An Air Force pilot whose cockpit loses power in a storm goes on to fuel Army Wives.
2/20/2024 • Louise Farr
Black writers reflect on the direction of Black art.
So there I was…
Going about 315 miles per hour, not far off the coast of Northern California, about 35,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. I always recall what happened next in perfect slow motion: the nose of my aircraft was struck by lightning. To be clear, getting struck by lightning in an airplane is not a death sentence by any stretch; it happens on occasion and typically only leaves a minor scratch on a jet’s paint job.
But this particular instance was a bit more precarious because at the time of the lightning strike, I was in the middle of air-refueling another aircraft—a C-17 Globemaster, the Air Force’s newest and shiniest airlifter. And as pilot-in-command of the tanker, the KC-135, I was fully responsible for the safety of both aircraft.
You needn’t be a chemistry wiz to understand that gasoline and lightning do not mix, so if both jets had been blown to kingdom come, it would have been all my fault. I’d made the poor decision to continue air-refueling even after we encountered a few dark clouds and poor visibility, so when the strike happened and I lost all electrical power in the cockpit, I was flying blind.
I can’t honestly say that my life flashed before my eyes in this moment, but my Air Force career sure as hell did. I’ll spare you the details on how I got out of that one, but obviously I did or I wouldn’t be here to type the tale.
By the way, a running joke with pilots is that we all tend to kick off our anecdotes with the phrase, “so there I was…,” while maneuvering our hands to emulate the movements of an airplane. Feel free to use that in your next script.
Fast forward several years after the “lightning incident,” I’m sitting in my very first writers’ room as a staff writer for a television series called Army Wives [created by Katherine Fugate]. The showrunner, Jeff Melvoin, had maybe hired me less so for my writing ability and more for what my “past life” might add to the show’s writers’ room.
Army Wives frequently mirrored current events, and at the time in 2012, joint-basing, where two different military branches are forced to cohabitate together on a single base, was becoming more prevalent as a cost-cutting measure for the Department of Defense. For Fort Marshall, the fictional post of Army Wives, it meant the Air Force was moving in! And the new Air Force wing commander, a gutsy woman pilot and colonel named “Kat Young,” was going to ruffle some feathers upon her arrival.
Needless to say, my “past life” was helpful in crafting the season’s storylines, especially the ones concerning the new Air Force character. I don’t know if or when I’ll be able to use the word “sortie” in a script ever again [which the dictionary defines as an attack made by troops coming out from a position of defense]. I also got to pitch ideas about tactical approaches and aeromedical evacuation, both of which I’d done extensively in my Air Force career and wound up being portrayed on the show. In one episode, “Kat Young” relays a story to another character about getting struck by lightning while piloting her aircraft and losing all power in her cockpit. Sound familiar?
Other than a few isolated instances like the one I just described, my flying career was fairly routine and uneventful. Please do not use Top Gun as your reference for how military pilots conduct themselves; only the depiction of how ridiculously focused Navy pilots are on volleyball matches instead of, you know, actual flying was accurate.
But because routine and uneventful do not make for a compelling television drama, there are moments when liberties can and should be taken. My former Air Force colleagues would send me hostile messages when Army Wives did not adhere to reality. I rebutted with some wisdom that Jeff Melvoin reinforced in the writers’ room: “We’re not making a documentary. We’re doing dramatic television.” I’ve taken those words to heart in my own writing and also on subsequent shows that I’ve been fortunate to write on. Authenticity and accuracy sometimes have to take a back seat in order to create an engaging narrative.
I was fortunate enough to co-write an episode of Army Wives [episode 708, “Jackpot,” written by Brian Anthony & Lynelle White] and then go to set in Charleston, SC to produce. With the introduction of the Air Force on the show, I answered some questions that the costume department had since they were now being bombarded with a whole new slew of uniforms from a branch they weren’t accustomed to dealing with.
The delightful and lovely Brooke Shields was cast as “Kat” and in a surreal moment, somehow, I wound up outside her trailer showing her how to wear her Air Force flight cap, because both Brooke and the crew wanted to get it right. I recall thinking how crazy this new industry I’ve just entered is. One minute I’m all alone toiling on a keyboard, the next minute I’m touching Brooke Shields’ forehead.
I’ve had multiple general meetings where execs stare back at me with a perplexed expression when I describe my “past life.” For some, it seems like a huge leap. They wonder how I transitioned from there to here. Even my mother looks at me with a quizzical eye ever since I made the career switch. She still doesn’t comprehend at all what a script is, or how agonizing it is to write one.
Most see flying as a very technical profession where flight controls, switches, and buttons are manipulated with dispassionate precision. And while that’s generally true, I’d posit that flying is also a visual art form.
A pilot looks out at the world through their windscreen and must make the world that they’re seeing look a specific way: the runway must be positioned in a definitive spot in order to be on the correct glidepath for landing; if the windscreen contains more ground than sky, you’re descending; more sky than ground, then you’re climbing.
In essence, flying is about controlling the moving images before you. It’s about creating one picture after another after another. I’ve often heard a screenplay referred to as “words conveying a picture.” So, to me, writing and flying are disciplines that aren’t far apart.
I’ll close by reminding you that “recovering pilots” like myself have been landing (see what I did there?) in Hollywood since the end of World War II. There are multiple examples, but I’ll share two of my favorites. The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps. George Roy Hill, the Academy Award-winning director of The Sting [written by David S. Ward] and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [written by William Goldman], was a Marine Corps pilot during the Korean War. I can only hope to achieve a sliver of the success and impact that these two gentlemen had.
The sky’s the limit…
(This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)