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The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction.

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Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, Writing, Writing as Business

The Aviation Story in Fiction and Nonfiction

I started writing this post about a week ago.  I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to say but as I wrote I realized the old symptoms – my ideas were evolving as I wrote.  Something about writing, actually putting words on a page (digital or print, either way I see them appear, letter by letter, in front of me), catalyzes my thought processes.

Maybe it’s that additional sense of reality seeing words on a page gives to thoughts.

At any rate I realized my post had now become two separate ideas, and this post is one of them.

Some years ago I read an anthology by Richard Bach consisting of articles he’d written for Flying magazine, among others.  I don’t remember the title of the anthology now, and a quick search of my bookshelves didn’t turn it up, either.  There was, however, one article in there that brought me endless hours of pleasure.  The article was titled “The Pleasure of Their Company.”

Without Bach’s article I never would have read some of the best prose ever written about aviation, nor been introduced to several of my favorite writers.  Hemingway once wrote that a writer, early in his career, should read “all the great books.”  He didn’t specify any titles under that heading, and as writers and as readers the subject is one that might be debated endlessly, passionately and without satisfactory resolution.  Regardless of that, many of the books Bach recommended became my “great books.”

In passing I would reiterate that Bach’s article did not appear in a literary journal or any other venue more likely to be dedicated to an appreciation of literature.  For those who don’t know, except for the odd article like Bach’s, Flying is generally dedicated to technical and how-to types of articles: new devices for instrument flying or radio communication, new air traffic control procedures, weather flying, descriptions of airports or fly-ins, etc.  There used to be a great column in back titled “I Learned About Flying From That” wherein people would describe something that happened to them in an airplane that taught them about that territory wherein angels fear to tread, much less mortal pilots with physical wings.

But Flying is definitely not a literary journal, however well-written and interesting its content.

I read Bach’s article in 1977, not long after I graduated from college, and in the next two years I managed to track down and read every book on his list with one or two exceptions, like Sir Frances Chichester’s A Rabbit In the Air, and those exceptions were simply because I couldn’t find them, either at the local chain bookstore or in the various used bookstores I haunted in those days.  The books I did read included Ernest K. Gann’s Fate Is the Hunter; Nevil Shute’s Round the Bend, The Rainbow and the Rose, and Pastoral ; Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince; and Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising.  There were others but those come most readily to mind.

If you haven’t read them you won’t know that, with the exception of the three books by Nevil Shute (better known for his excellent if depressing On the Beach), those books are all non-fiction.  In fact, out of the shelves and shelves of books I own on aviation and aviation-related subjects, a quick glance assures me that non-fiction is disproportionately represented in that field.  Whether or not this is more generally true in that world beyond my bookshelves I can’t answer.

It would be easy, and possibly even true, to say that there’s no need to invent stories about aviation when non-fiction is just as plentiful and besides, well, factual.  Pilots, especially the various professional pilots (military, airline, charter, etc.) as a class would rather read technical manuals or factual accounts that might be of some use to them than fiction.  Most pilots, in addition, are hypercritical of mistakes made in fiction by fiction writers.  There’s probably a good reason for that: professional pilots who make mistakes end up killing themselves and their passengers.  Most pilots, therefore, tend to approach information from a skeptical point of view.  Think of it like this:  Oh yeah?  Well, tell me this: is that guy going to be in the cockpit with me when I’ve got to do what he recommends, or is he going to be sitting somewhere nice and safe, with his feet propped up, thinking about lunch?

Other than Nevil Shute I can only think of five authors who wrote respected fiction about flying:  Richard Newhafer, James Salter, Stephen Coonts, Mark Berent and Tom Wilson.

Newhafer is an interesting writer.  He was a Navy pilot who flew Hellcats during World War II, and wrote one of my favorite novels about Navy flying during that war, titled The Last Tallyho.  Newhafer was an ace and participated in some of the battles he writes about.  When he got out of the Navy in the 1950s he not only wrote novels but got into screenwriting.  If you can track down any of his books they’re worth a read.

