Robb Recommends: The seven best aviation books, from the Wright brothers’ history to an NFL player in space

Forget the latest King novel. These books will transport you from the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk into space with an NFL player turned astronaut

The beauty of air travel, especially if you can sneak away from the Wi-Fi, is that it offers a respite from everyday life. But forget the usual murder mystery or spy thriller. There’s nothing like a great book about life above the clouds, especially at 12,000 metres, to appeal to both aviators and armchair pilots.

We’ve curated a selection of books about aviating machines and the people who have lifted flight to where it is today. Both fiction and non, these picks are tailored to different readers, including kids, and can turn a potentially boring flight into an adventure. The stories cover a 100-year span, from the Wright Brothers to an NFL player who became an astronaut. Whether you fancy yourself an aviator or aviatrix, or simply love a good story, you’ll find a brave heart in each of these books.

Here are seven of our favourites.

Chasing Space by Leland Melvin

The first man to play in the NFL and travel to outer space, Melvin’s achievements were nearly dashed due to a NASA training injury that resulted in deafness. Melvin recounts his tenacious pursuit in reclaiming his mission status to reach the International Space Station while gratefully recounting the teammates who helped him cross the finish line. The athlete’s story is highlighted in the sweetness of victories that extended beyond the achievement of outer space, such as his restored ability to hear the quartet’s music accompanying former President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

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The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

A detailed, historically rich account of the two brothers who brought us the modern airplane. The famed historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (who also penned biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams), McCullough brings to light the legacy of the Wrights’ humble beginnings in a bicycle shop and how they went on to change history forever. Filled with details that define the brothers and their inventiveness, the tome will help you appreciate modern travel more than ever.

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Tropic Angel by Nate Van Coops

Former Blackhawk pilot Luke Angel has put a troubled past behind him to live an island lifestyle, but when a friend’s plane goes missing from his local airport, he’s dragged into a mystery that only he can solve. Keep up with the twists and turns and hang on for the ride as Luke untangles complex family ties, a kidnapping, plenty of thugs and a daring rescue mission. Van Coops, a seasoned pilot, draws from his experience to depict high-octane, scenes of seat-of-the pants flying in the aircraft most pilots know and love—Cessnas, a Swift, and ultimately, an iconic Grumman Mallard amphibious aircraft. Pack it for the next trip or enjoy on vacation with a poolside libation.

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The Cannibal Queen by Stephen P. Coonts

Veteran Naval aviator Coonts takes on a completely fresh challenge as he plots a lengthy course across America in his eponymous 1942 Stearman. In a three-month long journey that took place in 1991, Coonts and his teenage son fly the continental US with little more than ambition, a compass, and a wind-whipped chart. This is stick-and-rudder flying in an arching travelogue. Coonts explores American culture through the magic of his bright-yellow WWII biplane. You’ll find yourself wanting to wander off the beaten path to find your centre.

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Nothing Stood in Her Way by Captain Julie Clark

Among pilots, both male and female, Julie Clark is an icon. Her 27-year-long career is remarkable. A combination of passion and perseverance led her to become one of the first female airline captains, despite incredible odds and heartbreaking circumstances—including the early death of her mother and subsequent murder of her father, also an airline pilot. Autobiographies can be slogs, but this is written with grace, humor, and wonderful anecdotes that recount a tough journey. But Clark writes about the men and women who mentored her in the eventual rise to the highest levels of aviation, including a secondary gig as an airshow performer—one of the most challenging and dangerous jobs in aviation.

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Sky High! A Soaring History of Aviation by Jacek

Let’s face it. Plane rides can be tedious for young children. Rather than putting them in front of the entertaiment screen, how about a very different type of children’s book? The pages of Sky High! are brimming with charming illustrations, taking young readers through a comprehensive history of aviation from its earliest days to modern age. A little something for everyone, this fun-to-explore oversized book will evoke imagination page by colourful page.

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West With the Night by Beryl Markham

Markham’s writing won praise from none other than the master himself, Ernest Hemingway. This is her account of growing up and living in Africa in the early part of the last century, the first female to earn a commercial pilot’s license at a time when air travel was still in its infancy. Beautiful writing carries the reader along on  thrilling flights above the vast landscape of east Africa, bringing to life the people and land she loved. Think Out of Africa from the close lens of a pilot, who is also navigating fatigue and extreme conditions. But Markham didn’t stop there. At 33, she was the first female to fly solo from Europe to North America, a noteworthy feat, but it’s her colorful way of living in this romantic era that makes this a great read.

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This story was first published on Robb Report USA