I am not a mechanic, and I have never been in the Air Force. However, as a professional pilot, there has always been a mystique with the wrench turners that work (often without glamour or recognition) behind the scenes of the aviation world. Trouble is, working a flight line has not tended to produce a great multitude of authors motivated to write about the experience, as opposed to the rather abundant volumes of pilot-related storybooks. Enter Earl Heron’s “One Desert Jet Turner,” an autobiographical tale of one man’s experiences as a crew chief and mechanic at Nellis Air Force base near Las Vegas, Nev.
“One Desert Jet Turner” is the first work published by Jets Press, which, as far as I can tell, is Heron’s own creation, and is, at this point, the sole means of acquiring the book. The principal target audience of Jets Press (“By Mechanics, for Everyone — About Jets”) largely explains the uniqueness of the material in Jet Turner, as it tries to capitalize on the aura that pilot-related aviation novels have enjoyed through approaching one of the less-written-about vocations in the aircraft community.
The book aims to share a series of career perspectives in military aviation, while also touching on the shifting world of a young man who must cope with discrepancies between expectations and reality within a world constructed on the principles of strict adherence to procedure and behavior. Earl Heron was born the son of an automotive mechanic and proclaims that much of his desire to pursue his vocation stemmed from the workmanship of his father. After spending time pursuing a degree in engineering at the City College of New York, he decides to follow a path more synonymous with his interests and skills in military service. Specifically, he has a desire to work with the General Dynamics F-16 fighter, as it represented “speed, technology, [and] prestige.” The early experiences he shares about the significance of his first military salute or his first exposure on the flight line are charming and intriguing, and I’m certain they would be appreciated by those individuals who have been through military indoctrination themselves.Heron then shares, through anecdotes and memories, the breadth of his career in the Air Force, where he served with F-4 and F-16 crews, the Thunderbirds, and as a C-130 Flight Engineer. From the enthusiastic to the cynical, he pulls few punches in describing the aspects of the job that both elated and depressed him. Everything from his dismay at poor practices among his peers, to animosity for his drive for perfection on the line, to his personal struggles and failures during his service are addressed, and always with a degree of optimism and self-reflection that is seldom anything but light-hearted and motivating.Overall, the book addresses both a subject and an audience that is not widely recognized in the aviation system. Heron’s attempt to shed light on an aspect of the community that too oft goes unnoticed is noteworthy, and his experiences and perspective provide a great number of points to reflect on, particularly for those of us endowed with our own set of wings.
Despite good intentions, in my opinion the book falls short in several respects. Most of the stories that Heron tells are underdeveloped, and his tendency is to give a bit of a glimpse into a particular event in his career before a footnote refers you to a report or book on the subject. The text also has difficulty in reconciling its desired format — at times, dry and lifeless, as though it were a textbook, and other times where it seems more emotional and personal. While the technical descriptions are sound and occasionally interesting, I found the latter types of narratives to be far more interesting reading, though unfortunately not as common as I would have liked. Some of the shorter stories (sometimes only a paragraph or two long) could have developed into a more important role; it’s quite apparent that several of the events that were described could have easily filled an entire chapter in a more “play-by-play” fashion than the brief overview given the reader.In any case, the book is certainly laid out like a textbook, as it is printed in several columns and has headings every few paragraphs to divide sections that do not seem to flow properly. The separations between segments attempt to mask what I consider inconsistencies in chronology or overall point; at times, the aim of a particular narrative seems misaligned with the overlying idea of the rest of the chapter, or simply appears to have been inserted in a “stream of consciousness” flow that adds little to the story. Finally, the hundreds of footnotes throughout the book cement the “textbook” identity. The body would have been much more interesting to read had the footnotes been smoothly integrated (as they easily could have been) into the rest of the text, rather than constantly requiring your attention on nearly every page to keep pace with the story.
Without a doubt, anyone considering a career in the enlisted military or aircraft maintenance should take a look at One Desert Jet Turner. It does do a good job of shattering improper predispositions and expectations on the people and events that might seem to be truth to an outside observer. There’s also a fair amount of information about fighter jets and military transports for the laymen, while not requiring any depth of background in aviation to appreciate the material. Do not, however, expect expansive exploration of either the technical or emotional sides of being a “jet turner.” Perhaps Jets Press’ future works will correct some of the things I perceive to be shortcomings in its premier offering, but for now a taste of the military mechanic’s struggles will have to suffice.