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Aviation Thrillers: Novels That Get the Pressures of Flying Right

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Some years ago a good friend, a well-known author, approached me to vet an idea for his next novel. The book was a thriller, and the plot went something like this: a hostile country devises a scheme to wipe out America’s air traffic control network in the blink of an eye. If the plot succeeds, he tells me, the outcome will be hundreds of airliners crashing into one another and falling out of the sky.

He ran it by me because of my background—I’m a pilot with both military and airline experience. My answer, unfortunately, wasn’t what he wanted to hear. “The sky is a very big place . . .” I began. I explained that when communications with air traffic controllers are lost, pilots have backup procedures. I told him there are nearly a thousand airfields across the country capable of handling an airliner, and even in bad weather pilots could find them. If air traffic control were to go down in a flash, the outcome would be . . . less than thrilling.

My friend moved on to a more plausible story.

Aviation has long been a staple in fiction, and with good reason. The sky brings with it a broad palette of the human experience. Interactions between man and machine, battles against the elements. Prolonged periods of solitude and tests of self-reliance. Flying a fighter in combat is nothing short of sensory overload, and what better setting for a locked-room mystery than a commercial airliner? The ultra-wealthy and their luxury jets are tailor made for spectacle. Add in exotic destinations, severe environmental conditions, life-and-death decisions, and the sky becomes a storyteller’s delight.

On the matter of authenticity, however, certain books stand tall.

I remember as a teenager reading Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty. Gann was a pilot himself, first in World War II, and later for American Airlines. He got the details right, but more importantly, he understood the psyches of his high-flying characters. Pilots, flight attendants, passengers—and the interactions between them—are portrayed with an acumen gleaned from Gann’s years in the air. Also depicted in fine detail is an ominous sense of isolation, the ever-present companion to trans-oceanic flight in those pioneering years.

Flight of the Intruder, by Stephen Coonts, put readers in the cockpit of a Navy attack jet during the Vietnam War. Readers can barely catch their breath as pilots skim the treetops and dodge incoming missiles. Bombs are dropped and wingmen take hits, all with an awareness that the greatest challenge is always ahead—landing at night on a heaving carrier deck. Coonts’s portrayal of skill and nerve is absorbing in its own right, but is made even more visceral as set in the framework of twin accelerants: the cruel vagaries of chance that select who lives and dies, and the incendiary politics of the day.

In Falling, former flight attendant T.J. Newman does a terrific job of demonstrating how airline crewmembers work together and interact in a crisis. If you think about it, what better setting for an author to bring calamity than on a commercial airliner? Start with two hundred people from all walks of life, most of whom don’t know one another, and pack them into a thin metal tube. Accelerate to five hundred miles an hour, climb seven miles into the sky, then light the fuse and run. Newman’s experience shines through, creating an atmosphere that’s both edgy and believable. If nothing else, readers with have fresh incentive to pay attention to preflight safety briefings.

A few aviation-themed books have bordered on the prescient. Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, released in 1994, imagined a wide body airliner being used as a weapon of mass destruction—a full seven years before 9/11. The question of whether that book influenced the planners of the attack will likely never be known. Yet readers might also ask why our own leadership didn’t take the threat seriously. It’s a classic case of an author imagining what-if? and the world not pursuing an answer.

Others books can be educational. Case in point, if you have ever wanted to learn about aircraft accident investigation, check out Michael Crichton’s Airframe. In this story a fictional airliner is beset by control problems, pitching and diving, and while the pilots are able to land safely, dozens of passengers are killed and injured. The NTSB is tasked to find the cause, and there the drama begins. Fold in suspect news coverage and corporate malfeasance, and you have an entertaining primer to a fascinating field.

Sweeping aside accolades, I’ll finish by shooting down one of the biggest aviation myths that finds its way into books (and also film). Rapid depressurization is an emergency that all pilots train for. I’ve actually seen in first hand—not in an actual aircraft, but in a hypobaric chamber during my military training. We’ve all seen the scene depicted in a cruising airliner: a bad guy fires a gun, misses his intended target, and puts a hole in the side of the airplane. The resulting decompression sends people and luggage flying through the air, and forces the airplane into a steep dive.  

In truth, if one were to shoot a hole in the side of an airliner the result would be . . . again, not very thrilling. The fact is, big airplanes are full of holes, and their pressurization systems would barely hiccup if a new bullet-sized hole was introduced. Now, if you shot a tight grouping of bullets through a window, enough to cause the failure of the pressure panes, then yes, an airplane would depressurize suddenly. Yet even that would be over in a matter of seconds, and the resulting mist—humid air reduced to a lower pressure—would leave the cabin in a fog. 

The spectrum of aviation thrillers is broad, captivating, and as limitless as the sky itself. Yet like all books, the stories with a sense of authenticity are the ones that come to life.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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