James Salter wrote maybe one of the best novels about combat flying I’ve ever read, titled The Hunters.   It’s set in the Korean war, where the protagonist, Cleve Connell, flies F-86 Sabres against the Communist MiG-15s.  To me, the interesting thing about this story is the climactic dogfight scene where Connell shoots down “Casey Jones,” the MiG pilot who has claimed many of Cleve’s squadron mates.  The Hunters was made into a film starring Robert Mitchum which, despite some really good aerial scenes, almost universally elicits groans from pilots because of a scene that was tacked on by Hollywood.  Connell (played by Mitchum), after shooting down Casey Jones, ejects to save his wingman who’s just been shot down himself.  Why?  Because Connell’s in love – platonically – with the guy’s wife.  I imagine the thought process in the mind of most fighter pilots, in rejecting this scene, might go something like this: Let me be sure I’ve got this straight.  Connell, a good stick who’s just waxed some Commie badass, loses his wingman because the dumb bastard can’t be bothered to watch his tail.  Big surprise, the loser gets his ass shot off, whereupon he punches out and has to make a run for it through the boonies.  Too damned bad but that’s Darwin in action at 25,000 feet and Mach 0.9.  Connell then does what?  He punches out, ejects from a perfectly good airplane, in a day where you were lucky if the ejection didn’t kill you?  To save his loser wingman?  Just because Connell wants to get in the guy’s wife’s drawers?  And THIS is the story you want me to believe?  Jesus H. Christ, only in Hollywood, pal.  That’s why they call it the Land of Dreams.

If you’ve heard of Stephen Coonts it’s probably because of his book, Flight of the Intruder.  Most of the Navy pilots I’ve talked to will actually grant that book the ultimate accolade, a grudging admission that, yeah, that’s pretty much the way it was.  Not too surprising, since Coonts was an A-6A Intruder pilot during the Vietnam war.

Mark Berent and Tom Wilson both flew in Vietnam, in the USAF.  Berent begins with a book titled Rolling Thunder, where his protagonist flies F-100 Super Sabres on ground-support missions.  Throughout the series Berent writes with the same characters, introduced for the most part in Rolling Thunder.  Berent’s  focus is a little broader than just the air war, since one of the main characters, Wolf  Lochert, is a Special Forces officer, while the rest of the characters, including the protagonist, Court Bannister, are Air Force.  Tom Wilson, in a trilogy beginning with Termite Hill, writes largely about the war of the F-105s flying out of bases in Thailand against targets in North Vietnam.  OK, Wilson is kind of a favorite of mine, partly because I think the F-105 is one of the absolutely coolest-looking airplanes ever built, and some of the ballsiest pilots who ever lived flew those missions against North Vietnam in F-105s.  Wilson also writes about the pilots and EWOs – aka “Bears” – who flew the F-105G “Wild Weasel” against North Vietnamese SAM sites.  There’s an old adage among fighter pilots that you never duel with the antiaircraft types on the ground, but the Weasels did just that, and took corresponding losses.

So there’s all sorts of good aviation fiction, but with the exception of Coonts, I don’t recall that any of these writers are either well-known or even remembered.

What makes for a good aviation story?

First, something that’s hard for outsiders to grasp, is that aviation, for pilots, is more like a love affair than anything else.  Less charitable writers might with reason liken the love of flying to addiction, obsession or disease; indeed, aviation shares with malaria the trait that while it might go into remission, once you’ve got it, it never really leaves you.  Maybe this is why grafted-on love stories in movies, like the one in the film version of The Hunters, seldom if ever ring true.  Bob Stevens once did a great cartoon of how different people see an airplane; the wife’s view of the husband-pilot’s airplane was of a sexy, curvaceous mistress.  No writer who doesn’t understand this can understand the aviation story.

