Having recently had an idea for a novel involving a female fighter pilot (and no, it's never going to be the one you think it will be - not from me anyway!), I saw this on Net Galley inviting review requests, and I jumped at the chance to read a first-hand account. Subtitled "My Life in War, Peace, and the Cockpit of the Navy's Most Lethal Aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet," this book was a fascinating story of the life of a Navy Lieutenant from induction to flying combat missions over Iraq, and it was everything I hoped it would be. I'm very grateful to the publisher for my chance to read and review this advance review copy. Or maybe I should say 'ARC' since we're into military jargon territory now, which as the author makes clear, is almost a foreign language!
This book was perfect for me because I've read several books written by military personnel, including a Navy SEAL and others, but always written by men, and I really wanted a female take on it because I knew this would be more informative than the gung-ho macho perspective too many male writers adopt. That does not mean, by any means, that there was no machismo or gung-ho spirit here. Caroline Johnson - callsign 'Dutch' - was a navy fighter pilot after all - planning and executing more than 700 flight missions, but all of that was tempered by a hell of a lot of other perspectives and it made the reading so much more rounded, with depth and sharp insight. I read it in two days which is not quite a record for me, but it is a sterling effort these days for a book that exceeds 280 pages of tightly packed print! I usually prefer my books shorter, but this one seemed short because it was to the point, with short chapters and an easy-reading style.
Talking of which, I often rail at books which waste paper by having wide margins and widely-spaced text. I've never had to rail the other way, but I came close this time because the book was really tightly-packed! It reminded me of my own tree-saving formatting, although mine isn't as tight as this one. I could not get it to look how I wanted it in Adobe Digital Editions, which I've been using lately because Bluefire Reader - my usual go-to reader, had been giving me grief with a lot of the illustrated books I've been reading recently, but this time, I went back to BFR, which gave me control over the font, and so I finally got it into a format that was easy on the eye and ran with it.
When I first began reading this (it has a prologue and and epilogue, both of which I skipped as I do routinely in any book) and followed the author through her military schooling, I confess I started to wonder where the harassment was. I've read much about harassment and hazing of female conscripts, and there seemed to be none here, which made me wonder if something was being left out, but it seems it was not, because this kind of thing, it would appear, did not happen in college, but was reserved for when you would least expect it: when Lt Johnson was assigned to her first combat role with the VFA-213 Blacklions which flew deadly Hornets off aircraft carrier CVN-77 USS George HW Bush, the tenth and final Nimitz-class carrier to be commissioned into the USN, and named after the USA's 41st president who was a naval aviator in World War Two.
Lt Johnson got her first taste of this shameful conduct when she arrived on base and went to a meet-and-greet kind of a get-together, and was assumed, by the Navy wives there, to be the wife of a male aviator. When she revealed that she was herself the new pilot and was single, she was shunned by these other women which was a disgraceful way to treat anyone in national service in good standing - typically first in her class. Later in the book, Lt Johnson tries to excuse these women for their conduct, and that's her choice, but to me their behavior, particularly against another woman, was inexcusable, even if it's understandable from their shaky perspective.
This isn't the only issue she had as a female pilot in a "man's world" and she lists many, many others, but she rose through them all and she did her job in outstanding fashion. In doing her sworn duty she got some kind of release from that when flying missions - combat or practice or something in between. Even though missions were stressful in themselves, they were fun, until after many years and long deployments they were not so much fun, especially when these pilots wanted to do something about the atrocities they could see ISIS committing on the ground and could not engage because the order had not yet come down from the commander-in-chief to go weapons hot.
The stress doesn't let up even when a pilot isn't even flying, because you never know when you will hear of a Navy plane crash as this author did on more than one occasion, and cannot help but wonder if it's someone they knew from college, from training, from flying, who died. In those circumstances, the Navy requires all personal phones to be on lockdown so no one can even call to tell their own family they're ok, not until the family of the deceased has been personally told by a Navy representative.
The actual combat and near-combat missions are not the most interesting thing in this book, interesting as they are. What I enjoyed most was learning of the day-to-day routine, the cramped conditions (it's not just on submarines where people live on top of one another!), the limited access to things we take for granted, the sometimes long days, down to the the numbed butt from sitting in a hard seat for several hours (the seats are hard so that there is no movement of legs in the event of an emergency eject, which takes place so fast that it could break a thigh-bone, were there any give in the seat).
One of the things you'd be unlikely to find in this book had it been written by a guy, was the issue of going to the bathroom while flying! Astronauts have this taken care of, but not so much the pilots. There are special devices designed for women, believe it or not, but the old version doesn't work well and the Navy wouldn't spring for the new version because it was more expensive (these devices are in the range of thousands of dollars, and unlike Red Wing flying boots, it's not something a pilot can just go out and buy on their own dime). One chapter described an amusing, although inexcusable, situation for a pilot to be put in when they've been on a mission for too long, and despite avoiding drinking too much fluid beforehand, they find themselves absolutely having to go.
So this book had it all - the highs and the lows, and the details I'd been most interested in learning about, and it was a fascinating read on almost every page for me. There were almost no issues I had with it, but I'll mention two which I think worth mentioning. The first is the claim made in the opening paragraph of chapter seven that "The United States is the only country in the world to dare to take off and land on aircraft carriers at night...." This is simply untrue. Even as I write this, British pilots are doing this very thing on their new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, and this isn't the first time they've ever done this! Nor are they the only other navy which does this. When you think about it, it makes no sense. Why would a navy restrict itself like that and give potentially hostile nations the knowledge that they can get up to something as darkness falls knowing that the nearest aircraft carrier can do nothing about until the sun comes up because they don't fly at night? Nonsense!
The other issue was that there are no pictures in the book. I didn't expect anything that's potentially compromising, or group shots of happy pilots and graduates, but it would have been nice if there had been pictures of the aircraft and the aircraft carrier!) mentioned in the text. There were many airplanes mentioned, and while I have seen some up close and personal, I've enver seen a Hornet. Each of these planes I had to look up to get an idea of what craft was being discussed, which wasn't a huge hardship, but it was a nuisance. Military terminology and acronyms were explained, but we were not even treated to a description of the aircraft, let alone an image.
I feel that would have been an improvement, but even without that, I consider this book to be essential for anyone who is seriously interested in the military. I commend it as a worthy and satisfying read, and I thank Lt Johnson for her service and for being so candid about it in this book.