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review 2018-01-02 00:19
The happiest man in space.
Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino

No, seriously. I've read Hadfield's book, and I thought HE was happy to be in space, but they really did send a big kid up there with Massimino. He's just jazzed to be on the show, man.

 

This made it one of the more relatable astronaut bios I've read, because it's sort of hard to picture being Hadfield, since he's sort of really good at everything and secretly studied to be an astronaut since he was seven and just... who does that? Massimino, age seven, spent a couple weeks dressed in an astronaut costume his mom made playing with Astronaut!Snoopy and then reverted to his baseball obsession, only coming back to wanting to go to space after college, then accidentally applied to the wrong grad school. That's just... a lot more like something I'd do. It made me feel like the whole space thing was a bit more achievable.

 

The writing itself is definitely aimed at the YA crowd, but not dumbed down. There are a lot of gentle lessons about not trying to go it on your own, and not listening to fighter pilots when they try to teach you how to cheat the NASA eye exam, and "No matter what goes wrong in space, you can always make it worse" (the old Chris Craft if you don't know what to do, don't do anything axiom). Plus Massimino just thought space was cool, being an astronaut was cool, all the other astronauts were cool, and it was just fun to read about someone enjoying themselves that much, even through the rough patches like Columbia. He reads the book himself, and is funny and relatable.

 

This book also underlined a pet peeve I have about Apollo era books, which tend to conclude with a scathing attack on NASA after Apollo, to the tune of "We were great then, and we suck now." I'm not a fan of everything NASA has done in the past forty years, but I feel like the theme of the great space age essentially ending when Gene Cernan left the moon is... a bit hard to take. Maybe we haven't been to Mars yet, but there's been a lot of amazing work done in space since the Shuttle launched, and is still being done now.

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review 2017-12-27 05:06
He 162 Volksj├Ąger Units (Combat Aircraft) - Robert Forsyth,Jim Laurier

For both its conciseness and scope, "He 162 Volksjäger Units" offers a fascinating story of the development and deployment by the Luftwaffe in combat of a remarkable jet fighter. The He 162 'Volksjäger' (People's Fighter) was developed and tested in the latter part of 1944 (continuing into the Spring of 1945) in response to a call for a fast, nimble fighter jet that would be easy to build and fly. An aircraft that would be built in the shortest amount of time with basic construction materials (both steel and wood) and also an aircraft in which Hitler Youth glider pilot trainees could be easily trained to fly in combat.

 

The book goes into considerable detail in showing the reader how the ideal and the reality behind the He 162 did not always coincide. Photographs and illustrations are aplenty, which will delight any aviation enthusiast and model builder. Osprey has again produced a first-rate book on an aircraft, which despite its limited combat use, incorporated features (e.g. the first ejector seat to be successfully deployed on any aircraft) that would later be adapted by a future generation of jet planes.

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review 2017-12-01 14:13
PERILS OF A PILOT IN WARTIME
The Diary of Sonny Ormrod DFC: Malta Fighter Ace - Brian Cull,Frederick Galea

"Sonny" Ormrod epitomized both the unflinchingly honest and scrupulous diarist, as well as the dedicated & courageous fighter pilot. During his service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) - which he joined soon after finishing school in 1940, age 18 - Ormrod kept several diaries, detailing his experiences and impressions of his fellow pilots. It was his intention to make those diaries into a memoir after the war. Thus, this book by Brian Cull constitutes a belated (though abridged) memoir.

The book takes the reader from October 1941 - when Ormrod was in the UK with 605 Squadron awaiting an imminent posting overseas - to April 1942 - when Ormrod was serving with 185 Squadron on the besieged Mediterranean island of Malta. Not many people perhaps know that, at one point during the Second World War, Malta was the most heavily bombed piece of real estate on earth. It was the lynch pin in Britain's efforts to retain a presence in North Africa and the Mediterranean against the Axis Powers. From Malta, British air and naval vessels would harry German and Italian ships sending supplies to Rommel in the Western Desert during the height of the fighting there in 1941-42.