Second, the usual source of conflict, “good guy vs. bad guy,” is almost never present, even in stories about military aviation.  The enemy isn’t necessarily a bad or evil person just because he wants to kill you.  In Duncan Grinnell-Milne’s Wind In the Wires, written about flying in World War I, Grinnell-Milne is forced down behind German lines by engine trouble and captured.  He is taken to a German aerodrome where the pilots go out to look at the wreck of his machine and commiserate with him on his bad luck.  Indeed, Nevil Shute, perhaps one of the best writers I know of, doesn’t  rely on this sort of conflict; man against nature, or against some relatively insoluble problem, is his theme.  Read any of his books, not just those about aviation.   Even in Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, the Japanese ace the protagonist fights at the climax of the novel isn’t presented as an evil man, simply as a patriot serving his country to the best of his ability.

Third, there is that interaction between man and the machine that takes him into an otherwise inaccessible environment that, oddly and perhaps even paradoxically, sparks something deeply spiritual inside the pilot.  Edwards Park flew with the 35th FG in New Guinea in World War II, and wrote of this in Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, his account of flying at that time and place:

“…I had, momentarily, become part of Nanette – one and indivisible – and the two of us, in our ecstasy, had come very close to dying. … No plane is a person; no person a plane.  No person is anything but a person – a single entity, in charge of his own mind and body and to some extent his destiny.  But there are times when the interplay between [the] two is so intense and absorbing that they do indeed seem fused into one.  And I think one of the two can be a machine. … I knew, flying onto the strip that marvelous day, that I had touched something strange and secret.  And I also knew that somehow it all had to end now for us.  I was – we were – exploring something incredibly dangerous.”

In almost every flying school or aviation museum or pilot’s study or den you will find, prominently displayed or tucked away in a corner, the poem “High Flight.”  The poem was written by John G. Magee, Jr., a young American in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who was killed in training at the age of 19 – but not before he wrote the most famous and revered poem about flying yet penned.  I remember hearing that poem when I was very young and allowed to stay up late, until the TV stations shut down for the night, and the poem was read over the air as an F-104 Starfighter performed aerobatics on screen.

So in the end perhaps the aviation story is about something deeply and personally spiritual, something that most pilots, who generally see themselves as the morst material of people, will usually deny.  Charles Lindbergh himself wondered whether or not flying was too “godlike” and whether that might be behind some of the airplane crashes he knew of.

Nowadays flying has become mundane and prosaic.  There’s even talk, which will probably come true, that pilots will be replaced by computers.  I think that’s beyond sad, and I can tell you why.

I’m the merest neophyte as a pilot; if I cobbled all of my logbooks together and was generous with rounding the minutes I could probably boast 50 hours of total flying time.  But about twenty of that is in sailplanes, and the last flight I took in a sailplane – over thirty years ago – found me cast off from the tow plane at 3000 feet above the ground, between two clouds that were catching the rays of the setting sun at just the right angle to produce a subtle change of luminosity and reflection as I turned slowly between them, completely unaware of flying the aircraft, and so flying without effort.  Then I turned west into the setting sun, and heard something over the sighing of the wind over the wings and the canopy.  I can only describe it as a choir, singing a single sustained note.  I held the sailplane there, just above stall speed, with my eyes on the red ball of the sun and my ears alive to that faint summons; and I believe I could have flown on like that forever, if I hadn’t chanced to look at my altimeter, which told me I barely had the altitude to trade for the airspeed with which to get back to my airfield.

But even so I turned for home with that song in my heart, where it sings still.

Perhaps someday I can write a story worthy of it.  I just don’t believe a computer ever will.

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I Can’t Follow the “Rules of Writing”

Kristen Lamb wrote a blog on the difference between aspiring and authentic writers, and off and on I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.  I’ve always considered myself an aspiring writer because I haven’t been paid for what I write, at least not in money.  But Kristen made an interesting point: aspiring writers think about the book they’ll write, someday, when they get around to it.  Authentic writers pick up the pen and write, regardless of the struggle it involves.

And that led me to think about the nature of my own struggle with writing, why I’m not as successful as I want to be (yet, at least), and, perhaps, some of the reasons behind that.

