Book Review: In the Cockpit

“If it is true that the soul of a man sits near the head of the human body, it could also be true that a pilot sitting in a cockpit – using the intricate and often sophisticated instruments and machinery to accomplish the miracles of space and distance – could be the soul of an aircraft”

–John Travolta

I have this penchant for books. There was a time when I haunted libraries, and books stores, both new and old, purchasing books that I had read and liked or books that I wanted to read or books that looked interesting. Lately it is cheaper to buy and read e-books. It is also so much easier when traveling, since an iPad or smart phone is an essential device always on hand. Despite that, there is something to be said about sitting down with a good hardback or paperback.

I have had In the Cockpit for many years, but I finally got a chance to read it or really sift through the pages, learning about aircraft artifacts that grace the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Written by Dana Bell, with photographs by Eric Long and Mark Avino, with a foreword by John Travolta, In the Cockpit, provides a vivid and poignant history of 50 aircraft that are part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Collection. With beautiful photographs, and historical context, the author presents the evolution of aviation technology starting from the Wright Flyer to SpaceShipOne. While every aircraft is distinct and interesting, here are five of my all-time favorite aircraft.

First there is the Wright Flyer flown by Orville Wright in 1903 that changed the world. Comprising of three flight controls namely, a leading-edge clip to launch the aircraft on a wooden rail, a lever to control the elevators during climb and dive, and a hip cradle to turn the aircraft right and left.  There were also three instruments that could be read after the flight. The 1903 Wright Flyer is housed in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

The Lockheed 5B Vega, with its brilliant red color, also known as the “Little Red Bus” was an Amelia Earhart favorite. In it she set the record for women’s speed over a 1-mile course in November 1929 and an additional two more speed records in June 1930. In it she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the Atlantic in May 1932 and only the second person to do so. She followed this up with the first solo nonstop transcontinental flight from Los Angeles, CA to Newark, NJ in August 1932. There were 128 Vegas built and Earhart’s was the 22nd Vega.

The Bell XV-15 Tiltrotor. Part of the dream of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) was realized in the 1930s with the invention of the helicopter. The dream continues with the electronic VTOL (eVTOL) and urban air mobility (UAM). For now, the second of the XV-15S resides at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The Concorde was one of its kind! The only aircraft to provide sustained passenger service at twice the speed of sound, it was operated by British Airways and Air France between 1976 and 2008. There were 20 Concorde’s in all and only 14 that entered service. The Concorde on display at the Udvar-Hazy Museum in Virginia was donated by Air France.

The last and final is SpaceShipOne. This should not come as a surprise to those who have been following my blog. I have a history with this aircraft. Designed by Burt Rutan, built by Scaled Composites, and funded by Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne was built to be a reusable space test vehicle. The first privately sponsored spaceflight was flown by Mike Melville on June 21, 2004 and went on to win the X-Prize. SpaceShipOne flew 17 flights before it was retired, and now model 316 graces the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

It is interesting how sometimes life comes full circle. This book is in many ways very dear to me. Given as a parting gift by my coworkers, who understood me in so many ways more than I ever realized, this first edition of the book is marked with unforgettable warm wishes by each and every one of them. It is one of the books I received as a gift and will forever cherish. As I start this next phase of my life where I am learning about the Smithsonian artifacts, what better book to start than with In the Cockpit?

If you are plane crazy, you might like this book. You can purchase a hard copy of In the Cockpit on Amazon.