Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review: "Tail of the Storm" by Alan Cockrell

Tail of the Storm
Alan Cockrell
Univ. of Alabama Press,
1995, 232pp.
The literature of aviation, much like that of the sea, tends to divide into three broad categories: descriptive, prescriptive, and lyrical. For example, The Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts is a good example of the descriptive (i.e., the "there-I-was" category) with occasional gusts of lyricism. Wolfgang Langewiesche's Stick and Rudder pretty much defines the prescriptive (i.e., the "here's-how-to-do-it") segment. And Stranger to the Ground by Richard Bach is one of the finest exemplars of lyrical (i.e., "joy-and-beauty-of-flight") aviation prose.

Sometimes a work will begin in one mode and fool you by shifting quietly into another. Ernie Gann's Fate is the Hunter begins in the descriptive manner and soon transmutes into a nearly spiritual experience of lyrical writing.

To be sure, it's unfair to force on a contemporary author a comparison with one of the masters. But Alan Cockrell's Tail of the Storm stirred for me the same sorts of feelings as Fate is the Hunter. Capt. Cockrell begins with a straightforward description of some life-events that led up to his role as a C-141 Aircraft Commmander in the time of the first Gulf War. (The title is a reference to the "logistical tail" that followed the Army into Operation Desert Storm.) These descriptive parts of the tale are well structured and fascinating for those of us that have lost our hearts to the sky...and would not be off-putting for the groundling reader.

But then, gently and skillfully, he shifts his focus from training regimens and turbines and JP-4 to passions and friendship and courage and faith. He writes warmly of fellow aviators whose paths through sky and life have crossed and affected his; and also of the machines that have brought him here, from the Cessna 150 in which he soloed to the C-141 "Starlizard" that is central to this book.

Tail of the Storm gives an excellent picture of "life on the line" for the aircrews that delivered the goods for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This story in turn provides a platform for an account of one aviator's career. And that tale provides context for glimpses into the heart and soul of an airman. At each level, it's a tale well told.

Capt. Cockrell maintains an excellent blog, Decision Height*, through which you can access excerpts from this excellent memoir. As usual, it's available through Amazon. I very much enjoyed it.

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