The Ultimate 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!
It's hard to believe that we are just a couple weeks away from granting a fat jolly man with magical flying reindeer access to our homes—the year went by like a Blackbird over Baghdad. I know it's tough to shop for that special someone in your life that is obsessed with military technology and history or aviation, but you are in luck. My annual gift guide is here with a ton of options, from stocking stuffers to tree-tippers, that will only end in huge grins and big hugs once the wrapping paper starts flying.
This isn't just a collection of what's hot or what looks interesting, I either have hands-on experience with these products or they are recommended from a highly trusted source. So rest assured, they get my highest seal of approval. With that said, let's launch Santa's sleigh!
Our gear is finally here!
After years of readers asking and having to futilely attempted to explain why it just can't happen, we finally have merchandise! Yes, you read that right, The War Zone has apparel. The dream has finally materialized! We are starting out with the basics, but if this goes well, we will be able to offer more cool products in the future.
Support your local defense writer's guild of two and grab a hoodie or a tee. You better believe I will be living in the smoke colored The War Zone hoodie from now to eternity.
Here is the link to our apparel web store, and thank you for shopping! Oh, and post a pic of you sporting your new TWZ gear when you get it, ok!
Superweapon reading trio
Jim Goodall's amazing series on American super weapons is my top pick for books this year. Jim is known for getting special access to hard to access pictures and information, allowing him to convey a weapon system's unique abilities and quarks like nobody else. Recently, he has put out three absolutely stunning pictorial books about America's most fascinating and shadowy weapons—the B-2 Spirit, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the Los Angeles class nuclear fast attack submarine.
Each book is collector quality in feel and finish and is stuffed with a seemingly endless stream of amazing pictures, many of which I have never seen before, that provide granular yet fascinating detail on each weapon system.
The photos and captions work to tell the story of the machine and its intended role. Beyond that, the books' format is somewhat hard to describe and they interface with the reader like on a much deeper level than a coffee table book, but are visual driven. So they are something of a hybrid and that is what makes them so great.
Buying all three will cost you a cool Benjamin. That's a bargain for what you get and the presentation quality of each book. Together they make a really nice set, but if you were to just choose one, I think The US Navy’s Fast Attack Submarines, Vol.1: Los Angeles Class 688 would be my pick. It offers a very detailed, if not unprecedented, look at the legendary class of nuclear fast attack submarines and it many ways it will surprise you. I actually felt claustrophobic just reading through it!
My second choice, and it was a very close call, would be Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird: The Illustrated History of America's Legendary Mach 3 Spy Plane. What a read this is. It is loaded with historical photos and details, so many of which were entirely new to me. If you have a thing for the Skunk Works or for Blackbirds, maybe skip the subs and go for this awesome addition to your bookshelf.
Last, but certainly not least is A Pictorial History of the B-2A Spirit Stealth Bomber. The book takes you into the guts of the B-2 and the elaborate infrastructure that supports the fleet of just 20 aircraft. The production floor shots alone are worth the price of admission and there are all types of little details about the B-2 and its teething issues that will surely surprise.
Decision At Sea
Another book I recommend for anyone interested in military history is Craig L. Symonds' Decision At Sea. This is a brilliant read that thoroughly explains moment by moment five key naval battles that shaped American history. The book basically spans 175 years, starting at the Battle of Lake Erie and ending with Operation Praying Mantis. This structure highlights the change in American naval tactics and technology over time, but in other ways, it also illustrates how the many of the basic tenets of naval warfare haven't changed all that much.
It is a heart-pounding evolutionary tale that narrates the small picture while also putting these five decisive naval battles in a much larger perspective via pointed analysis. I also liked it because you don't have to blast right through it. Instead, you can pick it up after a few days and continue as if you just got up to grab a glass of water. It's also fairly accessible to the novice reader while still adding new details and thoughtful analysis to battles that have been described many times before to some of us.
Top Gun 2 is deep in production and the hype couldn't be any more potent (or pungent depending on your perspective). The thing is, you can't fully understand Top Gun the movie or Topgun the prestigious fighter pilot schoolhouse it's based on without reading Topgun Instructor Dave "Bio" Baranek's absolutely awesome Topgun Days, the biographical account of his real-world experiences at the Navy Fighter Weapons School and of supporting the production of the film back in the mid-1980s.
