Our Holiday Gift Guide For The Aviation Or Military Geek In Your Life

From stocking stuffers to virtual reality dream machines, anything on this list is sure to result in Top Gun high-fives on Christmas morning!

OIR: 'Green Mountain Boys' take to the sky on Christmas Day
Senior Airman Tyler Woodward—380th Air Expeditionary Wing

The gift giving season is upon us once again and it seems that finding a thoughtful present for the ones you love has never been harder. But if you have someone in your life that loves aviation, military technology, and history you're in luck! The War Zone's annual gift guide is here with a bunch of options that will result in huge smiles when the wrapping paper meets its doom on Christmas morning or a Hanukkah night.

USAF

Raven Rock: The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself While The Rest Of Us Die (Tyler's recommendation)

This is Tyler's top book recommendation for the year. Rarely do we get such a well researched, thorough, and fascinating read to chew on. It not only takes the reader through the evolution of America's Continuity of Government plans, elaborate network of secret doomsday bunkers, and the ever changing command and control infrastructure used to deploy America's nuclear arsenal, but it also tells the story of how the advent of nuclear weapons has shaped our own lives in ways you probably never realized. We interviewed author Garrett Graff to discuss his awesome book last May and our in-depth conversation just scratched the surface of what this unique book delves into. 

Suffice it to say, Raven Rock will be a home run with even the nerdiest military history nuts among us.

Bookcover

Stealth Fighter: A Year In The Life Of A F-117 Pilot (Tyler's recommendation) 

What a treat this book is.  Lt. Col. William B. O'Connor, an EF-111 Raven pilot before joining the F-117 program and getting his "Bandit" number, takes us on an incredibly insightful and wild ride into the dark world of F-117 operations. The chapters on Operation Allied Force are worth the price of admission alone. 

This book is an especially good companion to earlier titles like Ben Rich's Skunk Works as it details the Nighthawk's story from a pilot's perspective once it was fully mature and a more integrated part of USAF and coalition air operations. Considering the F-117 is still making headlines a decade after its official retirement, the timing is right for gifting this book to anyone interested in aviation and air combat. 

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Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Joe's recommendation)

It's cliche to say that "an army marches on its stomach," but that doesn't make it's any less true. Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's 2015 Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat is an amazingly detailed, but still easy to read look at the evolution of feeding troops from the times of ancient Greece and Rome to present day. The US military in particular, together with big-name private food processing companies, have turned combat rations and food preservation into a delicate science.

The book walks readers through everything from canned food to the newest, long-lasting rations, known as Meals Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. Unfortunately, the US military has since abandoned its plans to begin serving up a shelf-stable pizza that could last for years!

This book is a fun stalking stuffer to crack open after binging on turkey and stuffing. 

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Yeager: An Autobiography (Tyler's recommendation)

This is an absolute staple for anyone interested in aviation, military history, and/or air combat, and 31 years after its initial release it takes on special significance as this year marked the 70th anniversary of Yeager's legendary sound barrier breaking flight. Although the man was largely defined by this monumental historical achievement, his life has been incredibly eventful and absolutely packed with achievement and encounters with historically significant and famous people. 

Just a few highlights of many include becoming an ace flying P-51s in WWII, surviving a harrowing escape from the Nazis after being shot down only to demand he be cleared to return to combat, as well as being an enlisted pilot that became a general. The list goes on and on. You even learn about Chuck's super power of sorts, his almost super-human vision.

Yeager's "colorful" voice isn't lost on the reader to say the least. This is Forest Gump with flight suits, radar altimeters, holographic gunsights, and mach airspeed indicators. And if you ever wondered about the mystique of the flight test world and how Edwards AFB and the culture surrounding it became such a big deal, then this is a must read. If anything else, it's simply awe inspiring how much this guy packed into his life, and he is still alive and tweeting on a daily basis!

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Tree of Smoke: A Novel (Joe's recommendation)
Denis Johnson's 2007 Tree of Smoke: A Novel may not be new, but it was a welcome addition to the Vietnam War genre. A fictional story, the book follows the arcs of a number of different characters as they get deeper and deeper into the Vietnam quagmire, all brought together by a steadily brewing and engrossing conspiracy. The book pulls no punches and does its best not to take a position on who might have been right or wrong in the conflict, instead painting a deep and complex picture of the circumstances as the story's main events unfold.

If you haven't heard of this book before or had a chance to give it a look, now would be a great time. Or gift it to a friend and ask them to check it out first!

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The Chopper Boys: Helicopter Warfare in Africa (Joe's recommendation)

We appreciate that it can be hard to find easily accessible information about conflicts on the African continent, but South African war correspondent A.J. Venter's The Chopper Boys: Helicopter Warfare in Africa is a great primer of African conflicts past and present, underscoring the transformative nature of helicopters in warfare throughout Africa and the central role they continue play in the fighting to this day. 

