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Book review: Coonts takes to the skies again with trio of tales

By James E. Casto

"The Sea Witch." By Stephen Coonts. Forge. 256 pages. $24.99.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Stephen Coonts loves to fly. And he loves to write.

Fortunately for him, the West Virginia native has been able to combine both his passions, writing a whole shelf of high-flying best-sellers, beginning with "Flight of the Intruder," published in 1986.

Born in Morgantown, Coonts grew up in Buckhannon. After graduating from West Virginia University in 1968, he joined the Navy, where he learned to fly and spent two years piloting A-6 Intruder bombers over Vietnam and Laos. When he left the Navy, he earned a law degree at the University of Colorado and became a lawyer for an oil company. But he still had an itch to write.

Divorced in 1984, he says he found himself with "plenty of time and no money." So he sat down and wrote a novel based on his Vietnam combat experience. When he finished his manuscript and started sending it to publishers, 34 of them turned it down. Finally, an obscure military publishing house, the Naval Institute Press, agreed to publish it.

"Flight of the Intruder" spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. That success allowed Coonts to put his legal career aside and devote himself full time to writing. He's been hard at it ever since, publishing 16 New York Times best-sellers that have been translated and published around the world, in virtually every language you can think of.

His latest book, "The Sea Witch," is a collection of three novellas. In a brief preface, Coonts promises readers that the three involve "airplanes, adventures, life and death in the sky," and you don't have to read many pages before you realize he's more than made good on that promise.

The setting for the title story (for my money, easily the best of the three tales) is a squadron of PBY Catalina flying boats that's playing havoc with the Japanese in the Pacific at the height of World War II. Ordinarily the giant, ungainly planes were used for search-and-rescue missions or pressed into service as transports. But, as Coonts notes in his preface, a few Catalina squadrons painted their planes flat black, making them all but invisible at night. That enabled these Black Cat squadrons to sneak up on Japanese warships and freighters virtually undetected until they unleashed their bombs and depth charges.

Against that real-life background, Coonts introduces us to a fictional young dive bomber pilot who's been booted out of his previous squadron for reckless behavior. He's been demoted to a Black Cat squadron, and he's not happy about it but resolves to make the best of things. As the story unfolds, his first flight aboard the Sea Witch turns out to be its last. A daring mission forces the young pilot and the rest of the crew to band together as never before. Before the mission is over, each man finds out what he's made of -- and not all of them live to tell the tale.

Coonts says the second story in the collection, "The 17th Day," comes from his longtime fascination with World War I aviation. "I have always wanted to write a novel about WWI aviators, but it hasn't happened yet."

The story's title comes from a grim statistic: In 1915-16, the British military projected the average life expectancy of an aviator at the front at 17 days. Some went down in flames on their first day in combat. A lucky few of them flew and fought for as long as a year before being rotated back home. But the average was two weeks and three days.

Coonts writes about Paul Hyde, an American who has dropped out of college to fly for Britain's Royal Flying Corps. Hyde, we learn, was looking for adventure. What he found was death, as planes crashed all around him every day. We meet the young American on his 17th day of flying. The obvious question: Will he be able to beat the odds?

The gritty realism of the book's first two stories easily outshines the comic-book stuff of the third, titled "Al Jihad."

Charles Dean put in 30 years in the Marine Corps and became perhaps the best sniper in the Corps. But now he's retired and determined to be done with that part of his life. Then the daughter of his former commanding officer shows up with an intriguing proposition for him. It seems she wants to avenge the deaths of her parents at the hands of Islamic terrorists -- and she's intent on enlisting his help.

She says what she has in mind will be simple enough. All the two have to do is steal a Marine Corps tilt-wing V-22 Osprey, a transport that can take off and land vertically, and then fly it to the terrorists' remote desert hideout, blow them to kingdom come and fly back home. Not surprisingly, things turn out to be not quite that simple.

This reader's advice: Enjoy the first two stories in this collection, skip the third one and then hope that Coonts somehow finds the time to write that novel about World War I in the air.

Retired Huntington newspaperman James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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