DARK WING. By Richard Herman Jr. Simon & Schuster. 41 pages. $23.
I WAS REALLY looking forward to reading a novel featuring military aircraft with a distinct Maryland connection. This novel includes much discussion about the A-10, a close-air-support combat jet that was built at the Fairchild Industries plant in Hagerstown from 1975 to 1984. Occasionally, you can see A-10s flying overhead. The award-winning 175th Tactical Fighter Group xTC of the Maryland Air National Guard pilots a fleet of A-10s out of Martin State Airport.
It's not sleek and sexy like other contemporary combat jets and it doesn't even come close to breaking the sound barrier. So, despite its important mission, it doesn't often get a starring role in military fiction.
But Richard Herman Jr. showcases the A-10 in this novel about an Air Force Reserve unit that's facing deactivation as a result of defense cuts and the phasing out of what many consider to be an obsolete airplane. The fictional 303rd Tactical Fighter Squadron is saved from the boneyards when civil unrest explodes in Southern China against an evil warlord. In direct parallel to the Flying Tigers of World War II, the 303rd TFS is mobilized and sent to China as a modern American volunteer fighter squad.
While the plot sounds interesting, the novel fails to provide the necessary drama. The character with the most depth and believability is the A-10 itself. The humans in this battle of good vs. evil are too black and white: Complexity is missing.
For example, the main character, squadron leader Matthew Pontowski, is no less than the grandson of a former president and his wife is nothing less than a "Raven haired Israeli beauty" and former Mossad agent. At the beginning of the book we find the big Hawaiian, Sgt. Kamigami (a special operations operative for the U.S. Army), in prison in present day Hanoi. We soon learn that he is capable of incredible feats of strength and readily demonstrates his martial-arts skills.
Kamigami is just too much like Rambo to be believed. The men of the real Delta Force deserve more than cheap Hollywood imagery when they are depicted in fiction and they deserve far more realistic portrayals than the ridiculous Rambo persona. Kamigami is chosen by the U.S.-backed Chinese rebel leader to be commander of the rebel army. Here Kamigami meets and falls in love with a beautiful (of course) Chinese Feng Sui prophet. Certainly there is a place for Asian mysticism in a novel like this, but it takes a skilled author to pull it off with credibility. Mr. Herman's characters all fall short when it comes to credibility.
He presents us with the U.S. Air Force of the near-future, with women routinely flying combat missions. There are a few women (the fact is, there aren't a lot of men) who possess the ideal combination of physical strength, situational awareness and killer instinct necessary to horse 30,000 pounds of airplane around the sky with the intent of destroying other humans.
But his portrayal of these military women doesn't ring true. For example, a woman pilot makes a big fuss about doorless bathroom stalls. The women pilots I've met readily accept such combat conditions as just a part of the job.
Mr. Herman's male fighter pilots and officers are portrayed as sensitive men of the '90s, trying to act tough. They just aren't believable: "A thing of beauty" is one of Pontowski's many over-used slogans that makes it sound like Mr. Herman would like to see Pontowski played by Clint Eastwood in a politically correct Dirty Harry movie. I have never met a fighter pilot who was sensitive or politically correct.
Mr. Herman is credited with 242 combat missions in Vietnam and thousands of hours of flying time in fighter and transport-type aircraft. However, he doesn't convey the drama of flying in combat; his descriptions of aircraft and weapon systems sound as if they came from Jane's All the World's Aircraft guide.
At one point, we learn of the death of a character on a flying mission in one sentence: "He never saw the Chinese J-6 fighter that blew him out of the sky with a Pl-2 air-to-air missile." Certainly death can come quick in the air to a combat pilot, but what about the Chinese pilot? It would take some planning and maneuvering to "blow someone out of the sky."
Although the characters and the dialogue are flawed, the political inter-workings of the government and military officials on both sides of the conflict are presented in an interesting and even enlightening fashion. National Security Agency adviser Bill Carroll plays a driven and competent man who surrounds himself with an effective staff to set up a covert logistical pipeline for the American volunteer group and ward off corrupt government officials and short-sighted congressional committees. The pipeline is supported by Japanese interests and is routed surreptitiously through Hanoi with intriguing detail.
Lt. Col. Sung Fu is the commander of a People's Liberation Army Surface to Air Missile Battery. The six SA-2 SAMS under his control are a serious threat until a supporting Airborne Warning and Command or AWACs plane directs the A-10s against this missile site. His missile battery decimated, Col. Sung Fu pursues the AWACs with a vengeance. This is an acronym filled subplot reminiscent of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to save the novel. Only those truly interested in reading any fiction about military types will probably want to read it. Mr. Herman deserves a great deal of credit as an experienced and decorated combat pilot for his country, but "Dark Wing" will rank low on his list of literary achievements.
Jason Eagley, a certified commercial pilot who briefly served with the 135th Air National Guard, writes from St. Mary's.