A black-and-white image of an early plane on sand

December 2023 marks 120 years since the first successful flight in a heavier-than-air, mechanically propelled aeroplane, near Kitty Hawk in South Carolina.

Wright Brothers Day was first declared by President Eisenhower back in 1959. This year, the event will be marked in the town of Kitty Hawk with guest speakers, a flyover, and wreath-laying in honour of Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Since those first pioneers, our human obsession with flight has only increased. It’s an obsession that can be seen in these three powerful stories of trailblazing aviators, daring recovery missions, and wartime adventures. 

1. Aloft by William Langewiesche

Before Langewiesche became an author and a journalist, he was a pilot for 15 years. In Aloft he uses both his writing prowess and in-air experience to craft an “insightful and poetic reflection on the first century of flight”. It’s also a great introduction to modern aeronautics.

Through nine essays and non-fiction accounts of traumatic flights and horrific crashes, Langewiesche grapples with our growing understanding of the alien place “just above our homes” in which we’ve so recently emerged like “creatures first escaping from the sea”.

In ‘The View from Above’, Langewiesche tells of his time as an air taxi pilot along a Mexican border infested with drug cartels. In ‘The Turn’, meanwhile, a history of the Montgolfier brothers’ pioneering hot air balloon flight in 1783 quickly flips to the science of banking a modern aircraft.

If you’ve ever wondered why a full cup doesn’t spill during a short turn, or why a pen dangled from a string will always hang toward the aeroplane’s carpet, not the earth, now is your chance to find out.

Elsewhere, you’ll read about the perils of bad weather, nervous passengers, and working in air traffic control. 

In ‘The Devil at 37,000 feet’ an in-air collision is meticulously reconstructed, while in ‘Columbia’s Last Flight’, Langewiesche takes us right up to date in our journey through flight. An in-depth look at the US space shuttle’s final flight in February 2003, during which it disintegrated on re-entry, killing its seven-member crew, it’s a cautionary tale of the extent to which we can tame the skies.

2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Great Circle was shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It takes as its inspiration the pioneering women of early flight, like Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

Marian Graves and her twin brother Jamie survive a terrible tragedy as babies and grow up with their artist uncle. As Marian grows older she becomes consumed by the desire to be a pilot and enters an uneasy alliance with a rich benefactor. 

Her pursuit of escape – from everything she deems is holding her back – will see her take on the ultimate challenge, circumnavigating the globe from pole to pole. As her story navigates the whole of the 20th century, Marian’s dreams of glory will end abruptly in a perilous icy wilderness.

Meanwhile, in modern-day America, struggling actress Hadley Baxter is looking to make a comeback following her sacking from a lucrative teen franchise. 

She finds herself drawn to the story of Marian Graves, and the woman herself. Hadley’s work on the film could even uncover secrets long since buried, about Marian’s life, and her untimely disappearance.

Taking in the second world war, alongside themes of identity, sexuality, and patriarchy in a century-spanning adventure, this epic tale has something for everyone. 

3. Corsairville by Graham Coster

In Corsairville, Graham Coster takes readers back to the almost unimaginable and forgotten age of luxury air travel. 

While seaplanes are light and lithe aircraft that can land on water, the flying boats of the 1920s and 1930s were bloated and substantial, managing to look incongruous both in the air and on the water. They were, though, for a time, the pinnacle of extravagance and indulgence.

A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week upon its release, Corsairville uncovers the history of the flying boat, from its halcyon days as the quickest means of travel between Britain and Africa and America to its repurposing at the onset of the second world war.

In 1939, one particular flying boat, the Corsair, crash-landed in the Belgian Congo. A prized and valuable machine in any period, let alone during wartime, a salvage mission was quickly launched that necessitated a team so large that a town grew up around the site. The town became known as Corsairville.

Costner takes a nostalgic and enthusiastic trip through the history of flying boats. The book also comprises a travelogue and history, as well as a memoir of the author’s own trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of the remains of Corsairville.