Stuart Woods: Real Flying, Real Fiction

Stuart Woods' bestselling novels might be fiction, but his flying is the real deal

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, Stuart 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.

Stuart Woods flew the 182 for “four or five years” until he got divorced, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and bought a B36TC Bonanza. He flew that airplane for another five years and got a multiengine rating in anticipation of upgrading to a twin-engine Baron. In the end, however, Woods ended up buying a new Piper Malibu, which he flew happily for six years before deciding that he’d like the extra performance a turboprop could offer.

Woods contacted JetProp (formerly Rocket Engineering) in Spokane, Washington, about converting his Malibu to a Jetprop — which would involve replacing the Malibu’s Lycoming 350 hp TIO-540 engine with a flat-rated, 560 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-35 engine. As it turns out, the folks at JetProp had an already completed airplane they told Woods he could simply purchase instead, which is what he ended up doing.

“I flew the Jetprop for eight years,” Woods says. “That was a wonderful airplane.”

While the factory-built Piper Meridian has a slightly bigger useful load and fuel capacity than the converted Jetprop does, Woods notes that the Jetprop retained some of the Malibu’s forward baggage area — enough for a couple of sets of golf clubs, which Woods considered an important consideration.

While he still owns the Jetprop as of this writing (it’s for sale), Woods upgraded once again, a year ago — this time to a Cessna Mustang. He’d looked at the Mustang at the EAA’s AirVenture show in Oshkosh three years ago. But he’d also looked at Piper’s new jet design, and he finally decided to go with the PiperJet. He put down a $60,000 deposit to reserve delivery spot No. 9, expecting a fall 2010 delivery date. But when the dealer informed him that certification had been delayed 12 to 18 months, sliding his delivery date into 2012, he backed out and called Cessna.

“One consideration was the extension of the tax laws that let you double-depreciate an airplane, in 2009,” Woods explains. “I also figured that, with the economy the way it was, there might be some who’d be willing to sell me their [delivery] positions [on the Mustang].”

He was right. Woods called to inquire about buying someone’s delivery spot on April 1 of last year. He took delivery of his brand-new Mustang on April 17. Three days later, accompanied by a hired Cessna pilot, he took the airplane on a three-week book tour. By the time he got around to getting his type rating in the airplane, he already had 30 hours in the jet.

“My dream was to have a jet,” he says. “The Jetprop went 260 knots at 26,000 to 27,000 feet. The Mustang goes 340 [knots] at 41,000 feet. So with the Mustang, I can fly over weather I couldn’t fly over before. It’s also comfortable, stable and has a wonderful autopilot.”

Another important consideration for Woods was having a jet that was easy and comfortable to fly as a solo pilot.

“I have about 3,200 hours’ total time,” he says, “and at least 2,500 of those hours have been solo. Not just single pilot, but just me, or me and my dog, in the airplane. I do most of my flying alone.”

The dog, by the way, is a Labrador retriever. All four of the dogs Woods has owned have been Labradors, and all of them have been named Fred.

Most of Woods’ flying is between his three residences — a house in Key West, Florida, a place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a house on the Maine seacoast — and on the two book tours he now does every year.

“I usually fly about 100 hours a year,” he says, “and most of it comes from the book tours. I wouldn’t do the tours if I had to travel on the airlines.”

That, of course, would not please Woods’ publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, because Woods is a very prolific and profitable writer for the company. Of the 43 novels he’s written, the last 18 in a row have landed on the New York Times best-seller list. Woods’ latest novel, Lucid Intervals, hit the list at No. 5 its first week on the market in April. He now writes three novels a year and does two multicity book-release tours.

Although Woods’ books, which he calls “offbeat thrillers,” don’t revolve around aviation, numerous characters in them fly airplanes — particularly his literary stand-in, Stone Barrington. Barrington, a recurring protagonist who’s appeared in 18 of Woods’ novels, is a former cop who has a law degree (but never took the bar) who makes a living handling cases that nobody else wants to handle. Like Woods himself, Barrington has a place on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and a house in Maine, is a regular at Elaine’s (a popular restaurant in Manhattan) and loves Knob Creek bourbon, good food, good wine and expensive hotels.

Not coincidentally, Barrington’s flying career has also mirrored that of Woods himself. When Woods got a Jetprop, so did Barrington. So it’s not a shock that, in Woods’ latest novel, Barrington gets access to, and learns to fly, a Cessna Mustang. In fact, just as Woods tends to write about the places he knows best, he says that the airplanes his fictional characters fly are all airplanes he himself has flown. Which helps explain the high degree of accuracy in everything he writes about, from start procedures to panel displays to performance and ATC communications.

Most readers, of course, are intrigued by the aviation details in Woods’ books in the same way, and to the same degree, as they’re intrigued by the firearm descriptions he includes (he has a friend who helps him get the gun details right), as well as the inner dealings of CIA/FBI/police/MI6 cybertechnology that play a role in numerous novels (he makes most of that up, surmising what might be from what is already known). But for some fans, the accurate aviation details really matter.

A week after Lucid Intervals was published, I went to one of Woods’ book talks and signings at a small, independent bookstore in San Mateo, California, called M is for Mystery. The small, mixed group of fans who had gathered represented many different demographics, from gray-haired ladies to a young man in dreadlocks. A man by the name of Jeff Bayer had asked a question about the Cessna Mustang, so I asked him afterward if he was a pilot.

