The best WW1 flying novels that take you into the skies with the first men to fight in the heavens

Who am I?

My father was a pilot in WW2 and I learned to fly in Africa when I was 17. Subsequently I flew biplanes, some of them like the ones in these books, made of wood, glue, and fabric. Since childhood, I've been fascinated by flying in WW1. It was a time of incredible change. The dawn of aviation, when designers and pilots barely understood what they were doing. Biographies written at the time are typically laconic, “emotionally repressed” might be modern. So these novels help us understand today some of those stresses and joys of these remarkable adventurers who dared to undertake what mankind had never done before; fight in the heavens.

I wrote...

Knights of the Air, Book 1: Rage

By Iain Stewart,

Book cover of Knights of the Air, Book 1: Rage

What is my book about?

Action, loyalty, valor, and blood make Stewart’s series kicker in the Knights of the Air series a remarkable historical novelA sharp and effective blend of WWI aviation action and adventure, a hefty dose of emotion and human drama, plus a dash of romance keep the pages flying. Finely written and vividly imagined, this is a complex, gritty novel delving into the brutalities of war. Stewart is an author to watch." Bookview gold award

The books I picked & why

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The Blue Max

By Jack D. Hunter,

Book cover of The Blue Max

Why this book?

This book is a curiosity in several ways. It is written from the German viewpoint by an American. Secondly, it was turned into the finest WW1 flying movie—by a long way. Don’t just take my word for it. Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings, who happens to own the biggest private fleet of WW1 planes in the world, says the same. But the book is just as good, with impeccable flying scenes, sound history, a rip-roaring but believable plot, a deeply flawed hero (think Dirty Harry with less morals), and some sexual shenanigans for good measure. Hard to put down, satisfying to finish.

A Killing for the Hawks

By Frederick E. Smith,

Book cover of A Killing for the Hawks

Why this book?

Smith served in WW2 in the RAF and is more famous for his 633 Squadron series set in WW2, which coincidentally is one of the best WW2 flying movies. The flying scenes are as good as they get, the aircraft details and performance are accurate, the plot twisting, and the love relationships are…complicated. But in this book, you will identify with the hero and find yourself rooting for him as he battles Germans in the air and an enemy in his own squadron while on the ground. Gripping and fast-moving.

Goshawk Squadron

By Derek Robinson,

Book cover of Goshawk Squadron

Why this book?

This was the first of Robinson’s many outstanding flying books set in WW1 and WW2. This novel came out in the Seventies when cynicism was in vogue and is full of disquieting dark humour. Historians have quibbled that the dialogue and thoughts used are not true to the period and that is probably a valid call, but the aircraft research and flying scenes are spot on so this must have been a deliberate call by the author. He became a best-selling author, so who is to say he was wrong? Beautifully written, with whip-smart dialogue, his books are nevertheless like marmite—you will love or hate them. To call the main character (don’t call him the hero) grumpy is to understate the case, more like bitter and twisted, and yet as you follow his journey you will find yourself laughing out loud. Just be aware that when you finish, you won’t feel like dancing with joy.  

Three Cheers for Me: Volume One of the Bandy Papers

By Donald Jack,

Book cover of Three Cheers for Me: Volume One of the Bandy Papers

Why this book?

The first in the Bandy Papers series, and the best. Jack was a Canadian who served in the air force and managed the difficult task of providing a comedy about flying in WW1 with, once again, realistic, and well-researched flying scenes. This book is a comedic tour de force, wringing belly laughs from war without belittling the surrounding terror and angst. It won several Canadian comedy awards, and you can understand why. It made me laugh so hard in places, that it hurt. But I repeat, the flying scenes are first-rate, and the characters are a hoot as they blunder through the war.

Biggles of 266

By Captain W.E. Johns,

Book cover of Biggles of 266

Why this book?

Johns wrote nearly 100 Biggles books, with this one published amongst the first in 1932. He actually fought in WW1 as a pilot, then was shot down, and became a prisoner of war. So he certainly knows whereof he speaks, and this carries through in his descriptions of fighting in the air and the loss of friends. Nevertheless, this book is essentially light-hearted despite its moments of pathos, being aimed primarily at what would be called today “young adults.” I loved them as a boy and love them today as an adult. The plot and characters are not complex, but if you want to be entertained while finding out how a pilot who fought in the conflict approached WW1 flying, this is an excellent and enjoyable read by someone who was there.

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