The Reluctant Pilot

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

It was my boyfriend who wanted to learn to fly. I only went along to the airfield to see what it was like. Research, in case I wanted to write about piloting a spacecraft one day.

The head of the flying school was there and spotted pretty quickly that I was faking it. “You don’t need a real licence,” he told me. “You want a wife’s licence. Forget the technical mumbo-jumbo. I’ll show you the radio and we’ll go up–you can even play with the flight controls.”

That was the moment when I decided I was going to get my pilot’s licence. A wife’s licence? The very idea!

By the time I had completed my lessons and passed my flight exam, I was hooked. I’d started up an aviation blog to write about flying, a place to store my thoughts and research and even my mistakes. I also started reading accident reports, a common pastime among pilots, a chance to learn from the safety of the armchair.

I don’t remember the plane crash that started it but I do remember that it was making headlines all over the world and that those headlines were complete and utter nonsense. Enough information had been released that it was pretty clear what had happened, but the popular press in the UK and the US had jumped to completely the wrong conclusions.

Initially, I was writing for my mother, trying to put all the facts together in plain English in a way that she could make sense of. I published the explanation on my blog and discovered that there were a lot of people who just wanted to understand what was going on. I ended up with a number of posts called things like “Just the Facts” to explain the known details behind the press reports. Soon, I was being asked for my reports before I’d even had a chance to get upset about the headlines. The day I knew I’d made it, the BBC news editor phoned me to ask for comment rather than waiting to see what showed up in my blog the following Friday.

Now I’ve published two books covering modern plane crashes and a third, which ate up months of my life, trying to distinguish fact from fiction in the news about Malaysia Airlines flight 370. It’s not a question of providing answers so much as explaining what data is important to consider and which conclusions can be sensibly drawn.

Because I’m short, plump and blonde, people are quite surprised to find out that I write about plane crashes. I end up having to warn them not to encourage me, because I will go on forever. I’ve never been afraid of flying (although I was very much afraid of being in control for my first solo), so I’ll happily chatter on about things like Six Exclamations You Never Want to Hear in the Cockpit without noticing that people are backing away with the blood draining from their faces.

I’ve never written any aviation fiction—I think I’m too close to the subject—although I did write a fake newspaper account of a plane crash that supposedly happens in 2020 and was quite pleased when I was asked whether it was real.

Writing about plane crashes has definitely had an effect on my fiction writing. I’m better at action scenes, definitely. It’s helped me improve at a sentence level, because I need to get very precise information across using everyday language without it ending up ambiguous, which is often a real challenge. I think I’m more careful to keep my sci-fi and fantasy logical, for some value of logical. I have written a few short stories now about space travel and I’m sure my piloting experience adds depth to those stories.

The other thing is that when you are flying, you must take control and make decisions. If you aren’t sure, you can’t just pull over to the side of the road and work things out. There’s no time for dithering—you have to take the risk of a bad decision rather than delay. As someone who likes to consider all the options and procrastinate decision-making in hopes of new information, this was a very hard lesson for me to learn. It’s definitely had an effect on my writing and my life: I’m much quicker to make up my mind and much more of a take-action person than I had been before.

SpruckWrigley-plane

Sadly, we sold our aircraft a few years ago and, since then, I haven’t been able to do much flying, although last year I did get the chance to go up in a Tiger Moth, which was completely amazing. I wrote up the experience for The Register but it was hardly me at my most competent… my legs were too short to reach the pedals and I almost crashed before we even got started, trundling towards the taxiway.

“Here’s the thing,” said the owner, who was sitting in the seat behind me. “We have no brakes. We’re following another aircraft. And we’re about to start rolling downhill.”

We survived, mainly because he took over. I suppose saying that I’m not afraid of flying isn’t strictly true. I’m not afraid of being in an aircraft with other people flying. I’m deathly afraid of my own mistakes.

Maybe that’s the biggest thing I learned from flying and analyzing accidents. The most important thing isn’t Never make mistakes. It’s to make sure you’ve done all that you can so that when you make a mistake, it isn’t fatal.

Nebula-nominated author Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was born in Germany and spent her childhood in Los Angeles. She immigrated to Scotland, where she guided German tourists around the Trossachs and searched for the supernatural. She now splits her time between South Wales and Andalucia, where she writes about plane crashes and faeries, which have more in common than most people might imagine. Her short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages. Her novella Domnall and the Borrowed Child is available now from Tor.com Publishing. You can find out more at her aviation blog Fear of Landing.

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