/ Published March 26, 2018
Radio Failure, an Airpower Conspiracy by Lee Downer, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016, 532 pp.
Radio Failure, an Airpower Conspiracy is a fictional work based partially on a historical event. In this sense, the book might be referred to as the literary equivalent of a cinematic docudrama. The docudrama, as presented in both film and print, is a difficult genre to perfect as it requires the viewer, or in this case the reader, to depart from a historical storyline to follow one that unfolds in its shadow or in some cases, changes the event altogether. This genre is especially difficult for readers well acquainted with the subject matter. As the book centers on Gen Billy Mitchell and his historic battle to create a viable national air force, Gen Lee Downer’s intended audience is already likely to be well-read on the subject.
Having said this, I found the book both interesting and entertaining. General Downer effectively mixes actual and fictional people and events to provide the basis for the book’s various subplots and colorful characters. The excerpts detailed in the book engage the reader, blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. On more than one occasion, I found myself searching for additional information on a character, event, or technical capability. While most were fictional, the thread of reality woven through the story facilitated a higher level of visualization for me as the reader.
His description of the flying equipment, aviation infrastructure, and flight operations of the period enhances the story well. The general effectively describes a landscape of open cockpit aircraft, perilous flying conditions, and rudimentary infrastructure, with pilots taking days to fly the distance now covered in mere hours.
The highly detailed back stories for his characters inject life into the fictional and nonfictional plot and subplots. The detailed descriptions of the characters, their origins, ambitions, virtues, and imperfections were well done. In some cases, however, the author’s descriptions were almost too good. Throughout the book, some less important characters caught my attention because of their interesting back stories. When they didn’t re-emerge or were mentioned only in passing by main characters, I found myself wishing for a bit more. The presence of such highly developed but minimally impactful characters seemed more confusing than illuminating.
The battle between the US Navy and the US Army over control of the air battle is especially interesting. Having minimal knowledge of the era, I once again found myself looking for information on dirigibles including the ill-fated USS Akron and USS Macon, as well as descriptions of early versions of the voice radios we take for granted today.
As a story, the book starts rather slow. The author spends a great deal of time describing the details surrounding the aftermath of Col Jimmy Doolittle’s successful airpower demonstration, the sinking of the German battleship Ostfriesland.
Because the story revolves around General Mitchell’s battle to create a national air force, General Downer begins the book by describing in great detail the sociopolitical issues facing the fledgling air service and its many adversaries including conniving politicians, narrow-minded generals, ambitious admirals, and corrupt defense industrialists. Throughout the book, the author routinely references General Mitchell’s original task. However, the battle for the air force is not the primary plot.
The detailed accounting of the general’s task and the sociopolitical environment is understandable as the basis for the primary plot—international espionage. Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t see this plot emerge until much later in the book. The beginning of the book provides some clues but not enough to make the connection between the protagonists and the primary reason for their nefarious activities. As a result, the first several chapters of Radio Failure, an Airpower Conspiracy seem more like a history book than the thriller it is described as.
Once the characters and the environment are finally described, the story shifts from its history book format to that of a technological thriller, much in the same vein as Tom Clancy or Larry Bond. At this point, the pace of the story picks up significantly. With lots of twists and turns coupled with excellent and realistic descriptions of the environment, the book becomes difficult to put the book down.
The format of the book was also somewhat confusing. The story transitions from one vignette to another with little warning. In some cases, I had to go back four to eight pages to review characters and events I had previously read about. As a techno-thriller citing fictional and nonfictional military operations, I believe a Clancy-style format would have provided a more effective transition from one location and event to another. Simply titling the paragraphs with the location and date of the subject matter would provide the reader with a more coherent understanding of the “what” and the “where,” thereby clarifying the story and its progression.
Radio Failure, an Airpower Conspiracy was self-published by General Downer. This is laudable, and for many authors, the only option for publication of their work. I would caution, however, that self-publishing authors should engage a professional editor and proofreader. While the book was well written with few errors, on the whole, there were some oddities that were obvious enough to notice. For example, the author liberally used both block and indented paragraphs. In some cases, the paragraphs were indented more deeply than others, leading the reader to think they are reading dialogue. This was not always the case. Further, the spaces between paragraphs were inconsistent, as was the use of italics.
As a military techno-thriller, Radio Failure, an Airpower Conspiracy mines the interwar era, which heretofore has primarily been represented by books focused on gangsters, prohibition, and the Great Depression. By leveraging the rapid evolution of aviation during this period, General Downer created an interesting and believable story as well as a realistic landscape. His extensive research on the era is also evident in his realistic description of the operational environment of the day. The reader can easily imagine flying an open cockpit aircraft across the nation, stopping at one outlying field after another.
The general does an admirable job weaving his fictional story with documented historical events. As previously noted, this is a difficult task as the targeted readership is already primed to be critical of any historical errors presented in the story.
Despite a slow start and some confusing formatting, the book effectively holds the reader’s attention, especially once the primary plot emerges and the chase begins. As a result, the book is both entertaining and interesting, especially since it addresses a well-documented era of aviation that I feel is underrepresented in the techno-thriller genre.
John L. Mahaffey, PhD
NATO Communications and Information Agency
The Hague, Netherlands
401 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010