When Jets Were Young
It has been over sixty years since American pilots deployed to Korea to engage in aerial combat at the dawn of the jet age. BBC aired a taped interview of author James Salter in memorial of his passing last month. During the interview, there was mention of the editorial review from “Washington Post Book World” about Mr. Salter’s prose, “The contemporary writer most admired and envied by other writers. . . . He can . . . break your heart with a sentence.” Having heard that and knowing that the author was himself a veteran pilot with a MIG kill to his credit, I had to read this book.
I discovered later there was a hollywood film of the same title loosely based on the story, so I watched it too. The movie was disappointing and I only mention it here in hopes that anyone who saw it might be more entertained by reading the novel.
To quote from another aviation novel, The Wild Blue, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is true of Salter’s prose offering up the touch, feel, and smell of being based in Korea. Salter brings the reader into the cockpit of a first generation jet fighter with extraordinary authenticity. He managed to recreate the tension and frustration that comes from the boredom every pilot experiences while waiting for the next combat mission – dangerous as they tend to be. The mood is nicely captured in the following 3rd person narration: “The worst part, he knew, was what lay ahead, the empty hours of melancholy that would not be filled until he flew again.” Then finally, “…it becomes, I don’t know, a refuge. The sky is the godlike place. If you fly it alone, it can be everything.”
From the mind and imagination of a deep thinker engaged in the solitary art of aerial combat, Salter’s reputation for putting strings of beauty together with words is indeed something to behold. As he narrates main character Cleve Connell’s view enroute to “Mig Alley” north along the Yalu River, he takes the reader along for the ride:
“Shreds of cirrus hung in the air, like icicles along the edge of a roof.” He goes on to describe the rush of the landscape, “Now he seemed to be crossing it with great speed, as if running with the current of time.”
Some passages that might tantalize perspective readers with the feel for the changing seasons on the Korean peninsula read as follows:
“The rain fell drearily from swollen skies. It seemed as everlasting as surf.”
This story is so packed with splendid writing. Here’s one more favorite:
“They crossed the Haeju Peninsula and then the edge of an unblemished sea that lay like a sheet of foil in the sunlight.”
No review of a piece of aviation writing would be complete without validating the credibility of the author. As a former military jet pilot, I really admired the author’s ability to put truth into the advice offered by the more experienced Connell, to one of the new replacement pilots who stated he was trying not to use the throttle so much. Cleve tells him to “use it all the way from the gear warning to the fire warning light if you have to. That’s what it’s there for. Only use it in time, not when it’s too late. Make the throttle your intention, not your reaction.” Though the technicality of the description (range of the throttle’s movement between gear warning and fire warning) may be different in modern fighters, the advice Cleve offered, reads well. It also evoked the kind of tension and anxiety a newbie might be experiencing before launching into the big adventure of combat for the first time.
I loved reading this book and will probably read it again, not for the story so much as for the beauty of the words the author used to describe every detail. Any reader who’s ever flown a plane should read it.