Greatest Book on Flying Ever Written, (Is your life worth $16?)


Here is another opinion from me, man of a thousand opinions: Stick and Rudder is the greatest book ever written on how to fly planes, period. Unlike some of my other opinions, I am not alone in this one. While most people with a pilots license in their pocket have never heard of this book, virtually every single veteran aviator noted for his skill and experience holds the same opinion of this book.  My 25 years of building planes and modest amount of hours doesn’t make me one of those “Old School” pilots, but I am smart enough to hold the same text sacred as they do.

To assist in the discussion of this book, I will use paraphrased comments that people have made to me over the years at Sun n Fun and Oshkosh when I bring up the point that the book only costs $16, and maybe half of the fatal accidents each year could be avoided if the deceased pilots had owned, read, and understood the contents of this 69-year-old book. The paraphrased peanut gallery comments are in blue italics.

“They must have written something better since. I think Rod Machado’s books are better because they are funny and entertaining.” 

OK, let me start by saying I have nothing against Machado, but he isn’t in the same category. We are speaking on educational classics here, not comedy/entertainment/flying lite.

“But that Machado is such a character! He is so daring and out of the box! He is really bold.”

Now let’s just hold on a minute: One of my pet peeves is how Flying magazine and some elements in marketing the EAA have tried to make aviation less offensive, more family entertainment. They want every person pictured to be drawn from the pages of the J. Crew clothing catalog, clothed in khaki slacks and getting into their Cirrus or 912 powered S-LSA. Compared to those contrived marketing images, Machado is Keith Richards, but judged against real aviation characters, he is just another guy in Levis Dockers with a John Edwards haircut.


And now, a brief break from our sponsor, Real Aviation Character. Take this quiz: See how many of the 8 aviators of character below that you recognize. …

What an actual Character looks like #1.

Character #2.

Character #3.

Character #4.

Character #5.

Character #6.

Character #7.

Character #8.
1) Pappy Boyington, Flying Tiger, USMC, CMH. Quote: “Show me a hero and I’ll show you a bum.” Lived life with the throttle firewalled. Drank, fought, smoked and flew on high blower, all the time.
2) Poncho Barnes, respected as a serious competitor in 1930s air racing, when it had a 30% fatality rate. Owner, “Happy Bottom Riding Club.” Legendary for never taking crap from anyone. Ever.
3) Bernard Pietenpol, patron saint of homebuilding, champion of flight for the common man. If you work for a living, and you are building a plane, you owe this man the acknowledgement that he was the pathfinder for every builder with persistence to take their place … In the Arena.
4) Col. John Boyd, supreme fighter pilot, father of ACM, inventor of Energy-maneuverability, inventor of the OODA loop, greatest thinker on conflict since Clausewitz. Rejected all attempts to be bought off. Philosophy: “You can be somebody (Play a role, fill a slot, hold a position) or you can do something.”
5) Charles Nungesser, French national hero and ace in WWI. Sets the 100% standard for the “triple crown” of fighter pilots in the 20th century (flying, drinking, romancing women), and his countrymen loved him for it. Spent all night in the clubs of Paris, flew against the Hun at dawn. The embodiment of the term Swagger. Dies attempting to fly the Atlantic with Coli 2 weeks before Lindbergh.
6) Hank Wharton, legendary arms sumggler, used a Lockheed Constellation on repeated missions to fly food to starving Biafrans through Nigerian jet air defenses. ‘Humanitarian’ with solid brass balls.
7) Jack Knight, airmail pilot, flew 800 miles, Wyoming to Chicago, in an open cockpit plane, at night, in a blizzard, Feb. 22, 1921, to save the fate of  U.S. airmail. Later VP of United Airlines, before such jobs became  positions held by accountants and lobbyists. Would not “fit in” at airline work today.
8) Valentina Tereshkova, awarded title Hero of the Soviet Union, first woman in space. On her 70th birthday she told Russian president Vladimir Putin that she was personally willing to go to Mars, now, even if it was a one way “suicide” mission. Not your average grandmother.
It is very likely that every single one of these aviators (with the exception of Nungesser) read Stick and Rudder.

