1990s Memoirs

Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck

Flight of Passage

Five words from the blurb: plane, boys, across, America, adventure

A few weeks ago, in an effort to ease my fear of flying, I requested recommendations for positive stories about aviation. Alex suggested Flight of Passage and I’m so pleased that she did as a passion for flying oozes from the page and I now have a bank of positive images to combat the negative ones I’ve seen on the news – it is exactly what I was looking for!

Flight of Passage is written by Rinker Buck, who was fifteen-years-old when he flew from New Jersey to California with his seventeen-year-old brother Kernhan. The pair bought an old plane and spent the winter lovingly restoring it in their barn. They set off in the summer of 1966 and it is easy to see why they became minor celebrities as news of their adventure spread across the country:

Buck and Kern, the teenage pilots

The book gives detailed descriptions of flight, but it wasn’t boring and technical in the way I found Saint-Exupery to be.

I constantly peered forward to the altimeter on the instrument panel, whacking my brother on his shoulder when he let it get in the way. The little hand on the dial couldn’t move off that 6, and when it did, I wiggled and fishtailed and nudged the stick to move the nose into better wind, to get us back up.

The book was perfectly structured to enable the reader to understand the process of flying. The technical difficulties they encountered showed how resilient aeroplanes are and it was reassuring to understand how pilots are able to overcome problems. It was especially good to know how much can be achieved, even with an old, basic plane.

As well as being a fantastic book about aviation it also showed the fragile relationship between teenage boys and their father. There was a real emotional depth to the story and I loved seeing the way in which they matured over the course of their journey.

Flight of Passage was a fascinating book and contained exactly the right mixture of suspense, information and emotion. Their youthful enthusiasm was contagious and I think it has done a lot to alleviate my fear of flying. For that reason alone I highly recommend it.



2012 Non Fiction

Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben

Into the Abyss

Five words from the blurb: plane, crash, remote, survivors, criminal

In 1984 a small commuter plane crashed into a remote Canadian forest. This book explains the reasons for the tragedy and shows how the survivors reacted after the event. The author, Carol Shaben, is the daughter of one of the passengers and has an emotional connection to the tragedy that is evident throughout.

The book was beautifully written with the tension building slowly:

Lightning split the clouds and the sky hummed hot and electric around him. Seconds later the air cracked with a deafening boom of thunder. Erik felt his insides churn, and a clammy wetness glossed his palms where they gripped the yoke.

Events were described with a sensitivity that enabled to me read about what happened without becoming disturbed. It was also very well structured and information about everyone involved was woven cleverly into the action.

Unfortunately (and I feel bad saying this about a true event) the story wasn’t interesting enough for me to be able to recommend it to others. The survivors were rescued quite quickly so they didn’t have time to demonstrate any real survival skills or to form complex relations with each other. I lost interest in the book about half way through (when they were rescued) and wish I’d abandoned it at this point as the details of their lives after the crash failed to engage me.

The blurb of the book emphasized the presence of a criminal on the plane and I expected him to play a far greater role. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that he was a fairly normal man and the adrenalin filled comments on the cover were very much exaggerated.

I also think that this book would have had a greater impact if it had been written 25 years ago. The dangerous practices of the commuter plane industry are no longer relevant and the navigation problems have been solved by our new technology. It was a mildly interesting glimpse into the problems of the past, but I often felt that she was preaching to the converted.

It is all such a shame because Carol Shaben is clearly a skilled writer. I hope that she finds a more complex subject to write about for her next book and if she does I’ll be at the front of the queue to try it.


1930s Books in Translation Novella

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Southern Mail / Night Flight (Penguin Modern Classics)  Translated from the French by Curtis Cate

Five words from the blurb: adventurer, aviation, risks, airmail, courage

I have a fear of flying so was surprised to see The Novel Cure recommend a book about an air crash as a potential solution to my problem. I was dubious (and scared!) but decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and see if it would help me. Having finished the book I’m not sure it has allayed any of my fears, but it is a much better suggestion than I first thought.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the early days of the French airmail service. He risked his life transporting mail over the Andes and the Sahara and used his experiences to write several books. He is said to have produced some of the best aviation novels in existence, but I’m afraid I don’t think “aviation-lit” is for me.

Night Flight is a short book (just 63 pages) that tells the story of Fabian, a pilot delivering mail in Argentina. His boss, Rivière, instructs Fabian to continue flying, despite the dangerous thunderstorm approaching. The book highlights the dilemma of whether or not you should follow orders that put you at risk and shows the vulnerability of those who took part in early air travel. I was worried that the book would give me more reason to fear flying, but the descriptions were so cold and technical that they didn’t elicit an emotional response.

The writing was fantastic and the descriptions were beautiful, but it was too slow for me and I became bored:

Yet the night was rising, like a dark smoke, and already filling the valleys, which could no longer be distinguished from the plains. The villages were lighting up, greeting each other across the dusk like constellations. With a flick of his finger he blinked his wing-lights in answer.

In retrospect, this is the perfect book to read on a plane – you’ll either be mesmerised by its beauty or sent to sleep by its descriptive prose.