Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: "Blood on the Snow" by S.M. Belser

Allow me a mea culpa in advance, for I am about to bend one of the "house rules" here and offer a review of what is really not an aviation-related book. (I say "bend" rather than "break", as there is an airplane in the book and it performs honorably!) And, to provide Full Disclosure: author S.M. Belser is the keeper of the blog N333C, (see the sidebar) wherein she occasionally posts about her adventures as curator of an old Stinson 108. I've not met Ms. Belser "in real life", but know her fairly well as an online presence and think of her as a friend[*].

So let me give you a two-sentence review:

Blood on the Snow is an enjoyable mystery novel. If you like the works of the late Robert B. Parker – especially his 'Sunny Randall' novels – I believe you will find this work very entertaining.
So, now you can leave if you like. Do go over to Amazon, spring for the $1.99 and download Blood on the Snow to your Kindle or tablet. But if you want to stay with me a bit longer, I'll share some more detail on why I liked the book.
Some authors, it seems to me, forget an important principle that applies to stories with strong central protagonists. That is, that the individual at the center of the tale has to be likable! I've read other independently published novels that were well written and cleverly plotted, but which dealt with an unpleasant main character. This makes it very hard to enjoy the book. (Note, please, that 'likable' is different from 'virtuous'. I actually found Hannibal Lecter to be rather likable.) In Blood on the Snow, Lena Smirnova is a thoroughly satisfactory central character.

Lena is a small-town attorney in independent private practice in the north central US just east of the Great Divide. There are mountains nearby, the winter is long and snow doesn't count unless it's measured in feet. She has some law enforcement experience on her CV and supplements her small town lawyering income with occasional investigations. She's smart and perceptive and persistent, and she moves comfortably through the independent and self-reliant ambiance of the American west. And she does not suffer fools gladly.

To move the plot along (and it moves quickly!) the author calls on Lena's skills as a pilot, a skilled user of firearms, and a former cop who hasn't forgotten anything. In this tale, a grieving couple engages her to look into the death of their son, classified as 'a hunting accident' by the authorities. They aren't buying it. Lena accepts the engagement, starts pulling on threads, and soon finds a much larger set of issues than one not-so-accidental shooting death. To the author's credit, Lena doesn't go into Superhero mode, but methodically involves some really competent law enforcement types, while staying involved to the climax of the case.

This is a well written book. The author has a great ear for the cadences of upper-midwest and mountain speech that gives authenticity to the dialog. Her exposition surrounding aviation, firearms, lawyering and police procedure is effortless and provides verisimilitude. I can vouch for the quality of the aviation stuff and so I trust her on the bullets and badges.

The characters in the 'supporting cast', both good guys and bad guys, are also well realized. Many of them are small-town salt-of-the-earth types, and the author's affection for them comes through clearly. She likes them so Lena likes them, and so, naturally, I liked them.

I mentioned above that I found this book reminiscent of Robert B. Parker's work. I've enjoyed his books for the competent plotting, the crisp dialog and the engaging characters. Blood on the Snow also has these virtues.

Let me say a word about editing. I'd estimate that there are perhaps half a dozen instances, scattered among 300 pages, where I said, "A good editor would've caught that." But on the other hand, I've read tomes that I'd paid $30 for, from major publishing houses, with much higher rates of editing fails. It's really, really hard to proofread and edit your own work, so the solitary independently publishing author is at a disadvantage. These few bumps detracted in no meaningful way from my enjoyment of the book.

I stayed up way too late last evening finishing Blood on the Snow. And I smiled when I noted that on the last page Ms. Belser set us up for a sequel. If Lena is coming back, I look forward to getting to know her better. I hope we don't have to wait too long.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"We'd like the visual..."

Since the unfortunate landing short of Asiana 214 at KSFO on July 6th, there has been much comment on the difficulty that some heavy iron drivers may have when confronted with a visual approach (as opposed to a coupled instrument approach where the automation does the heavy lifting). This would seem not, however, to be a universal preference as the following exchange heard last night near Joint Base Andrews at about 21Z illustrates:

  • Air Force 1: "Potomac, Air Force One is 10 to the west at 10,000 on the FRDMM TWO arrival."
  • Potomac Approach: "Air Force One, descend and maintain 6,000 feet. Say approach requested.
  • Air Force 1: "Air Force One descending to 6,000...and we'd like the visual approach to 19 Right."

They had the boss on board, but with good Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) prevailing, I guess the crew of Air Force One felt confident about handling the visual approach at KADW.

And may I add that I'm proud to share the airspace with them.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Was that you, Sarah?

We (meaning N631S and I) had to deal with some weather on departure from Bridgeport (KBDR) this afternoon – which all went pretty well with the help of New York Approach. Thereafter the trip was routine, until we were south of Baltimore (KBWI). We were direct to Nottingham VOR (OTT), having been given a "heads-up" to depart OTT on a 250 heading and expect the visual approach at home plate (KVKX). We'd even been descended to 4,000 feet. Normal stuff.

That's when the nice controller said, "November 631 Sierra, descend and maintain 2,000, turn right to heading 240." It did sound a bit like my friend Sarah, but I didn't get a cheery, "Hi, Frank" so I don't know.

But at any rate, I smiled. From present position that 240 heading would take me right over Joint Base Andrews (KADW) and onto final for runway 24 at Potomac Field (KVKX). (See the plot at left, courtesy of FlightAware.com.) The wind was fairly strong from the west and 24 was going to be favored, so the shortcut across Andrews easily saved me 10 to 15 minutes. How nice is that? I keyed the mike and said, "31 Sierra hopes you'll pass my thanks along to the folks at Andrews." And that got the response, "We will!"

Visibility was fine, and from over the arrival ends of KADW's runways 1R and 1L I could see KVKX clearly. I reported that, and was cleared for the visual approach and invited to cancel IFR if I chose – which I did. The landing was uneventful.

So...an example of "safe, orderly and expeditious" handling on the part of Air Traffic Control (ATC). Just think, though, about what ATC had to do to save me those 15 minutes. The controller had to "have the flick" to the extent that she recognized, while handling the ongoing flow of air carrier aircraft into Washington National (KDCA), that little N631S would need to wind up on runway 24 at KVKX. She took the time to coordinate with Andrews so that I could be cleared to cross the south end of their airspace. And all of that was entirely on the controller's initiative. She could have just followed the path of least resistance by letting me continue to OTT, turn me southwest for a while and then head me in toward KVKX with a quick, "Report the field in sight." But that's not how she works.

I've heard General Aviation pilots complain about getting second-class service relative to the airlines. In my experience it's just not the case. If you bring your "A" game, and show the controller that you can respond competently, you and your "FLIB" will get professional service. Every time.