Tag Archives: Aviation

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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On the “Rules” of Writing: “Know Your Audience” and “Conflict”

When I began writing this post it was about the elements of a good aviation story, and in the middle of that I had some insight into one of the things one sees put forward as one of the “rules” of successful commercial writing, usually rendered as “know your audience.”  As it progressed I found I was also thinking about “conflict” and how it is usually (i.e., conventionally) approached.

I’m going to keep this in the theme I originally wrote about, i.e., the aviation story.  I know a little bit about aviation, so this comes under the heading of the “rule” regarding “write about what you know.”  (I’ve always wondered just exactly how that was supposed to apply to science fiction, but that’s another post, maybe.)

What, exactly, is conflict in the dramatic sense?  Most of us have an instinctive feeling for this.  As kids we know when trouble is brewing on the playground between two rivals.  Maybe that’s as good a source as any.  And of course there’s the best known conflict of all: “good” versus “evil.”  In time of war the propaganda battle between the two sides revolves around efforts to cast the opposite side as “evil.”  Oddly, it seems that one’s own side is good mostly by contrast.  Most people have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “evil” – but by contrast very few people can say what they mean by “good.”  “Us, not them” is an interesting definition of good vs. evil; reminds me that for most small tribes, the name of the tribe usually is the name for “people”; that is to say, “us, not them.”  In his excellent and informative study of the factors motivating killing in combat, Col. Dave Grossman, PhD, identifies dehumanization (“WE are people; THEY are NOT”) as one of the enabling factors.

Sorry, I’m a philosopher at heart.  But perhaps, dear reader, you might pause and reflect upon this simplistic notion of conflict.  Granted that it’s a venerable storytelling device; going back as far, or farther, than the origin of the Hero Tale; but I might submit that to be the point.  The Hero overcomes some obstacle, and that victorious struggle enables the tribe to survive.  In other words, WE have triumphed; THEY have NOT.  I don’t object to this as a literary device, I simply urge a little more sophistication and awareness upon us as writers.

A conflict in a story might be nothing more than a problem, seemingly insurmountable, that the protagonists must solve in order to attain their desires.  Nevil Shute, in his novel The Far Country, uses this device.  In The Far Country Jennifer Morton, visiting relatives in Australia, falls in love with the émigré Carl Zlinter.  Their problem, in one sense, is simple economics; Carl was a doctor in the German Army during World War II, but cannot be one in Australia unless he wants to redo his medical training, which is expensive.  Jennifer, the daughter of an English doctor, loves Carl and Australia after being exposed to both, but refuses to marry Carl because he is a very good doctor, and if she marries him before he can manage to get back in practice, he will never be able to do so.  This generates the conflict between them, and it is well and gently and elegantly done.

In essence it’s Romeo and Juliet, but without the bloodthirsty Capulets and the equally sanguine Montagues.  The conflict in that play is simply that which lies in a name.

Conflict, then, is as simple as what the protagonists want, and the obstacles existing to the attainment of that desire.  The action of the story is overcoming the obstacles.  One problem with the G vs. E conflict is that we’ve seen it so very, very, very often that for “good” to triumph in any credible manner, the poor beaten-up hero has to endure trials that would bring Superman to his knees.  Think of any of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” movies and you’ll see what I mean.  If it strains credulity, then it also strains that “willing suspension of disbelief” that we as writers strive so hard to attain.

This is, however, a good segue into the “Know Your Audience” element.

As I have heard over and over and over and ad-nauseam over again from all sorts of writing coaches, publishers, editors and agents, a writer who hopes to be published has to know the audience he or she is targeting.  But push most of them to answer the simple, logical question, “Well, how do I do that?” and you get some such answer as “picture the person you want to read your book.”  OK, and I’m willing to admit I’m dense and maybe even a little literal-minded, but I don’t see that as anything other than a rephrasing of “know your audience.”

Perhaps we could just admit that this “rule” is more something that has crept in from the marketing department of the major publishers – you know, the ones who would rather you do their work for them, so that your book will fit their marketing research – rather than anything that has something concrete to do with actually telling a story.  It’s a hoary aphorism in marketing to define your “target market” and tailor your advertising accordingly.  Please don’t tell me I’m the only one to see the rather suspicious similarity to the “rule” requiring a writer to “know your audience.”

Look at it this way.  There’s another aspect to “know your audience” which I have never – and I mean not ever, not once in forty-odd years – heard anyone mention: its fine to know your audience, but a good story is a good story is a crossover story that transcends genre and target markets.  What about J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series?  They might be targeted for the Young Adult market, but it was the cross-market appeal that made them runaway best sellers.  A good and well-told story will eventually find an audience.

Look at it this way: whether expressed as “target marketing” or “know your audience,” the principle translates into expectations of behavior based on assessments of a sample population whose completeness we cannot know, not with any certainty.  Recall how many publishers turned down J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before Scholastic picked it up; this was a good story well told; so my suspicion is that turning down the story was based on it not fitting any of the marketing research done at the time.  “Know your audience” is an aphorism for making some rule-of-thumb assumptions that sometimes work extraordinarily well and sometimes fall flat as a cow patty.