The original 1995 edition of the book was getting increasingly out of date, but in 2016, Venter released a new, revised edition with additional entries covering France's intervention in Mali and Nigeria's campaign against Boko Haram terrorists since 2014. 

This is a great read for those who want to better understand warfare in an area of the world that is chronically misunderstood. 

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Above and Beyond (Tyler's recommendation)

This one came out of the blue on a Sunday afternoon for me. Multiple people told me to check out this documentary on the making of the Israeli Air Force. I really didn't rush to watch it as I already knew the story—or so I thought. Then I ordered it on demand without even realizing it was the same film that was recommended to me and was blown away.

This documentary does an amazing job of getting firsthand accounts of what has to be one of the world's most creative and desperate undertakings. The story is as moving as it is flat out inspiring, detailing how regular people became national heroes in an effort to lie, steal, and cheat so that the young Jewish State would acquire an air force before it was too late. Downright amazing events are recalled, and there are huge parallels with the birth of the IAF and Star Wars of all things. I cannot recommend this film enough. 

You can buy the DVD or you can gift an Amazon Prime subscription as the documentary is free to watch if you are a member, plus that special someone will get all the other benefits the service provides.

Movie promotional poster

The Americans (Tyler's recommendation) 

This one may seem to come out of left field, but there is good reasoning behind it. FX's banner action-drama depicting Soviet spies living as an average American family in the 1980s is not only critically acclaimed and fantastically acted and produced, but it also uses a tremendous amount of source material we talk about here regularly at The War Zone. 

Russian espionage has become a dinner table topic once again in the United States, so there are fantastic parallels there as well, but key defense programs and initiatives that took place in the early 1980s are often the target of our anti-hero illegally transplanted spies—with some very familiar projects making cameo appearances. Not all the information is perfectly accurate or adheres to the historic timeline, but that really won't distract even the most hardcore mil-tech enthusiast as the show is fantastic and it does far better presenting these topics than most fictional programs do. Plus, who the hell doesn't love a great spy yarn? Especially one that has some very true roots

You can buy the seasons on DVD or you gift an Amazon Prime membership, as the seasons are available on their streaming service. If you have Comcast you can purchase an FX+ subscription for $5.99 a month, which will give you commercial free access to the show. That would make a great stocking stuffer! Get caught up now before the sixth and final season airs next year.

DVD title cover

Any apparel and accessories from Sierra Hotel Aeronautics (Tyler's recommendation)

This company makes some of the coolest vintage aviation apparel imaginable that will be a mega hit for anyone who loves airplanes and military history. They offer absolutely the highest quality gear with some of the most awesome designs you can find anywhere—most of which are torn straight from the pages of military aviation history. From VX-4 "Evaluators" squadron shirts to unique SR-71 caps  you can't go wrong with anything on their site. Don't forget to grab a couple keychain tags as well. They are the best stocking-stuffer and I haven't had to search for my keys once since putting one on my keyring!

Sierra Hotel Aeornatics

Any of Squadron Poster's gorgeous aviation artworks (Joe's recommendation)

It's been a long time since we taped up paper posters of our favorite fighter jets and bombers next our beds, but if you're itching for something similar—and a little more adult—its hard to go wrong with Squadron Poster's beautifully stylized, aviation themed art. Though there's a heavy focus toward the US military units and their aircraft, past and present, there's a number of non-American themed options as well. And while you can spend hundreds of dollars on their well crafted canvas artworks, especially from the new Jet Black Collection, they do offer posters you can frame yourself at very reasonable prices.

You should be able to easily find something that fits your interests or is a favorite of a family member or friend, whether it be a sleek fighter jet such as the F-16 Viper or F/A-18 Hornet, the legendary SR-71 spy plane, or the stealthy B-2 bomber. There are even ones touching on more obscure aircraft and units such as the US Army's shadowy DHC-7s and the US Air Force's flight test community. Not a fan of posters or don't have any more room left on your wall? They do t-shirts, too! 

Squadron Posters

Canon 100-400mm L II and Canon EOS 70D (Tyler's recommendation) 

I get constant emails from people who are frustrated with their air show and airplane spotting pictures and want to know what gear to buy. There is one solution that will give you the best results versus cost and will get you invested in a system that has a huge array of lens and accessory options. This would be the Canon 70D and the 100-400mm L II super telephoto lens. 

I have used pretty much everything out there from monster 500mm L primes to 1D class camera bodies, and although you can buy better image quality for many thousands of dollars more, the 70D and 100-400mm L II combo is just outstanding, both in terms of image quality, versatility, affordability, and portability. 

Sure there are newer and more expensive choices for camera bodies, but when it comes to capturing fast action at long ranges, the 70D gives me relatively smooth images at high pixel rates. Also, the 100-400mm works great with full-frame bodies as well, so if you want to get a camera body better suited to low light and portraiture photography later on you can grab a 5D and still leverage the reach of the 100-400mm L II. 

