Tag Archives: James Salter

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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