In this historical novel, an around-the-world journey of a “fly boy” hero and his zero of a partner chronicles the time when “flying was new and intriguing.”
At Tokyo’s Narita Airport, over layover sake, a lone traveler enlightens four pilots about the daredevil life of Clyde Pangborn, aka “The King of Barnstormers,” responsible for the first nonstop trans-Pacific flight. He shares Clyde’s riveting midair mishaps and explains how he fought fierce competition from up-and-coming “day aviators,” ever-growing federal regulations, and the unfolding Depression, until reports of Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing threw a gauntlet at his feet. While Clyde had the experience and ability to accomplish anything in the air, he lacked capital. Enter “bumbling wannabe aviator” Hugh Herndon Jr. and his moneyed mother, Mrs. Alice Boardman. After a series of mistakes during their perilous journey threaten to take down their plane (Miss Veedol), the usually taciturn Clyde tells Hugh, “Rich boys like you are too soft.” The technical and historical research of the Heikell brothers is top-notch and their odd couple, exotic locales, and white-knuckled flight scenes lend the novel a cinematic quality. Indeed, the plot seems ready-made for Hollywood. The dialogue, however, loaded with jargon and dry exposition, tends to detract from the story’s overall propulsion. The difficult relationship between Clyde and Hugh fuels the book, yet their long midflight arguments over how cold, hungry and bored they are cause the plot to sputter—as do constant cutaways to the inner lives of secondary characters on the ground. Although the pilots ask for the “mid version” of Clyde’s story, the narrator delves into the personal stories of his mother, Opal; his hometown love interest, Diane; and, while held for treason in Japan, the smitten Yumiko—among others. It seems as if, like Hugh, the narrator sometimes loses sight of his main duty: keeping us in the air.
An evocative tale of aviation’s rich and risky beginnings, featuring an American pilot’s unsung adventures.