Scoring: If you have heard of Machado but knew six or more of the Aviators of Character, you are in good shape, proceed as you are. –  If you have read Machado’s books, but only identified 3 or 4 of the pictures, take warning: Do not read Flying,  try to fly a Comanche 400 or radial powered plane soon. Throw away your Sporty’s catalog. Watch The Great Waldo Pepper or Thirty Seconds over Tokyo this week. –  If you own Machado’s books but knew none of the images, you need serious help. You have been made a victim of the consumerism people who have told you that flying is about spending money, not learning, challenges, and personal achievements. Leave tonight for Cherry Grove, Minn., Pietenpol’s home town, and make it your aviation pilgrimage. Never speak to anyone with a Rotax 912 ever again. Fly in a biplane to Kitty Hawk, and look into the glass case at the little square of Wright Flyer fabric, carried to the surface of the moon and back by Neil Armstrong. Develop a plan on how your actions in aviation will show gratitude to those who came before you and gave you the possibilities you have. Do this today.


Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. …


“I read some of the book, and it isn’t all nice. Langewiesche says things I find scary and threatening like  ‘Most pilots would rather die than think.’ I just want to go back to reading how I can use my Ipad to listen to Celine Dion and Barry Manilow while ATC tells me which pattern to fly the designated ‘practice area’ in our controlled airspace.”

The goal of real aviation books is not to tell you some answer, but to get you to think. The resistance to really thinking is the actual roadblock to learning and being able to use new understanding. Langewiesche knew that people are so set in their ways that they are hardly even moved by the seriousness of the consequences. Thomas Edison’s favorite quote was “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the true labor of thinking.” Set yourself apart, buy the book and read it. Recognize that the part of your brain that resists this is what Langewiesche and Edison were speaking of.

“If this book is so important, why isn’t anyone talking about it? Why are magazines all filled with avionics reviews and new imported $159,000 S-LSA aircraft, and not talking about this book? If it were important, magazine editors would have told me about it.”

Wrong. Nearly the entire system of general aviation as it exists is about one single thing: Money. This book costs $16, no one is making big bucks off it, Langewiesche has been deceased more than a decade, and getting you to buy it doesn’t line anyone’s pockets, so it doesn’t get any attention. Contrast this with some new $2,000 glass cockpit: The factory makes 400% mark up on the hardware, this pays  100 “dealers” who each make a 15% cut off each sale; it also pays for full-page ads in magazines; it covers free units traded to influential journalists and prominent builders to write glowing endorsements. It covers dinners, evenings at strip clubs, airline tickets and many other “perks” for people who offer “independent” reviews. Every sale has a large chunk of the money going to grease the palms of a whole chain of people, all unbeknownst to the purchaser, who thought the echo of glowing endorsements was driven by the quality of the product. This system works on every major part. If you buy a kit, and the sales staff works pretty hard to steer you from a Corvair to a Rotax 912, it is because the dealership has already registered your name with the U.S. Rotax importer, and they will quietly get a check for $2,000 of your money right after you buy the 912, even if it is a long time later. Most engine companies do this (we do not).

There are many great things in aviation, like Stick and Rudder and steam gauge instrumentation, that will get damn near zero discussion, simply because no one gets paid if you use them. Learn this: The system isn’t going to spend the time discussing what you need to know, nor what might be economical or useful for your plane. It is only going to spend time discussing things that make insiders in the system money.

“How can this book be of any value to my flying? It doesn’t tell me how my GPS works, it doesn’t talk about airspace letter codes, and it doesn’t say anything about how to get the magnetic swipe card to open the 8′ chain link fence at my airport. I hear that none of the information in it is on the private pilot test, and if I only need a 70 to pass that, why should I waste $16 on another book filled with words?”

