Thursday, December 9, 1999
Lt.Randi Cole is tough, smart, beautiful, fearless, and one of the U.S. Navy''s top test pilots, a wise-cracking holy terror at the stick of an F/A-18 Hornet flying machine.
She''s a lot like the young women former Navy commander Bob Norris trained near the end of his 19-year career as a combat pilot and Naval flight instructor. Now living in Pacific Grove, Norris had logged nearly 500 landings on aircraft carriers and had just been tapped to command his own Hornet squadron when he was diagnosed four years ago with a rare neurological disorder. Grounded by the Navy after his brain surgery, Norris turned to writing, bringing to his pages the experiences he went through in his two decades of military duty.
Fly Off is the second Randi Cole novel. In Check Six!, published last year and set during the Gulf War, Norris'' fictional heroine is one of the Navy''s first women test pilots, forced to battle a sinister Old Boys'' plot to keep women out of combat flying even as she becomes America''s first woman pilot sent into combat, shooting down a MiG over Libya. In Fly Off, Cole is sent to Saudi Arabia with a Hornet squadron, set to compete in a six-way international flying contest between the world''s top fighter jets. The competition isn''t entirely on the up-and-up, however; billions of dollars in international contracts are at stake, turning what''s meant to be a friendly flying demonstration into a deadly, conspiracy-laden struggle.
Cole is "a composite" of the many women pilots Norris trained in the early ''90s, he says, following an August 1991 Congressional decision that lifted the long-standing ban on military women flying combat missions. It''s clear from reading his novels that Norris believes women belong in the combat cockpit--so long as they''re held to the same standards as men. "On an aircraft carrier, you don''t care about gender," he says.
Not everyone in the military shares that opinion, however. "In the Navy, when gender integration was mandated, we had bureaucrats who made some terrible policy decisions," he admits. "I was an instructor during that period. It became clear to me, like an epiphany, when I was at sea and I first saw women pilots in a carrier environment, I saw what was missing: the mentoring. Without mentoring, a process as age-old as flying, no one can excel in that environment."
Fly Off is filled with meticulously detailed descriptions of the high-tech flying machines Norris and his buddies flew in the ''80s and early ''90s, especially the F/A-18 Hornet--Randi Cole''s plane and the one which Norris first flew in 1988. The adrenaline rush, the terror of combat, the enormous egos of fighter pilots, the agony of friends being shot down--he''s lived through it all. While flying combat missions over Lebanon in ''83, Norris watched his air wing commander get shot down. The man was later recovered, but another fellow pilot was killed. "A lot of guys die," Norris says tersely. "My first cruise, we had 12 [mid-air] ejections."
Norris chose to be a Navy aviator because his dad was an Air Force pilot. "The one thing he had never done was land on a carrier," Norris says with a smile. "So, of course, that''s what I had to do. You know, typical male ego."
Norris'' career was at its height in 1995 when he was diagnosed with Vessel Looping Syndrome, a rare disorder that led to loss of hearing, taste and smell, headaches and vertigo. After eight-and-a-half hours of experimental brain surgery in San Diego, his brain swelled, and he spent five days in bed, completely paralyzed, pumped full of steroids. Painfully alert, but unable to move, Norris "wrote" the entire novel Check Six! during that time--in his head. "I could literally see the type on the page," he reports. "It was as if the book were a real memory."
It was three months before he could use a keyboard again. He sat down and punched out 80,000 words in six weeks. Norris took 10 months to write Fly Off, using a similar technique: he composed it in his head during daily four-hour round-trip commutes to a new desk job in Oakland. He now works full-time from his home, designing and building network-based learning systems for clients including the Naval Postgraduate School.
Does he regret the turn his life has taken? Well, he''s happy to be living in Pacific Grove with his wife and two kids. And he''s happy to be writing. "The brain thing turned out to be the best thing that happened to me," he says philosophically. But still..."I would like to convince the Navy I can still fly."
Fly OffBob Norris
Harper Collins, 1999
Excerpt from Fly Off
| "What''s wrong, Jack?" Randi asked. "You look like somebody died."
"Yeah, Warner, what''s eating you?" asked Hoser.
Jack swallowed hard. "There''s a problem, and I don''t know how to fix it." Forcing himself to maintain eye contact, he added, "It''s bad."
Randi and Hoser exchanged glances. Hoser spoke first. "Spill it. There''s nothing we can''t work through."
"All right then. Randi?"
"The king of Saudi Arabia decreed less than two hours ago that you cannot fly in the competition because you are a woman."
She was out of the chair in a flash. "What? What did you just say?" she demanded, advancing on Jack. "Tell me I heard wrong, mister."
Jack unconsciously retreated until his back hit the wall. "No. You heard correctly. You''re grounded, and there''s nothing you, me, or anybody else, can do about it."
"No. It''s their game, their rules, their country."