James Salter, the Fighter Pilot’s Writer

An excerpt from the novelist’s memoir, Burning the Days.

During his last year Salter was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, the first since William Faulkner. (Dan Addison/U.Va. University Communications)
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Widely admired by other fiction writers but never well known to the general public, novelist James Salter died last month at the age of 90. After graduating from West Point in the closing days of World War II, Salter (his name then was James Horowitz) went into the Army Air Forces. In Korea he flew more than 100 combat missions, dueling Russian MiG-15s in an F-86 Sabre—experiences that formed the basis of his first novel, The Hunters, published in 1956. He quit the Air Force a year later to become a full-time writer of novels, short stories and screenplays, and turned mostly to other subjects, including languid tales of American expatriates in Europe, always rendered in precise, evocative prose. But it was Salter’s writing about aviation that earned him a reputation as one of the subject’s most literary chroniclers. The following excerpt, about a T-6 training flight gone wrong during his last year at West Point, is reprinted from Salter’s 1997 memoir, Burning the Days. — The Editors

AT STEWART FIELD the final spring, nearly pilots, we had the last segment of training. This was near Newburgh, about forty minutes from West Point. We wore flying suits most of the day and lived in long, open-bay barracks. That photograph of oneself, nonexistent, that no one ever sees, in my case was taken in the morning by the doorway of what must be the dayroom and I am drinking a Coke from an icy, greenish bottle, a ritual prelude to all the breakfastless mornings of flying that were to come. During all the training there had been few fatalities. We were that good. At least I knew I was.

On a May evening after supper we took off, one by one, on a navigation flight. It was still daylight and the planes, as they departed, were soon lost in their solitude. On the maps the course was drawn, miles marked off in ticks of ten. The route lay to the west, over the wedged-up Allegheny ridges to Port Jervis and Scranton, then down to Reading, and the last long leg of the triangle back home. It was all mechanical with one exception: the winds aloft had been incorrectly forecast. Unknown to us, they were from a different direction and stronger. Alone and confident we headed west.

The air at altitude has a different smell, metallic and faintly tinged with gasoline or exhaust. The ground floats by with tidal slowness, the roads desolate, the rivers unmoving. It is exactly like the map, with certain insignificant differences which one ponders over but leaves unresolved.

The sun has turned red and sunk lower. The airspeed reads one-sixty. The fifteen or twenty airplanes, invisible to one another, are in a long, irregular string. Behind, the sky has become a deeper shade. We were flying not only in the idleness of spring but in a kind of idyll that was the end of the war. The color of the earth was muted and the towns seemed empty shadows. There was no one to see or talk to. The wind, unsuspected, was shifting us slowly, like sand.

On my mind apart from navigation were, I suppose, New York nights, the lure of the city, various achievements that a year or two before I had only dreamed of. The first dim star appeared and then, somewhat to the left of where it should be, the drab scrawl of Scranton.

Flying, like most things of consequence, is method. Though I did not know it then, I was behaving improperly. There were light-lines between cities in those days, like lights on an unseen highway but much farther apart. By reading their flashed codes you could tell where you were, but I was not bothering with that. I turned south towards Reading. The sky was dark now. Far below, the earth was cooling, giving up the heat of the day. A mist had begun to form. In it the light-lines would fade away and also, almost shyly, the towns. I flew on.

It is a different world at night. The instruments become harder to read, details disappear from the map. After a while I tuned to the Reading frequency and managed to pick up its signal. I had no radio compass but there was a way of determining, by flying a certain sequence of headings, where in a surrounding quadrant you were. Then if the signal slowly increased in strength you were inbound towards the station. If not, and you had to turn up the volume to continue hearing it, you were going away. It was primitive but it worked.

When the time came I waited to see if I had passed or was still approaching Reading. The minutes went by. At first I couldn’t detect a change but then the signal seemed to grow weaker. I turned north and flew, watching the clock. Something was wrong, something serious: the signal didn’t change. I was lost, not only literally but in relation to reality. Meanwhile the wind, unseen, fateful, was forcing me farther north.

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