GPS, radios, arbitrary boundaries and written tests have nothing to do with flying. Don’t worry about the test from the FAA: be much more concerned about the one run by Physics, Chemistry and Gravity when you leave the ground as there are much greater consequences to failing theirs. Langewiesche is going to teach you to pass this far less forgiving exam. Flying is about controlling your aircraft, knowing weather and knowing yourself. These are his subjects. They have not, and will not ever change.

Here is my perspective: Aviation costs money. About the least expensive plane I can picture has an all up cost of $10,000. Let’s say that you take 8 years to build it, that’s $1,250/year or $3 and 42 cents a day. If you smoke or drink coffee, you spend a lot more than this. Don’t like to hear about 8 years? Want to change that? Here is the easy way: Do nothing this year, and next year it will be nine years. $20 a day for 3 years is $21,900. For that kind of money you can have many airplanes, including a Panther with engine. Being wealthy isn’t the key, getting started is.

Take this thought with you: You can’t really change the cost of planes by more than 25% or 35% even by extreme scrounging and plans building. There is no way to drop the cost by 75%, stuff justs costs money at some point. Here is what you do control: What you get out of building and flying. Picture two guys, both spend 4 years, and 2,000 hours building a plane, and 50 hours aloft and 200 studying to get a LSA rating. It’s five years into it. If guy “A” was a super scrounger, bought a used kit and spent only $20K vs guy “B” who spent $34K for the same plane by purchasing a kit and getting all his parts from Aircraft Spruce instead of the flymart, Which builder got the better value? Who won?

The correct answer: The guy who actually mastered each skill, learned the why’s of every step, didn’t just do every task to minimums, but aimed to master it. The guy who sought to know every piece and part of his plane and its correct care, feeding and operation. He aimed higher, did more. He has been changed by the experience, the guy who just did the minimums only accomplished the task, but it wasn’t transformative. Real value isn’t based just on what it cost, it is far more affected by the other side of the equation…what did you get out of it? On this point, the majority of builders cheat themselves. Reading Stick and Rudder is all about aiming to get the best value out of the hours of your life you invest in homebuilding and flying. The book is for aviators who will master light plane flight, not just be adequate at it.

Years ago I was a contributor to the “Corvaircraft” Internet discussion group. If you read the archives, I left 400 stories there, before I was banned for life (due to poor etiquette and intolerance of foolish people). In retrospect, most of my time there was wasted. In 10 years, the site produced only a handful of flyers, most of whom were already regular builders of ours. The great majority of the several hundred readers there were just doing one thing: Waiting.

What for you ask? Something better than what I was showing them could be done. I was basically showing how a very good engine that weighed 225 pounds, cost $5,000, burned 5 gallons an hour, and lasted 1,000 hours could be built, if you were willing to learn a little and get your hands dirty, and think some. Yet the vast majority of readers thought that was not good enough. Every time some troll/daydreamer/psycho surfaced and said “I know how to save 35 pounds!” they waited to see how he would do it. When people said “I know how to have an EFI system for $200,” they waited to see how it worked. When people said “We can use shareware and develop this as a Net group,” people waited. Every new thing discussed, virtually all of which turned out to be pure unicorns, was cause for these men to wait.

Many of the ones who were there 10 years ago are still there waiting, certain that this week, someone will show up and tell them how to build a 170 pound Corvair that has EFI, is reliable, burns 2.5 gallons per hour, makes 130 hp, assembles itself, lasts 2,500 hours for an investment of $1,500, no check that, $995. They will be waiting there in another 10 years because that bus isn’t ever going to come. The rainbow bus line from unicornville doesn’t have a stop on reality street, it only is headed to cyberville, and there is no airport in cyberville.

Their waiting is partially driven by the “consumer electronics experience.” To these people, their cell phones were vastly better and far cheaper than the ones they had 10 years before, why shouldn’t they expect the same from Corvairs? Because it is the mechanical world, not electronics, and it doesn’t work that way in metal, and things that you can fly. Popular Mechanics has been telling readers for 60 years that personal helicopters are 2 years away, and rip off artists like “Cartercopter” stole millions of dollars from NASA (yes, stolen from the taxpayers) for alleged R&D on this, but it doesn’t exist. You can’t fly it, but the people who wait eat this stuff up as the sand runs out of their personal hour-glass.

