Uncontrolled Flight by Frances Peck

Buckle up, because the seat belt sign will be on throughout Frances Peck’s new novel, Uncontrolled Flight. With its flame engulfed cover, the bookhas all the details an aviation geek like myself could hope for and a complicated love triangle that romance buffs will drool over. With dishy bush pilots and aviation engineers swishing around in shape hugging outfits, driving luxury cars, and having liaisons in fancy hotels, you will be ready for a ticket to destination Fantasyland but watch out for extreme turbulence.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that the “Prologue” starts with a fiery crash and demise of veteran firefighter pilot, Rafe Mackie, as witnessed by the bird dog pilot, Will. A bird dog pilot leads the tanker pilot into the target area for the retardant, or water drop from a Bambi bucket, in the circuit. (A circuit is a rectangular pattern that pilots fly over a landing area, or in this case over a  burn. Although, a quick look at a flight tracking application shows that helicopters can fly in circles around fires. Not having experience with helis, there’s nothing I can add here.)

Will describes Rafe to readers, revealing their closeness that morning:

I saw him as soon as I parked the truck. Off to one side near the tarmac, head tilted skyward, still as a photo, taking it all in. Rafe Mackie, whose air tanker I’d soon guide in for a drop. Oddly for the most genial pilot on our team of cranky loners, he stood by himself. His hulking frame, slimmer than usual now that we were a couple of months into the season, cast an exaggerated shadow against the dingy vinyl siding of the maintenance shed. He stood motionless, like he was anchored there, staring up. My chest hitched a little seeing him that way, huge and alone. A solitary giant surveying an empty sky. 

The novel is set during a true and horrific wildfire season ten years ago in July 2013, in British Columbia’s Interior. You can still see the damage left behind by fire in areas in blackened scars on hills in the Interior, where trees once stood. The novel is told through three voices of the bereaved—his partner in the sky, Will, who witnessed his friend’s plane go down, Rafe’s wife, Sharon, and Nathalie Girard, whose role in Rafe’s life is as unclear and smoky as the air was that summer.  

Through Nathalie’s point-of-view, readers enter the fascinating world of aircraft crash investigation not only of the Tracker plane’s crash, but also of her other cases, including the crash of a Cessna 172, a four-seater plane. The C-172 Skyhawk is the most popular plane for flight schools and owned by many recreational pilots. 

The 1-7-2 is a high wing, single engine plane, with fixed landing gear that’s been manufactured since 1956. I’ve spent triple-digit hours flying this beloved workhorse as a flight student. It wasn’t uncommon to fly rental planes that were built the same year I was born, but the engines, props, other mechanicals had been replaced many times over. The steam instruments are often replaced with digital instruments.

Prior to learning on the 172, I began training on the Cessna 152, which is the two-seater version of the 172. The lighter smaller version of the 172 was a lot of fun to land, but it had limitations. You have to be light enough for proper weight and balance. If you and your passenger, usually the flight instructor, combined weights are too heavy, you may not get off the ground, or you might get airborne and even run into something, like a barn, hangar, or crash back onto the runway. Unfortunately, the 152s have been phased out due to difficulty finding parts and not being as profitable for rental. 

I started out admiring Nathalie Girard, a tough francophone Aircraft Mechanical Engineer, who climbed to the role of crash site investigator in a male-dominated industry, despite many barriers, both financial, emotional, and social, in her path. There was one flight school I went to where I was the only female flight student, so I felt a sisterhood with her. She’s guided by the adages of her deceased grandmother. “’Time enough for the boys after you finish with the college‘, Mémère said, her powdered jowls set firm. ‘They come sniffing around, you don’t have to let them lick, you get my point?’ Nathalie got it. Not one to mince words, her grandmother.”

The virtually impossible question that Nathalie must answer is, What caused an experienced ace pilot like Rafe to crash his plane when the weather was ideal and the fire conditions didn’t warrant it? The answer unfolds like an incredibly complex origami sculpture, keeping the reader turning the pages eager for the answers as much as the characters are, like what was in Rafe’s secret final letter to Will?

