Careful With That Axe, Duane

Every so often I get the urge to re-read one of my old paperbacks, and recently it was my 30-year old copy of Duane Unkefer’s Gray Eagles. Originally published in 1986, Gray Eagles is the story of a group of Luftwaffe veterans who are invited to assemble in 1976 for a reunion-cum-flying holiday in Arizona, except that they will be flying armed Bf109G aircraft and will shoot at a number of selected targets in missions planned by their Staffel Commander and Executive Officer. These latter two have a score to settle with a member of the Confederate Air Force (as it was known then) who killed one of their comrades when he himself was a young  Mustang jock in the USAAF.

Messerschmitt Bf-109G-2

Messerschmitt Bf-109G-2/Trop Werk Nr 10639 G-USTV aka “Black 6” at Duxford in 1997. Now imagine eight of them in a hangar in Arizona.
(Photo By Alan D R Brown GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

Duane Unkefer (who weirdly does not have a Wikipedia page) is a teacher at Santa Barbara City Community College and will be leading a course on fiction writing at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference in June 2017.  I read a 1986 article in the LA Times which described him going on the road to promote his book after the USA gave it a fairly muted (read, non-existent) response on first release.  I googled him, and saw that in earlier life he was a promotion and advertising executive for Harley-Davidson who had a burning ambition to be a novelist.  I don’t see any specific mention of aviation in the scarce biographical information and to a certain extent, the lack of aviation knowledge shows in the book.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Grey Eagles. It has all kinds of stylistic flourishes that project the fantasy and I am happy to indulge the little bits of oddness like the restorers modifying the Bf109 canopy to make it slide rather than swing on a hinge.   If anyone did that on a warbird today, I think the community would emit a collective scream of shock.  The story, however needs it (so I believe).

The planning and the first couple of missions are written in a pretty believable style. The moment when the eight Bf109s of 76 Staffel intercept five CAF Mustangs over Phoenix en route to an Airshow in Chino, CA is beautifully done and one of the high points of the book.

I think there are two or three points where things do get a little too contrived.  The P-51 equipped unit of the task force which is established after the second attack on an active US training base in Arizona is a lovely idea,  and necessary for the book (in order to have the final confrontation) but odd.  I can imagine some crusty veteran saying “give me another P-51 and I’ll go and get those SOBs” but even in 1976 I could imagine the official response as “Don’t be so stupid.” Secondly, as a self-avowed aviation nut myself I find Unkefer’s choice of the F-5 as the USAF jet fighter of choice in a couple of set pieces is plain weird.  Yes,  F-5s were stationed at Williams AFB (the base that 76 Staffel attacked in the book) from 1973,  but I never heard of anyone in the USAF except aggressor training squadrons using F-5s. I think of the F-5 as one of those export-only models that the USAF didn’t seem to want at the time. However I love the F-5/T-38 shape so much that it can pass. I wonder what the USAF really would have used then – perhaps an F-4?  Who knows. It doesn’t make a huge amount of difference except that it takes you out of the story for a moment to think “F-5? Huh?”     I love the addition of the Spitfire from Milwaukee (or wherever) and the slightly overdone “what-ho, chaps”  RAF veteran Wing Commander who flies in because he heard on the grapevine there was some sport to be had.   I just wish it hadn’t been a Mark Vb he was flying.


“Be vewy, quiet we is huntin’ Gustavs”
A formation of three USAF F-5Es of the 527th TFTS, RAF Alconbury, UK in 1983.
(USAF, Public Domain)

Some of the Bf109 modifications and the use of the F-5 could be attributed to poetic license in order to progress the story or just to the fact that Unkefer wasn’t all that familiar with aircraft and could have used a bit more time to check a few minor-ish facts.  My only significant yelp at the time of first reading occurred when one of the main protagonists started playing tracks from Pink Floyd’s album The Wall on his car stereo.  This is a neat trick,  since The Wall wouldn’t be released for another three years. The band were working on Animals in 1976,  and even this album only saw the light of day in January 1977.  It would have to have been a track from The Dark Side of the Moon, or Wish You Were Here,  and that wouldn’t have hurt.

Don’t let these criticisms put you off.  If you haven’t read Gray Eagles, try it.  It is one of two aviation novels (the other being Gavin Lyall’s Shooting Script) which I could imagine transferring neatly to the big screen, even though it’d be a bear to make.  These days, finding eight Bf109s would be much less of a problem than it would have been in 1976.

Probably the best comment is from a 1985 Kirkus review which said that if you can follow the reasoning of the German commander you will enjoy this colourfully-written book.

“Of course it is a mad undertaking. . .It is brilliant, so brilliant that it seems mad!”

Welcome, my son. Welcome to the Machine.  🙂



One of Those Pictures

I saw Bryan Swopes had a version of this picture in This Day in Aviation the other day but I lost the place and the reference.    A quick Google search for “Mercury 7 F-106” brought a back a slightly cropped version of the picture, which is fine since in this case we’re looking at the men, not the aircraft.


