ€¦No other aviation writer is better qualified to depict the glorious days of wood, wire and fabric airplanes flown by iron men.”
Many reviewers cited the character development as the main strength of the book, and that delighted me, for airplane guys will love the book for its portrayal of air racing, combat, dangers and successes, but the non-airplane person will love it for its strong characters, men and women. I may have stretched things a bit when I have Bandy and his girl friend establish the first mile-high club in a Beech Staggerwing cockpit, and Charlotte Hafner may be too much like Jacqueline Cochran for comfort, but there it is.
The books is available from Amazon and on e-books, thanks to Eric Hammel, a pioneer and benefactor in that field..
(3) Dawn Over Kitty Hawk, the novel of the Wright Brothers Forge, Tom Doherty Books, 2003
As did about 200 other people, in 2001 I proposed a non-fiction book on the Wright Brothers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their triumph of 1903. I did not hear anything from anyone and assumed that no one was interested, until Bob Gleason, the top editor at Forge, sent me a quick message “Make it a Novel. Call it Dawn Over Kitty Hawk.”Well 2001 and 2002 were busy years for me, as evidenced by the five books I published in 2003, and there was plenty to do. I wrote the book using the considerable documentary material that was available and sent it in toGleason.
Three months went by without a word, and I was doing what all authors do when they don’t hear from their editor, contemplate how to sell the book to another publisher. Then I got a call from Bob Gleason, saying “The book is a masterpiece. Now I want you to write a trilogy of novels on the jet age for me.”
Needless to say, I was delighted by his confidence. Later I was pleased by the reviews of the book, which has been optioned for a film. I had some concerns that my portrayal of the Wright family as real people, with real faults, real sexual urges, real failures, etc. might be considered controversial by some. I never had a single complaint, for which I am grateful, and the reviews and the blurbs were really gratifying.
I wrote the book determined to make Orville, Wilbur, Katherine, their father, etc all real people, true human beings and not the stiff picture-post card image rendered by most books about them. I was able to do so because of the enormous amount of correspondence that was available. In those days, despite their being no Xerox machines, people kept copies of their correspondence, and in that correspondence they revealed themselves. Orville was a kidder, but obviously infatuated with his sister Katherine, a no-no subject obviously in the past, but certainly worth bringing to light. Wilbur was rather up-tight, tending to overshadow Orville when he could, which was not all the time. The father was a somewhat pompous and terribly ambitious cleric, who had no idea of what his boys could do—until they did it, when avarice kicked in.
Now the delight of fiction is that you can advance the plot with some material that never happened. I felt sorry for Wilbur, and took the liberty of him having an affair in France. It might never have happened, but it should have. I did the something similar for Katherine, who was, as we know, ostracized from the family by Orville after she decided to marry.
Also there were some people who hated the Wrights for their success, among them of course Samuel Langley, Augustus Herring, and a man who will still be nameless here, but whom I called Albert Blohm in the book. The real life “Blohm” was a bitter enemy of the Wrights for all his life, working with Curtiss against them, and continuing to do so through the years. I was frankly worried that some one descended from the real “Blohm” might be offended..
I worked hard to be technically correct, calling upon experts who had built replicas of the Wright gliders and aircraft, to be sure that I had the details of their engineering correct, and in the right sequence.
It is my belief that one can learn more about the development of the Wright Flyer, and certainly about the development of the Wright Family from Dawn Over Kitty Hawk
than from most non-fiction accounts, complete with foot-notes, etc. While they are good of their type, they lack the human element completely.
Dawn Over Kitty Hawk is available from Amazon in a variety of formats.
(4) Roaring Thunder Forge, 2006. (Followed by Supersonic Thunder and Hypersonic Thunder)
In the preceding paragraphs on Dawn Over Kitty Hawk I mentioned how Bob Gleason commissioned a three novel series over the phone on the history of the jet age. That’s how publishing was done in those days—an editor could make a decision and if he said write, you knew a contract would follow.
