Review: Punk’s Fight

Punk’s Fight

Former F-14 RIO Ward Caroll’s Punk’s Fight is actually the third book in his series starring an F-14 pilot (write what you know, I guess). I nonetheless chose it as my starting point because it takes place during the beginnings of Enduring Freedom and I was fresh off reading about the Afghan air wars. Maybe the first two books were better. Because this one was not very good.

Do you want Herman Melville’s Overdescriptive F-14 Ride followed by a contrived way to get his main character to the ground war and lots of self-aggrandizing? If so, then this is the book for you. To be fair, its technical realism is an arguable selling point, but it squanders it on unlikeable and axe-grinding characters, mixed with the protagonist’s not-exactly-ideal adventure on the ground when his Tomcat goes down.

I can see why some people would like this book and series, but I didn’t.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

A Thousand Words: Snakes On A Plane

Snakes On A Plane

One of the first “internet meme movies”, the Samuel L. Jackson epic Snakes On A Plane has a title that, like The Death Of Stalin, describes the movie perfectly. As part of a convoluted scheme to eliminate a murder witness, a crate full of crazed snakes are set loose in a 747 flying from Hawaii to Los Angeles. And that’s basically the entire plot of the movie. This is not a character drama or deep film.

Thankfully, it is an enjoyable one. It’s actually an heir to the 1970s disaster movies more than anything else, which got plenty ridiculous by themselves. Embracing the ridiculousness, it serves as a wonderfully stupid and crazy spectacle. You’re not watching this for the sake of a good movie. You’re watching this for the sake of a fun one. And it’s very, very fun.

Novel Update And An Observation

So, I’m close to the end of The Lair of Filth, the sequel to The Sure Bet King. It’ll take touching up, polishing, and so forth, but I’m in the final arc of the draft. With that in mind, I’m already thinking of the plans for my next novel. While exact details need to be outlined, I’ve settled on “a pop epic about aviation” as the general subject.

It seems like quite the leap to go from sports betting to air transport. Or is it? When looking at the economics, I was a little (pleasantly) surprised at the similarities between the two seemingly opposite industries.

  • First for the most obvious and most unpleasant: Both are volatile, low-margin industries. The revenues from sports betting are dwarfed by other casino games (particularly slot machines), and revenue can swing on events like all the favorites winning. Similarly, airlines are barely-to-unprofitable with the exception of a few outliers like Southwest and Ryanair. And they are an incredibly cyclical, event-vulnerable industry.
  • Second, the barriers to entry are, for the most part, extremely low. Certainly lower than one might think. Stuff like pay per heads and aircraft leasing, or similar turnkey solutions, allow for many entrants, particularly in the less-demanding offshore world. Of course, maintaining that business is a lot harder…
  • Third, the products are almost commodotized. It’s numbers on a screen/an airplane with seats in it. There just isn’t much except for deals and pricing that distinguishes one sportsbook/airline from another most of the time. And both have also been hit hard by the ability of consumers to price shop on the internet.

So maybe it won’t be that different after all…

Review: Airport

Airport

Author Arthur Hailey had a gimmick. He would find a certain field, research it massively, and then build a thriller and/or pop epic around said filed. One of his most famous and successful novels was 1968’s Airport, which inspired the movie series and the parody Airplane!. In it, an airliner is threatened by a both literal and figurative perfect storm of everything from horrible weather to a blocked runway to angry neighbors to a man determined to kill himself and blow up the plane-for the sake of insurance, nothing political.

Hailey spent a gargantuan amount of time on research, and it shows. I’ve always wondered if him being around in the age of the internet would have made his endeavours quicker and easier, or if it would have just prompted him to go even further down the rabbit hole. My hunch is the latter. There’s a lot of well-done and accurate depictions of airport operations (and a lot of weird-in-hindsight 1960s futurism, such as talk of superlifter cargo planes being thought of as something that would render sea freighters as obsolete as ocean liners and passenger pods being loaded into civilian C-5s).

The biggest issue is that the pacing is incredibly slow and lethargic for about four fifths of the book, then it hurriedly sprints to its conclusion. Maybe it was deliberate to try and be suspenseful, but if so, it didn’t work. The second biggest issue is that the characters are dull and dated-most obviously shown in a subplot where one of the main characters gets a flight attendant pregnant and the resulting drama.

