For most of the latter half of the last century, nuclear war was the preferred disaster (see Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz). Of late, however, the pendulum seems to have swung back to favor pestilence. Which brings us to Peter Heller's recent work, The Dog Stars.
Fine, you say, ...but what has this got to do with aviation? Well, the connection involves one of the important supporting characters in the story. In this tale, a virulent strain of influenza has carried off almost all of the population. The protagonist, a survivor who goes by the name Hig, lives at an airfield. He has a friend, and a dog, and an airplane. That would be the Beast.
"I hand pump the 100 low lead aviation gas out of the old airport tank when the sun is not shining and I have the truck too that was making the fuel delivery. More fuel than the Beast can burn in my lifetime if I keep my sorties local, which I plan to, I have to. She's a small plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut. Cream and blue. I'm figuring I'm dead before the Beast gives up the final ghost."
The friend is the aptly named Bangley, who is testy and a bit of an odd duck, but who has the redeeming virtue of being a crack shot and well equipped with automatic weapons and things that go boom. Hig and the Beast patrol their perimeter from the air and Bangley sees to security. Hig's other job is to go up to the hills with his dog Jasper and bring back the occasional deer or some carp (the trout being gone since the streams warmed up).
Hig's life is pretty stable, but his focus is on the things that are gone. The things of Before. He holds on tenaciously to the connections with Before.
But of course, the connections break and Hig comes adrift. He has to go off in search of new moorings. It's the Beast that enables him to do this, taking him to unexpected places where unforeseeable events turn him away from the past and toward the future. And when he has to get himself (and newly met others) out of a tight spot he achieves his goal using his own skill and the Beast's reliability and horsepower. (Incidentally, this occurs in one of the best accounts of a back-country short field takeoff that you'd ever care to read. I couldn't breathe 'til they cleared the trees!)
At the end of the tale, Hig still has a precarious existence, albeit with a couple more people to be close to. But he's shed his longing for the past and found reasons to hope for a better future. And he's still flying.
The Dog Stars would be a fine read even without the airplane. Peter Heller writes vividly and packs a great deal of meaning into few words. The reader comes to know Hig quite well and to care what happens to him. And for a pilot, the aviation related scenes are icing on the cake. The author presents them using correct terminology but never lapsing into jargon that might put off the groundling reader. And very few errors crept in during the editing process (though I did wince when an oil change involved a case of "50 straight weight Arrowshell").
We learn that the Beast wears registration N6333A which, by coincidence, is also the N-number of a '56 Skylane owned by Peter C. Heller of Denver, CO. So Hig comes by his love of flight legitimately. I recommend Mr. Heller's book to you, and I hope he and '33 Alpha enjoy many years of flying together.