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SOLO: My Adventures in Air

By Clyde Edgerton

276 pages. $23.95.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Reviewed by William Grimes


When the novelist Clyde Edgerton watched television as a boy, a local station signed off the air with the image of an F-104 fighter jet ascending into the clouds while a voice read "High Flight," an inspirational poem. That did it. Edgerton, already entranced by airplanes, was hooked. That little bit of film, he writes in "Solo," his spare, heartfelt celebration of the flying life, "centered all my aspirations and hopes about where I'd end up: in a jet fighter cockpit."

Edgerton found his way to that cockpit, flying combat missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in 1970 and 1971, but along the way, and after the war, he flew all kinds of airplanes. He started with a little Cherokee 140, the training airplane for ROTC students at the University of North Carolina, graduated to an F-4 carrying a nuclear bomb while in the Air Force and, in middle age, rekindled his love affair with the air by buying a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser called Annabelle. Each of the planes had its idiosyncrasies, but in all of them even the OV-10 that carried him into Laos he found a strange combination of exhilaration and serenity.

Although Edgerton compares the feeling of flying solo to the biblical peace that passeth all understanding, he spends much of "Solo" explaining how to get an airplane off the ground and fly it. Like a good flight instructor, he has a way of making the confusing array of dials, flaps and pedals comprehensible, and his gift for the homey comparison clarifies the hand-eye maneuvers required to roll, bank, fly in formation and pull an airplane out of a spin.

What does a runway look like to a pilot in the air? Imagine a toothpick pointing toward you in the middle of a long dining room table. To understand the physics of flight, just hold a stiff hand out the window and feel the way the wind flows over and under it. If this sounds silly, it isn't. As a young pilot, after reading a confusing passage in a textbook or flight manual, Edgerton writes, "I'd have to make my hand into an airplane, fly it around and think."

The narrative moves from airplane to airplane, helpfully illustrated by small outline drawings of the model under discussion.

After mastering the pocket-size Cherokee and messing up badly on a solo flight when he confuses minutes and miles on his flight- planning card, Edgerton takes on increasingly powerful airplanes and more intricate maneuvers. Early in his Air Force training, flying a T-41, he masters the fine art of executing a 90-degree banked turn without tipping over a Zippo lighter standing upright on the instrument panel.

"Solo" begins as the sunny evocation of a boy's dream, all blue skies and puffy white clouds, but it soon takes on a darker cast.

Stationed in the Far East, Edgerton forms part of a strike force prepared to hit Vladivostok with nuclear weapons. He and his fellow pilots wear helmets with gold-plated sun visors to protect their vision from a nuclear blast. Edgerton, in a rather unsatisfying coda to "Solo" in which he reflects on his role as a cog in the machinery of war, confesses that the implications of dropping a nuclear weapon never crossed his mind. The routines of the Cold War remained an abstraction.

Vietnam was different. Edgerton arrived in Thailand, his home base for conducting forays into Laos, as a fervent advocate of the war, which he had to defend to his father. In time, he lost his faith, although why, exactly, he does not explain. What he does do, impressively, is communicate the feeling of flying into combat.

When an American plane goes down in the jungle, Edgerton decides, at great risk, to descend through thick cloud cover and, flying at treetop level, pick up signals from two downed pilots. In his mind, something like panic quickly becomes, thanks in part to endless training and in part to esprit de corps, a clear-eyed determination that today Edgerton finds peculiar. All other options seemed blocked.

After Vietnam, and out of the Air Force, Edgerton found a new life as a teacher and writer. His love of flying found its way into novels such as "The Floatplane Notebooks" (1988), but outside the pages of fiction, he rarely flew. One of the great pleasures of this modest, winning memoir is his rediscovery of his youthful passion. In Annabelle, a funny-looking, high-nosed three-person plane, Edgerton finds true love the second time around. It's a match made in sky-blue heaven, with just enough room, in the back seat, to accommodate a happy reader.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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