________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 20 . . . . May 29, 2009

cover Hard Air: Adventures From the Edge of Flying.

W. Scott Olsen.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (Distributed in Canada by Codasat Canada), 2008.
182 pp., pbk., $21.95.
ISBN 978-0-8032-1144-5.

Subject Headings:
Air pilots-Anecdotes.
Extreme environments-Anecdotes. Aeronautics in meteorology-Anecdotes. Search and rescue operations-Anecdotes. Aeronautics in forest fire control.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Bruce Dyck.

** /4


What is the hope or need that compels us into the air? Why do I have this desire to fly? Why do small children make paper airplanes, and why do adults take lessons when they have no wish to become commercial pilots?

There is still, I think, in most of us, the need to explore.

Hard Air is about extreme flying, that is to say it is about the men and women who willingly fly aircraft places most people would avoid without a second thought. The book is divided into four sections each of which examines the men and women involved in a different type of flying. The types of flying covered are: mail delivery in Canada's far north, the Hurricane Hunters of the USAF, the men and women of LifeFlight Fargo, and those who fight fires from the air.

     Each section looks at the type of people who do these jobs and attempts to give the reader insight into what kind of person chooses these occupations for a career. As each of the sections differs significantly in both content and information, I think it would be helpful to look at each one separately.

     The first chapter, after a well written introduction to the subject, focuses on the men and women employed by Kenn Borek, the company contracted by Canada Post to fly the mail to Canada's far north. The Kenn Borek employees are the people who do the vast majority, if not all, of the nonmilitary flying in the Canadian Arctic. They are the people who bring in supplies and people. W. Scott Olson does an excellent job of providing an engaging insight both into the technical side and the personal side of arctic flying. The only negative here is that the reader is also given a small taste of the book’s biggest weakness. Occasionally, the personal stories collected by the author go on just a little too long; however, I would still give both the introduction and this first chapter **** /4.

     The second chapter is about the Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the United States Air Force. These are some of the people who willingly fly into the centre of a hurricane, (Ivan in this case), for scientific research. Due to the military nature of the flying being profiled, the fact that Olson is only one of thee different groups or individuals doing a story on the flight, and the danger involved, Olson's access to the people involved is highly limited. This, therefore, is the shortest chapter, a fair bit of which is taken up with the procedure of actually getting on the airplane, and while this does give the reader a feel for just how dangerous it is to fly into a hurricane, it also gives Olson a chance to negatively compare a CNN crew on the flight to a local news media crew also on the flight. While the reader is not treated to the same level of insight into the men and women on the flight as the previous chapter, Olson does a good job of giving the reader a feel for the nature of the flight and the motivation behind it. **˝ /4.

     The third chapter is a look at LifeFlight, the air ambulance based at Merit-Care Medical Center in downtown Fargo, ND. This is the trauma response team that either transports patients between facilities or airlifts accident victims to the trauma center. LifeFlight operates both a fixed wing aircraft as well as a helicopter. Unlike the previous section, Olson has almost unlimited access to the pilots and medical staff of LifeFlight. This access provides a lot of stories which Olson is only too happy to share with the reader. What the reader does not get is much flying. As the only flight Olson manages to take with LifeFlight is a training simulation for the dispatchers, he seems to feel the need to make up for his lack of flight time by sharing many, if not all, of the stories the crew shared with him. While the stories are good ones and do provide the reader with an interesting glimpse into the world of those who proved emergency medical care by air, there are just too many of them.*˝ /4.

     The fourth and final chapter is a look into the world of aerial fire fighting, that is to say, those who fight fire from the air. I'm assuming that it is due to the dangers involved that Olson never makes it into the air, and that it is due to the pace of operations that he doesn't really seem to get the same information from the air crews as he had in previous chapters. Challenges aside, Olson makes a valiant effort to give the reader insight into this complex and often dangerous field. He is only partly successful. While he is successful in giving a clear picture of what things look like on the ground and into the level of organization and coordination involved, he fails to deliver a feel for the flying, something he managed to capture in the previous chapters. * /4.

     The one theme that comes through clearly throughout the entire book is Olson's enthusiasm for the subject matter, and it is that enthusiasm that is both his greatest strength and biggest downfall. It is Olson's enthusiasm that made it impossible for me to put the book down for the first 60 or 70 pages, and it is his enthusiasm that, when unchecked, causes the "not another story" reaction of the later chapters. Hard Air is not really a single book, but rather four books in one, each "book" containing a series of short stories relating to the topic at hand. The unifying theme, Olson's enthusiasm for flying, isn't quite enough to make these four into one. The types of flying, and the differing levels of access accorded Olson in each case, is simply too great for the book to stand as a unified whole.

     As an aviation enthusiast, I completely enjoyed the first half of the book, and for me that was enough. I identified with Olsen's enthusiasm for flying, and, as a professor once told me, enthusiasm covers a multitude of sins. Despite being a little long-winded Hard Air is a good book for people interested in the nature of these types of flying.


Bruce Dyck is currently employed by his wife and two sons as a stay-at-home dad in Winnipeg, MB.

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