Mark Ozeroff holds a near-religious fervor for aeronautical history. A lifelong pilot, he lived until recently on an eclectic airport with aircraft ranging from Sopwith Camel to Learjet – it wasn't unusual during the creation of DAYS OF SMOKE for engine song from a P-51 Mustang to nourish a burgeoning dogfight scene. Though he holds an MBA, it took until his mid-forties for Mark to finally realize he wanted to be a writer. While he may have gotten a late start, Mark can't complain – his debut novel has earned the Gold Medal for historical fiction, from the Military Writers Society of America.
Available at Amazon
I once lived with the most beautiful roommate imaginable – bright, quick, curvaceous, and possessing a classic sense of style. “She” was a 1952 Cessna 195, and we lived together in an airport hangar. This was a dream come true for me, as I’ve been passionate about airplanes since I was a kid. I was very lucky as a boy – I had nurturing, loving parents, who encouraged any interest their three sons’ showed that didn’t include beating the tar out of each other. That’s how I came to get a ride in the copilot’s seat of a 1927 Ford Trimotor, an experience that cemented my interest for life. So perhaps I can be forgiven for once cohabiting with an airplane. You might say I took up aeronautical writing in self-defense – now, when folks caught me drooling over planes for hours at a time, I could explain that I was doing research.
I’ve held a Commercial Pilot license for thirty-five years, and I took a number of my first novel’s flying scenes straight out of my logbook. I flew a lot of hours with pilots at my home airport, who took pity on a starving writer and let me keep my hand in at the controls. Most of these flights took place on beautiful days, and they were almost as much fun to write about as they’d been to experience. But one scene was based on a less than ideal flight. As we approached the airport that day, the engine seemed to be losing power. Fuel pressure and oil temperature were in the green, but the engine continued to rev down, and the pilot announced he was cutting the landing pattern short. As we turned base leg, the engine quit cold. The propeller continued to windmill at first, but after we dropped the landing gear and flaps, we slowed down enough for the prop to freeze in flight. I distinctly recall one propeller blade pointing straight up toward heaven – I didn’t even want to think about where the other blade was pointing. But the pilot kept a cool head and set us down light as a feather. I’d have kissed the ground after jumping out, except that fuel pouring from under the cowling had already formed a gassy lake under the plane.
One of my literary beliefs is that fiction can sometimes tell a more profound truth than history. But that shouldn’t relieve even a fiction writer from doing extensive research. I conducted interviews with several ex-Luftwaffe pilots when writing DAYS OF SMOKE. Chief among them was Gunther Rall, history's third ranking ace, credited with an astonishing 275 aerial victories. General Rall flew the same type of aircraft – over the same area of Russia – as my protagonist, and he generously shared with me the mindset and experiences of a top German ace.
At the time Rall visited my home airport to promote an aviation art sale being held there, I was working on the section of the novel dealing with the war in Russia. I immediately wondered if I might somehow be able to get an interview with him. I was of two minds about this idea, though. The aviation historian in me realized that I stood to discover facts about the war in the air I might never find in any other way. But another part of my mind recognized that Rall had done about as much as any single man to further Hitler’s goals. In fact, he’d basically flown top cover for SS units that down below were exterminating innocent civilians by the hundreds of thousands, including members of my own family. So I was conflicted about meeting him.
Exhibition day rolled around, and I realized I had to go. I arrived at the hangar around noon only to find that everyone had gone to lunch, except for the woman running the sale and an older man resting in the corner. So I took the opportunity to wander around, looking at the world-class artwork. At one point I paused to examine a beautifully rendered oil painting of a Messerschmitt Bf 109F, a model known as the Franz. I was so intently studying the picture that I was startled when the older man materialized beside me, saying in a strong accent, “It is a beautiful aircraft, no?”
Sure enough, he introduced himself as Gunther Rall. He told me that of the many aircraft he had flown in his thirty-five year career (Rall had retired in 1975 as Commander-in-Chief of the West German Luftwaffe), the Franz had been his favorite. We went on to have an undisturbed hour-long conversation about the Messerschmitt fighter and the parameters of aerial dogfighting, from which I learned many interesting details that found their way into the novel.
I later was privileged to attend a lecture given by Rall and Army Air Force veteran Shorty Kramer. I arrived at the hangar that night to find an oil painting set up that I’d not seen before, done from an unusual perspective. It was a head-on shot of a Messerschmitt being chased by four P-47 Thunderbolts, one of which was blasting away with all eight machine guns. The German pilot was looking anxiously back over his shoulder, attempting to elude his pursuer.
Turns out this painting had been commissioned especially for the lecture. Rall was the German pilot, Shorty Kramer the American who was tight on his tail. Rall spoke first, using cultured English that almost made him sound aristocratic. He talked about being newly returned to Germany in the last months of the war, how numerous the Allied fighters were, and how well trained their pilots. He said that on the day depicted in the painting, he’d come closer to losing his life than any other day of the war. Rall was not only an interesting speaker, he was an amusing one as well, drawing laughs from the audience with his self-deprecating style of humor.
Then Shorty Kramer was introduced. Shorty had been born in rural Oklahoma, and in his Southern drawl he outlined that long-ago dogfight, using staccato sentence bursts that somehow reminded me of machine gun fire. Shorty was an amusing speaker as well, although in a much earthier way than Gunther.
At one point, Shorty talked about trying to fasten onto the tail of this German aircraft, and of his amazement at the pilot’s ability to evade his gunfire. Gunther interrupted him to say that he had not been entirely successful at evasion that day – he humorously held up his hand to show that half his thumb had been shot away. Shorty fixed him with a hard stare and said, “Now Gunther, I wadn’t tryin’ to shoot yer thumb off. I was tryin’ to shoot yer ass off!” People about fell out of their chairs laughing, and I couldn’t help but reflect that here were a couple of guys who had as much reason to be intolerant of each other as any two men I’d ever met. And yet here they were, finding more camaraderie in their shared love of flying than they did resentment in the past.
You’re probably wondering just where this rambling story is headed. Well, it all comes together when you consider something every writer must tap into – inspiration. Inspiration can come from anywhere: a subject about which you’re passionate, as I am about flying; people from your past, even as far back as childhood; the unique life experience we all possess; perhaps something as innocuous as a newspaper article. Mix these diverse ingredients together, add a touch of imagination, and you can create wonderfully compelling storylines.
Mark Ozeroff holds a near-religious fervor for aeronautical history. A lifelong pilot, he lived until recently on an eclectic airport with aircraft ranging from Sopwith Camel to Learjet – it wasn't unusual during the creation of DAYS OF SMOKE for engine song from a P-51 Mustang to nourish a burgeoning dogfight scene. Though he holds an MBA, it took until his mid-forties for Mark to finally realize he wanted to be a writer. While he may have gotten a late start, Mark can't complain – his debut novel earned the Gold Medal for historical fiction, from the Military Writers Society of America.
Author website: Mark Ozeroff