Pushing the Envelope


General Merrill McPeak

General Merrill A. McPeak came of age with the Jet Era. His life in flight parallels the formative years of the U.S. Air Force. Born in 1936, three years before the first flight of Germany’s experimental He-178 and a decade before the onset of the Cold War, McPeak was 23 when he first reached Mach speed in an F-104, the same year Ho Chi Minh declared “a people’s war to reunite Vietnam” and the Air Force experienced “a renaissance in fighter aviation.”

Hangar Flying, McPeak’s debut memoir, takes its name from the expression airmen use for swapping war stories and traces recent world history and national politics through the eyes of a young man who “leaned on Zane Grey rather than scripture to build a value system.” As a member of the Air Force’s storied demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds, a decorated airman over Laos, and, eventually, the branch’s 14th chief of staff, McPeak acquired “the confidence and skill to venture outside the sheltering heart of the envelope.”

Hangar Flying, the first installment of The Aerial View trilogy, is an auspicious opening salvo for McPeak’s Lost Wingman Press. The second volume, Below the Zone, arrives this summer. Roles and Missions, covering the four years McPeak spent in Washington, is expected in 2014. “It’s written,” he says, over the phone from his home in Oregon. “I haven’t started it down the conveyor belt yet.”

The “conveyor belt” is shorthand for the editorial, creative and marketing team McPeak hand-picked to publish these “three different kinds of books.” As a successful businessman and Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission, overseeing the 24 overseas cemeteries where U.S. military are buried, McPeak wrote on airplanes and in his spare time over the course of 18 years to “get all three books done, set up the editorial process, the book design and the whole deal.”

McPeak describes his time as a fighter pilot, “at peace in this separate, cockpit world, alone with the sight and sound of flight.” He notes a good pilot’s “ability to observe,” “native talent, confidence and training.” In his initial solo, he comes under “the spell that’s cast when a craftsman loses himself among his tools.” Such descriptions mirror those one might make of a solid writer.

“Flying opens up a kind of sanctuary,” he writes, “a release from...the afflictions of social life.” When asked how these observations compare with the experience of writing, he replies, “Flying is physical, where, to me, writing is purely mental. Writing is really nothing more than thinking. So, clear expression on the page depends upon the ability to think clearly. And for me, that’s hard work. Flying is sanctuary, but writing is a monastery.”

For a time, McPeak had “a great agent” and, he says, “being a retired military officer, everyone was willing to read it. So, it’s been by Random House and by Knopf and on and on.”

“I think the publishing business is in a tailspin,” he laments. “I’m not Sarah Palin; I’m not a name that’s going to sell 100,000 bHangar Flyingooks right off the bat.” After “rejection slips from the world’s most prestigious publishing houses,” Lost Wingman Press arose.   

He admits his “project had a lot of risk in it,” but relied on his business acumen and intrepid spirit. He hired a local editor, a book designer, a “marketing guy”–even an indexer–determined to produce a well-made product. Citing the inability to control the quality of print-on-demand, he opted for pre-printed books, ordering 5,500 copies–1,000 leather-bound, 1,000 hard-cover, “the rest trade paperback.” He hired a fulfillment warehouse to ship the orders. “I’m very proud of the appearance of the book and the work we did, which we never would have been able to do with a set-up press,” he says. 

While seeking out printers for the leather bound edition, which sells for $50, he says he “tried to find someone in the United States” but “had to go to China” to C&C Offset Press. Combined with being located on the West Coast, “printing was phenomenally inexpensive,” he says. “It’s the marketing piece that’s the most expensive part of publishing.”

To handle the payment and distribution of e-books, he uses BookBaby, adding that they send him a check every month.

“Sales have been going pretty well,” claims McPeak. “I think I’ll recover my costs. I think book two will reinforce book one. Book three will reinforce the previous two...I think I’ll eventually break even, but I don’t care about that.”

He laughs. “I’ve got scar tissue on top of my other scar tissue. I know what the hell I’m doing in business. I looked at this as a business proposition. Primarily because I didn’t want to lose a lot of money.”

And also, perhaps, to push that envelope a bit further.

Tom Eubanks is a writer and editor living in New York. In publishing for over two decades, he also represents authors and artists. He’s currently working with fashion icon Pat Cleveland on a long-anticipated memoir.


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