This is a decent product of its time, but it’s still a product of its time and not the most recommended for later readers. It comes from an age when air travel was still something novel, and where readers would be less familiar with it. It’s not Hailey’s fault, but the book has aged terribly in that regard. Now it just comes across as 80% Herman Melville’s Airport Tales and 20% A Brief Disaster Novella, neither of which can really stand up.

Cold War Kitona

The Fuldapocalypse has traditionally been opened with a vast set of Soviet special operations that involve varying degrees of risk, realism, and audacity. Red Storm Rising famously had one such jury-rigged gamble resulting in the capture of Iceland. I’ve found another possibility that would involve my two obsessions of past and present: Conventional World War IIIs and commercial airplanes.

While the Second Congo War is about as far in terms of tone and nature from a Fuldapocalypse as it’s possible to get, its opening act nonetheless could have been lifted from the pages of a technothriller. In Operation Kitona, Rwandan and Ugandan troops seized four airliners and flew west to sever the DRC’s links to the outside world. The initial landing worked, but external support for the Congolese government doomed the offensive, plunging central and southern Africa into a long, bloody, and horrific war.

So it’s not too terribly farfetched to imagine planes being filled with “unruly passengers” happening to land at important dual-purpose airports at the worst possible prewar time…

The Ameriyak That Never Was

Soviet airliners have an understandably poor reputation and record. It’s gotten to the point where one should be fair and point out that their less than ideal safety record was more to the issues with infrastructure and human resources and less to the mechanical design of the aircraft themselves. But it isn’t excessive criticism to point out that in spite of their rough-field capability, they were fuel-inefficient, uncomfortable, and only able to succeed in a politically closed field.

But there were still some diamonds in the rough, and not just giants like the Antonov beasts. The three-engined Yak-40 was interesting for being a pioneer in the field of light regional jets when the rest of the world was still using propeller planes for that role.

Which leads to a detente-era footnote: The plans to build and sell a version of the Codling (yes, that was its reporting name) in America. Amazingly, this was not a project from the legendarily Kremlin-friendly Armand Hammer. But it could have been. The potential plants were located in the depressed locations of Youngstown and Niagara Falls. The engines and avionics would be replaced with western models. A memo in the White House of all places (pgs 22-26) details the lofty goals for the LC-3, as it was planned to be called.

Of course, the deal unsurprisingly fell through. But it’s still an interesting piece of aircraft history. As is, it was the first Soviet civilian aircraft to attract legitimate attention from western airlines. And the irony of an airplane designed by a communist state being used to ferry rich private-sector VIPs to their vacations in Aspen is too fun not to smile at.

Cargo and Charters

My love of the big, weird, and military aircraft has made me neglect the humble workhorse transport. Until now. What I’ve taken an interest in is the world of air cargo and charters, especially cargo charters. So in terms of looking at never-were designs, this leads me to see something and ponder where its place in the commercial air ecosystem would be.

In most cases this is be pretty obvious. Where a superjumbo goes and where a tiny STOL plane goes are very simple. Likewise for any one craft in between. The biggest issue comes from the real exotics, like supersonics and VTOLS. I guess you could be reasonable and say “clearly their expense makes them impractical for civilian air transport at all”, but where’s the fun in that?

Furthermore, looking at air transport in general has given me flashbacks to my first novel. After all, the airline industry is incredibly low margin (at best!), volatile, and has very few ways of distinguishing one participant from another. So is the sports betting industry….

Review: Red Front

Red Front

The conventional Fuldapocalypse begins in earnest with Red Front, the second book in the Iron Crucible series. After the Yugoslav opening act in the previous entry , this follows the war everywhere from the Atlantic to… outer space. Author T. K Blackwood continues a solid Bond/Red Storm Rising style narrative in this installment.

This has the issues that a big perspective WWIII has, but it also has the strengths, and Blackwood succeeds in a genre that’s incredibly difficult to write well. The book ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s not an unsatsifying one. With a ton of varied battles in a type of novel that doesn’t come along very often, I can say that I highly recommend this to fans of the “conventional WW3” genre.