As a young Warrant Officer in the US Army, Mr. Mason spent a year flying helicopters in Vietnam. This memoir chronicles his journey from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to grizzled veteran with PTSD. The perspective is very much that of soldiers who are just doing the job, far from any decision-making. They can see the futility of their efforts, but they still go out and fly, despite their fears, facing daily the horrors of mutilation and death.
Chickenhawk is a seminal book about the Vietnam War experience, and also about flying helicopters in combat. The author uses irony and self-deprecating humour to good effect, describing in starkly clinical terms the compendium of horrors he witnessed. The feelings of helplessness and futility from flying the same missions over and over again with little effect on the war effort, while at the same time the generals and politicians spout empty words claiming success is imminent, are explored not directly, but through the naively portrayed eyes of the narrator. A fascinating read whether you are into aviation or not.
Robin Olds was the consummate fighter pilot. Bold, brave, decisive, inspiring, and impatient with bureaucracy. His career began in World War Two, flying Lightings and Mustangs, and was capped off with a legendary tour in Vietnam, flying Phantoms.
The events recounted are historically very interesting, especially the Vietnam War narrative. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Olds and his co-authors are not very inspiring writers. It is all quite plain, gruff and direct, probably much like the man himself. There is also a lot of fighter pilot jargon that goes largely unexplained, making many passages difficult to decipher. This book could have used an editor, or a helpful collaborating ghostwriter, to make the prose and structure more interesting. It turned into a slog of a read despite content that should have been riveting.
Legendary computer game designer Sid Meier‘s memoir is a heartfelt love letter to a life in computer gaming. The designer of Civilization not details the trials of designing and publishing games through his multi-decade experience of the industry. More importantly, it delves deep into discussions on what is important for a game to be enjoyable. Thankfully, this is not a technical treatise delving deep into the programming. Instead, it focuses on the effects of game mechanics on the experience. Mr. Meier also widens the scope of the discussion, by sharing his thoughts on the nature of art in general.
The book is mostly chronological, with frequent flashbacks to various events of childhood and adolescence. Mr. Meier has a self-deprecating style which shows through here as it does in his games. His recipe for success seems deceptively simple. Figure out what people enjoy, and make games that are enjoyable. Several humorous anecdotes about player and playtester feedback illustrate his point.
Mr. Martin‘s fourth memoir continues in much the same vein of his first three. His new adventures include a trip to Russia and the Ukraine, restoring an old F1 car, and driving his tractor during the potato harvest.
The X-15 program ran from 1959 to 1968, with three aircraft exploring high altitude and high-speed flight. The research program contributed a wide range of scientific advances that were instrumental in the development of the Space Shuttle and fly by wire control technology, among other things. The work of flying the X-15 was dangerous and exacting, leading to the death of one pilot and involving numerous emergencies. It remains to this date by far the fastest and highest-flying winged aircraft in history.
Mr. Thompson’s account is matter-of-fact, with few embellishments. (The author does note that he is not a writer.) While it retains a certain flatness of style throughout, the book is nonetheless fascinating for the aviation buff. These men, including a young Neil Armstrong, were exploring the unknown fringes of the flight envelope in an unforgiving aircraft, frequently referred to in the book as “The Bull”. While sometimes the text veers into catalogues of flights with their respective purposes, it is peppered with interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as edge-of-your-seat accounts of in-flight emergencies.
John Young was undoubtedly the most experienced astronaut of NASA’s early era, active from the days of Gemini, through Apollo and the Space Shuttle. He walked on the Moon, commanded the first test flight of the Space Shuttle and didn’t retire from NASA until he was seventy-four. He was legendary for his soft-spoken demeanour, coolness under pressure and later in his career, for not being afraid to speak truth to power on issues of mission risk.
His memoir is laid out in a straightforward chronological fashion, starting with early life and following him throughout his career in the Navy and at NASA. While he is most well known for his missions, his time as head of the Astronaut Office and then as a sort of senior and independent safety inspector within NASA, make up large parts of the narrative. There is also ample space dedicated to the Challenger and Columbia accidents, with extensive technical detail.
For any NASA and space buff, the memoir is interesting reading. However, it is a bit of a slog. The style is quite dry and self-effacing, much as the man himself. Descriptions of missions mostly chronicle events without poetic embellishments. This is in stark contrast with, for example, the memoirs of Gene Cernan, Gene Krantz and Mike Mullane, which in their different ways speak much more passionately about the subject matter. The book feels long-winded in many parts, with sections which are just listing various mission achievements, seemingly for completeness’ sake. The most readable bits are where Mr. Young manages to convey his considerable technical expertise to illustrate an issue concisely, such as when he discusses his testimony before the Rogers Commission, investigating Challenger.
I strongly felt that more decisive editing could have made this a more readable book, but then again, I also felt that Mr. Young’s particular voice came through loud and clear.
Mr. McLaughlin started his aviation career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but washed out before completing his initial training. He then found work as a “bush pilot” in Papua New Guinea for a few years, notorious for some of the most dangerous flying conditions on Earth.
I have a soft spot for aviation memoirs, and I enjoyed this one more than most. Mr. McLaughlin writes with both sincerity and an entertaining dry wit. The humour starkly contrasts many of the events depicted, as in sections the book seems to be the chronicle of a succession of fatal crashes. Highly recommended for the aviation enthusiast, but perhaps not as quite as entertaining for those not enamoured with the field.
Chris Hadfield is a man’s man. Test pilot, astronaut, commander of the International Space Station, guitarist, and most importantly endowed with the perfect Canadian Pilot mustache. This book is part memoir, part advice text, part space exploration tome.
I have long admired Colonel Hadfield. His videos from the International Space Station were inspirational and he is the perfect ambassador for the astronaut profession. Despite his many and often spectacular achievement, he embodies a quiet competence and work ethic without braggadocio. Everything I have seen and read with and about him gives the impression of a pleasant, hardworking and cheerful man who stays cool in a crisis.
Hadfield’s “nice guy” character may indeed be the reason for the weakness of his book. The tone is so earnest as to almost be off-putting. He couldn’t be more politely Canadian if he tried. (He even self-deprecatingly touches on the Canadian national character in the book.) Unlike Mike Mullane’s snarky and often hilarious Riding Rockets, this astronaut memoir feels rather plain vanilla.
Having said that, Hadfield’s story is well worth telling, and the message of hard work and striving for excellence without letting (possible) failure define you is inspirational. The theme of the book is not so much about space as about what we can do to define our lives and careers in a meaningful way.
Despite its shortcomings, for fans of astronautics this is an interesting read. I found the the insights into the charming traditions of the Russian Space Program particularly interesting.
For aviators, this is the ultimate, classic memoir. Ernest Gann started flying in the late thirties, flew transport planes all over the world during WWII, and continued flying for airlines thereafter. This book is part chronicle of his many adventures and misadventures, part collection of thoughts on life and flying.
Even a pilot with my limited experience can immediately discern the fundamental authenticity in the erudite voice of this true aviator. The book is episodic, with sequential periods and incidents within serving to move Gannâ€™s destiny forward. Gann writes elegantly, peppering his oftentimes long whimsical tangents with razor sharp understatement. Technical matters become uncomplicated as they are reduced to how they really concern the pilot and his mental state. The essence of what it feels like to fly, in clear skies, in storms and in pouring rain, in Arctic winter and Saharan oven and Amazon jungle, is eloquently explained and examined, with an eye for that poetic and magnificent experience that truly attracts pilots towards flight.
Quite a magnificent book for pilots, and one that will hold the interest of others as well.