Do something this weekend to change your life: Buy a copy of Stick and Rudder this weekend, and get started reading it. Here is my special offer: The book is free to Corvair builders. Here is how: Buy a copy, read it and bring it to Oshkosh and show me, and I will take $16 off the price of anything you buy from us. How does this work for me? It is your instant identification to me that you are a serious builder, committed to your personal advancement. You are not waiting for an imaginary bus from Unicornville. Besides, the information in it could save your life.


Postscript: I am sure that many people think that my paraphrased comments are not portraits of real attitudes. Let me offer this proof: Below is a review of the book that is actually posted on The D-bag that wrote it isn’t an aviator, even if he holds a pilots licence. His attitude is exactly what Edison and Langewiesche were talking about, the type of person A.E. Houseman referred to as “Chaps whom it hurts to think.” If your goal is to learn, welcome to aviation, we need you. Your place will never be with this kind of person:

“While I understand why pilots and other aviation enthusiasts highly recommend this book because of its thorough explanation of nearly every aspect of flying, I had trouble reading it. I could never get into the book. Perhaps because I began reading this book shortly after finishing a book I thoroughly enjoyed (Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight) Mr. Langewiesche’s book never lived up to my expectations.”

4 Replies to “Greatest Book on Flying Ever Written, (Is your life worth $16?)”

  1. Re Langewiesche’s reviewer: That guy couldn’t have been a pilot nor an aviation enthusiast. I’ve read it 3 times and parts 6 times and I have at least 3 times to go. It is absolutely fascinating and about as close as a human can get to just beginning to understand why people can rarely fly airplanes like birds, and therefore NEED to ‘listen’ to Wolfgang very carefully. (Re birds a la my observations: Each feather is a ‘sensor’ indicating to them the exact amount or lack of lift at any moment in any condition as well as the instantaneous trend of increasing or decreasing lift, and 50 other things. For us to fly, compared to birds, is like taking a shower in a raincoat. The other day I was watching a Red Tail gliding on the left side ridge wave as we were driving over a SE Utah pass. It did a flat, very slow turning 360, flying in perfect control BACKWARDS before completing the rest of the turn, appearing to lose no altitude in the process. THAT’S flying. Just not for me. The closest I’ve seen to that was one instruction hour we went up when no one else was because of the wind. I thought, great, I WANT realistic flying. At the end of the hour the wind velocity was very high, had completely reversed direction and crosswind component was present. We could not normally descend. A radical crab and slip took us down like an elevator with perfect timing letting the crab go but still landing on the windward wheel. Smooth and perfect. After the landing was at least halfway in the bag, I cheered the instructor like people cheer athletes. Well worth the price of admission; and I got to fly some, too!)

  2. A similar thing happened to me many decades ago, when I was in the Civil Air Patrol in the early 1960s. I was not a pilot, but an observer, and went up with a pilot for a ride in an Aeronca Champ. There was a stiff wind blowing straight up the runway when we returned and the pilot set up a landing approach. I watched the ASI and we had 55 knots all the way to the ground, but due to the headwind, the descent looked more like a helicopter. They made him take a check ride even though I told them we had the needed speed for landing. There was no crosswind component that day. I worked with someone who once landed an Navy Cub in a strong wind
    and could not get it to stay on the ground until four guys grabbed it and held it down until they could turn it around tail into the wind.

  3. That there was a Pilot with a capital ‘P’…thanks for the story. As for the other fella’, that’s on the other side of the line…kind of like if you’re Sgt Preston and you and King have to go get the diphtheria medicine and bring it back through impossible conditions. {;^)

  4. Hi William. I read your article at lunch and remember reading MOST of the book years ago. I put it down I think because I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. Slow reading, over my head, boring, I don’t remember, but I went home and retrieved it off my bookshelf ( I went right to it!) and found my bookmark at page 282. I will start at the beginning and read all of it now. Thanks for your info on various subjects. It makes me think. Pat Conley

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: