Saturday, 31 August 2013

Kristen's Echat With... Andy Wright of Aircrew Book Review

Andy Wright, book reviewer extraordinaire of Aircrew Book Review, has been reviewing military aviation books since 2009. And not just any aviation books. He focuses on the aviators rather than the squadrons or machines and doesn’t just rehash the back cover blurb. He writes at length about both book and author, drawing on his own extensive knowledge of the aviation world to get to the core of the book and author’s intention. Reviewers are at the heart of any  publicity/marketing campaign and authors constantly worry about how to get them to pick up, read and consider their new offering and, if they do, whether they will pan or praise it. Andy’s time is precious and he does not waste it on criticism; he only reviews books he is passionate about and wants to bring to a wider readership or classics for which he has a great affection.
Andy has built up a loyal following over the last four years but he did not set out to be a reviewer; he had envisaged recording the stories of RAAF veterans of the Second World War. How, I wondered, did he turn from budding aviation historian to respected reviewer? I was very pleased when Andy agreed to confide in me and our readers (and anyone else who stumbles on our blogs and facebook pages via their favourite search engine) in the fifth of my Echat With... series. 
But first, I must confess my interest. Andy has reviewed all three of my books. Chris Wisbey of ABC Hobart interviewed me about all three, but Andy is the only person to appraise my collected opus (apologies for the overweening reek of self-importance emanating from that phrase). In addition, we have become good friends since we first met by email shortly after Clive Caldwell Air Ace was published. It was actually a bit of a fan email (or at least I took it as such; I receive so few I don’t mind making big of something slight). He told me he had just purchased my first literary offering and was looking forward to reading it. That sort of thing always makes the heart of a first time (or even third time) author melt.
Eight months later, he was in touch again to tell me he had been interviewing some RAAF veterans of the Second World War; he wanted to preserve their stories and was conscious that ‘time is running out for these guys and there are many out there who have not had their experiences recorded so perhaps I need to spread myself out to record more histories while we are still blessed with the men who lived them’. At that stage, the experiences of a Lancaster mid-upper gunner had got under his skin and he initially thought he might write a magazine article. Then it occurred to him that, by talking to the surviving crew members, he would have much more than an article. He asked my advice about putting together the interviews and research into a book; how much back ground to add, what sort of historical context.
Andy didn’t really need any advice as he is well qualified to write this crew’s story. He gained his journalism qualifications at Curtin University, he loves reading and he has been a great fan of aviation since childhood. ‘I’ve always been a reader’, says Andy. ‘I used to devour the likes of The Famous Five when I was in primary school.
My Dad is from London so, in the early ‘80s, I grew up watching films like Sink the Bismarck! and The Dam Busters to name a couple. We started building models together and what boy doesn’t get excited by ships and aircraft and other machines?! I borrowed a book on the Battle of Britain from the school library in 1986—that’s my earliest memory of actually getting stuck into an aviation book’. By that stage, Andy was hooked but his enthusiasm for aircraft really took off a year later when the family moved to the US. ‘We lived near Hill Air Force Base in Utah with its great museum which included a B-17 and B-29—heaven for the budding WWII aviation nut. In the 2.5 years we lived there we travelled a lot and managed to visit places like the Smithsonian and, on the way during a trip home, RAF Hendon in the UK. The model-making also stepped up a few notches as kits in the late ‘80s were really cheap (even to a pre-teen!). I still remember 1/48 scale USAAF heavy bomber kits for US$15! I bought a copy of Flypast magazine at Heathrow airport with the change I had in my pocket in late 1988. I must have read that issue 100 times and my parents later bought me a subscription as a Christmas present so, I guess, that’s really where things started seriously … at the tender age of 12!’
Despite the seriousness of his passion, he is not a total aviation tragic. There are limits. He and Jodi were married in 2005 on Santorini, an island in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km southeast of Greece’s mainland. He found out several years later that it was the same weekend as the inaugural Merlins Over Malta weekend when a Spitfire and Hurricane returned to the island for the first time since the war, (if he recalls correctly). ‘I don’t think I would have been too popular suggesting we go to that if I had known about it!’ No, perhaps not. But ‘Malta is one of those places that just fascinates me, mainly due to its wartime flying of course. Just frenetic flying. The wedding, of course, was great with close friends and family but I did take a few moments on occasion to look out over the Med and let my mind wander back a little over 60 years.’
Interestingly, Andy has no real desire to get into the air himself. ‘I did an intro flight out of Jandakot in Western Australia back in the early ‘90s and have done some straight and level stuff in a Tiger Moth and a Cessna 180 owned by a friend in WA. I’ve often thought about learning to fly but I’m a little freaked out by the bumpiness that can come with flying a light aeroplane. I’m not sure I would be able to maintain the confidence and cool head (and I’m not a nervous flyer) required. Therefore, other than enjoying getting my hands dirty on a variety of old aeroplane projects over the years, I truly am an armchair flyer. That said, I pay a lot of attention when I am flying particularly when I can see the ground and know what height we’re at. Being able to visualise that when I’m reading really helps.’
Sadly, you need more than just passion to record stories, the writing skill to do it and the enthusiasm to carry through. You also need time. Andy’s family—wife Jodi, daughter Maggie, Monty and Milly the wonder poodles and the soon to be born Junior—are, says Andy, ‘my main focus and time-consumer! Makes life easy and hard at the same time!’
But he is ‘passionate about history (aviation in particular), preserving/remembering/teaching that history and getting hands-on with it’ and so, instead of writing his own books, he now reviews those written by others. He set up Aircrew Book Review in 2009 ‘to fill a hole I found as I researched newly ‘discovered’ titles i.e. provide information on what the book is like and whether it’s worth spending some of the limited budget on’.
In particular, locating books on RAF and Commonwealth flyers. ‘Other than the occasional book I picked up at markets, fetes and sales I wasn’t a collector of aviation titles until about 1998–9. I discovered Amazon and easily found a lot of books about the aircrew of the USAAF in Europe, the Pacific and the Far East theatre of war but I struggled to find much on the RAF and Commonwealth flyers. That’s a funny thing to say but I can only assume it was my inexperience and maybe the early days of Amazon as there were obviously a lot in print at that time! Anyway, as I learned of more and more books (and bought more and more) I started realising that for many of them there was little to nothing online to prove their existence or help a future reader work out if a book was worth the effort. I started writing reviews on Amazon and it grew from there. ABR exists solely to promote these books—old and new—with the additional aim of it being a useful resource as it features an ever-increasing number of titles’. More than that, ‘reviewing allows me to share my love of reading coupled with the application of my passion for, and knowledge of, WWII aviation and, to a lesser extent, aviation in general.’
Andy and Steve Bridgewater (now the editor of Jets Monthly) during his trip to the UK in 1999.
Despite his journalism training, Andy worked only briefly in that field. ‘When I finished that qualification I was at a stage in my life—newly married—where I needed to be earning more than the assistant editor role offered to me. I spent a bit of time with Elders’ Farm Weekly in Perth but the passion was not enough to keep the financial reality at bay!’ A new career beckoned but Andy has brought much of his training to ABR. ‘For ABR I try to “hook” the reader in the first paragraph (if they’ve come to ABR that can sometimes be easier to achieve as they’re obviously inclined to read something relevant to aircrew) but, most importantly, spelling, grammar and flow are the things I go to great lengths to try to get right. It’s certainly not perfect and I sometimes come back to a piece I’ve written and posted and cringe at glaring errors. From a research point of view, I deal with what I know. I research the book and its author so whatever I write is as accurate as I can get it’. He also makes notes ‘as thoughts hit me and even scribble out paragraphs’. But sometimes, the pen is not handy and, like all of us, ‘I’ve written many a fine passage in my head only to forget it later on’. 
Andy’s reviews are incredibly personal and differ from the run of the mill repeat-the-backcover blurbs that often appear in newspapers and magazines. He carefully reads and considers the book and what the author is trying to say. I wondered if this particular style evolved or if he has always preferred the review-as-contemplative-essay format. Andy revealed that ‘it’s something I wanted to do from the start. I’ve always aimed to be honest and I can’t do that if I haven’t read the book. I appreciate each and every book I read/review. It is a privilege to be allowed to read an author’s hard, and often very personal, work.’