Partly, it’s because I can’t follow all those agreed-upon rules of writing.  I really wish I could follow rules.  But I can’t even follow what I freely acknowledge to be good and sensible suggestions, even though I’ve tried.  For years I’ve wondered why and I think I finally hit upon an answer.  Not “the” answer, mind you.  Just, an answer.

Let’s start by looking at some of the rules I should be following, like outlining.  I can sort of do that, if I’m writing non-fiction, as in when I used to write legal briefs (another life and a long story) but that was different.  Constructing a legal argument for an appellate brief is, or can be, or should be, dammit, a very formalistic process.  Given that I can outline.  I know what I want to prove, I know the facts I have to work with, and I have the precedents to draw from and the counterarguments to deal with.

Note, however, the phrase “formalistic process.”  Crafting an argument of this sort is like constructing a proof in mathematics in some ways, i.e., it’s formalistic.  The meanings of words and the structure within which they are presented is tightly restricted.  Sgt. Joe Friday’s words are particularly apt in this connection: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

For me that’s relatively simple, but writing fiction was terribly, terribly hard for me.  I could start things and go along like blazes for 4-5000 words and then suddenly realize I had no idea where to take things.  And STOP IT, I know what you’re saying “If you had outlined you’d know where to go and what to do and yadayadayada.”  Well, no, I wouldn’t, because, to me, writing fiction is not a formalistic process.  It has its own logic, yes, absolutely.  But fiction isn’t an argument and the structure is not mathematical.

Therefore outlining does not help me.

Let’s continue with “character development.”  I confess, when I think up my characters most of the time I only have the vaguest idea of who they are and what they’re going to do.  And sometimes the characters that started out as minor players end up assuming a major role in what I’m writing.  “If you had properly developed your characters you wouldn’t have this problem,” I’ve been told.  Yeah, and I guess there’s a lot of truth to that.

But I don’t know who the hell these people are until I see the words on the page.  I can’t see them in my mind, really; I only have the vaguest notion, as I said, of who they are.  I have to put them on the page and let them do something more or less significant to the story.  Then, as I write, I get a feel for them.

So “character development” does not help me.

Plot development?  Look, for fifteen years I developed plot and backstory for a science fiction series I want to write.  The truth is that I just went around in circles with it.  I don’t even know how many spiral notebooks, college-ruled, 100 pages per, I filled up that way.  I knew the plot, developed generations of characters (at least by name, planet, ships commanded), I tried all that stuff, and when I said to myself, OK, enough development, let’s write the story.  That worked for about ten or twenty pages, then pffft.  Ten or twenty pages of fairly good, fairly engaging prose that ultimately led nowhere.  I told myself as I did this that I was writing, but really, to me, it felt like I was just aspiring.  Too much “thinking” and “someday” and not enough struggle, or maybe too much.

Something wasn’t coming together for me.  Something wasn’t right.

Writing out a story arc?  Tried it.  Major character likes and dislikes?  My mind goes blank.  All those tricks and rules and things of that sort, all those attempts to impose a formal structure on the fiction writing process that the mathematician in me said ought to work – did not.

And the frustrating thing was that, by observation, it so obviously does work for quite a large number of writers.

So it went until 2004, when a friend told me about National Novel Writer’s Month.  Fifty thousand words in 30 days?  So, what, about 1700 words a day for a month?  How many pages is that?  Gee, I dunno, I thought, seems like kind of a lot.  But then, nothing else was working so I gave it a try.

I was a finalist in 2004 and in every November since.  More to the point, each year I finished a first draft of a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end.  The characters had some sort of problem they solved, so the story “went somewhere and did something.”  Were the stories any good?  Well, they were first drafts, and relative merit isn’t the point.  They were, within the limits of being a first draft, complete stories.

The best part, for me, is that 50,000 words in 30 days bit.  You don’t really have time to think or judge or be critical, it’s all full throttle and maximum warp.  Just write!

