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The Pilots    by James Spencer order for
by James Spencer
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2003 (2003)

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author was a combat flyer (a bomber pilot) during World War II, who felt at the time that 'Apart from sex, flying was the most exciting thing I'd run across in my twenty years on this planet.' He tells us that he began writing these interweaved fictional accounts, because of the curiosity of his own sons. He gives us characters that come alive and stories that touch the heart, and that reminded me just a little of that wonderful British series on World War I pilots, A Piece of Cake.

Spencer's experience shows, as in the perspective he gives on the combat part of the job - typically less than an hour in a day involving ten to fourteen hours of flying. There is an explanation of the difference in the jobs of bomber and fighter pilots. There are many authentic details of events and, more importantly, the author conveys how it felt to be a pilot in wartime, to cope with the daily loss of friends, and to escape from it all on leave.

The first of the fifteen stories, The Hurlingame Trainer, introduces several of the characters as boys from two very different neighbouring families, one temporarily rich and forever feckless, and the other solid farmers. The grandparents' bickering about the people next door are as entertaining as the description of the trainer, a flight simulator built by the boys, hung from a tree, and manipulated manually. When the same boys grow up and go to war, Steve recalls times when he heard his friends' voices yelling to look behind and it saved his life.

In Dead Reckoning, Blake (Steve's neighbour), takes an innovative approach to resolving a disagreement with a nervous co-pilot on their final cross-country night trip before graduation. Doc is a physician on the edge, who cares too much about pilots who 'masked mortality in language, booze, sex, religious belief, anger.' He has his own memorial for those who are lost, and begins a vendetta against Courtenay, a 'hotshot' with political connections, who may be responsible for other pilots' deaths.

Famous Aces alternates between a Brisbane bar that caters to pilots on leave and Steve's memories of a deadly air skirmish with Japanese fighters. He muses about advice from two aces who are his friends; 'immortality had a lot to with what these two old men of twenty-five were teaching him about flying.' Ceiling Zero shows us those who are 'adapted for war' and those who are not.

In First Love, a dangerous bomber flight brings back memories of Steve's first (and lost) love Florrie. And Traitor continues the account of mysterious deaths and the doctor with survivor guilt. Two tales follow Steve's adventures after he parachutes down into The Jungle, where he experiences heavy rain, leeches, and capture by 'mud men'. He wonders if they are cannibals or headhunters, or will sell him to the Japanese.

In Flying With Angels, Blake's exuberant, intelligent friend Willy, who 'liked everyone, even those he hated', begins to see angels. The Japanese Ace depicts a very close call and a theory about survival, and Addie deals with a pilot's rape attempt on leave. When Courtenay (now a Captain) persecutes Steve, it spills over into combat. An excess of loss and a strain of paranoia hit Doc in The Emissary, and Patsy is a girl that Steve finally comes home to, in the aftermath of war and horror.

Only someone who has been there could write such human and credible accounts, which surely did happen, and still happen, even if the details might vary. Read The Pilots to understand how men and women adapt to war, and the 'injuries nothing could mask or repair' that it inflicts on survivors - but don't expect to get through these tales without tears.

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