Shooting Script

Having mentioned Shooting Script the other day, I naturally picked up my slightly tattered paperback once I’d finished Gray Eagles.

Shooting Script is a different proposition from Gray Eagles. Gavin Lyall wrote it in 1966 following a stint flying Meteors in the RAF while doing his National Service,  and following a career as a journalist which he gave up to write full-time.

Lyall always seemed to choose heroes with monosyllabic masculine names and the main protagonist in Shooting Script  is no exception. Keith Carr is a former RAF pilot and veteran of the Korean War.  He affects an amusingly world-weary wise-cracking style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s private eyes. We meet him flying from Jamaica to Puerto Rico in his slightly tatty De Havilland Dove,  and watch him being “bounced” by two Vampire fighters. It transpires that the military Junta running a small Spanish-speaking island nation, the Republica Libra has just purchased twelve Vampires.  “I hadn’t known the Republica owned any jet fighters, not even seventeen-year-old ones.” Carr says on the first page.

De Havilland Vampire

Two Swedish Air Force de Havilland Vampires
By Flygvapenmuseum/Nygren, (fotograf F 3) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After a series of adventures in which he meets a fellow Korean War veteran, an Australian fighter pilot now flying those very same Vampires for the Republica as a mercenary, Carr returns to Jamaica and is hired to fly a camera plane for a semi-legendary Hollywood actor making a South American revolution movie (provisionally titled Bolivar Smith) on location in and around Jamaica.  The camera plane the company purchases turns out to be a seriously dilapidated B-25 which has served in several South American air forces since its retirement from the United States.   Carr is amused to see the faint outlines of  some American nose-art which suggests the B-25 saw squadron service in the USAAF somewhere as “Beautiful Dreamer”

North American B-25 Mitchell

North American B-25 Mitchell –  Góraszka,  2007
By Lukas Skywalker (Own work) GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It is of course all much more complicated.  The film star has assets frozen in the Republica and wants to recover them. Carr’s flying pupil (also hired by the company)  turns out to be the wastrel son of the revolutionary leader who intended to “borrow” the B-25 and use it to drop a few bombs on the Vampires to aid the revolutionary cause.   You can see where this is going.   Our hero ends up flying the bombing raid, has a showdown with the Australian mercenary (both in the air and on the ground)  and after several tense scenes, everything turns out happily.

As I said about Gray Eagles, don’t get me wrong.  It’s a nicely written thriller that is amusing and credible,  and the book led to many happy hours flying my simulated B-25 around the Caribbean in the Days of Microsoft Flight Simulator 98.  I also think that even now Shooting Script  would make a decent film, especially given the plethora of L-29s and L-39s which could sub nicely for the Vampires.  The B-25 would be fine as is.

Don’t just take my word for it. Go and have a look.  If you’re in the mood, also have a look at a couple of his other novels featuring Major Harry Maxim, once of the SAS,  and now attached for various reasons to 10 Downing Street in the closing days of the Cold War. These are:  The Secret Servant (1980),  The Conduct of Major Maxim  (1982),  The Crocus List (1985),  and Uncle Target (1988).

Gavin Lyall died in 2003 having written fifteen novels and two non-fiction works.


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.  🙂


Visual Memory

I was working on an illustration of N83FA following some other research this afternoon, and happened to cover the GIMP window I was using with my web browser.  Something else clicked in my mind as a result.

Here’s what I saw:

My desktop with the nose of a Carvair poking out from underneath the web browser

My desktop with the nose of a Carvair poking out from underneath the web browser

It was the size of the nose and position of the cockpit. I knew I’d seen it before.

And I had – back in my collection of paperbacks.  It was the cover illustration of Adam Hall’s spy adventure The Tango Briefing (London: Collins, 1973 – my paperback is Fontana, 1975).  The Tango Briefing is one of the “Quiller” series of novels about the eponymous British spy. In this case he must examine a missing British commercial transport aircraft which has just been located in the North African desert.

Cover of The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall

Cover of The Tango Briefing by Adam Hall – Illustration by Chris Foss, from for purpose of illustration / identification.

Adam Hall was another pseudonym of the prolific British author Trevor Dudley-Smith (1920-1995). also known as Elleston Trevor, (author of Flight of the Phoenix).  The paperback cover illustration is the work of British artist and illustrator Chris Foss, who illustrated a number of paperbacks in my collection.  Chris Foss might not have used a Carvair for a reference in this case, but you can see how my mind worked.