“No,” he said, “but I have a love of [aviation]. I think I’ve read every one of the Stone Barrington novels. And the fact that [Woods] is a pilot invigorates the whole book for me, and gives everything he writes a whole lot more credibility. I mean, the fact that he knows the kind of fields a Mustang can go into that, for example, a [Gulfstream] G-V can’t — so he writes that into the book and has the Mustang going to places a real Mustang would go — it’s like there’s this whole parallel universe going on between the book and reality. I like that.”

Of course, Bayer likes the Stone Barrington novels for other reasons as well.

“Come on! He’s a character you want to be!” he said with a laugh. “I mean, every guy wants to have a buddy named Dino who can get you whatever you need from the police, and a table at Elaine’s, and good food, liquor, women, right?”

Robert Brewer, a pilot and sailor who learned to fly in a Citabria in North Carolina and is restoring a Cheoy Lee 27 sailboat in Alameda, California, only recently connected the sailor/author Stuart Woods with the novelist by the same name. He’d had Woods’ nonfiction memoir, Blue Water, Green Skipper, on his bookshelf for years. The memoir, published in 1977, chronicles how Woods fell in love with sailing, learned to sail and then took on the transatlantic OSTAR race.

“I just recently pulled it down and re-read it,” Brewer said, “and wondered, ‘What ever happened to the guy who wrote this?’

“So I did a search for him and discovered that the guy who wrote it is the same guy who’d written all those ‘airplane food’ novels I’d read on transcontinental flights over the years. I only just put the two together.”

Brewer laughed and said he was “delighted” that “this fellow I got to know here” (he gestured to a worn, hardcover edition of Blue Water, Green Skipper that he’d brought for Woods to autograph) “had the success to give him the resources to continue charting his own course in life — to make it work for him, instead of working for it.”

I asked Brewer which type of Woods’ writing he liked better. He thought for a moment before answering.

“They’re different,” he finally said. “The novels are fun, but this” (he gestured to the memoir) “this has meaning.”

On the other hand, he agreed with Bayer that Woods’ sailing and flying expertise was a big appeal of even his airline-fare novels.

“If what he wrote about sailing and flying was junk,” Brewer said, “I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the books. But part of the appeal is that he’s gone beyond the dilettante level and taken deeper steps toward perfection in both of those pursuits. To sail the Atlantic in a boat you’ve built yourself, all alone, is one of the most dangerous and challenging things you can do.”

As for the aviation details in Woods’ novels, Brewer said, “I think that makes it fascinating and fun for pilots, but for nonpilots, it offers insight into a world that many people may find intriguing but which they’d never pursue themselves. I mean, to read about something that’s adventurous and outside of where you’d go yourself … that’s part of the appeal of a great novel.”

Woods himself doesn’t analyze his writing all that closely.

“I don’t want to examine it too closely for fear that it might go away,” he said. “It’s working, and doing what I want it to do.”

This includes supporting a Cessna Mustang jet and a life that is, by Woods’ own description, “really interesting and varied.” And while he wishes the Mustang went 100 knots faster and had another 1,000 miles in range, for the moment he’s just enjoying his new ride.

“Right now,” Woods says, “my passion is the airplane. I’m actually really looking forward to this book tour, because it’s the first one I’ll have done in the Mustang, by myself.” Or, at least, mostly by himself.

Painted beside the Mustang’s door, above the title “Chief Pilot,” there are two names. If the second, Suzanne Alley, sounds familiar to readers of Lucid Intervals, it’s because a character by that name shows up at the end of the book, flying a Gulfstream G-V. In real life, Suzanne Alley is an airline captain, not a corporate pilot, but she still knows her way around a jet. She’s also Woods’ girlfriend — just one more example of the parallel worlds and links that exist between Stuart Woods’ real life and the real-life fiction he writes. Stay tuned for the sequel.


Lucid Intervals’ Stone Barrington Flies a Jet**Barrington, the debonair protagonist in 18 of Stuart Woods’ best-selling thriller novels, tends to follow in Woods’ own footsteps — at least as far as airplanes, bourbon and good eating establishments are concerned. Woods’ latest novel, Lucid Intervals, released April 20, continues that tradition. Barrington finds himself working for a new client who — surprise, surprise! — owns a Cessna Mustang, the same airplane that Woods himself purchased last year.Before long, in between many glasses of bourbon, good meals at Elaine’s, trysts with an attractive British MI6 director and attempts to locate a particular “rogue” agent, Barrington has the opportunity to learn how to fly the jet. And then, providing clear evidence that the story is fiction, he’s offered free use of the Mustang any time he wants.But Woods’ account of Barrington’s jet training includes refreshingly accurate details — including a description of the head-splitting exhaustion that comes after an eight-hour day of fuel systems, electrical schematics and other aircraft complexities that ground school instructors fire at new jet pilots with fire-hose intensity. And even the flying sequences involve references and explanations of Vr, Vref and other terms unknown to anyone outside the flying community.Like other Stuart Woods novels, Lucid Intervals is a good, quick read, although not suitable for all audiences due to some explicit sexual content.| | |


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