Book Review: Paper Wings Delivers Nonstop Aviation Action

Les Abend’s debut novel is a crime thriller in the classic mold that nails the aviation details.

Les Abend Paper Wings
Les Abend's debut novel, Paper Wings, is an action-packed, heart-pounding thriller that takes readers inside the cockpit as a veteran crew tries to land an airplane under trying circumstances.Les Abend/Amazon

Somehow, in and amongst his duties as a Boeing 777 captain for a major U.S. airline, an aviation analyst on CNN and a regular columnist for Flying magazine, Les Abend has found the time to write a crime thriller. His debut novel, Paper Wings, takes readers on a heart-pounding ride in the cockpit of a stricken airliner as the veteran flight crew summon all of their professional abilities to safely land the airplane under trying circumstances. From there, the action only accelerates.

Not surprisingly, Abend delivers compelling and authentic aviation details in the telling of the inflight emergency aboard JFK-bound Patriot Airlines Flight 63 after the right engine explodes without warning over the Atlantic Ocean. The explosion sends lethal shrapnel into the cabin and starts a fire that won’t be extinguished by the 767’s fire-suppression system. Was it a simple mechanical failure? Terrorism? Sabotage?

The inflight near-disaster and emergency landing in Bermuda appear early in Paper Wings — in the second chapter — which alone is worth the price of the book. From there, the novel shifts into standard, high-gear crime thriller mode that will make for satisfying poolside reading on your next family vacation. Captain Hart Lindy, the accident investigation chairman for the Patriot Airlines pilots' union, is summoned to join the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation only to learn that someone is going to great lengths — including assault, murder and kidnapping — to prevent the facts from being exposed. The rest of the novel deals with getting to the bottom of who and why.

Abend’s prose is terse and the action fast-paced as the NTSB begins an investigation that quickly draws the attention of the FBI, Miami-Dade police and Broward County Sheriff’s Department. The body count begins piling up as it becomes evident that the engine explosion aboard Flight 63 was no accident. Pilots will appreciate the thoroughness of the unfolding NTSB investigation – something for which Abend has firsthand experience – as well as the pacing of the story, which never bogs down in the minutiae of the evidence gathering process but doesn’t gloss over these details either.

The characters Abend presents in Paper Wings have depth and dimension too — Captain Lindy, the hero of the story, is a serial womanizer; Flight 63’s copilot is grappling with his emerging homosexuality; and one of the main bad guys is an Iraq war hero who would be a pretty likable guy if he wasn’t a homicidal maniac. The banter among the novel’s characters is fun as well, with seemingly everybody jumping at the chance to bust somebody else’s chops. And of course it wouldn’t be a crime novel without some good old-fashion sexual tension, which is delivered convincingly between Captain Lindy and the curvaceous NTSB investigator in charge, Maureen Blackford.

Pilots will appreciate the thoroughness of the unfolding NTSB investigation – of which Abend has firsthand experience.

The book isn’t perfect, however. The characters’ reactions to the life-threatening situations they find themselves in don’t always seem to mesh with how you’d expect them to behave, and there are more than a few clichés borrowed from the crime-thriller genre. Some of these are actually good — for example, Abend doesn’t waste a lot of time describing the appearance of Detective Jorge Alvarez since anybody who’s watched a crime show on TV knows what a Miami homicide detective named Alvarez looks like. Still, Abend appears to acknowledge any shortcomings as he describes an action sequence as “B-grade movie” quality, compares a scene to a bad spy film and playfully skewers his own considerable efforts in writing the book when a character admits he hates suspense novels.

Despite these issues, Paper Wings combines a high degree of aviation authenticity within the confines of an enjoyable detective-story romp that certainly should be added to the bookshelf of anyone who is a fan of crime fiction and aviation.

Paperback: $17.99

Kindle: $2.99