March Air Reserve Base, Calif.—She had the setting. She had the characters and plot. But what Megan Westfield—former 452nd Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs staff member-turned-novelist—didn’t have was the glue to hold it all together, that illusive something to that would raise the stakes and make the characters come alive on the page.
She found that something for her novel, Lessons in Gravity, in March Air Reserve Base’s bi-annual March Field AirFest, a 2-day public air show that typically sees 350,000 or more visitors who are exposed to a better understanding of how their Air Force operates.
“I had never been to an air show before, let alone helped behind the scenes in preparation for one, and I found everything so fascinating,” Westfield said.
In the months leading to the show, Westfield started a blog to help raise awareness about the AirFest. Some of blog posts covered air show basics, like air show tips for young children, alternate driving routes to avoiding air show traffic, and what visitors were allowed to bring onto base. Other posts featured the performers who would be flying in the show. To prepare these posts, Westfield spent a lot of time on the performers’ websites.
“Before, I thought of flying stunt planes as simply being glitzy and edgy, but after doing all the research for the blog, I saw a different side, too,” she said. “While flying in air shows is glitzy, air show performers are just like us in that they have families and that their aerial performance businesses face all the same struggles as any other small business.”
Westfield also coordinated some of the marketing and publicity for the AirFest, which included producing the air show poster. The wife of one of the show’s performers was a graphic designer and had volunteered to do the poster design. As they worked in the 452 AMW Public Affairs office one day, the wife mentioned her husband’s recent air show crash. A crash that the wife had witnessed and that her husband had miraculously walked away from.
“The image of that was so overpowering. As a writer, it had my imagination in overdrive, wondering what it must have been like,” Westfield said. “This incident stuck with me and was at the back of my mind when the AirFest arrived and really cemented in my mind permanently as I watched these wild and dangerous performances for the first time.”
In Westfield’s novel, an aspiring filmmaker is doing an internship on a rock climbing film in Yosemite National Park, where she will have to film a professional rock climber doing a ropeless climb of a cliff that is as tall as three Empire State Buildings.
“I built up the professional rock climber in my book to be quite the ideal Book Boyfriend, and I don’t think that the element of danger and risk would be enough to realistically deter most ladies,” she said. “My main character had to have more reason than just danger and risk not to get involved with him.”
That’s where the air show piece came in.
“It just clicked. I decided that my main character, April, would be the daughter of a stunt pilot. In the backstory, she will have watched her father’s plane fall from the sky at an air show and he doesn’t walk away from it,” said Westfield.
BACK TO THE AIR FORCE FOR TECHNICAL ADVICE
Actually writing the book, editing it, and finding a literary agent and publisher wasn’t nearly so easy, taking Westfield nearly five years from start to finish.
Westfield said that working for the 452 AMW had given her enough exposure to the world of aviation to stumble through writing the parts of the book that directly related to flying and aircraft, but “after I got my publishing contract, I knew those sections would need some major technical advice.”
Luckily, she had two pilots in the family to ask for help. Her brother is an active duty Air Force KC-135 and Predator pilot. His wife, a commercial pilot, is an avid reader and had direct experience with aerobatics from her student years at University of North Dakota. Westfield asked her to read through the relevant passages of the book and help her work through the problems.
“My sister-in-law has since been able to read the full book and was kind enough to point out a few things I could further tweak if my publisher ever releases an updated version,” she said.
Westfield said the worst of the errors was in the tensest scene of the whole book when the airplane is about to crash and the main character’s father is desperately trying to engage the clutch.
“Airplanes don’t have clutches,” her sister-in-law wrote in an email.
“Oops,” Westfield said.
In another scene, the filmmakers are huddling over a laptop looking at an incoming weather system that could severely impact their filming schedule. From the book: “[April] didn’t know much about satellite imagery, but the red and yellow gob in the middle of the Pacific Ocean didn’t look good.”
Westfield’s sister-in-law pointed out that the since main character (April) is a pilot, she would actually know a lot about radar and satellite imagery. Westfield said that for a writer, details like that are better than gold.
Lessons in Gravity released Oct. 24 and is available in print and electronic formats through all major online booksellers. The book is also available through public libraries; if your library doesn’t have a copy, you can request that it be added through the library’s book request process.