I remember, back when I lived in Kentucky, watching news coverage one evening of a midair collision that had occurred that day. The TV news reporter was giving his report on the accident while standing in front of a tied-down Piper Archer at the local airport. The Archer had foam-backed, silver, reflective sunshades in all of its windows — the kind many pilots use to keep the sun from damaging the interiors of airplanes parked outdoors. As the TV reporter solemnly related the known details of the crash, he noted that the pilot of one of the airplanes had been an instrument student practicing maneuvers (the reporter paused and gestured to the blocked Piper windows behind him) "under the hood."
"What?!" a friend watching with me exclaimed. "You fly airplanes with the windows covered up?"
I'm sure my friend wasn't the only one watching who was left with that misimpression. (For nonpilot readers, a "hood" is a visor, or set of glasses with partially obscured lenses, that's worn by student pilots to simulate flight in clouds by restricting the wearer's vision to the instrument panel. But pilots use a hood only if they have a safety pilot/instructor sitting next to them with a complete and unrestricted view out of the airplane's windows.)
It's a familiar tale. In fact, if pilots had a dollar for every time they've had to grit their teeth over inaccurate portrayals of aviation in the news, Hollywood movies and other outlets, there would be a lot more expensive airplanes in hangars around the world.
So while there are many other reasons to read the books produced by best-selling author, pilot and sailor Stuart Woods, one of the best is that he not only includes a lot of flying in his novels — he also gets the details right.
Woods was almost 40 years old when he first got interested in flying. He'd just returned to his hometown of Manchester, Georgia, after spending several years living in England and Ireland. He'd gone to London to work in an ad agency and then, after a couple of years, had gone to Ireland and rented a converted barn in County Galway with the idea of sequestering himself away to write the great American novel.
While Woods struggled with colossal writer's block on the novel, he took up sailing and soon was putting far more energy into his new hobby, except for the couple of days a week he still worked as an advertising writer in Dublin to pay the bills. Then Woods' grandfather — a storekeeper back in Manchester, Georgia — died and left Woods a bit of money. He used the small inheritance to have his own 30-foot Golden Harp sailboat built, with the idea of competing in the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR) — a handicapped race across the Atlantic restricted to solo sailors, regardless of the size of the boat. (One boat in the race was a four-masted schooner that was 236 feet long.)
Woods taught himself celestial navigation and racked up the necessary solo ocean sailing experience in other boats while his own was under construction. But he was still a relatively low-time sailor when he departed Plymouth, England, in June 1976 and set sail for Newport, Rhode Island. He endured bad weather and numerous challenges, including the discovery, shortly into the race, that his hull had a serious leak in it, and arrived in Newport 44 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes later, finishing 45th out of a starting field of 125 boats. That race, Woods says, is what gave him the sailing knowledge to write the opening scene of his second novel, White Cargo.
Back in the United States, Woods returned to Manchester, which is just up the road from Warm Springs, Georgia, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt owned a home, and not far from Plains, Georgia, where Jimmy Carter was busy running a presidential election campaign. A friend suggested that Woods work for Carter's campaign, so Woods became the "advance" man for Plains — a job that consisted primarily of shuttling reporters and visitors to and from the local motels and airports when they came to town.
The closest airport to Plains was a grass strip called Peterson Field, where a guy had a business restoring and renting small airplanes. Woods would hang out with him while he waited for dignitaries to appear. And sometimes, when the entourage was arriving in Atlanta, the owner would fly Woods there and back in a Cessna 172. Woods accumulated 17 hours in the 172 that way, in the fall of 1976. But while he liked the flying, he had no money for lessons or, as he puts it, "a reason to fly." It wasn't until 1985, when Woods was married to an attorney whose firm had bought one of the partners a Cessna 182RG to "cheer him up" after a nasty divorce, that flying came back into Woods' life. Through his wife, Woods had access to the Cessna and soon began taking lessons in it. He got his instrument rating in the airplane less than six months after he got his private license in it and ended up eventually buying the airplane from the firm.