Ormrod arrived in Malta with 605 Squadron during November 1941. At the time Italy's Regia Aeronautica alone was bombing Malta, which the British were generally able to cope with. The Luftwaffe, who had had a presence over Malta earlier that year, had withdrawn its units to take part in Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. This somewhat relieved the pressure on Malta for several months. As a result, sinkings of German and Italian ships became almost prohibitive to the Axis, so both the Germans and Italians resolved to destroy Malta through air assault. This is reflected in Ormrod's diary from December 1941 onwards, when the Luftwaffe returned to assist the Regia Aeronautica in trying to neutralize Malta.

Indeed, for Ormrod and his comrades, their job of helping to defend the island became an increasingly difficult and perilous undertaking. (The Maltese people also suffered greatly. Nevertheless, they endured the increasingly daily bombings from January 1942 with good grace. Ormrod's descriptions of the island, both aloft and on the ground, made tangibly real for me the stresses and horrors of what it must have been like to be in Malta at that stage of the war.)

Many pilots like Ormrod bravely and faithfully met their responsibilities, while others were malingerers and made excuses not to fly on certain missions. This angered Ormrod and several diary passages reflect his disgust and disdain for those squadron mates who were willful shirkers. Flying Hawker Hurricane fighters, they were outmatched in terms of performance and speed by the latest German and Italian fighters: the Messerschmitt 109F and the Macchi MC 202, respectively. One passage for me - from Tuesday, April 14, 1942 - illustrates the challenges and terrors of trying to cope with the daily attacks by what were now swarms of enemy aircraft:

"[Wigley - one of Ormrod's closest friends] landed with but eight gallons of petrol remaining. His bravery and contempt for the enemy almost at times approaches madness. If ever a pilot in this war deserved a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross], I consider Plt. Off. Wigley to deserve one. No odds deter him. Whose courage surpasses his? Few could out-fly him. Yet since he has not an aircraft in which now here it can well be done, he is unlikely to win a DFC because he is unlikely to win six confirmed victories. Most probably some newly arrived Spitfire pilot, who has never taken the odds that Wigley has, nor at such a disadvantage will, if he has the luck and a little skill, mount a score of six soon, be awarded a DFC and acknowledged by the world as Wigley's superior; a hero of the Malta battles. Hurricanes without speed and cannon cannot hope, except rarely, to bring down fast and heavily armoured German aircraft. Whereas the Spitfires can do it often in spite of the opportunities their pilots waste. This is our moan. We love the old Hurricane that has carried us gallantly and saved us on innumerable occasions but we know that old age has now overcome it."

Sadly, Ormrod's luck would run out 8 days later, on his 20th birthday.

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review 2017-11-14 05:45
An Explorer in the Air Service (WWI Centenary Series) - Hiram Bingham

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" (which was originally published in 1920 by Yale University Press) is Hiram Bingham's account of his time as an officer in the United States Army Air Service (1917-1919) in which he headed, first in Washington the Personnel Office of the Air Service - and then was sent to France in the Spring of 1918 as Chief of Personnel at Tours, where he labored for a few months before he managed to wrangle a transfer to Issoudun, where the U.S. had established a complex of military airfields 100 miles SE of Paris. Bingham, who had undergone flight training in the U.S. in March 1917 prior to the country's entry into the war and went on to earn the designation of Reserve Military Aviator (R.M.A.) the following August, wanted to freshen up on his flying skills. His work as Air Service Personnel Chief was so all-consuming that he had had no time for flying. 

