My Adventures in the Air
By Clyde Edgerton
Algonquin. 276 pp. $23.95
Clyde Edgerton has been in love with airplanes since he was 4 years old, living in North Carolina, watching planes take off and land at Raleigh-Durham Airport. He learned to fly in the early 1960s through the ROTC program at UNC-Chapel Hill, enlisted in the Air Force and flew fighter jets, then capped his flying career with numerous combat missions over Laos at the height of the Vietnam War. He got out in one piece, went back to North Carolina and in time became a modestly successful writer, with eight novels published to date.
When Edgerton got back from Southeast Asia in 1971, he became a semi-retired pilot. By the mid-1980s, flying was almost in his past: "Since my Air Force days, I'd renewed my pilot's license three times and flown for . . . a total of less than a hundred hours. I didn't care much for civilian flying; it was a letdown." But in 1987 he dropped by a small airfield and saw "a beautiful little yellow airplane sitting in a hangar," and just like that a "strong, long-dormant urge to fly came thundering back alive after almost twenty years. I had to get one of these little airplanes. I had to start flying again. Suddenly . . . I was rehooked, reinfatuated."
As a result of which three things happened: Edgerton bought a secondhand Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser, which he named Annabelle; he wrote a novel ("The Floatplane Notebooks") about flying; and he wrote this engaging memoir of his lifelong love affair with flying. "Solo" is a rambling, rather formless book that does not have the dramatic tension of Roald Dahl's book about his World War II experiences in the RAF, "Going Solo," and it certainly doesn't reach the lyrical heights (some would say extremes) of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "Night Flight," but it is amiable and, in its account of how one learns to fly, interesting and informative.
Edgerton started his training where he'd first watched airplanes, Raleigh-Durham (in the early 1960s a far less imposing place than the "international" airport it has since become), under the guidance of a man who wasn't a brilliant teacher but "was consistent and very safety conscious" and helped Edgerton grasp the essential principles of flight. He got a private pilot's license in 1966 and soon thereafter entered the Air Force. That's when things started to get exciting. His first jet flight was in a trainer, the T-37, affectionately known as "Tweety Bird, a consequence of its small size and the high-pitched sound of its engines." His first takeoff was a revelation:
"I released the brakes and we were rolling, slowly at first, and then there was a significant pickup of speed. . . . The airspeed indicator showed 40 knots, 50, 60. At 65 I pulled back the stick, the nose lifted, we rolled along on the main gear, and then the aircraft smoothly lifted into the air. We climbed out at 180 knots, almost twice as fast as I'd ever gone while piloting. . . . We leveled out at 12,500 feet, higher than I'd ever been as a pilot. I was in a dream."
He was hooked. Still in his early twenties, barely out of college, he wanted adventure, and the Air Force promised precisely that. He moved from the T-37 to the faster, trickier T-38, "the aircraft I'd been drooling over," and began "learning, step by step, to feel the aircraft as if it were a part of me," getting ready for "air-to-air combat with other aircraft -- dogfighting." The next step up was the F-4, then "the fastest and most powerful fighter in the world," which he started flying in Florida after "a three-week survival training course at Fairchild Air Force Base." He was preparing for serious business: "air-to-air combat, air-to-ground, and nuclear."
Then it was on to Asia. Based at Yokota Air Base in Japan, he rotated regularly to Osan Air Base in South Korea, where he was on alert to fly into Russia and drop nuclear weapons on military targets. " 'Sitting alert' in Korea was not practice," Edgerton writes. "It was the real thing. I look back on that time . . . with a kind of amazement. No one expected that we would really drop a nuclear bomb on Russia. On the other hand we were prepared to do just that -- or thought we were. . . . I don't remember the particular targets near the city I was always slated to bomb, Vladivostok. But our four aircraft were possibly on the way to kill thousands of innocent people. People who'd never lifted a finger to harm me -- and never would."
As those words imply, eventually Edgerton came to a more complex view of the assignments he was handed, but at the time, all he wanted was the adventure. In 1970, he started preparing to be a forward air controller in Vietnam or Laos, directing "fighter-bombers against enemy ground troops." At the time, he bought the domino-theory line and believed, as he wrote in a letter home, that "the communists are determined to do everything possible to take over Viet Nam, then Thailand, then other countries in Asia, Africa, South America, Latin America, and the final goal is the U.S."
Given the choice, he decided to fly over Laos rather than Vietnam. He had "romantic notions about it all." He was flying a plane called the OV-10, and "I wanted to fly the OV-10 in combat. I wanted the adventure. I wanted to see myself doing something like that." When he finally got what he wanted, it came as a shock:
"What I had been hearing about for weeks was happening. Now. And I was in it. In this sudden, new, surreal world, all laws stopped, all courtesies had succumbed to something dark, sad, depressed, hell-bent for grim death. In this sudden world were no manners, no nods of goodwill, no indifference even. Indifference had been sucked from the world, and in its place somebody in the present time, in this living instant from the ground below, was trying to kill me. . . . But wasn't there a bubble of protection around the airplane? . . . They wouldn't hit us, would they? Didn't I also have a protective shield of some kind around my body, an outline of invisible light . . .?"
Maybe there was. More likely, though, it was his own skill, which seems to have been impressive. He got out of that encounter unscathed and went on to serve his billet honorably and effectively. He had, as they say, "a good war," though now he looks back on Vietnam as "a small, dark, deadly cloud, just over my shoulder . . . accompanied by remnants of fear, pride, shame, exhilaration, and sadness." He recalls visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1994 and breaking out in tears. He was embraced by another veteran: "He brought me comfort in that moment, and I wonder if he understood what I felt. He may have been full of pride that he'd fought in Vietnam. I don't know. I wasn't. And I'm not now."
He did come back with his head screwed on right, though, and unlike the many veterans who were left lost and empty by the war, he went on to live a productive, happy life. Maybe it had something to do with being in the air rather than on the ground, where the fighting was vicious and desperate and bloody. Whatever the explanation for his survival and subsequent rejuvenation, he tells his story -- the flying side of it, that is -- with more pleasure and pride than regret, and that is as it should be.