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Warplanes

June 2019

Ghosts of the Skies: Aviation in the Second World War

by Philip Makanna, Chronicle Books, 160 pages .

Charles Robbins writes in his preface to this luminous book of World War II airplanes in flight, “We have precious little to memorialize the war: several restored aircraft, a clutch of words from those who fought, and a few images from the past and the present.” Ghosts of the Skies makes the most of these. The photographer Philip Makanna was born the year of the Battle of Britain, but everything he later heard from World War II fliers made him want to become a pilot. His poor eyesight held him back, but his passion shows in his elegant shots of Mustangs, Spitfires, and Helldivers aloft, sometimes on their final journeys. His P-51 floating in pale light looks like hammered sculpture.

Makanna has been tracking down old planes around the world and shooting them for more than two decades. He names the book’s sections for the ancient elements—earth, water, air, and fire—proceeding from the conflict’s landborne beginnings to its fireball end. Among his brightly modern pictures he has set period photographs and quotations from the principals. Toward the end he combines a contemporary shot of a Zero fighter over a peaceful beach with a kamikaze pilot’s final poem to his mother: “My soul will have its home in the rising of the sun./ If you feel sad, look at the dawn with all of its beauty./ You will find me there.” The layperson should savor these sensuous, evocative pictures as much as the flight buff.