Standing beside a Convair F106-B aircraft in a January 1961 photograph are the nation’s Project Mercury astronauts. Left to right, are M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton. (Credits: NASA)


I did a quick check on the F-106B in question (F-106B-75-CO Delta Dart  – AF Serial 59-0158). The entry in Joe Baugher’s website makes for interesting reading.  Apparently 59-0158 still exists and may be on the gate at Edwards AFB, having had a rather picaresque service life including a sojourn at AMARC.  A pleasing footnote.

Interlude – Pardon my Intruder

There is comfort in listening to familiar pieces of music and also, in my view, from re-reading a favourite book.  From time to time I re-read Stephen Coonts’ Flight of the Intruder, and when I do, I’m always a little bit impressed with the laconic style and its evocation of life as a US Navy A-6 pilot in 1972. I’ve never read any of Coonts’ other novels, and only realized a few days ago there was actually a sequel (Final Flight, published 1988) and a prequel to the sequel – (The Intruders, published 1994!) to Flight of the Intruder.  I should have a look at them when I have time.

I’ve had two or three copies of Flight of the Intruder in paperback, one of which came free with the computer game of the same name,  and all have continued their journeys in life  – i.e. I never got any of them back.  I decided to buy a cheap copy from Alibris a few months ago, and ended up to my delight with a 1986 first edition, published by the the Naval Institute Press, for the grand total of 99 cents (plus shipping, which was more than the cost of the book.  No matter.)

Having read it again a few days ago, I was thinking a little bit more about A-6s and aircraft carriers, and cast my mind back a little.  It occurred to me that almost exactly forty years ago, in February 1977,  I found myself in the Bay of Naples,  standing on the flight deck of the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67) with a few of my secondary school friends.  It was an amazing experience, and how we got there is probably best left to another blog entry.  I still don’t know how one of the teachers wangled the visit – it was certainly more interesting to me than a free afternoon dodging the citizenry of Naples.  My visit was not long after the incidents of September 1976 in which the destroyer Bordelon collided with the JFK during night replenishment, and an F-14 dropped off the ship after a catapult issue. The resulting race with the Soviet navy to recover the aircraft and its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles was redolent of Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy.

USS John F. Kennedy , 1968.

USS John F. Kennedy (at that time designated CVA-67) underway in the Atlantic Ocean during her shakedown cruise in November/December 1968. Visible on the flight deck are EA-3B, A-4, RA-5C, and F-4 aircraft of Carrier Air Wing 1 (CVW-1).  I’ll have a look at a bigger picture another time and try to identify the helicopter. 
(U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo)

I remember that one of our guides on the tour was a Bombardier-Navigator (BN) from one of the A-6 Squadrons embarked on the JFK.  He had a fairly marked accent from one of the Southern states, and when one of the teachers asked him what would happen if the proverbial balloon were to go up,  he replied “This is all for one Nucular Strike” –  Cue stunned silence from group of English school kids.

Grumman A-6E Intruder, 1976

Typical of what I might have seen at the time – US Navy Grumman A-6E Intruder Bu No 154142 “AB-504” of Attack Squadron VA-34 “Blue Blasters” aboard the USS John F Kennedy, 1976.
By RuthAS (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, it was quite an experience.  I sorely regret that I ran out of 35mm film for my camera and hadn’t had a chance to stock up before the excursion.  There were F-14s,  S-3s, A-6s of different kinds, (they didn’t want us to photograph an EA-6B on the flight deck), A-7s, a couple of E-2s and apparently a C-2A Greyhound which one of the guides said looked like “something Jimmy Doolittle would have flown”.  One of our hosts was an S-3 pilot (I think) who seemed like the archetypal well groomed ROTC youth transposed into uniform on his first tour – he didn’t seem much older than us, although he clearly was. The A-6 guy was much older and a little more grizzled, and it pains me when I think back, that no-one asked him if he or any of the A-6 crews had been in action in South East Asia.  I am sure some of them must have done so.  This was only 1977 after all,  and even Steven Coonts was still serving in the US Navy – he was honorably discharged in 1977 with the rank of Lieutenant.

Now, CV-67 has been decommissioned and the new Gerald R Ford Class CVN-79 will take the JFK name in 2020.  The A-6, A-7 and F-14 are all retired from the US Navy.  The S-3 retired from front-line service in 2009 although there is some unconfirmed speculation that mothballed S-3s could be returned to USN service in 2019 as tankers, in the face of perceived ballistic missile threats from the naval forces of the People’s Republic of China.

I’ve said in some other piece of writing, familiar books and familiar records are a time machine.  Listening to a piece of music I first heard in 1981 transports me instantly to the location where I first heard it because of some vivid memory.   I hadn’t quite made the connection between Flight of the Intruder and my cruise round the Mediterranean in 1977, but I have now. I tip my hat in a little salute to that day 40 years ago.