• Gail Wilson Kenna

Burning the Days: Aviators James Salter, Earl Brown, Ian Duncan, Avi and Mike

A few times since March 2020, I’ve departed from ‘literature I’ve loved’ and twice noted the deaths of two pilots for whom I felt deep affection. They were Lt. General (retired) William Earl Brown and Ian Duncan, whose passion from his youth was flying.

“Some were put on earth to fly,” James Salter wrote, this literary pilot whose prose I truly admire.

During the Korean War, Earl Brown and James were in the same F-86 squadron in Korea. They faced Russian MIG-15 fighters, and both these men lived to tell their tales. Salter describes “flying in panic but also calm, as if observing from some higher, safer place.” He was known by his birth name then, not the pseudonym he adopted when he left the Air Force and became a famous writer of film scripts and novels.

When Salter’s book, Burning the Days, first appeared in 1997, he invited Earl Brown and other pilots from his old squadron to Politics and Prose in D.C. to hear him read from his ‘recollection’, as is written beneath the book’s title. At the time I lived close to the Browns in Alexandria and hurried over soon after that evening to hear Earl describe his reunion with Salter. That’s when I came to admire this author’s small, short, perfect novel, A Sport and a Pastime, written in 1967 and re-issued in 1995. And the copy Earl gave me was signed by James Salter.

Today, revisiting Burning the Days, I thought about two living pilots. One is our family’s friend, Avi, who shares older daughter Michelle’s birthday. Avi flew for the Israeli Air Force and retired as a bird colonel. Then he went from sleek fighters to large aircraft and flew for El Al. Earlier, during the Yom Kippur war, Avi had to endure countless surgeries for extensive burns after the crash of his Kaffir. Yet he lived to tell the tale. Another aviator is my husband Mike, who flew multiple aircraft, from small planes, which included the QU-22 during the Vietnam war, to the huge C-5, and two other planes in Venezuela and Peru.

I must admit that when I married Mike, I had flown only in the economy section of commercial aircraft, which meant I had zero understanding of an aviator’s world. Back then in 1968, Mike was at the end of USAF training in San Antonio, flying a white bird, the T-38, and going into afterburner on take-off and breaking the sound barrier in flight. I found the T-38 beautiful to watch in the skies above Randolph AFB in Texas. Still, I lacked any sense of the skill, not to mention the fortitude, that this flying involved. In Mike’s class, only three pilots of the remaining 33 were given fighters; and one is still listed as MIA in Vietnam. That September of 1968, Mike’s assignment was the C-141 (C for cargo), and later he trained in the new, much larger C-5. At some point in the mid to late 1970s, I won a drawing among officer’s wives at Travis AFB in Northern California. This meant I was allowed to sit in the cockpit of a C-5 on a training flight to Tahoe and back to base. Being a mechanized idiot, I stared at the extensive instrument panel during the flight and was left in a state of awe. From that direct experience I came to appreciate what Mike remembered and executed in order to pilot that gigantic aircraft on the long flights to Japan, Vietnam, and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Much later in the 1990s, Mike had a C-12 with his position as Defense Attaché to Venezuela. Luckily, I was able to accompany him to Caribbean islands to which he was accredited. Flying in a white plane with its inscribed, United States of America in blue and gold, was special beyond words. The two-engine C-12 with its propellers and single seats for eight passengers gave me a sense of what Salter meant with these words.

“The greatest things to be seen, the ancients claimed, are sun, stars, water and clouds.”

I will forever appreciate that experience of flying with Mike throughout the Caribbean. Once with the U.S. ambassador to Trinidad onboard, Mike flew very low so the ambassador could clearly see Tobago up close. Seated across the narrow aisle from her, I watched her grab the hand of her husband, seated just in front. I had become accustomed to air turbulence in the C-12. Yet I knew the fright she felt. “Ambassador,” I said softly. “Not to worry. You have the finest of pilots up there.”

Yes, I think now… some were put on earth to fly.

And I have been fortunate to know four of them personally, and the late James Salter through his remarkable prose.

Next week: “Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…Koran, LV11,19.”

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