Lions of the Sky author Paco Chierici tells how his 20-year career as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot influences his fiction writing.
A well-told story is just a delivery vehicle for emotion. The storyteller’s job is to earn the genuine reaction that viewers and readers crave—joy, fear, terror, exultation, love, and heart rending sadness. We all want to feel those things deeply; that’s why we are attracted to stories. And a finely crafted and layered story sets the reader up to have a satisfying experience.
The craft is in the setup. As a storyteller, I feel a great responsibility to bring the reader to those moments properly, so that they can relish them without cynicism. I feel that my experiences in the military gave me that grist so that I can faithfully render the whole range of emotions for the readers. In 20 years of flying jets in the Navy, I lived the gamut, and now I relive it as I share my experiences as fiction.
There is nothing quite like the nervous anticipation of walking out to a plane for your very first flight; it is a life moment. Very clearly not of the normal world that came before, and there is a realization that nothing will ever quite be the same again. The preparation is key: months, if not years, of single-minded dedication to arrive at that moment where you sit in the gear room donning the straps and harnesses of this new life. Thousands have failed before you, and thousands will fail after you, but you stuff those thoughts away as you march through the pageantry of your first pre-flight inspection, patting the plane, pretending to know what you’re doing. It is scary and delicious at the same time.
Not many things in life are equally both scary and delicious. Naval aviation is filled with those moments; from the time one wakes, to well after you lay your sleepless head on a pillow on a bunk bed deep inside a pitching, heaving aircraft carrier, nearly every second has built-in tension and drama.
While I was a fighter pilot in the US Navy for 20 years, I’ve been a writer all my life. I experienced my time in the service feeling as if I were bifurcated, both feeling the moments as they happened and observing them in a sort of out-of-body manner. I savored each sensation as much as possible, realizing they were special and temporary, trying as best I could to narrate them with an internal monologue of prose.
There is nothing like a dusk launch from a carrier on an oppressively humid day in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a million miles from land and my ordinary life. The sun sets hot and red on the evening cumulus clouds, lighting the horizon ablaze as hundreds of men and women scurry about through wisps of steam, escaping the catapults with a frenzied sense of purpose. They are each in the colored vests of their job and despite the chaotic, Midtown Manhattan at rush-hour dashing about, they each know exactly what their job and place is supposed to be. I would sit in my cockpit, minutes from being slung into the darkening sky, fascinated and humbled that this choreography was taking place for my kind, the aviators. In all my life, I have never seen hard work and dedication like I saw from the people who prepared the ship and planes so I could fly my jet.
My stories deal with how the people in the world of naval aviation experience the very real emotions that come with their career. I endeavor to show fighter pilots as real people who are privileged to occasionally transform into the super-human; to fly on the very tip of needles as fast as the mind can comprehend, one moment zipping over the water and dirt, and the next soaring at the very edge of space before crashing back down to earth. The return to land and the mundane world is inevitable, and occasionally tragic. Eulogies and missing-man formations are all too frequent when one misstep at the edge of the envelope causes planes and bodies to shatter into a million pieces.
My military career affects every aspect of my writing. From the high-level drama of geopolitical tensions to the dread and excitement of sitting on an ejection seat as your fighter plane howls at full power on a catapult, just moments from launching on a mission, my time in the Navy provided me with nearly endless firsthand source material for real-world, high intensity thrillers. My characters are compilations of the best, and worst, aspects of aviators I knew. The situations they find themselves in are slightly fictionalized actual events strung together to create a cohesive storyline.
The Navy taught me how to fly fighters, but it also gave me the ingredients to earn the emotions I want my readers to feel. My goal is not to tell a story, but to have the reader experience it along with the characters. You’re coming along for the ride; you’d better tighten your shoulder harness.
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