One of Andy’s earliest reviews on ABR was that of Philip D. Caine’s Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer. An American Fighter Pilot over Europe, which tells of the experiences of ‘Yank in the RAF’, Leroy Gover. 
Its concluding paragraph highlights Andy’s personal approach, combining the ‘money’ prĂ©cis with his own emotional response. ‘Reading this book is like talking to an old friend who has been away for a few years. The author’s additional comments and context are worked into the text seamlessly so all you feel is the world of Leroy Gover. Happily unable to tear away, you are inundated with information and emotions experienced more than 60 years ago. It is a candid, sometimes amusing, always eye-opening, look at how one man coped with the day-to-day pressures of combat operations with two very different air forces’. It’s trade mark Andy.
Before Andy wrote his reviews of Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader we had a good long conversation and some of that made it into the pieces. I wondered if Andy did this as matter of course. ‘I do if I can get in the ear (or inbox) of the author. I want to know where the book came from, what kicked it off. I’ve come across a lot of interesting stories and felt that desire to know more so to learn of this and see a tangible result in the form of a book helps me understand things a lot better. It’s harder when review copies arrive from publishers as I’m rarely able to speak with the author so have to concentrate on the book itself not its path to creation. Even then, though, I try to research the author and often find he or she has asked questions on specialist internet forums so I can get some idea of how deep they went.’
With an active toddler, full time job and accounting studies, Andy has recently discovered the difficulties of trying to ‘do it all’ and is conscious of the fact that his reviewing pile is building up. He has two ‘current reads’ on the go—‘David Vincent’s The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two which I am chipping away at; such a mammoth work but I insist on reading it cover-to-cover, and Ted The Lad, a popular self-published title about an underage Lancaster wireless operator; not a bad read with an interesting pre-war life included as a stream of chronological anecdotes—and ‘according to my review schedule (!) the next one is Geoff Raebel’s second edition of The RAAF In Russia (self-published this time). Then there’s a good 20 titles after that in the pile’, over and above the nine listed on the website in the ‘next full reviews’ list.
Just some of  the books on the 'next full reviews' list
Andy likes to post something at least once a month but, he confesses, ‘that doesn’t always happen’. He worries that ABR fans might become disappointed if they keep checking in and finding nothing new on offer. He has come up with a number of solutions. ‘Due to my limited time, one of my main problems is the period between receiving a review copy and actually getting down to reading it (not to mention finding the time to write 1500–2000 words about it!). Recently, to bridge the gap and help achieve a greater online presence for the title, I’ve been writing short blurbs where I wax lyrical about the quality of the publication, some observations about the content and provide a basic overview of what the thing is about. These have been getting longer because I can’t help but get enthusiastic about new books’. When he first started out he admitted that ‘I can go on a bit about a book I’ve really enjoyed because, to me, they are such a privilege to read’. And that is at the heart of his reviewing practice. ‘I’ve never been 100% comfortable writing them if I haven’t read the book cover-to-cover and haven’t looked through the author’s eyes. I try to write with feeling so the reader (of the review) knows the book is an experience (for better or worse). You can’t do that in 200 words (well, I can’t!).’ So, even his short appraisals have substance. He also ‘occasionally features guest reviewers which helps keep things ticking along’. (I am pleased to say that Andy considers my opinions worthwhile enough and has recently invited me to guest review, and has asked to republish a couple of my pieces that originally appeared elsewhere.)
When Andy first established Aircrew Book Review in April 2009 his first words to his readership were ‘Welcome to a silly idea I had several days ago!’ Far from silly, ABR has been embraced by aviation readers and has now received nearly 25,000 visitors. I asked if Andy had any sort of marketing plan. He surprised me by saying ‘no’. In fact, rather than having a structured approach to developing reach, he admitted that he ‘makes it up as I go along’. However, he has covered some of the basics of website management. He keeps an eye on the stats and keyword searches and featuring brand new books certainly helps with the traffic’. Interestingly, though, ‘it’s one of the oldest books featured—Roald Dahl’s Going Solo—that has generated the most visitors to ABR’. I am not surprised. This is a classic, and one of my personal favourites. I know Andy does not review fiction—categorically refuses to do so—but if he ever reconsiders, Dahl’s Over to You short story collection should be top of his fiction list.