You can read my full review of the book here which includes a great passage from it, but I can't think of a better time to dive into this wonderful book written by a good friend of The War Zone than now, as we run up to the release of Top Gun: Maverick.
For the kids
If you know someone with infants or toddlers, or with a new child on the way, and who is either in the U.S. military or has an interest therein, we'd recommend checking out the My First Counting Book series written by Cindy Entin and illustrated by Craig Boldman. These are thick-paged “board books,” so little kids can't accidentally tear them apart, and promote learning to count from one to 10 with little military facts.
Joe's daughter got the U.S. Air Force-themed one as a gift, but there are others featuring the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and even police and firefighters. They're meant for children who can't themselves read yet, but that's not to say you won't learn something yourself, like select cadets at the Air Force Academy have the honor of training falcons – the school's mascot – each year.
If you know a small child that likes “reading” or being read to, these books offer a break from yet another reading of Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss.
Get your scan on
Watching air traffic at your local airport or airbase can be made far more enjoyable and efficient with the help of a good scanner. Once programmed with the various frequencies, your situational awareness will be elevated dramatically and everything will be so much more interesting. If there are emergencies or special traffic of any kind inbound, you will know about it.
My friend and commercial pilot extraordinaire, @thenewarea51, a man who knows radios better than anyone I know, was the first guy I thought of when I needed the bottom line on the best handheld and affordable scanner for your buck. His response was quick and certain, the Uniden Bearcat BC125AT.
It's small, it can be programmed by your computer, and most importantly, it can receive VHF civilian aircraft communications and UHF military aircraft communications. Many lower-priced handheld scanners just have VHF, which means you can hear what the tower is saying to military aircraft operating in the area, but not what the crews are saying. You wouldn't be able to hear military aircraft to military aircraft communications and those between command posts and aircraft without this capability.
So boost your plane spotting prowess and enjoyment by picking up this little bundle of communications joy today.
Get eyes on!
If you have an interest in what is flying above, or just what's going on in the environment around you on a daily basis, I highly recommend snapping up a Vortex Solo monocular. What you get in terms of image and build quality for around $50 is absolutely outstanding. The view is bright and crisp and compared to a bulky set of binoculars, you can slip this monocular into the center console in your car without taking up much room. It's also far more discreet when in use.
The Solo is especially useful for plane spotting—in conjunction with your new handheld scanner—or even for checking out planes whizzing by up in the flight levels above on a moments notice. It also makes a heck of a little gift for pretty much anyone regardless of their interest in aviation.
Basically, if you are into boating, hunting, animal watching, going to the zoo, or pretty much anything where a closer look is a good thing, the Vortex Solo rocks.
Unlock the photographer inside you without going broke
Last year's gift guide went into my recommendations for camera gear for aspiring aviation photographers. I have tried pretty much everything out there, from $11,000 600mm prime lenses to various full-frame bodies, but I wanted to convey the best all-around, middle-of-the-road, easily portable and versatile setup that I have in my own kit. That was basically a $2,600 investment for just one lens and the camera.
I received a ton of emails looking for some guidance on a less expensive setup for starters and for those who just want to shoot planes as part of larger photographic ambitions that will also include a lot of travel photography. There happens to be one setup I tell everyone starting out to go with that offers amazing capabilities in a small and far more affordable package.
It starts with the Canon SL2 Rebel. This is an outstanding camera that isn't just smaller and lighter than semi-pro DSLRs, but it's also significantly smaller and lighter than any other Rebel.
You get a great 24MP sensor found on far more expensive models and a processing engine that can still take bursts of images at between 5 and 3.5 frames per second to capture fast action. Beyond that, the SL2 is feature packed and basically, it gives you everything you will ever need for the vast majority of shooting circumstances. In fact, I would be comfortable running a rebel instead of a pro or semi-pro body at an air show or other aerial events—unless you are slinging a huge prime lens around. In that case, you simply need something with a bigger grip and possibly a more versatile focusing system.
