Outliers by Malcom Gladwell (Back Bay, $17). Most of Outliers is about why some people are preternaturally successful. My favorite chapter, however, is "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes." The black box transcripts are riveting, as are Gladwell's insights into how the catastrophes that he details could have been avoided.
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale (Broadway, $16). Farndale's novel about an atheist and his great-grandfather, a World War I deserter, hinges on a small aircraft that crashes at sea near the Galápagos Islands. The panic and utter helplessness in the passenger cabin are palpable. I read this on a plane, and when the fictional plane experienced its first violent jolt, I opened my window blind and gazed back nervously at the engine on my side of the aircraft.
The High and the Mighty by Ernest K. Gann (out of print). My mother loved Gann's 1953 opus, even though she viewed flying as only slightly dumber than celebrity bullfighting. This page-turner — with pilots trying to coax a crippled airliner across the Pacific — may be the mother of all airplane-disaster books and movies.
The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve (Little Brown, $8). A trans-Atlantic plane is blown up in an act of pre-9/11 terrorism. And while Shreve's novel offers insight into what it's like to be a pilot's spouse, I was particularly fascinated by the role of the pilot's union in the aftermath, and how a crash is investigated.
Fly by Wire by William Langewiesche (Picador, $14). If you want an accident with a happy ending, there is US Airways Flight 1549, the "Miracle on the Hudson." Fly by Wire chronicles the January 2009 ditching, focusing on the role that the Airbus's technology may have played in the remarkable water landing. Equally gripping, however, are the stories of flight emergencies that did not end so well.
Highest Duty by Chesley B. Sullenberger (William Morrow, $16). "Sully," for anyone living in an isolation tank, is the US Airways captain who ditched that Airbus without a single fatality. The tone of the radio transcripts in this memoir is the opposite of most of those in Gladwell's and Langewiesche's books: Sully and his co-pilot exude what Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff."