Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 09:03 am GMT -6 Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 09:03 am GMT -6Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 09:03 am GMT -6

A whirlwind tour of how airplanes work. An amazing amount of information, with hardly any equations at all.





Aimed at an adult audience, Understanding Flight is an ambitious book. It aims to explain complex aerodynamic principles and technologies that make airplanes possible by using simple diagrams in about 300 pages.

The Good

The technical facts in the book were very well researched. I have to say, I was impressed. Some of the concepts covered are very hard to understand, much less explain clearly in a non-technical fashion. There are lots of technical explanations in the book, and they are all competently written.

Most pages have inset boxes with interesting bits of aviation trivia. A lot of the trivia was new to me, which was a surprise. That’s hard to do with an aviation buff like me.

The Bad

The writing and editing is competent but not the best. I caught an occasional typo. Some of the sentences were poorly worded. There were a couple of sentences that I reread several times because I couldn’t understand what the author was trying to tell me. In the end I always had to give up.

Some might argue that this is the type of material that one can find for free on Wikipedia. That may be true for a lot of it, but the quality of the illustrations, the consistency in the writing style, and the convenience of a well-organized printed book are hard to beat.

I found the lack of a bibliography a bit bizarre. Given that this is an introductory book to a complex subject, it is very natural to feel a need to look for more in-depth information elsewhere.

The Ugly

The book is humorless. The writing style is somewhat conversational, but it is pretty dry. The boxes with the trivia struck me as an attempt to lighten up the book. Unfortunately, for me the trivia was just a distraction. It rarely had anything to do with the text surrounding it. Rather than enhance the text, most of the time the trivia just made me lose my train of thought.

The author did a great job of researching his facts, but sometimes he fails to connect the dots. For example, he first explains that the larger the diameter of a propeller, the more efficient it can be at producing a given amount of thrust. Then he goes on to talk about multibladed propellers. When he explains why they are less efficient than two-bladed propellers, he fails to make what I thought was an obvious connection. With more blades, the diameter of the propeller has to be less, which leads to lower overall propeller efficiency. I agree with the explanation that he provided, but it struck me as incomplete.


This is a good book. Very well researched, the facts about airplanes are presented clearly. There is lots and lots of good information here. I actually learned a thing or two about airplanes from reading this book. Given how much time I have spent doing my own research, that is hard to do.

I own the second edition of the book. From the description of the changes since the first edition in the book’s introduction, it seems to me that grabbing a used copy of the first edition would be a good bargain purchase. In other words, most people would be perfectly happy with the first edition. There are many copies of this earlier edition available for $5 or less. They would make an excellent buy.

4 / 5 stars      

Click here to buy Understanding Flight from Amazon.

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