Andy realises he can’t just count on people trawling through the blogosphere to gain new readers, and so he has set up the ABR facebook page. Admittedly, it was ‘more an experiment than anything else but helps spread the word’.  Regardless of how his readers find him, Andy is ‘just happy people are interested enough to visit’. And by the monthly hits, which most recently broke through the 3000 mark, they revisit, and revisit.
For many years, Andy’s favourite way to relax was ‘reading a magazine in the coffee shop on a Saturday morning but that doesn’t happen anymore!’ Piled up on his bedside table are ‘numerous magazines—historic aviation, vintage trucks and the occasional naval journal’ which he dips into when he can but he has little free time and reading just for the fun of it is a sacrifice he is happy to make, but all in a good cause as, more often than not, he spends his down time ‘playing with Maggie. Much more of that at the moment’! (I’m sure I’ve told him he can combine the two by taking a leaf out of Tom Selleck’s book—or sports paper—in Three Men and a Baby and read his favourite magazines to Maggie as he bounces her on his knee.)
In the days when he did have time to read for pleasure, Andy notched up a few favourites. ‘None are literary classics or anything to make me sound incredibly intelligent or widely-read. As a teenager I read Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and always remember Cyclops, Dragon and Inca Gold as him at the height of his powers. Good, fun books with a decent dash of history and its effect on the present. I don’t know how many times I read Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.
From an aviation point of view, Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall is humbling and Mike Crosley’s They Gave Me a Seafire proved to be a read with wonderful ramifications after I wrote its review’.
Andy admitted that that review is his favourite to date. ‘I ended up speaking with Mike Crosley’s wife Joan shortly before he passed away. A lovely and strong lady who looked after her husband in his final years’. Andy has written the full story of his contact with Joan Crosley as a reprise to his review. Andy feels privileged ‘to have been contacted by family members who are always pleased to see their relative’s book receive some attention’.
Another thrill was much closer to home and in the flesh, so to speak. He was at the Temora Aviation Museum when he met former RAAF pilot and RAN commander Nat Gould who has flown Hurricanes, Spitfires Mark VC’s and Mark VIII, Seafires Mark III’s and XV’s, Seafurys and Fireflys, and Lysle Roberts, one time Spitfire pilot and former president of the Spitfire Association. He had just finished reading They Gave Me A Seafire and, as ‘Nat featured in the book it was a great coincidence’.


Nat Gould and Ron Cundy
(mentioned below) are included in this photo of the  Spitfire Association's 2013 ANZAC Day Reunion lunch, held after the march at Sydney Boulevarde Hotel. Among the 84 members and guests were: WNGCDR Mark Frost, WNGCDR Anthony Stainton, AVM Mark Skidmore AM (Ret’d) (Patron of the Spitfire Association), Allan Spratt, George Clissold, Commander Nat Gould, FLTLT David Roach, PO Matthew Glazier, FLTSG Stephen Yau, Front Row: Beau McFee, Jack Anastas, Joe Barrington,  Sid Handsaker, Paul Dehlsen, Ron Cundy DFC, DFM, Erella Hamilton AM, Commander David “Shorty” Hamilton, Ted Sly DFC, MID.

For someone who has read so much, Andy can’t pin down the greatest influence on his reading life. There are simply too many. ‘Obviously my parents with the movies we watched and buying the Flypast subscriptions as a regular Christmas present for close to 10 years. Alex Henshaw also has a lot to answer for. His Sigh For A Merlin (I’ve only read it once and that was more than a decade ago) is a thing of beauty and I can still remember large chunks of it. Thinking about it now, it’s the feeling that I got from that book that I wait for when reading today. While it doesn’t often happen as strongly, I’m happy to say I regularly come close’.
Andy has also been influenced by desert Kittyhawk pilot, Ron Cundy. ‘Like so many of the authors I read I’ve never met him but his A Gremlin On My Shoulder (read several years ago now and reviewed at slaked my thirst for anything North African and introduced me to two men who I had never knowingly heard of but whom I now greatly respect and admire.
In his delightfully titled piece ‘I Blame Ron Cundy’ Andy tells how he was introduced to the ‘gloriously named Osgood Villiers ‘Pedro’ Hanbury and the legendary Canadian flyer James “Stocky” Edwards. Both men’s stories are available in print with the latter going on to write a couple of campaign titles on the Canadian Hurricane and Kittyhawk men in the Western Desert with historian Michael Lavigne. Pedro’s story was only published in 2010. He did not survive the war but Ron Cundy painted such a vivid and respectful picture of him that I just had to know more so the book’s release, a couple of years after reading Gremlin, was a happy coincidence’.
For Andy, ‘it’s that feeling of being on the verge of discovery of remarkable people that keeps me excited and passionate. Recently, I read about Wilbur Wackett surviving his No. 75 Squadron Kittyhawk bale out in New Guinea and spending over a month walking to safety’. My review of Leon Kane-Maguire’s biography of Wilbur Wackett, Lost Without Trace, helped Andy ‘put two and two together and now Wilbur’s life and ultimate loss has become a bit of a focus for me. Considering the size of the war and the number of people involved, there’s always links to other stories. It all helps to build a greater understanding and the important thing is you never stop learning or discovering.’
Andy might not have met Ron Cundy, nor many others of his favourite pilot-authors, but he has encountered a handful and he counts as his most cherished experiences his meetings with Owen Zupp (author of 50 Tales of Flight and Down to Earth, the subject of Andy’s first review on ABR and Charles Page (author of Wings of Destiny, also reviewed by Andy, and Vengeance of the Outback).
He met Owen in Perth ‘one Saturday afternoon in 2007 for a coffee and chat. We’ve stayed in touch ever since but have never met up again (yet). I regard him as a mate and one of the authors carrying the future of Australian aviation writing on his shoulders (something he is more than capable of)’.
Did the same with Charles Page last year (steak and beer this time). There’s someone who deserves to have everything he writes published. Fascinating bloke’. Over the years, Andy has developed a number of satisfying relationships with authors he has reviewed. ‘Several of them have become friends and we endeavour to catch up whenever we’re in the same town’. As enjoyable as this is, he freely admits it ‘makes it a challenge to review their work!’
Although Andy has put his plans for his own book on hold, he has a number of published pieces adorning his personal bibliography. ‘I used to publish an e-magazine about the vintage truck movement in Australia and NZ—Australasian Classic Commercials—and ended up with about 100 subscribers before turning it into a website The page layouts took me forever!’ In the print media world, I had all of my features published in The Western Independent when I was studying journalism. I guess they were my first official published pieces other than some photos sent in to magazines. Flightpath published a piece reviewing websites on the Curtiss P-40 series and a few photo essays have appeared in several vintage truck magazines here in Australia (even scored my first cover photo!)’. Andy has also been ‘submitting cut-down reviews for several Australian magazines including Flightpath and Rag & Tube and these have been published. I’m also doing the same for a journal based in the UK but it’s early days yet’.
He may have put his own book length project on hold but that hasn’t stopped him becoming involved with other authors’ work. Andy offers editing (structural, technical etc) and proof-reading services to emerging authors. I asked him what he looks out for when providing advice and assistance. ‘The same thing I try to achieve with my writing’, he told me. ‘Flow and spelling etc. I also tend to pick up on the occasional technical issue like mis-identifying aircraft or getting a particular detail about one wrong. Such things also give me an indication as to how “deep” an author has gone. If they don’t care about such things, what else have they glossed over?’ This is an invaluable service and can’t be underestimated. All publishing houses have copyeditors scrutinising manuscripts, but how many have the ability to tell the difference between the different marks of Spitfire? Not many people offer this assistance and it is to Andy’s credit that for him, it is a labour of love; he does not charge a fee.
Andy acknowledges that he can’t help everyone so selects his projects carefully as much for their interesting content as the excitement of nurturing something special into print. ‘I’m currently working on a project for a friend overseas with so many threads it’s a challenge to draw it all together. At the moment the focus is on keeping the author focussed as he has a knack for discovering the most obscure and amazing stories in well-trodden areas. I think we’ve discovered a good lead-in to the major story that is a book in itself though so the pressure is off somewhat’.