That being said, maybe we could think of the relationship between “genre” and “know your audience.”  Genres exist in the first place because a significant number of people – which is, ahem, nothing more than the sample population listed above – like that genre.  “Romance” novels are a great example, if only because as a genre label “romance” is almost useless nowadays without a qualifier, such as “paranormal romance” or “historical romance.”  How these sub-genres emerged in their own right involved the discovery that significant numbers of readers liked stories written in that vein, which only goes to prove my point.

Since all I know about the romance genre is what I’ve learned from my significant other, I’m going to look at the audience that might read an aviation story.

In one sense you can think of aviation stories as techno-thrillers, and I’ve read novels that were pretty much that.  Dale Brown’s Flight of the Old Dog is one such, and almost any military aviation novel with any pretense to accuracy and realism written since 1984, when Tom Clancy essentially defined the techno-thriller genre with The Hunt for Red October, has to adhere to those standards.  Being military or ex-military gives one a real edge in that sort of writing – unless, like Clancy, you’ve studied the subject for years.

But let’s consider aviation stories that are concerned a little less with the gadgets and a little more with the people involved.  Essentially, any flying story set between 1914 and 1954 could qualify.  Nonetheless when I write an aviation story, I’d be well advised of two things that concern my potential audience: first, anyone with any aviation background whatsoever is going to be hypercritical of the technical aspects of what I write, and second, the overwhelming majority of the population isn’t going to have a clue to what I’m talking about in a technical sense.  Writing to either audience in this case means the same thing: write accurately and knowledgeably and incorporate technical details into the course of the story, informing without necessarily teaching, just like in hard science fiction.  Almost invariably when pilots talk about aviation fiction, its quality is judged less by story than technical content.  Contrarily, non-pilots will be more interested in the story, but also want technical content that “puts them in the cockpit” without bogging the story down.  So there’s a constant tension between the two that the aviation fiction writer must be aware of – and this is part of “knowing your audience.”

Aviation stories are about pilots flying airplanes that take those pilots to the very limit of what those pilots can bring to the airplane in terms of skill, knowledge and courage.  In an aviation story, quite often, the only conflict is within the pilot himself.  In a movie, we might see the beads of sweat on the pilot’s face, or his face contorted with fear, or the grunts of effort as he strives to haul back on the stick – but the challenge for the writer as storyteller in this genre probably goes back further than the Epic of Gilgamesh: whether a man strives within himself to bring out the will that means victory or survival, or strives with another, the challenge for the writer is to show a victory that does not seem foreordained, i.e.,  a mere decision by the storyteller that the Hero Shall Prevail.  We live in an uncertain world.  I once had a flight instructor who told me he’d rather be lucky than skilful, since luck can save you when skill will not; but in a story this comes under the category of “coincidence” which tends to appear suspicious in the eyes of our readers unless done (ahem) with skill.

Then there’s another problem: for those of us who are already in aviation, “love” is almost invariably a part of the process.  Sometimes that love goes so far back that one might wonder if there’s something genetic about it.  My parents, for example, argued about whether or not my first word was “airplane” or “light” – but both agreed that at the time I spoke my first word I was pointing my chubby little baby finger at an airplane’s running lights in the night sky.

I am not alone in this, by the way, but as a writer it brings up another problem: you can talk to those who share your love, and achieve comprehension among them in a few dozen words of matters of surprising technical complexity.  But what about people who know nothing about aviation?

I’ll give you an example.  I’ve worked as a tour guide in at least three different museums in the course of my life.  Two were aviation museums.  It is unusual, but not unknown, for adults to look at an airplane and say something on the order of: “Now…that long thing coming out of the thing in the middle…ah…is that the wing?”

It’s extraordinarily difficult for me to realize it’s possible not to know something so wholly fundamental and elementary.  But therein lies a caution on writing the aviation story:  even someone who has wings in their heart begins without any other knowledge.  I have seen the knowledge of that love dawn in a child’s eyes, looking at a particular airplane, and I have told their parents, be careful, because airplanes are like malaria, the disease might go into remission but it never, ever leaves you.  And I have seen people who look at an airplane, from something as beautiful as a Supermarine Spitfire or as historically significant as a Douglas DC-3, and scratch their heads, and visibly if nonverbally wonder what the hell the fuss is all about.

Someone at that level of ignorance is probably not going to be your audience, but you can never know that.  But this goes back to the tension raised by level of detail in your story.  In an aviation story, “level of detail” might be directly proportional to the level of the reader’s own knowledge.  The experienced fighter pilot, reading my account of a fictional air battle, might scoff at me for the detail I leave out, where the average reader who just likes airplanes would be thrilled.  So a happy medium may not be available, but therein lies the tension of the question for the writer.

So my conclusion is relatively simple.  In knowing your audience, be very careful to distinguish between the “genre” aspect and the “marketing” aspect of the term.  If you write within a genre you’ve defined your audience, but it may be that that is only the first step.  As illustrated above, each genre has its own audience at varying levels of sophistication, which in itself may raise difficulties for the writer.  As writers we are better able to solve those problems if we know about them.

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