The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Reviewed by Annabel

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024Anyone who has ever been enthralled by reading or seeing the film of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s seminal story of the USA’s quest to break the sound barrier and the early days of NASA and the space programme, will realise that beyond the technological marvels, the successes, and the failures, is a human story. These pioneering heroes had wives and families, friends and colleagues, who are left behind every flight, every launch, wondering if their man will come home.

The Last Pilot is a novel about one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history.

The story starts in remote Muroc in the Mojave desert, home in the 1940s to the Air Corps top secret turbojet development programme.

The flight test center turned permanent after the war, with a small detachment of test pilots, engineers, technicians and ground crew. The men were slowly eaten alive by the sun slung high in the day and, at night, they froze, the hard desert wind howling loud around them, stripping paint from the planes and the trucks.

Jim Harrison returns home early after an dawn test flight. He jokes with his wife Grace about checking she wasn’t with the mail man. She tells him the doctor rang, they can see her on Monday. He says he’ll try and get the time off to come with her. The conversation turns to sad news:

Rick Bong augered in yesterday.

I heard, she said. Janice told me. I’m going over to see Marjory on Wednesday. So’s Jackie.

He was testing the P-80A, he said. Main fuel pump sheared on takeoff. Flamed out at fifty feet. No seat, so he pops the canopy, then his chute, but the airstream wraps him round the tail and they corkscrew in together.

He looked up at her.

He didn’t turn on his auxiliary fuel pump before takeoff, he said.

Jim-

How could anyone be so stupid not to turn on their auxiliary fuel pump before takeoff?

Sounds like it was just a mistake, Grace said.

There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.

Chuck Yeager next to experimental aircraft Bell X-1 #1 Glamorous Glennis. Source: Air Force Link (public domain)
Chuck Yeager next to experimental aircraft Bell X-1 #1 Glamorous Glennis. Source: Air Force Link (public domain)

This brings it home that the flight test programme eats pilots. Jim is one of the most skilful and arguably lucky ones. He and Chuck Yeager gradually inch towards their goal of breaking the speed of sound, though eventually Yeager will win the race in his plane nicknamed Glamorous Glennis after his wife.

The pilots like to let off steam after flying, and frequent the nearby bar run by Pancho Barnes, a wise-cracking aviatrix and former stunt-pilot. Pancho’s bar/hotel/ranch, known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club near Muroc, later renamed Edwards Air Force Base, is the stuff of true legend. In the novel, she will become a close friend of Jim and Grace and be a big help to them later on.

That doctor’s appointment will bring disappointment for Jim and Grace,as  the doc says she is unlikely to be able to have children. They get a dog, Milo. Then in 1959, a miracle happens – Grace is pregnant. They have a girl, Florence, who is the light of their lives, but it doesn’t last. Their gorgeous toddler gets ill.

After Florence’s death there is no reason for Jim not to join the space programme, having opted to stay at Muroc for Florence’s sake. He throws himself into the training and Grace hardly sees him, ending up marooned with the other astronaut’s wives in their little enclave, and unwillingly becoming part of the media circus that surrounds every launch.

The stress on both of them becomes unbearable – and something is bound to break…

Jim is repeatedly torn between devotion to his calling and devotion to his wife. It’s no wonder that Grace, left on the sidelines so often, finds solace in the local church at Muroc. Both will rely heavily on their friendship with Pancho; her clucking mother hen presence will be missed terribly when they move to Houston.

Johncock manages to blend the facts with the fiction to give us something that is thrilling, so profoundly touching too, you can’t help but be moved by this novel. Purists may dislike the lack of speech marks in Johncock’s text, but their absence adds a clean look to the spare feel of the writing. There is much left unsaid, but it is all there in the spaces.

Another presence throughout the book is that of the desert. The heat and the cold, the high plains and pure air, even its very remoteness is alluring. Muroc’s inhabitants are like the pioneers, or characters that could have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy Western. I did also wonder whether Johncock chose the name of his hero for the author of the Montana wilderness novella Legends of the Fall – Jim Harrison? The desert contrasts so with the humid jungles of Houston and the Cape, which must have felt claustrophobic to Jim and Grace.

The picture of a nation sitting on the edge of their seats in excitement over the space race also comes through. I was excited all over again even though the first steps happened before I was born and the novel ends before we reached the moon. Soberingly though, it also serves to remind us of the self-sacrifice of those test pilots who had to use every brain cell to fly their jets, arguably a more skilful job than that of the first astronauts who merely had to flick a switch or two.

You know that this wonderful debut novel was born out of a love of space – in the author’s note, Johncock says: ‘Finally, I was fortunate enough to meet Jim Irwin [Apollo XV] in 1990, and will always be grateful for his generosity and advice.’ In 1990, Johncock was only twelve.

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Annabel has always been fascinated by space too. She is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Benjamin Johncock, The Last Pilot, (Myriad Editions, Brighton, 2015) 9781908434845, 320pp., paperback original.

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