Home > Fiction, writing > Airpulp


Anyone who has known me for any length of time will be able to tell you that I’m a plane geek. Specifically, a vintage plane geek. More specifically still, a 30s and 40s plane geek. I can bore the pants off anyone with trivia about obscure WWII fighters like the Commonwealth Boomerang and lost designs like the Grumman Skyrocket. If the Westland Whirlwind had been fitted with Merlin engines instead of those wimpy Peregrines, would the Mosquito have even flown? After all, the Whirlwind would have been exactly what de Havilland did with the Hornet a few years later. All right, I’m stopping. I can hear your eyes glazing over even at this distance.

I suppose it was inevitable. For one thing I grew up in 60s Britain, where films and comics bombarded a whole generation of boys with heroic images of WWII. Commando Comics, 633 Squadron, The Battle of Britain, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day, the list goes on and on. Add to that the seemingly endless Saturday-morning TV reruns of The Dam Busters and the wartime exploits of John Wayne, and it’s no surprise that I spent much of my youth running around the playground shouting things like “achtung, Spitfeuer!” and “squadron scramble!” I knew with an absolute certainty that if I couldn’t grow up to be the pilot of Thunderbird 1, I wanted to fly Spitfires.

Added to that, I was an airline brat. My parents met at a BOAC staff dance in the 50s, and my dad continued to work at Heathrow (or “on the airport” as we in the know liked to say) until the 70s merger that created British Airways. By the age of seven I had been around the world twice, with a surprising number of legs flown on planes with actual propellors. I knew a Boeing 707 from a de Havilland Comet from a Lockheed Constellation from a Bristol Britannia from a Vickers Viscount, and thought the clean-winged, high-tailed Vickers VC-10 was quite the most beautiful plane ever built.

At school, my art teacher needed the patience of a saint, and not just because I couldn’t draw to save my life. I taught myself to draw the planes from my extensive collection of Airfix models – but only from the side, by copying the outlines in the painting guides. I worked them into every assignment, no matter how much I had to twist and turn. “Home from Abroad” – probably intended to get us to draw happy holidaymakers coming back from the Costa del Package Tour or the far corners of the Commonwealth – ended up as a night-time shot of a Lancaster coming in with one engine on fire, from a rigid side view.

One of the most treasured comments from my English teacher was “you follow very closely the style of professional writers of this kind of story,” affixed to a – though I do say so myself – fairly tense and atmospheric few pages about an RAF fighter squadron in the Blitz waiting for the order to scramble. “The Storm” became about an Australian bush pilot fighting to land his elderly DC-3 on a tiny Pacific island in the teeth of a cyclone. And on and on and on.

I tell people I cried when I learned that the RAF no longer flew Spitfires. I don’t remember if that’s literally true, but my obsession abated a little as I entered my teens. The Farnborough Air Show was still a regular birthday outing, but I found the world was full of other intriguing things like archaeology, progressive rock, beer, girls, amateur dramatics – with girls – and later, roleplaying games. But I still couldn’t be kept out of an aircraft museum and to this day the sight of a World War II plane in the air brings a tear to my eye. Even watching the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight go over Buck House for the Royal Wedding did it. A couple of my classmates went into the RAF – one even flew for my boyhood heroes the Red Arrows – but in my heart I knew I was far too attached to my own opinions to last long in a military environment. I spent three soul-crushing years as a bank clerk and went to college to study archaeology before my urge to write reasserted itself and I ended up in the games industry.

As a game designer and writer, I still gravitate toward vintage aviation in general and World War II in particular. At MicroProse UK I hung models of a Mustang and a Thunderbolt over my desk as part of a hearts-and-minds campaign to support my endless stream of proposals for a WWII title. It didn’t work. I spent hours – in the name of research, honest – playing Aces of the Pacific and Aces Over Europe, and wrote plaintive letters to Dynamix, the developers, begging for a job. That didn’t work either. Although I wasn’t an official member of the development team for the game that became Microsoft Fighter Ace, I bombarded the modelers with source material and minor corrections. I even came up with the title, something of which I remain absurdly proud.

Along the way, I watched Disney’s Tale Spin and countless old air movies like Only Angels Have Wings. I enjoyed Crimson Skies immensely, although I thought it would have been better if the planes had been a little less fanciful. There are plenty of cool designs that never made it into production and service, after all. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow remains a guilty pleasure, though again I would have preferred to see Cap in something like a Grumman Skyrocket instead of his standard P-40. It was good enough for the Blackhawk Squadron.