Sure, there are brighter and larger viewfinders and better data-transfer and burst rates on more expensive DSLR bodies, but the technology has come so far that the tiny SL2 does what semi-pro models did not long ago, and in some cases much more. As for weather sealing, I can tell you that I have shot with a Rebel in the pouring rain on many occasions and never had a problem. You should have a Storm Jacket in your bag anyway if you plan on shooting in those conditions with any camera.
Really, the magic happens when you pair the SL2 with the Tamron 18-270mm stabilized zoom lens. This is a remarkable lens for around $350 that covers a huge range without sacrificing massively on image quality. In fact, to start, you could go without having any other lenses at all as it covers the 35mm equivalent of 28.8mm to 432mm, all in one small and relatively light package.
No, you won't be filling your frame with single jets at airshows with this lens, but with 24mp to play with on the SL2, you can easily crop in during post processing while not losing significant amounts of quality. When you stop the lens down just one stop (make the aperture smaller), it becomes astonishingly sharp throughout its focal length, but even wide open it does just fine.
But where this package shines is when you are traveling. It gives you amazing capabilities for well under a grand. It is the smallest true DSLR-lens combo that includes image stabilization and good quality and major range. And this awesome portability does matter. It means you will actually use the camera, not stare at it on a shelf.
With this setup, building out your entire kit from this point on is really affordable and easy. You add a 50mm F/1.8 prime, commonly called the 'nifty fifty,' for about $125 that allows you to take pictures with an incredibly shallow depth of field and buttery bokeh. You probably think this is impossible at this price point but it's not. Every hardcore photographer knows of the 'nifty fifty' and its amazing abilities. With a 1.8 aperture and the Rebel SL2 sensor's low-light capabilities, you can take pictures in very dark scenarios that you could never imagine possible.
But where the nifty fifty stands out is as a portrait lens, with a 35mm equivalent of 80mm, it is an ideal focal length for taking portraits of friends, family, and pets. When you stop it down to 2.8 it becomes razor sharp while still maintaining a shallow depth of field. It's also tiny and light, so it doesn't add much to your overall kit size.
A fixed focal length lens like this will expand your composition creativity because you have to use your feet to zoom and the lens's wide-range of sharpness and depth of field can be used to evoke certain emotions in your photos. It makes you pick the parts of something that matters most to showcase and thus unlocks your creativity even further and expands your idea of what an image can be. So buying a 50mm nifty fifty will actually make you a far better photographer in the long run.
Finally, we have the Canon 10-18mm. This is a wide-angle lens with rectilinear properties (low distortion) that allows you to take breathtaking super-wide shots. It's amazing how far this lens type has come down in price from Canon, it can be had for under $300!
This small, but amazingly versatile setup will allow you to take pretty much any photo you want for a grand total of about $1,250—roughly half that of my other aviation photographer semi-pro kit that included just one lens and a camera body.
But like I said earlier, you can start and build this kit out over time. It takes a lot of practice to master the DSLR—a lot of fun and totally rewarding practice—so it's not like you need all this on day one. Start with the SL2 and the Tamron zoom lens and go from there. Add in a comfy, but snug camera bag that is perfectly sized for your setup—I suggest anything from Lowepro—and start capturing your adventures and interests in an entirely new way. Photography is like tennis, you can do it pretty much your whole life, so investing a bit now will pay off for decades to come.
A note on bags, don't buy a huge camera bag. Get one just perfectly sized for your setup today, and buy a new one when you significantly expand your kit. That way you can pack around the right size bag for your photographic mission at hand.
Unnecessary bulk kills the photography experience! This Lowepro bag below is a cost-effective and very well-built option that would get you started with the SLR2 and zoom lens.
Once again, this setup is not a shot in the dark based on hearsay and online reviews, it has been selected via years of experience on what performs and what doesn't and learning the hard way what is the best capability that can be had for the dollar and bulk.
You simply can't go wrong with this setup!
Mach 2 for your living or dining room table
Want to show off your love of flight with style and also give a room an extra pop that it needs in the process? Of course you do. So shell out for this four-foot long, 31-pound, solid aluminum art deco sculpture of the Concorde!
