A pilot’s debut memoir highlights the joys and risks of flying.
There’s been no scarcity of movies and books valorizing the miracle of aviation, but few have effectively captured the personal perspectives of the pilots themselves. Here, McDonald describes, through anecdotal reflection, his life as a helicopter pilot and artfully reveals the perils unique not only to aviation, but to his particular vehicle. He discusses his start in naval aviation school, where he initially trained to become a jet pilot. His struggles with motion sickness were so severe that he changed course and learned how to fly a helicopter—a less glamorous option but one with plenty of its own dangers. Eventually, he became a pilot in the Texas Shock Trauma Air Rescue program, which provided him with a diverse array of challenges that ranged from the routine (transporting medical personnel) to the extraordinary (undertaking rescue missions in extreme weather). In one of the book’s highlights, the author gives a play-by-play depiction of a harrowing rescue in torrential rain that caused severe flooding. Although the prose is consistently lighthearted and even humorous, it also seriously chronicles the palpable sense of risk in McDonald’s profession: “Aviation, in general, is inherently unforgiving,” he writes. “The list of competent, well-respected aviators who have died while plying their trade is sobering to contemplate.” In fact, his career was eventually brought to an end by injuries that inflicted permanent neurological damage. He astutely portrays the psyche of the pilot, a fascinating brew of perpetual preparedness and type A bravado. He also leavens his depictions of crisis and insecurity with breezy storytelling, as when he tells a genuinely funny story about how a conversation with Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter partially inspired his career as a STAR pilot. At times, readers may be overwhelmed by the minutiae of administrative details, but they’ll likely welcome the author’s lengthy presentations of the technical aspects of flying. This is a memoir, first and foremost, but McDonald’s devotion to capturing the character of flight promises broader appeal.
A delightful, informative homage to a life of flight.