Then a few months ago, something marvelous happened. I received an email from tabletop gaming luminary Robin Laws telling me that his company Pelgrane Press was launching a fiction arm called Stone Skin Press and inviting me to contribute a story to their inaugural compilation, The New Hero. The theme was iconic heroes, and that was all I needed to know. Within minutes my mind was off in the South Pacific of the inter-war years, battling megalomaniacs in rogue zeppelins and winding up at Louie’s (it has to be called Louie’s) for drinks as the sun set behind the palm trees. The New Hero has turned into two volumes, but my story Against the Air Pirates made it into the first. To say I’m happy about it is an understatement – indeed, to call it an understatement is an understatement – and I can’t wait to find out the release date. Make no mistake, you’ll see plenty of gloating here when I finally hold it in my hands.

Air pulps died out in the 50s, and the brief pulp resurgence of the 80s focused on the two main subgenres: adventures and detective stories. Nowadays we have steampunk and dieselpunk, and a lot of people have assumed from its title that Against the Air Pirates is a steampunk yarn. In my wildest dreams, airpulp will come back some day, just like a two-fisted pilot flying out of the fireball that engulfs the villain’s lair. Hey, I can dream.

  1. Graeme Anderson
    May 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Apart from the going around the World twice bit, we are scarily similar. My Mum eventually told me to “bloody-well stop” after the house had become infested with roundel-encrusted Airfix models (Airfix, mind you, not Revell and CERTAINLY not Monogram).

    I also once drew an enormous Spitfire on some spare wallpaper…that I then stuck on the wall.

    The Other Graeme

    • May 15, 2011 at 9:06 am

      Definitely Airfix. I used to write them long lists of suggestions for new kits – usually far too obscure and wacky to be commercial. I did lapse into Revell (and very occasionally Frog) when a kit appeared of something I just had to have, but their inferiority was clear. If Airfix would only grant my every wish, I would think. Is an Me363 that much to ask for?

  2. RogerBW
    May 17, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Worryingly enough, many of the original Crimson Skies plane designs – the ones in the computer game and the boxed set – are from obscure prototypes, particularly German and Russian ones.


    • May 17, 2011 at 7:47 am

      Well, I never.

      It’s a heck of a mix of periods, though, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s what jarred my aesthetics. A whole generation of aircraft design passed between the B-18 Bolo entering service in 1936 and the Lippisch designs of the late war. And the obsession with pusher props wore on me, too. One or two models, fine, but not half of them.

      Somehow many of them just look too wacky for my sensibilities, within the game setting. Now if it were a 1946 add-on for Microsoft Fighter Ace (and yes, I did submit a proposal for that) or a new incarnation of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, then the wackier the better.

      • RogerBW
        May 17, 2011 at 8:08 am

        I agree that the wackiness is excessive for the setting – without WWII pushing things (and without the big countries and big aircraft industries that follow them) there’s nothing to justify such rapid aircraft development, but if there were rapid aircraft development people wouldn’t still be using biplane fighters like the Devastator. I can see the appeal of a “national fighter” to the small nations of the fragmented USA, but I’d expect them to be in the same sort of class as the Gladiator and the Hind, not the wildly innovative high performers of the games.

  3. May 17, 2011 at 8:18 am

    True. I guess I would like to have seen more things like the Grumman Skyrocket and Bell Airacuda, or the French “chasseurs multiplaces,” and fewer (but not none) of the wacky experimental designs.

  4. January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    I’m the same with airships.

    And I love my airpulp — it keeps creeping into our Hollow Earth Expedition campaign in the form of the “Sky Rats” a bunch of foreign volunteers fighting the Nips over China years before the Flying Tigers took to the skies. We’ve got them flying P-36 Hawks.

    • January 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      A fine choice, the P-36. Commonwealth forces were saddled with the Brewster Buffalo. Even the Chinese had Russian I-16s and the occasional Gladiator.

  5. July 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

    My buddy Lee Moyer just directed me to this (http://deansgarage.com/2011/bixbys-warbirds/). It’s an absolutely hilarious bunch of WWII aircraft that never were, and best of all the cartoons manage to echo and satyrize each nation’s character as well as its prevailing aircraft design aesthetic. Glorious stuff.

  1. July 1, 2011 at 7:54 am
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