Yeah, it will set you back about $400, but this isn't some janky model or hollow metal art piece. It's a striking statement and a conversation starter that will make you smile every time you walk by it. Just like the Concorde, it looks like it's doing Mach 2 sitting still.
The aluminum Concorde is available at Restoration Hardware linked here.
If you don't want to spend that much or just don't have room for a huge supersonic transport sculpture, go for one about a third the size and about a quarter the price! And if you are not into jets, buy the DC-3, it looks gorgeous too.
Now that's a knife!
Everyone should have a good reliable knife. You don't need to carry it every day, but having a really high-quality blade for daily tasks, like opening boxes, making small household repairs, or for emergency situations, is money well spent. I own one such knife, it is made by Benchmade, a company that is based right in my home state of Oregon and that I have a special connection to.
I went to college with the newly minted President of Benchmade, Jon DeAsis. His dad Lester DeAsis built the company from absolutely nothing into the ridiculously well-regarded generational knife making firm it is today. And no, I have never been given anything from Benchmade, but I have seen a family that is obsessed with making the best product possible using the latest technologies and taking care of their people and their customers like family in the process. The result isn't just good knives, they are utilitarian works of art that you will have forever.
I can't overstate the fact that I am not a 'knife guy.' In fact, edged weapons sort of freak me out. But I wanted a single pocket knife for everyday tasks that was great at what it did and felt great in my hand. Since I was only planning on ever buying one, I went with the best available, and it looks just as good as it handles. That knife is the Benchmade Nakamura Axis 484-1.
To call it futuristic is an understatement, and considering how light and sharp it is (scary sharp!), it could very well be from an advanced civilization from lightyears away.
I love this knife!
The thing is, you don't need to spend huge money to get a great Benchmade knife. They are all pretty much outstanding. There are certainly plenty of other good knife companies out there that make similar looking styles for less, but when it absolutely has to work, why not spend a couple extra bucks to know you are getting the best and that the family who built it will stand behind it for life?
Two other models I really liked was the very svelte Bugout 535 and the classic meets the future Crooked River 15080-1. There is also a knife designed specifically for aircrews, the aptly named the 737 Aileron. Benchmade's designers gathered various pilots and aviation industry people to find out what they would want in a knife and built it.
Crap, now I want a second knife!
Gin that will fly you away
Any aviation aficionado that enjoys an adult beverage now and then will love this product and it is also made in my home state of Oregon. Aviator American Gin is some righteous booze regardless of its whimsical golden age of flight branding. It is delicious and is highly regarded as a pioneering product here in Portland, a city that has expanded from a beer Mecca into a spirits Mecca as well as of late.
Somewhere along the line, actor Ryan Reynolds got involved with the two guys that started Aviator American Gin—he actually bought into the company—so he is doing a lot of promotion for the brand. This may be a huge plus if you are a Deadpool fan, but don't be confused by the high-profile star endorsement, this gin is the real deal made by real craftsmen who love the art of making killer booze.
Just add a bit of tonic and fly away!
You can buy Aviator American Gin directly here or use the locator to see where you can pick up a bottle in your neck of the woods.
Or Just buy an F-14 Tomcat
In last year's gift guide, I made the case for why it's time to dive head first into Virtual Reality. There are many cool games to play on Oculus and Vive headsets, but the reason you really need to invest in this is Digital Combat Simulator. You can read my past post on DCS and last year's gift guide to understand the nuts and bolts as to why, but basically, the dream of VR has come true. You can sit inside the cockpits of your favorite fighters and fly them in a totally immersive and alarmingly accurate way. But if last year's call to action didn't work, this probably will:
The long-awaited F-14 module for DCS will be released any day now. It's almost here, and it looks absolutely insane.
If that video hasn't sold you, I don't know what will. And remember, this isn't an arcade game, DCS modules feature extreme fidelity flight models and systems that are developed with subject matter experts over long stretches of time, with the goal to capturing every excruciating detail—the good and the bad—inherent to each aircraft. Also, the F-14 module will eventually be cooperative in the sense that you and a friend can work as RIO and pilot flying the same mission at the same time in the same aircraft.