None of this comes cheap per se, but it is by far the best bang for the buck out there and you won't feel the need to upgrade soon after purchasing the setup. The 100-400mm L II lens runs roughly $2,000 and the body will run you a cool $750, but you won't regret it. 

Many of the images on my Flickr page were taken with this combo, while older ones were largely taken with the first iteration of the same lens and the much older 50D body. 

Canon

Blue Angels Aircraft Collection Desk Model (Tyler's recommendation)

There is nothing like a quality wooden aircraft model for someone's desk, bookcase, or curios cabinet, and there are few models like this one offered up from Aiken's Airplanes. This amazing setup displays the historical lineage of all the Blue Angels' aircraft throughout the years in their iconic blue and gold paint jobs. It will cost you close to $500 but it's truly an awesome sight to behold. And no worries if your targeted audience is all about the USAF, a Thunderbirds version also exists!

Don't fret if you aren't looking to spend that much, you can get a great model for a fraction of the cost. A good move would be to ask what your loved one or friend's favorite plane is and any other details about it, and order up that exact airplane. For instance, our writer Joseph Trevithick would probably like this AFSOC U-28, whereas I would love this YF-23 Black Widow or this X-45 UCAV demonstrator.  Alternatively you could get them a spacecraft, or even the whole Shuttle Orbiter fleet. Or go nuts and buy them the whole boat, literally! There's even an option for Kim Jong Un

Trust me, whatever route you go they will be thrilled and will remember you every time they look at it. 

Aiken's Airplanes

The ultimate home air combat simulator package: Oculus Rift, Digital Combat Simulator World—Nevada Test and Training Range Map, Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS, Rudder Pedals, and an Oculus ready gaming PC with a powerful graphics card (Tyler's recommendation)

This is the ultimate gift that will keep on giving for anyone who dreamed of flying high performance military aircraft. The injection of virtual reality into the flight simulator space is absolutely revolutionary. It's not a better screen or a homemade cockpit, it's being there to the point it is frightening at times. And that goes for any game genre really but the flight simulation niche is especially well suited for VR for obvious reasons. 

Digital Combat Simulator, the successor of Lock-On: Modern Air Combat, is the outright king of air combat simulation. Now with new maps and a wide variety of incredibly detailed and superbly modeled combat aircraft, DCS World is becoming more awesome by the week. A-10C, F-15C, F-5E, Mirage 2000, AV-8B, JS-37 Viggen and many more are already available to fly, but the biggest game changers are on the way. Those are the F/A-18C Hornet and the carrier that goes along with it, and maybe most exciting, F-14 Tomcat. I can't dive into all the features of these aircraft and map modules, or of DCS in general, but I would highly recommend you do some googling and youtube video watching to get an idea of what this incredible "sandbox" style software suite is capable of. And yes it is all entirely capable of playing cooperatively online.

Oculus is the most supported VR platform for DCS, but the HTC Vive also works without some key features. Adding the Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS for your primary controls not only feels and look amazing, but they make operating complex virtual aircraft while "inside" VR much easier. The all-metal stick in particular is simply awesome in feel and quality. Pair this setup with whatever rudder pedals you want and you are set for precision flying.

Running VR at good frame rates and decent graphics complexity level settings isn't a cheap endeavor. You need an Oculus ready PC that is optimized for gaming. This includes some odd-ball requirements like having a PCI-E USB 3.0 expansion card, and a very powerful discreet graphics card. The best one on the market today is Nvidia's powerhouse GTX 1080 Ti. 

You can get by spending roughly $1500 on a PC to make it happen, but really, to give you good future proofing you are going to be closer to $2000, and that's not buying something pre-made. I would highly recommend not buying an "off the shelf PC" and going to Fry's and having them build a system for you. Not only will this cost less but you will also get higher quality components and a tailored system built by a qualified tech. If you have an existing PC with a decent processor, motherboard, and RAM, you could also remodel that computer for quite a bit less and get good results in VR as the graphics card does the vast majority of the heavy lifting. For the computer geeks among us, you guys can just build your own PC, which is really pretty easy and a lot of fun.

In the end we are talking about a roughly $3,000-$3,500 proposition here if you are starting from scratch, but a lot of this is just buying a great computer that will give you years of service and high-end gaming capability. But when you add VR to the mix, justifying the cost isn't just about buying a new game console or something, this is a revolutionary sea change in entertainment. And although VR is still in its infancy, it is fabulous, stable, and does not disappoint. 

So if you have the means, this gift package will provide pretty much the most immersive entertainment experience on the planet that no game console can compete with. 

Right to left: Oculus, Eagle Dynamics, Thrustmaster, Saitek, Nvidia

What do you think of our gift guide? Share your own ideas in the comments section below!

USAF

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com