The history of the jet age is a relatively easy subject to cover in non-fiction, for the chronology and the technology unfold year after year, with a noticeable slowing down of hardware debuts in after the 1970s and a corresponding increase in soft-ware and electronics. But the period of 1939 to 2006 covers sixty-seven years, so if you start off with an established family as the fictional vehicle for the book, it means that you are going to see at least the first generation die off, and the second generation age considerably, while a third generation has to appear to carry on the work. You are also going to see the number of new aircraft introduced fall off markedly, with the emphasis shifting to electronics, missiles, etc.
One thing that helped was the fact that I had met many of the flying and industrial figures I cover in the series, from Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle on through Kelly Johnson, Ben Rich, Willis Hawkins and others. The original principal character, Vance Shannon, is drawn from three test pilots—Vance Breese, Sam Shannon and Bill McAvoy. Although I never met Breese in person, I did speak to him on the telephone on several occasions, and I knew Sam Shannon fairly well through my interviews with him on the Convair Sea Dart. I really got to know Bill McAvoy well when interviewing him for an article, a process which turned out to be rehabilitation therapy for him, for which his family was most grateful.
Roaring Thunder was by far the easiest of the three books to write, for it was a time when new airplanes were coming out about every two months, when there were plenty of good size wars, and when the industry was really flexing its muscles. As time passed in Supersonic Thunder and Hypersonic Thunder, the focus had to shift to technology somewhat, as there were fewer new aircraft, and it is more difficult to make the debut of the AWACS as interesting as the debut of the Me 262!
Roaring Thunder and its “brother novels” Supersonic Thunder and Hypersonic Thunder are also available from Amazon in a variety of formats.
(5) Air Force Eagles Crown Publishers, 1991.
The film Red Tails purported to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen but was marred in the eyes of many by its resort to anachronistic expressions, poorly executed computer graphics and other factors. This is a shame, because the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, as defined by heroic characters such as Colonel Charles McGee, is a tremendous one, involving their struggle against segregation and their success in combat.
I mention this because timing is everything. At the Museum, I had insisted that an exhibit be created on the Tuskegee Airmen, a suggestion that was resisted at first by the curators ultimately involved. In the process I did my own research, and learned a great deal. Air Force Eagles opens with the Tuskegee Airmenat their airfield in Italy, and introduces John Marshall, who becomes the primary character in the book, earning his nickname of “Bones.” The book goes on to cover Marshall’s career in the military and industry, and also tells the story of his wife’s successful business career. Among the characters are Martin Luther King, Now it is not all politics—there is a vast amount of combat in Korea, and an aging Bandy Bandfield is there to help things along. He and Roget have gone bust again and are surviving modifying B-26s for use in Korea.
To my continuing dismay, no one ever acknowledged this really ground breaking departure in fictional integration, even though the book received excellent reviews. Ah well, it doesn’t matter now, but I can tell you that this was a more honest, more accurate tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen than Red Tails was and gives a far better picture of their fight for civil rights.
Air Force Eagles tells the story of the incorporation of the Korean Air war and of the horrors of being a POW in North Korea. I based the latter on many conversations with the late great hero, Walker “Bud” Mahurin. It covers the introduction of the Boeing B-47 into the Strategic Air Command. The book also gives real insight into the Pentagon, where the USAF Chief of Staff, Nathan Twining, is forced to tell Curt LeMay to shut up—think about it, someone telling LeMay to shut up!!!!—in regard to the introduction of the ICBM.
I think most readers would benefit by reading Eagles at War after Trophy for Eagles and before Air Force Eagles for continuity and for understanding how time has changed the Shannon family. Each of the three books stands alone, of course, but the events during the time from 1939 to 1957 are more easily understood if read sequentially.
Air Force Eagles is also available at Amazon and as an e book.
I hope you enjoyed reading this, and that I didn’t come across as too self-centered and too self-approving. It is hard to write about your own work and really condemn it!