From reading this book, one quickly sees how much of an aviation enthusiast Bingham was. (Indeed, before joining the U.S. Army, he was one of the persons instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Schools of Military Aeronautics at 8 universities across the country - from Cornell to UC/Berkeley - which provided ground school training for Army aviation cadets, who later received advanced flight training in Europe.) At Issoudun, he was placed in command of the Third Aviation Instructional Centre (AIC). The Third AIC was the largest primary instruction and pursuit training school in the Air Service. It was made up of a series of airfields where pilot trainees were put through various stages of training, from simplest (Field 1, where the trainee pilot learned to taxi a 'wingless' plane at high speed along a straight course, so as to get a basic feel for handling a plane) to advanced (Fields 7 & 8, where formation flying, simulated aerial combat, and gunnery were taught). 

In reading about the training that took place at the Third AIC, Bingham goes into considerable detail in sharing with the reader the realities and challenges of training pilots and meeting the frontline requirements the Air Service placed upon him and the officers under his command throughout the summer and autumn of 1918. Sometimes the pilot trainee who has his heart set on flying 'pursuits' (fighter planes) fails to catch on to the demands of flying a fast, high-performance, single-seat airplane. No matter how hard he tries to keep his place in formation or learn combat tactics, he doesn't measure up. He falls short and his deficiencies become all too clear to his instructors. Rather than waste any more precious time and resources on a pilot trainee who doesn't have what it takes to serve in a pursuit squadron at the Front, he is shunted off into training as either an observation or bomber pilot (at Field 10, which was much larger than the other fields). 

Throughout the book, there are many photos of the various aircraft types that were used at Issoudun, as well as photos of Issoudun itself and some of the men who served there. Those photos gave me a very real sense of what it must have been like to be in the U.S. Army Air Service in France during World War I. There are also detailed illustrations of some of the flight maneuvers (e.g. the 'vrille' or spin, vertical virage, wing slip, and renversement) prospective pursuit pilots were expected to master.  Sometimes I would take a break from reading and study these illustrations. I would then close my eyes and try to imagine that I was in a Nieuport or SPAD fighter carrying out these intricate movements with deft handling of throttle, control stick, and rudder. 

"AN EXPLORER IN THE AIR SERVICE" is one of the best books of its kind that I've ever read. Bingham speaks both to his time and to today's generation with words that are sometimes prescient about aviation, as well as fanciful. His candor in speaking about America's lack of preparedness in developing the Air Service once the country is at war serves as an indictment of the narrow vision or blindness shown by the Army General Staff, which failed to appreciate aviation's potential and utility on the battlefield. Bingham himself says that "... it must never cease to be a source of amazement to our descendants that, while the great nations of the world had been fighting for their lives for two years and a half, and ordinary common sense would have seemed to have dictated the necessity of preparing for the day when we, too, should get thrown into the gigantic conflict, so little should have been done of what is known as 'General Staff Work.' " 

Anyone who wants to understand the origins of U.S. military air power, start here. This book is absolutely priceless. 

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review 2017-10-29 01:36
Spirit of the Blue: A Fighter Pilot's Story - Hugh Thomas

Peter Ayerst led a unique and varied career as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot. He joined the RAF in 1938 and was the recipient of a thorough, peacetime flight training program. 

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Ayerst was posted to France with No. 73 Squadron, flying the Hawker Hurricane fighter. He saw extensive action against the Luftwaffe during the 'Phoney War' period (which lasted up to May 10, 1940, when Germany launched its Blitzkrieg against Western Europe), the Battle of France, the Dunkirk Evacuation, and the Battle of Britain.

Following the conclusion of the Battle of Britain, Ayerst was given flight instructor duties in the UK, which he carried out til he was posted to serve with a Hurricane squadron in North Africa in September 1942. He went on to fly combat missions over France in the aftermath of the D-Day landings, and finished the war flying bomber escort missions. 

Ayerst was part of a rare breed of RAF fighter pilots who had seen action throughout the war. In peacetime, he became a test pilot and carried out administrative and command duties til he retired from the RAF on May 5, 1973. All in all, this is a good book for any aviation enthusiast. 

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