An airman recalls his brushes with death—including four crashes while serving as a fighter pilot—in this sharply pitched World War II memoir.
Born in Vancouver but raised in England, Gilman enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the tender age of 18. Even before entering combat, he learned that flying could be a deadly proposition. One friend perished in a fiery wreck during a training flight. Another survived a crash but suffered terrible burns; he later committed suicide. In the book’s most unsettling episode, a pilot with engine failure glided to a smooth landing on a deserted beach. But he failed to retract his landing gear, as per regulations, so the wheels stuck in the sand; the plane flipped, and he drowned in the rising tide. Gilman was equally vulnerable to the whims of fate and technology. While chasing a German fighter over the North Sea, his Spitfire’s radio went dead. With zero visibility, blackout conditions and no return course, his death seemed assured. But quick thinking and an alert lighthouse keeper steered him back to the land of the living. More a matter of luck was his surviving a midair collision with another pilot. As usual, Gilman narrates the horror of his crash with a mix of incredulity and bemusement. Of losing all his teeth when “the microphone at the end of my oxygen mask had gone through my mouth,” he looks on the bright side: “My last ever dental appointment was 78 years ago.” Such generosity of spirit is typical from the author, whose strange-but-true tales are a worthy addition to first-person accounts of World War II. Crisp prose and laconic humor bring the book’s collection of hair-raising stories to life, as do his well-chosen black-and-white photographs. Gilman rarely gets caught up in the jargon of the cockpit, and in pursuing his personal story, he avoids the lethargy of potted history. If readers don't acquire a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by the so-called Greatest Generation, they’ll at least come away with extra gratitude for the safety features of modern aircraft.
A highly engaging memoir of flying the not-so-friendly skies.