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Sunday, August 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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With latest thriller, Nance delivers his richest characters yet

The Associated Press

"Skyhook"


by John J. Nance
Putnam, $25.95

Fasten your seat belts!

John J. Nance, the best-selling author of aviation thrillers, has just taken off with his latest novel, "Skyhook." And, as usual, readers are in for death-defying plane rides, lively dialogue and realistic characters who survive crises with courage and humor.

The story opens with a typical Nance-style emergency. Ben Cole, an electrical engineer, is aboard a Gulfstream jet over the Gulf of Alaska, testing a super-secret computer program he has designed for the U.S. Air Force. Dubbed "Skyhook," it aims by remote control to land a military aircraft whose crew has been disabled. Something goes wrong, though, and the computer-guided jet dives and almost crashes.

At the same time and in the same area, a small, private plane piloted by an airline captain loses control and sinks in the Gulf. The pilot, Arlie Rosen, and his wife survive, but the FAA yanks his license, claiming that the plane crashed because he was drunk and reckless.

As Cole furiously tries to find out if his computer program has been sabotaged, Rosen's daughter, April, tries to discover the true cause of her father's accident. The two inadvertently become threats to the Pentagon and others who want to keep the true — and surprising — purpose of "Skyhook" under wraps.

Nance, who lives in University Place near Tacoma, always takes a warmhearted and sympathetic attitude toward his characters, but "Skyhook" is probably the most warmhearted of all. Here, even villains aren't really villains in the conventional sense. With a hidden patriotic theme, "Skyhook" is an aviation thriller that should appeal to post-Sept. 11 readers.

The author, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves and a retired airline captain, has hands-on knowledge of aerodynamics. But unlike other techno-thriller writers, he never lets machines rule his story. If a jet engine malfunctions, he focuses on his character's emotional reaction, rather than the mechanical details.

This, combined with his uncanny insight into the human mind, makes "Skyhook" and Nance's other novels engrossing and engaging reads.

In his nine novels — which have been translated into a total of 11 languages — Nance, an attorney and an internationally recognized aviation safety analyst, has brought to public attention hidden problems that could lead to in-flight disaster.

In "Pandora's Clock," for example, he raises the specter of air travelers spreading deadly germs worldwide. In "Turbulence," he explores a jet passenger mutiny against a cost-cutting, incompetent airline, which endangers their safety.

In "Blackout," he makes his readers think about what would happen if both the pilot and co-pilot got incapacitated in mid-flight, leaving no one to fly the plane. He even dramatizes in "Medusa's Child" the case of a cargo plane carrying a ticking thermonuclear bomb, which, if detonated, could destroy every computer chip over an entire continent.

Wild imagination? Hardly. "Pandora's Clock," published in 1995, mentions a U.S.-trained terrorist's attempt to fly a fighter jet into the Vatican to kill the pope. In "Blackout," which came out a year and a half before the World Trade Center attacks, one of the characters talks about the possibility of a jet hitting the twin towers because its pilots were incapacitated by terrorists.

Fortunately, as he does in "Skyhook," Nance also suggests solutions to some of his thorny aviation problems.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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