Aviation novels and novelists are rare. Even more rare are aviation novelists who are also corporate pilots and fighter pilots.
One such person is Chris Broyhill, whose first novel, The Viper Contract, came out late last year. FBO chain Atlantic Aviation featured the book at its booth at 2011 NBAA Convention in Las Vegas, after buying 1,000 copies. Broyhill, a current Gulfstream GIV and Falcon 900EX pilot and former F-16 Viper pilot, is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School and Air Force Academy. He has also written articles for AIN.
The main character of The Viper Contract, Colin Pearce, is a former Air Force A-10 and F-16 pilot, who, following a forced retirement as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years, now flies as a $1,000-per-day contract pilot in GIVs and Falcon 900s.
The premise of the book involves a secretive organization that has managed to steal eight F-16s from the Davis-Monthan AFB aircraft boneyard, transport the fighters to a secret, remote island in the South Pacific and establish a unit of top-notch fighter pilots, maintenance engineers and assorted admin personnel. The clandestine organization is now selling air strikes to apparently anyone willing pay, and the mercenary F-16 unit has already conducted bombing raids at several locations around the world.
Pearce gets recruited by the CIA, which has learned from a mole inside the rogue unit that he will be the group’s next fighter-pilot recruit. Money is currently Pearce’s main motivator, but the CIA agents have an ace-in-the-hole: Pearce’s sole friend and former roommate from the Air Force Academy had been recruited earlier by the organization and subsequently by the CIA as an informant, but he has now gone silent.
What caused Pearce’s forced retirement from the Air Force plays both a central role in the CIA’s and mercenary group’s interest in him, as well as defines a very dark side of his personality.
A Realistic Premise?
On the whole, I enjoyed the book, including learning much I didn’t know before about the F-16 and fighter operations. I wondered, however, about the rogue fighter unit: how could it stay hidden on an island, even a very remote one? I asked Chris about this in an email. This was his reply:
“I actually did some research on the logistics and operations pieces of this and I came away with the conclusion that with enough money, it was totally possible. Engines, test stands, avionics equipment, the fact that the F-16 has been the most widely produced fighter ever would make a lot of that stuff much easier to come by, if you knew where to look for it.
“Operations would be even easier, if you were able to manipulate the system well enough. Low-altitude ops would be the key—there are a lot of places in the world with gaps in radar coverage and I’ve experienced several of them. If fact, as I was writing the book I found myself wondering why no one else had done something like this yet.
“As an anecdote, I remember hearing about the stealth-fighter crash in California in the early 80s and thinking to myself that there was no way a secret that big could be kept for so long. Obviously, as I discovered later, not only had the secret been kept, but kept well and for a long time.”
Pearce’s Dark Side
Another thing I wondered about was Pearce’s dark side. I know that good story protagonists are multi-sided, but I found Pearce’s personality bordering on unbelievable. The story behind how he got his Viper nickname, for example, is truly chilling, but, to Broyhill’s credit, this does relate to the plot.
Broyhill explained his hero this way: “You’re right about Colin Pearce’s personality. It is over the top (you should have read the first draft!), but so are Jack Reacher’s, Lucas Davenport’s, James Bond’s personalities. That’s why people want to read about them. I made him that way on purpose, and as the series continues, I’m going to explore his flaws in detail. No one really likes a ‘knight in shining armor’ kind of hero. People like heroes that are larger than life but flawed.”
I also thought the story slowed down a few times, though not for long. Broyhill threw in numerous characters, conflict and plot twists along the way. The last third of the book moved quickly. I found the resolution logical, surprising and satisfying. And Broyhill cleverly set up the ending for a sequel. In fact, he told me he finished the first draft of his next Colin Pearce novel in December.
From a technical viewpoint, The Viper Contract should satisfy all but the most persnickety of aviation readers. For the remaining small minority, Broyhill “covers his six” with “A Note to My Fellow Viper Pilots,” on the last page. “As much as this story is about the characters,” he wrote, “it’s about the jet itself. My last flight in the Viper took place under the sweltering Arizona sun at Luke Air Force Base in the summer of 2001… While I tried to keep it as ‘real’ as possible, literary license is a wonderful thing… . and I’m sure there are a few mistakes in the text.”
My Biggest Gripe
Broyhill wrote The Viper Contract in the first-person narrative (as opposed to the third person), having Pearce narrate almost the entire story. In effect, the reader is inside the narrator’s head. This can work well and there are numerous excellent novels written in the first person. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are an example, while John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport novels and Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are in the third person.
One reason first person is difficult to do well is because the points of view of other characters have to be “filtered” through the narrator. Therefore, when action or conversations take place outside of the narrator’s presence, the writer has to find some way to convey the information, which can often seem forced and even jarring. Unfortunately, this happens in The Viper Contract.
For example, Broyhill ended numerous chapters with very official-looking memos—“Top Secret/Special Compartmentalized Information”— to the director of the National Clandestine Service (one of four components of the CIA) from the CIA agents who had recruited Pearce. Obviously, Broyhill felt he needed to do this to convey information to the reader and to help move the plot along. For me, it was like deploying speed brakes to the flow of the story. I felt I obligated to read the memos so I would not miss crucial information, but didn’t want to.
I also grimaced when Pearce said such things as, “I exclaimed icily,” “I raised my eyebrows quizzically,” and “I looked sightlessly.” Who thinks like this or talks this way when telling a story? Really! I kept asking myself, is Pearce talking to himself, telling this to a friend in a bar or writing in a journal? Adding more confusion was Broyhill’s use of italics to designate some of Pearce’s thoughts. Wasn’t the majority of the book meant to be his thoughts? If so, then why the italics?
I must say, however, that I liked Pearce’s first-person descriptions of the flying sequences, especially the climactic final flight. And I really would not expect Broyhill to write subsequent books in his Colin Pearce series in anything other than the first person. I just hope he and his editor do a better job polishing the rough spots in his latter books.
A Cautionary Note
So as not to surprise any potential readers, if The Viper Contract were a movie, I suspect it would be rated R for language, violence and sexual content. What does this mean? Let me explain it this way.
When I was in tenth grade in the sixties, my father handed down to me my first James Bond novel. A few days later, he took me aside (I think my mother had spoken to him) and said, more or less, “The love scenes in the book are not like real life.” I asked him what he meant by that and he mumbled something about Bond making love to a lot of women. I eventually read all of the Bond novels written by Ian Fleming. Compared to The Viper Contract, Fleming’s books would likely be rated PG today.
The Viper Contract is published by Brighton Publishing LLC in Chandler, Ariz., in both print and e-book format for Kindle, iPad, Nook and others. Brighton titles are available at bookstores or through online merchants. At the time of this review, The Viper Contract had 12 five-star and 6 four-star ratings by readers on Amazon, and one positive review in the NBAA Members discussion group on LinkedIn. Broyhill also has a website, which includes information about the book and himself.