All well and good but until my 2010 story, which had the working title The Sluggers and the Palookas, I never got beyond a first draft.

But here’s the backstory on that.  I decided, in October of 2010, that I would write a story I’d had in mind for at least a decade, working title The Once and Future Grail, science fiction set in the far, far future.  That’s exactly what I started to do that November 1st.  By Day 3 I was at 7000 words, well ahead of schedule, very happy with what I’d written, and something happened that had never happened on any previous NaNoWriMo.

I dried up.  I’m not just talking the words were coming at a rate of one every ten minutes, I’m talking nothing, brick wall, sterility, vacuum, blank slate.

OK, so that happens, told myself not to worry, relax, tomorrow will be better.  You know the drill, you can do this, you’re still ahead on word count and you can always catch up on the weekend.  That was the first day.  By the third day of hanging fire like that – which was seven of the thirty days the contest lasts — I was worried.  Worried bad, because I didn’t understand what was going on, it just wasn’t like me to just go blank like that, I mean, what the hell?

My identity as a writer was at stake!

On the seventh day, as I stared at that blank screen on my laptop, a question just popped into my mind.  Pretty simple question, you know the kind, “why didn’t I ask that to begin with”:  well, if you don’t want to write that story, what do you want to write?

The miraculous is also the discontinuous and the funny thing is when it happens all inside one brain, your own.  One split second you are one person; the next you are another.  No wonder people think writers are a little crazy.

But that one miraculous question was all I needed to break down whatever it was holding me back, and quite spontaneously I realized, I want to write that fighter pilot novel, you know, the one no one’s ever written about the guys flying out of Port Moresby early in 1942.  The one I labeled “someday” and made a note here and a note there about characters and possible plots and hadn’t done anything with in maybe ten years.

What I didn’t do next was almost as important as what I did do.  What I did was, well, wait, I’ve got a great opening scene for this story, right?  There’s this transport with a bunch of kid pilots aboard being flown up to the war zone.  So I sat right down and started with that.

What I didn’t do, though, was think, hey, this is a historical novel!  You don’t know all that much about the campaign, you don’t know that much about the units involved or the actual people, where’s all that stuff I collected?  In other words what I didn’t do was try to limit myself with what I didn’t know.

I just told the story about a kid fighter pilot and how he went to war at Seven-Mile Drome in May of 1942.  In twenty-one days and about 51,000 words I finished the contest as a finalist.  But much more important, far, far more important, I had a first draft of a real live novel in my hands.

A year and a half later I’m finishing the third draft of that novel, now retitled as Boxcar Red Leader.

The important question is, what finally worked?  After all those years of trying, struggling, what finally worked?

Two things, I think: “critical mass” and “passion.”  If you write enough stories from beginning to end they may not be great stories, but at least they’re stories.  I was doing what I actually wanted to do, tell stories!  Now that’s authentic!  I wasn’t worrying about what I was going to write, or what I wanted to write, I just wrote and told stories.  The term “critical mass” implies that certain preconditions – neutron flux, number of words written lifetime, whatever – have been met.  Or maybe just enough experience of authentic writing to achieve confidence in my own ability.  And passion?

Ah, passion.  I didn’t know how badly I wanted to write this story, how much this story was mine, how much I wanted to figure out who the protagonists are and what they went through, until I wrote it.  That desire has only increased as the story went through Draft 2 and it’s still there as I write Draft 3.  That passion has even carried me through all the ups and downs of editing and revision.

So maybe now I can follow the rules – but I don’t think so.  The only real rule is, find whatever works for you.  It editing and revision takes a little longer, that’s fine with me.  So why can’t I follow the “rules of writing”?  Maybe because that doesn’t feel like writing to me, and that’s just exactly the point.  If it does to you, great!

But don’t wait up for me.  I’m due back with my squadron on Seven-Mile Drome.  Lots of work still to do!

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Just Listen

I do volunteer work at the Hickory Aviation Museum.  There’s a couple of simple reasons I enjoy it.  One reason is that I’m an airport bum.  Ever since I was a kid watching airplanes take off and land is a source of never-ending pleasure for me.  But the other reason is something I came to by stages.  It keeps me coming back.  It’s the people.

