Interview with Paco Chierici author of Lions of the Sky
What motivated you to write a novel?
I have always aspired to write a novel, ever since I was a child. As a first timer I had a sense of how difficult it would be, and still I underestimated by a lot. Lions of the Sky was motivated by my desire to share the inherent drama of naval aviation while telling a thrilling story. It’s such a fantastic world, filled with wildly interesting people and daily craziness. And when you add the peril of actual military action to the mix, it elevates the stakes even further.
In learning how to write fiction what helped you the most?
I love reading fiction. I’m a voracious consumer of books. I took note of how my favorite authors crafted their stories and did my best to write with purpose. I love characters, so I took great care to create fully developed, real people who would react in a natural manner to the circumstances I threw them into. I also love the details of flying jets from aircraft carriers and wanted to share the intricacies with the reader in a manner that pulled them into the cockpit as a participant without overwhelming them with minutia. Lastly, I have always enjoyed explaining how the high level global maneuvering of governments affect the individuals at the pointy end of the spear. When you read the news about “The Chinese” aggressively building up their military presence in the South China Sea, and “The Americans” sending ships to sail through the islands asserting freedom of navigation, there are actual humans representing those nations who are put at risk. I tell stories where the global tensions build on a macro scale, but the reader gets to focus on how those tensions affect the individuals at the points of contact.
How did you come up with the title Lions of the Sky?
I must say that coming up with a good title was almost as challenging as writing the book itself. I was in the Blacklions squadron myself, so I am partial to that squadron name. My characters end up in the Blacklions as well, once the trials of their training are complete, and are then sent to face the threat in the South China Sea. I liked the simplicity and allusion of Lions of the Sky.
How competitive are fighter pilots?
The short answer is, massively competitive. Every aspect of being a fighter pilot is a competition. From the moment we decide we aspire to be fighter pilots we are put into a pool of applicants that far exceeds the number required. I don’t know the exact numbers, but say thousands per year for just a couple hundred slots at the far end of the funnel. Every academic test, every flight, every physical fitness test, every medical exam, is an opportunity to fail and be removed. Over the course of our 18 months of flight training we fly hundreds of flights, each graded. If one fails too many flights, you are washed out. Once we finish flight school and get to the Fleet the competition changes gears. Each aircraft carrier landing is graded and all the grades are posted in each squadron’s Ready Room for all to see.
It is such a competitive environment that when we dogfight against each other, before each flight we recite the Training Rules in an almost religious manner. They are strict guidelines designed to reign in our natural desire to win every fight so that we preserve a measure of safety while practicing aerial combat.
So yes, fighter pilots are extremely competitive.
As the instructor what role does Sam Richardson play in shaping the younger pilots?
Sam’s role is to make sure that the students he greets at their arrival to the F/A-18 training squadron are transformed from excited young bucks eager to play with their new toy into men and women who are prepared to go into combat the day after they graduate nine months later. He sets the tone with his example and experience but he’s also approachable in that he’s only four years older than his students.
What drives Keely Silvers to achieve her lifelong dream?
Keely is driven by the belief that the cockpit of a fighter is absolutely where she belongs. She is surprised at first that there would be any opposition to her becoming a fighter pilot based on her gender, then annoyed, then angry at constantly having to defend herself. Her crisis of confidence is especially powerful because it seems to validate the external beliefs she has been battling. And its resolution is particularly poignant as well, not to give away too much.
Does Lions of the Sky employ any themes?
Lions explores a number of classic themes including love, war, death, survival, prejudice, and in a manner particular to being a fighter pilot, coming of age.
Who are your favorite authors?
My current favorites are Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon series) and Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch series). They both write character-centric thrillers and are masters at building tension while still writing beautifully. I aspire to their level of craftsmanship.
I have always loved Hemingway, Le Carré, and Elmore Leonard for much the same reason. They have the ability to tell beautiful stories that have a tremendous amount of tension and fantastic, rich characters.
Are you excited about the new Top Gun movie?
I am. The first was such a cultural event that has had amazing staying power. I have some friends still in the Navy that worked on the new film as liaisons and they assure me it’s going to be a good movie. I’m hopeful that the new movie will be just as fun and fix some of the cheesier parts.
What’s next for you?
I’m four chapters into the sequel to Lions, titled The Dragon. We join Slammer Richardson on his next adventure, which is completely different from Lions. It’s Slammer, this time, who is in crisis. Shot down, stuck behind enemy lines, rescued and captured. He’s got to find a way to make it back to the carrier so he can save the woman who helped him and stop an imminent war based on false pretenses.
In the world of fighter pilots, the most alpha of the alpha, competition is everything and the stakes are impossibly high. A Top Gun for the new millennium, LIONS OF THE SKY propels us into a realm in which friendship, loyalty, and skill are tested, battles won and lost in an instant, and lives irrevocably changed in the time it takes to plug in your afterburners.
About the Author
During his active duty career in the U.S. Navy, Francesco “Paco” Chierici flew A-6E Intruders and F-14A Tomcats, deployed to conflict zones from Somalia to Iraq and was stationed aboard carriers including the USS Ranger, Nimitz and Kitty Hawk. Unable to give up dogfighting, he flew the F-5 Tiger II for a further ten years as a Bandit. Throughout his military career, Paco accumulated 3,000 tactical hours, 400 carrier landings, a Southwest Asia Service Medal with Bronze Star and three Strike/Flight Air Medals.
Prior to writing Lions in the Sky, Paco published extensively in Aviation Classics Magazine, AOPA Magazine, and Fighter Sweep, as well as creating and producing the award winning naval aviation documentary Speed and Angels.
Currently a 737 captain, Paco can often be found in the skies above California flying a Yak-50 with a group of likeminded G-hounds to get his dogfighting fix. A graduate of Boston University, Paco lives in Northern California with his wife Hillary, and two children.