Rising Above it All: How Rambo’s Creator Earned His Pilot’s License
By David Morrell,
Author of The Shimmer
Readers familiar with my fiction know how much I love doing research. For Testament, I enrolled in an outdoor wilderness survival course and lived above timberline in the Wyoming mountains for 30 days. For The Protector, I spent a week at the Bill Scott raceway in West Virginia, learning offensive-defensive driving maneuvers, such as the 180-degree spins you see in the movies. I once broke my collarbone in a two-day knife-fighting class designed for military and law enforcement personnel.
Two years ago, I began the longest research project of my career. I was preparing to write a novel called The Shimmer, a fictional dramatization of the mysterious lights that appear on many nights outside the small town of Marfa in west Texas. When the first settlers passed through that area in the 1800s, they saw the lights, and people have been drawn to those lights ever since, including James Dean who became fascinated by them when he filmed his final movie Giant near Marfa in 1955.
The lights float, bob, and weave. They combine and change colors. They seem far away and yet so close that people think they can reach out and touch them. In the 1970s, the citizens of Marfa organized what they called a Ghost Light Hunt and pursued the lights, using horses, vehicles, and an airplane, but the lights had no difficulty eluding them.
Because an airplane was used, I decided to include one in The Shimmer. I’d never written about a pilot, and the idea of trying something new always appeals to me. The dramatic possibilities were intriguing. But a minute’s thought warned me about the monumental task I was planning. As a novelist version of a Method actor, I couldn’t just cram an airplane into my novel. First, I would need to learn how airplanes worked so that real pilots wouldn’t be annoyed by inaccuracies. Real pilots. That’s when I realized that it wouldn’t be enough to learn how airplanes worked. I would need to take pilot training.
I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our small airport has a flight school: Sierra Aviation. I made an appointment with one of the instructors, Larry Haight, who took me up in a Cessna 172 on what’s called a “discovery” flight. The idea was to “discover” whether I enjoyed the sensation of being in the cockpit and peering several thousand feet down at the ground. Flying in a small aircraft is a much more immediate and visceral experience than sitting in the cabin of a commercial airliner. Even in a Cessna, the canopy is huge compared to the tiny windows on an airliner. The horizon stretches forever.
It turned out that I more than enjoyed the experience. It was exhilarating and fulfilling. I realized that this was something I wanted to do not only for research but also to broaden my life. As a consequence, I eventually earned my private pilot’s license and bought a 2003 172SP. The plane was based near Dallas, and my longest cross-country flight to date (600 miles) involved piloting it from there to Santa Fe. Truly, nothing can equal controlling an aircraft, making it do safely whatever I want while seeing the world as if I were an eagle.
In The Shimmer, I wanted the main character’s attitude toward flying (“getting above it all”) to help develop the book’s theme. The following passage shows what I mean. You only need to know that Dan Page is a police officer. When I started pilot training, I figured that one day I’d be relaxing in the sky, listening to an iPod and glancing dreamily around. As we learn in this section, the actuality is quite different and more substantial.
“Non-pilots often assumed that the appeal of flying involved appreciating the scenery. But Page had become a pilot because he enjoyed the sensation of moving in three dimensions. The truth was that maintaining altitude and speed while staying on course, monitoring radio transmissions, and comparing a sectional map to actual features on the ground required so much concentration that a pilot had little time for sightseeing.
“There was another element to flying, though. It helped Page not to think about the terrible pain people inflicted on one another. He’d seen too many lives destroyed by guns, knives, beer bottles, screwdrivers, baseball bats, and even a nail gun. Six months earlier, he’d been the first officer to arrive at the scene of a car accident in which a drunken driver had hit an oncoming vehicle and killed five children along with the woman who was taking them to a birthday party. There’d been so much blood that Page still had nightmares about it.
“His friends thought he was joking when he said that the reward of flying was ‘getting above it all,’ but he was serious. The various activities involved in controlling an aircraft shut out what he was determined not to remember.
“That helped Page now. His confusion, his urgency, his need to have answers — on the ground, these emotions had thrown him off balance, but once he was in the air, the discipline of controlling the Cessna forced him to feel as level as the aircraft. In the calm sky, amid the monotonous, muffled drone of the engine, the plane created a floating sensation. He welcomed it yet couldn’t help dreading what he might discover on the ground “
At one point a character asks Page, how high he intends to fly.
“Enough to get above everything,” he answers.
“Sounds like the way to run a life.”
That’s an important lesson I learned from flying.
©2009 David Morrell, author of The Shimmer
Author Bio David Morrell, author of The Shimmer, is the award-winning author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including Creepers and Scavenger. Co-founder of the International Thriller Writers organization and author of the classic Brotherhood of the Rose spy trilogy, Morrell is considered by many to be the father of the modern action novel