Growing up, I always looked forward to my dad’s stories. Over fresh baked cookies and tea or steaks, he’d pull back the curtain on the mystical pilot’s world just long enough for me to snatch a glimpse. Even now, older and with plenty of boarding passes in my pocket, the pilot’s world and my father’s stories from the cockpit are the stuff of legend for me — high altitude sunlight gleaming off the gold thread on his uniform, the warm smell of leather and plastic, static-y, almost coded transmissions always delivered in the same casual, unaffected monotonous drawl.
American Sky by Fred Tribuzzo acknowledges the 1960s Pan Am glamour of pilots, but also pulls off the Ray-Bans to reveal the grittier, elbow-deep-in-the-engine world of small plane aviation. It’s easy to imagine the characters brushing dirt off their hands or cleaning grease off their fingers before sitting down to a runway-side restaurant breakfast and discuss the status of an aircraft.
Organized into short chapters that read like fond, comfortable vignettes, American Sky introduces the reader to varied characters while surreptitiously revealing bits and pieces about the narrator. It is, in essence, an aviation memoir, but thankfully eschews redundant personal introspection in favor of utilizing Tribuzzo as a lens.
If you’ve never felt the need to drink coffee at a small airport restaurant while watching Cessnas, Learjets, and Pipers land and take off from the inevitable single strip, American Sky will change your mind. From the opening chapters of the memoir the reader is thrown into a world where the planes are characters as well, from the Cessna Citation S-II to the “droopy-winged” B-52.
Every interaction impacts the story in some way, knocking the path of the story this way and that in a way that reads true to the sometimes careening course life takes. The humorous, insightful portraits of characters certainly set American Sky apart from an over-saturated memoir market, but it’s the writing that really allows it to take off, if you’ll excuse the pun. Although riddled with jargon that can sometimes be tough to decipher, it still maintains a level of accessibility that convinces the reader that while this is about pilots and planes, it’s also about a person’s life.
Each description of a take-off, of the bright blue sky opening up exuberantly to embrace the plane, of a red and orange sunset streaking across the sky, of a plane cutting a smooth arc overhead, of breaking through cloud cover into an endless sky, feels true and like a well-loved memory being set to paper. The musings on grueling hours and loneliness are intoxicating in their honesty, reminding us that it’s the salt that makes the chocolate sweeter.
“The goal has been to put in a good day’s work and return…alive enough to write down a new feeling, a rush of thoughts or a moment of beauty that passes by so quickly,” he writes of attempting poetry, but it’s a philosophy that clearly defined the writing of American Sky, and reminds us to inhale every moment under the pilot’s sky.