As well as helping to bring new aviation stories to an enthusiastic readership, Andy wants to ‘work on getting some out of print titles (modern day classics) re-published. Have succeeded with one so far, Pathfinder Cranswick.’ Written by Michael Cumming, this is the biography of Squadron Leader Alec Panton Cranswick DSO DFC, who after a tour with 214 Squadron in 1940, service as a ferry pilot in West Africa and a significant number of ops on Wellingtons, and a short stint with 419 Squadron, found himself in 1943 as a Pathfinder with 35 Squadron. He was killed in early July 1944. Originally published in 1962, with a condensed second edition appearing in 1963, it was revised and updated for a paperback edition in 2006 and remained in print until 2009 but somehow Andy had never come across Cranswick (harking back to his problem of not being readily able to find good RAF stories). Anyway, according to Andy, he first discovered Alex Cranswick ‘when reading Chris Ward’s 6 Group Bomber Command. He made reference to a man who was on his third tour and would go on to commence his fourth. For me, this was unprecedented so I had to know more. A bit of googling and asking some friends turned up a book, written by Michael Cumming. The first two editions were only ever available for ridiculous prices and the self-published paperback from the early 2000s never turned up for sale.’ Through talking about Cranswick on the net—Andy is an active frequenter of a number of forums—he managed to get in touch with Michael Cumming. Cumming told him that, ‘almost fifty years after the first edition, he was still keen to keep Cranswick’s remarkable story in front of a new generation (hence the self-published edition). However, he couldn’t afford to keep paying for printing so he’d developed an ebook and started selling it on Amazon’. Andy enthusiastically reviewed the digital edition in early 2011 It was his first ebook review.
Andy maintained contact with Michael Cumming and asked if he’d be interested in another print edition if Andy could introduce him to the right publisher. ‘He was, of course’, says Andy, ‘and, as it turned out, I was (and still am) in regular correspondence with Steve Darlow and his new venture, Fighting High. I had seen FH’s first few titles and the quality of the hardbacks, cover to cover, was (is) industry-leading. I had no hesitation in putting them in touch with each other and, I’m proud to say, the end result was the beautiful 50th anniversary edition of the classic Pathfinder Cranswick.’ In fact, Andy who is not biased in any way, ‘will say categorically that Pathfinder Cranswick is the most stunning hardback I have had the pleasure to hold in my hands. High quality for a top piece of writing.’
Fighting High Publishing is obviously a house that will go far if publications like this and Tich Palliser’s They Gave me a Hurricane (one of my favourites from 2012) are any indication. Check them out at
Andy may not be in a position to write his own aviation history yet, but I am confident this will happen in time. In the interim, Aircrew Book Review will continue to reveal good reads and Andy will help authors and smaller publishers get in touch with each other as well as promote their work. We all have to support the self publisher and smaller houses as they are the ones dedicated to ensuring less commercial stories reach the bookshelves of the dedicated aviation reader who wants something more solid than a lot of the pulped popular accounts we are seeing in the chain stores. Andy ‘loves stepping back, doing a bit of networking in my head, and seeing what paths things can take. I’ve had several authors and publishers ask for advice and, frankly, I love helping but, really, I’m an amateur. I know what I like and I know quality when I see it. If I can put an author in touch with a graphic artist to help with maps and layout, for example (like I did for Graeme Gibson’s forthcoming epic Path Of Duty) then I’m only too happy to help. That’s what I tell everyone—ABR is a vehicle for them. If it can help in any way, I will make it available. Anything to get these stories, this history, out there.’
If you would like to connect to Andy, sign up for the Aircrew Book Review blog at or ‘like’ the ABR facebook page at Or perhaps send him a friend request at and receive lots of aviation-related photos and posts. If you are in interested Andy’s assessment of my collected works (I know, that term does sound a little OTT) you can check them out at:
I am delighted Andy Wright agreed to be the subject of my fifth Echat With... It is great to have such insight into the mind of a dedicated aviation book reviewer. Next month I take a departure from the aviation world, but not from history, and Echat With... Sulari Gentill, author of the Rowland Sinclair mystery series and the Hero trilogy, an exciting young adult series blending ancient myth, monsters, sorcerers, sirens, magic and warring gods.

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