It’s All In The Details

by Steve on July 25, 2006

Being an aspiring novelist and avid reader, I pay close attention to the plot structure and characters when I read. You can learn from both the good and the bad. We read novels for entertainment, to escape our every-day lives and enter another world. An exciting, twisting plot with well-developed characters is a must for me personally but nothing kills the illusion faster than glaring errors in the details. Especially when those errors allow the plot to advance when it could not do so without them. Bad form and it destroys the suspense because all of a sudden you’re slapped with indisputable reality telling you that what you’ve just read is impossible or flat out wrong. I can tolerate a stretch of the imagination, after all we’re talking about fiction here, but it’s supposed to be conceivable.

Given the dismal state of commercial air travel, I never embark on a trip without a book to hide in. Most of the time I rely on the airport newsstands to supply the latest Clancy or Coonts. What, no new ones by either? Time to search the racks for an acceptable alternate. A while back I found myself in this situation, particularly short on time, and reduced to scanning cover art and titles for a likely candidate. No time to read the back cover. Grab and go. Gordon Kent, Top Hook, also author of Rules of Engagement. Picture of F-14 in tension, in full burner on cover. Hmmm… cheesy but it’ll do. Drop the $7 and run for the gate.

About the author: Gordon Kent is the pseudonym of a father-and-son writing team, who both have extensive personal experience in the US Navy and are former intelligence officers. The son earned his Observer Wings in S-3 Vikings, and left active duty in 1999. (Blurb on…)

Okay, these guys ought to know their stuff, what with the son being a squadron AI and all. It was an entertaining read, decent plot with good characters, but details killed it. Stuff that a Naval Aviation Intelligence officer should have been able to describe accurately or at least had the presence of mind to ask his buds for a little help.

The slips start with a total hydraulic failure. The Viking airframe, being late 60’s/early 70’s technology, is hydraulically boosted but mechanically controlled – no fly by wire. In the unlikely event that you lose both hydraulic systems, you still have full flight control authority with the control STICK. The Viking is after all a tactical jet (Pinch and Lex may argue the point) and thus controlled with STICK and throttles. When author throws the hydraulic failure at his crew, we get this:

“Hydraulics!” Alan could see Stevens fighting the YOKE. (emphasis added – it’s not a damn Cessna)

Later on in the emergency he brings in an F-14 for a visual check who confirms that “there was a hydraulic fluid leak somewhere in the landing gear strut.” Hmmm… you mean the landing gear strut that’s still tucked up in the belly of the fuselage behind the gear door? A few sentences later: “Why don’t we try and deploy the gear now?” Ah, yes – no way that Tomcat crew could have seen the gear – it was UP! Then he has the crew attempt to crank the gear down manually. I don’t remember that option. Let’s check the S-3B PCL – nope, no crank. Procedure is: gear handle down, emergency gear extension handle pull. That releases a stored charge and blows the gear down. But wait, there’s more. Later they talk about cycling the gear handle – you have no hydraulic pressure and you’ve initiated emergency gear extension. Any pilot knows cycling the gear at this point’s a no-no.

Then later they land an S-3 on a gravel airstrip which in itself would be okay in an emergency but this situation was a passenger drop or rather insertion into Pakistan and the jet took off again. Now jets and gravel don’t mix. The engines are extremely picky about what they ingest; nothing but clean air or you have a come-apart on your hands. Operating out of a gravel strip – highly unlikely. Again, not a damn Cessna.

Then there’s Frick – the affectionate name we used to call the pile of lead weights used to balance the ejection seats if there were only three crew on the launch. Gordon makes mention of the weights strapped into the forth seat “to balance the plane.” Right. An aircraft weighing over 40,000 pounds does not need 200 pounds to balance out the crew. Frick serves one purpose and it’s not to balance the aircraft. He’s there in case of ejection: the S-3 ejects both rear seats simultaneously followed about half a second later by both front seats again simultaneously. If you’re in the back you don’t want to be sitting next to an empty seat because the laws of physics dictate that the rocket under the empty seat will win the race to get free of the aircraft and dash two will get fried in the process. Next.

While landing on a highway (really?): “…and it was down, and the engines roared as it braked itself, taxiing, and rolled out”. No trust reversers on an S-3, Gordo.

And finally we have the obligatory save-the-day fur ball where old Gordo really screws up the language and terminology. A fighter pilot, RIO, or even Google would have saved him major embarrassment here:

He got a firing solution with his “Buffalo” AIM 54Cs and fired one.
“Fox one.”
… After five seconds he fired a second missile.
“Fox two.”

It’s an AIM 54 “Phoenix” missile and the appropriate call for the Phoenix would be “Fox three.” The “Fox” count refers to the guidance type of the missile you’ve just launched into the fur ball so all the friendlies involved know what’s in the air. You could shoot six Phoenix missiles and every launch call would be “Fox three.”

And to top it all off the ending kind of leaves you hanging. No closure. The climax is a little anti. He can’t finish with finality – then where would he start his next novel. It’s a series much like Clancy did with his Jack Ryan character only it’s executed in such a manner that you feel cheated. As if you just read one chapter in a larger book. As I said, just entertainment to keep me from watching the delays scroll across the board. Hopefully I can avoid such pitfalls in my own writing. The technical errors that I’ve identified might seem insignificant to civilians with no aviation experience but there is a large portion of Gordon’s target audience that will pick up details like these.

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