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.
Tell me a little about your book
Lions of the Sky is a fictional naval aviation thriller. But it is drawn from 20 years’ worth of experiences flying jets for the navy. Nearly every situation, training event, accident, bar scene, and aerial combat encounter is a rendering of an event that actually happened; down to the climactic final battle sequence. Not to give too much away, but the initial circumstances that brought navy fighter planes nose-to-nose with PRC fighter planes actually took place. My story takes it a little further.
The challenge was to write an authentic thriller that was also entertaining. Fortunately, naval aviation is an inherently dramatic field of work, and naval aviators are a charismatic and colorful group.
Lions of the Sky follows a group of new F/A-18F Super Hornet students as they progress through training towards achieving their life-long dream of becoming naval fighter pilots. They are mentored and challenged by their class leader, who is a seasoned and experienced pilot despite being just a few years older than his students. He has some deep reservations about two of the student pilots, both women, and the reasons behind those issues come to the forefront as the class stumbles awkwardly forward.
At the same time, there is building tension between Chinese forces and their neighbors in the South China Sea.
The US is compelled to send a carrier strike group to the region just as the students who survive training enter their fleet squadrons. Within a couple of weeks of completing their training, but far from being masters of their jets, they are face-to-face with real MiGs carrying real missiles in a no-shit life or death situation.
Was there an experience that caused you to see a need for Lions of the Sky?
I wouldn’t say there’s a need for the fiction of this kind, but I will admit to being drawn to write the story in a manner that addressed some important topics. I was in the first air wing that integrated female aviators into frontline combat squadrons. One of my friends from training ended up in my fighter squadron. She was the first woman to perish in a fleet fighter. Her death was used as an example of why women should not fly jets, that the concept was flawed, and that she was an inferior pilot. It was a hideous defamation of a pilot who we regarded not only as a peer professionally, but a good friend. Her death, and the manner in which she was mistreated – before and after she died – because of her gender, always stuck with me. When I conceived of my female character, I tried to imagine how her life would have tuned out had she lived. She was a fun-loving, compelling person who took no crap and fought hard for every achievement she earned.
How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think?
I have loved writing since before I became a pilot, and I have written a number of articles for print and online magazines. But I had always secretly wished to write novels. Lions of the Sky was a leap of faith I undertook once my military flying days were concluded. It was a way to both preserve and honor the stories, experiences, and people I had been immersed with for two decades. It was far more difficult to complete the book than I anticipated, and I’m glad I didn’t know how challenging it would be.
Writing (and re-writing, and re-writing…) the novel, finding an agent, and then the satisfaction of seeing it published has given me a great sense of achievement and a drive to continue pushing myself.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
Being a JO is the best job in the military! At least in aviation. All the fun and just enough responsibility to make it seem real. If I could go back and talk to myself when I was a JO, I would advise myself to seek more mentorship. It’s a firehose, no matter what your job is. Find someone who you respect, learn how they succeeded, and what the pitfalls were. Learn from experience as you build your own. And always pay it forward.
What are you reading now?
I am a shameless consumer of fiction. I am currently working my way through the series written by Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch) and Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon). I read a bunch of other thrillers as well, and my wife peppers me with some good non-fiction must-reads. The biography of John Adams by David McCollough was amazing. I also read a fantastic narrative of the first six American pilots to sneak into England to fly in the Battle of Britain, The Few by Alex Kershaw. So good it made my palms sweaty.
This year class of 2020 earns their commission and heads to their first command. What specific recommendations do you have for them as they embark on this lifetime of leadership?
I learned as a senior JO that there are three types of relationships with leadership. The first involves your superior officers. This is fraught with mystery because it’s not something we learn in any leadership training. We’re mostly taught to ‘do or die.’ But how you manage your relationship with those who decide your future is a tricky and crucial balance. Respect is earned, but what’s the best way to achieve that? You can’t be a suck-up, and you can’t seem indifferent. It’s that balance that will help you achieve those career goals that are important to you.
Second, is the leadership position you have with those that work for you. It is ingrained in all servicemembers to ‘respect the rank’ so you have an automatic authority working in your favor. But respect, again, is earned. And the people that work for you will respect no one more than the person who has their interests at the forefront. Never depend on your rank or position for that esteem. Earn it by taking care of your people.
The last and most challenging aspect of leadership is the dynamic of your peer group. I had no ambition to be a Flag, and I was fortunate to naturally relate to those who worked for me, so this last aspect was the most interesting and fun leadership challenge I faced in the navy. In a two-seat fighter squadron, there are about forty officers. Take away the CO & XO and the O-4s, and you had a freewheeling, roiling, opinionated, passionate, cannibalistic group of thirty-ish JOs who needed direction. There was always an undeclared but obvious leader of that group. That person had nearly as much influence as the CO. I truly loved the dynamics of the JO group. Herding that group of egos into a cohesive mentality to achieve a unified vision was the biggest leadership challenge I’ve ever had.
Why is reading important for our Military and/or the Nation?
Critical thought and the ability to break out of your own ingrained perspective are crucial skills for defeating the enemy in combat. That’s our real job in the military, we are a hammer used to destroy things. Anything else is chaff. We are the top dog in the world so the other side will naturally study us, searching for weakness and opportunity. It is crucial for our service members to not be complacent. To not be hidebound. To not settle for what has worked in the past. Reading expands the mind. Whether it’s fiction or non, taking the time to feed the brain is so important to developing an ability for perspective. When you can appreciate a circumstance through someone else’s lens then you are on the way to making yourself a better warfighter.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
Good to Know? Well, I’ve flown supersonic into Mexico (navigational error!). I’ve flown below sea level a few times (The Salton Sea is 220 feet below Mean Sea Level). I’ve made the front page of newspapers (real print ones) twice but was never named (Once for hitting southern California with a supersonic boom so loud it rattled windows from Oceanside to Tijuana, and once for flipping a jet over in Reno and almost having my head cut off).
What is one of the best investments you’ve ever made in your military career?
I believe that the best investment I made in my military career was savoring every flippin’ moment as if it would be for the last time. I was so fortunate to fly spectacular jets for twenty years. But I truly tried to squeeze every last ounce out of the experience that I could, and appreciate that it was a very brief (If I was lucky enough to survive) slice of what my whole life would be. No matter what your job in the service will be, there will be vast amounts of time where you’re staring at a clock, waiting for a watch to end, or a crap class, or a duty station. There will most likely be times where you’re scared shitless, and other times where your exhilaration is so extreme it threatens to burst you at the seams. You will most likely be surrounded by people – a few will be loathsome, a few will be stars, but most of us are a mishmash of hilarious, hardworking, and dedicated – try to remember them all.
I lost over twenty friends and colleagues during my tenure. Far too many memorial services and missing man fly-bys. I am grateful I survived relatively unscathed. And I am glad I didn’t take anything for granted. It was all fantastic, even the shitty parts.
What is next for you?
A sequel! The adventure continues.
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. 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. Unable to give up dogfighting, he flew the F-5 Tiger II for a further ten years as a Bandit.