We have a pretty unique bunch of people at the Museum, including a number of old guys who took part in World War II.  Most of them are aviators because that’s our focus, but we’ve got all types, and all have a story to tell if you just learn to listen.

But being around those guys has taught me a lot.  I’ll share some of it with you.

For me, the hardest thing in the world was learning to just listen.  I’m a terrible know-it-all, so why listen?  It took me years to learn the trick of it and I’m still learning, every time I have the chance.  You never learn it all.  Usually you’re taken by surprise.  It starts with just a few words someone says.  The first thing to learn is to understand why those words catch your attention, when it’s just a few words, or a chance to watch a man’s face as he speaks.

My father’s friend Lloyd White was one of those who taught me.  Lloyd flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 9th Air Force in World War II.  He told me about flying ground support missions during the Battle of the Ardennes.  Lloyd was just a little guy with a soft Southern accent.  Maybe it was the contrast, that soft accent, because somehow you could hear the sound of the guns beyond the words.  The very young man that was Lloyd White took fearful chances because, “well, those boys up there with the rifles needed our help.”  Lloyd passed away in 2009.

I saw Robert S. Johnson, one of the great 8th Air Force Thunderbolt aces, watch another gentleman, a former B-17 pilot, tell the story of losing most of his squadron to Luftwaffe fighters.  Bob Johnson slowly, calmly lit a cigarette while he listened.  He never took his eyes from the other man’s face.  The look on Bob Johnson’s face taught me something about listening.  Bob went west in 1998.

There was an older gentleman who worked at the same FBO I did, thirty years ago, who told me about his last mission flying a B-17 in the Pacific.  The airplane was badly damaged by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft.  He and everyone else on his crew were wounded.  The last thing he remembered was lining up on final.  What outfit was he with?  What airfield was he landing on?  What was the target, the date?  Who were his other crew members?  I’ll never know that now.  Just, “somewhere in the Pacific, back during the war.”

And simply to list names of World War II vets means nothing.  One ended up flying cargo all his life and stopped logging flight time after 35,000 hours.  Another flew 40 missions with the 8th Air Force as a navigator.  Others flew B-26 Marauders over Europe, or B-24s with the 15th Air Force out of Italy.  Art Sulteen, who is no longer with us, flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 8th Air Force.  They all have or had war stories.

It took me a long time to understand that “war stories” are jewels beyond price.  But by the time I learned to listen, to be quiet and really listen, and to know enough about history and aviation to fill in the blanks and ask the right questions, there weren’t so many war stories around.  Not the first-hand stories told by the guys who were there, who did that, where you can look in their faces and their eyes when they talk about how it was over Berlin or Tokyo or Schweinfurt or Rabaul or over the Hump.  If you know what to look for you can see the young man still there, below and among the wrinkles of age, because memory brings that young man back for just a little while.  The old geezers themselves know this.  They never feel as young as when they are among themselves, swapping stories about life the way it was.

Something else you must learn.  Those old geezers feel no one understands them, and that no one believes their stories.  Mostly that’s why they stopped telling stories, except among themselves, when they don’t have to justify something as true or not because the other person knows enough to judge for themselves.

So you must learn to understand what it is that you see and hear, what is being offered to you for free, because the price was paid long ago and not by you, sitting there safe and warm and well fed, doing nothing but listening.  Even then listening isn’t always a comfortable place, not if you listen with the proper frame of mind.  Not if you can put yourself in their place, just for an instant, even in the smallest way, and just listen.

Take the opportunity if you can and while you can.  And remember, if you’re ever around an airport with a bunch of old geezers swapping what they might call lies and/or war stories, that there are ghosts standing among them — the ghosts of the ones who didn’t grow old.  The ones who didn’t come back.

They too have a story to tell.  It’s in the silence between the words of the war stories.

Just listen.

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