Yeah, take a second to break that one down mentally.
Yes, the investment can be relatively large—you are talking at least spending a couple grand to get a system that is will get you flying in the VR environment. But the thing that most people don't realize is that older computers paired with cutting-edge graphics cards can make the experience far more fiscally feasible for many people.
For instance, I used DCS and Oculus on my seven-year-old I7 3770k with a new NVIDIA 1080ti graphics card stuck in it along with a USB 3.0 card and it ran fine. Even over the densest areas—like Dubai or Las Vegas—it was still smooth enough to not distract or make me nauseous, achieving about 35-45 frames per second. This took some tuning and learning about how to optimize the VR experience on my system, but it worked just fine.
What I am getting at here is that your existing computer may be capable of running DCS in VR with between roughly $750 and $1000 worth of upgrades.
If you want to future proof yourself and build an all-new VR gaming rig with the latest technology, you can design a cutting-edge system for about $3k if you buy all the premium parts yourself and have them assembled by a pro. Fry's Electronics is inexpensive and they do an outstanding job. Then you add Oculus Rift, Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS, rudder pedals, and the software and you are looking at about another grand. So $4k gets you in the cockpit and ready for the next round of headsets that will be emerging soon. But once again, you can build a less ambitious system from scratch that will still kick ass for significantly less, say around $2,000 to $2,500.
These new headsets, like PIMAX 5k+ and 8K, not only drastically boost resolution, but they also offer near full field of view capability. In other words, you don't see the edges. It's full visual immersion including your peripheral vision.
I honestly laugh when people tell me they play DCS strictly using track IR and a monitor. It's not even the same game. And it seems that Eagle Dynamics understands this. They have announced that they are going to be doubling down huge on VR, with an eye on increasingly in-game performance and introducing new tech like haptic feedback—literally where you can use your hands to 'touch' the controls in the cockpit.
You may say, "well I will wait till VR matures." Ok, but I it's already here and mature. The problem with VR is that people don't know what they are missing until you take the leap of faith, but considering the air combat simulation software we have available for us, that leap is totally worth it.
With all this in mind, maybe the best thing would be to get acquainted with VR at way lower cost and have a lot of fun doing it in the process. Oculus Go is stand alone, it requires no computer, and it costs about $200 for endless amounts of fun.
To be honest, Oculus Go is actually impressive. It can't play DCS of course, but Pinball VR is worth the entire price alone. In fact, it's a great companion to a more serious VR rig as it runs on batteries and you can play around with it pretty much anywhere.
So grab one of these for you and your family this Christmas. If you like the basic VR experience, you can then decide to step up to full gaming rig and jump into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat.
The last part for the system build is graphics cards. I would say get an RTX 2080ti but they are really expensive right now. You could also get away with a GTX 1080ti or RTX 2080. But if you want as much future proofing as possible, you have to go with the latest and greatest, and in the process spend about $600 more. Still, you can always sell your 2080 or 1080ti and get a new one once prices drop.
Finally, we have VR headsets. I am an Oculus guy but the Vive Pro does offer better resolution for more money. I would go with Oculus Rift as it is a GREAT deal for the money right now and you can upgrade down the road once Pimax matures or another higher definition, larger field of view headset hits the marketplace.
Rudder pedals are absolutely key if you don't have a swiveling control stick for yaw axis control, which the Warthog HOTAS does not, but you don't have to spend crazy money to get ones that work well.
As for monitors, it doesn't matter much because you will be spending your time in the helmet mounted display. Keyboard and mice are also up to you and a cheap, but very nice sounding speaker kit can be had for $35.
Please keep in mind that this is an expensive build. You can spend less and still get great performance. Just switching the processor to the still awesome Intel 8700K and going for normal speed ram will save you close to $500. Heck, you can even buy a used gaming PC off Craigslist and slap in a new video card and get great results. But these components are hand-picked to maximize performance while still obtaining a very high value for a higher end build.
Stay tuned for our upcoming DCS Tomcat feature and I wish all my readers an incredible holiday season with their friends and family!
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com
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