Many parts of the investigation triggered my flight training memories. Like the question if there was water in the fuel that may have caused an aircraft to stall and crash? Checking the fuel for particulates and contaminants is one of the many routine checks pilots do before every flight. 

I found water at the bottom trapped below the layer of blue aviation gas (av gas) in a 172 only once in all the flights I did and all the planes I’d rented. Of course, it wasn’t a routine training flight, but my long flight over the Arizona desert with several stops, that I’d spent many hours on the flight plan the night before. I spilled the liquid on the asphalt and there were the telltale beads of water dancing on the surface of the rainbow colours of av gas. 

My flight instructor, a burly ex-Marine navigator, redid the test and confirmed that indeed somehow water had found its way into the fuel. It took over three hours and four strong men to drain the tanks into buckets and pour the buckets into a filtration tank to separate out the water. I calculated the number of gallons drained from the tanks in the wings to ensure all the fuel was pumped out and added back evenly into the wing tanks. Turns out the fuel provider swapped tanks and it was contaminated with water. By then it was too late to go on the extended flight. Instead we went for Chinese food and put off the flight for a week.

The trim, that assists with adjusting the flaps usually on take off and landing, is called into question in the investigation. There are several ways the flaps are checked on the extensive preflight pilot’s checklist. On a small Cessna, the pilot does a manual check of the flaps to ensure that they move up and down freely, then once inside the cabin with the power on the pilot raises and lowers flaps with a lever to see that they’re in working order. If the plane fails to pass that, or any other of the tests, they consult with the engineer. If the plane requires maintenance, the pilot writes a note in the plane’s log book and it’s taken out of service until the repair is made.

Being familiar with principles of flight and airplanes, I can’t judge if a reader without prior aviation knowledge would be as captivated by the book’s aviation details as myself or not? However, Peck writes the technical details in a clear accessible manner. If you aren’t enraptured by all the hangar talk, the boudoir activities and interpersonal drama will keep readers engaged. 

Like Peck’s previous book, The Broken Places, about an earthquake in the Vancouver area, the characters slowly reveal their true motivations and actions in surprising ways.

In conversation with Peck, she says that her husband is a recreational pilot and confesses to having nightmares about his plane crashing and leaving her a widow. Fear has been her inspiration for both of her novels. 

The author’s voice surfaces in “Chapter Thirty-Seven, December”:

She does not love flying but does not hate it either, is neutral about takeoffs and landings. She does not particularly care for aircraft, cannot explain how they stay aloft, has never kept the terminology straight: piston, turbine, turboprop, single, twin. She knows the words but not their meanings. 

This is authentic as the non-pilot half of a couple rarely understands the passion of the one bitten by the expensive flying bug. The exhilarating feeling of pushing the throttle in for full power, until you hit take-off speed, then pulling back gently on the yoke and leaving the earth is addictive. Going fast, and having fun going through maneuvers.

Pilots love how trains and ships look like toys from thousands of feet above. The breathtaking views of sparkling ocean and sun dodging among the clouds. They feel a high when greasing a landing, and all the sounds and smells of the airport and their aircraft. They love the instruments that to laypersons look indecipherable and swapping stories with the other pilots over terrible coffee. Maybe, they look forward to how problems on the ground disappear during that time when hyper focused on the multiple tasks of flying—all four limbs working independently of each other yet as a team to make straight and level flight happen, like a drummer at their drum kit. 

Uncontrolled Flight (NeWest Press) will land at your local bookstore on September 1, 2023.

Frances Peck grew up in Cape Breton, NS; spent nearly two decades in Ottawa, ON; and now lives in North Vancouver, BC. During her career as an editor, ghostwriter, and educator, she wrote Peck’s English Pointers, co-wrote the HyperGrammar website, and taught workshops on editing and plain language across the country.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ NeWest Press (Sept. 1 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 368 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1774390752
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1774390757