At 74, Canadian David Morrell has a shelf of literary awards to go along with his 30-plus novels.
Creator of the American icon Rambo, Morrell is well-known in publishing as a man who prefers intense first-hand research over library-based research.
“In 2006, I started to write a novel, ‘The Shimmer,’ about the mysterious Marfa lights of west Texas,” Morrell said. “The lights have been observed there ever since settlers arrived in the 1880s. They rise in the distance, grow and shrink, merge and separate, change colors, and generally create quite a show. In World War II, there was a military airbase near where the lights appear. As an exercise, student pilots were told to pursue them and drop paper sacks filled with flour where the pilots thought the lights originated. But the mystery remained unsolved.”
“These events so fascinated me that I was eager to use them in The Shimmer. Wanting to make the flight details accurate, I took flying lessons from Sierra Aviation, a flight school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My first thought was to take just a few lessons so that I could have the general idea, but I became so hooked that I finally earned my license.”
In 2009, Morrell joined the ranks of other famous author pilots, such as Joseph Heller, Dick Francis, Richard Bach, Jack Lamb, Joseph Salter, Roald Dahl, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Buzz Aldrin, and Charles Lindbergh.
Morrell has lived a life of adventure and personal tragedy akin to his novels. He was a toddler when his father’s plane was shot down during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. His mother dropped him off at an orphanage and years later picked him up to live with her and her new husband — a man who didn’t want children.
Morrell found sanctuary in watching television and reading. Inspired by the show “Route 66,” he decided to study writing.
He moved from Canada to study American Literature and earned his doctorate from Penn State. While teaching college, he penned “First Blood,” which was optioned for movie rights. As only Hollywood can, the ending of the story was changed to allow for Rambo sequels.
Despite his busy schedule speaking at writer’s conferences and his discipline of weekday writing, he flies every weekend he can.
At a recent writer’s conference in Altamonte Springs, Florida, he said, “whatever I write about has to be something that’s worth a year of my life, and something about the research has to make me feel like a fuller person.”
His experiential level of research includes graduating from the National Outdoor Leadership School for Wilderness Survival and the G. Gordon Liddy Academy of Corporate Security. He has trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and defensive driving. He is an honorary lifetime member of the Special Operations Association and the Association of Intelligence Officers.
“In my work, whenever I refer to anything about airplanes, my experience allows me to provide authentic details. But there’s also a psychological benefit,” he said. “I can’t concentrate on anything else when I’m flying. My mind is occupied only with that single activity. Later, when I’m on the ground, I feel as if my brain has been vacuum-cleaned. Everything is new and fresh, and plot problems that previously bothered me somehow get solved without my needing to think about them.”
This year, with 850 flight hours, he is training for his instrument rating with Michael Szczepanski, CFII and ATP, owner of the New Mexico Sport Aviation flight school in Santa Fe. Morrell owns a Cessna 172S. He has also flown a Cirrus SR22, A Remos GX, and a Piper Mirage.
When asked what kind of student Morrell is, Szczepanski said, “He has a humble approach to flying and really tries to always do it the right way. He’s faithful with checklists and does enjoy doing lots of training and really tries to stay current and stay on top of things.”
“We have a good personality match,” Szczepanski said. “This time of year, every lesson starts with discussing our gardens, the trials and tribulations of trying to get perfect tomatoes and all that. He’s really a nice person — he’s nothing like Rambo.”
On instrument training, Szczepanski said, “In New Mexico, the weather here is often good, so it can be hard to find actual conditions. Then we have kind of a challenge that when it is actual out here in summer, it’s because of thunderstorm activity, and in the winter, we’ll have icing. It makes it even harder in something like the 172 to really get up in the clouds. So any time that the weather allows — no matter what our original plan for that day was — we head for wherever the weather may be so we can get the experience of actually flying in the clouds. We’ve done approaches down to minimums and all, that so it’s good.”
When asked what prompted him to pursue an instrument rating, Morrell said, “My wife and I were flying from Santa Fe to Alpine, Texas, a lovely area. But it’s also mountainous. As we flew closer, clouds descended, and I had to change course at various times to avoid them. Eventually, the clouds cleared, but for a while, I considered turning back. The situation was never dangerous, but it was time-consuming and involved a lot of work. I couldn’t help thinking that an instrument rating would have made the flight a whole lot better. That’s my primary reason. I don’t have any interest in taking off or landing in murky weather.”
He hasn’t set a date for his practical instrument exam.
“I’ve been training for several years,” Morrell said, “but when we get to the end of a practice instrument exam, there’s usually something about the final procedure that I’m not satisfied with. I joke that I’m an analog flier who doesn’t speak digital.”
“Santa Fe is surrounded by mountains, so every flight is a mountain-flying experience, but five years ago, I spent a day in a focused mountain-flying workshop that’s presented here often. One of my takeaways was the safe way to go through a mountain pass, based on wind direction,” Morrell said. “I think anyone who trained at sea level should take a mountain-flying workshop, especially for an attention-getting lesson about density altitude. I sometimes see pilots filling the fuel tanks, cramming luggage and golf clubs into the baggage area, putting three other husky guys into the passenger area, and needing to abort a takeoff because the 182 couldn’t get airborne when the temperature was 90°. Also, mountain flying teaches valuable lessons about adjusting the fuel mixture.”
He also has advice for beginning pilots.
“First, I think it has to be done on a schedule. Starting and stopping and starting and stopping — I don’t see how that can accomplish anything,” he said. “Flying an airplane involves muscle memory and is a perishable skill. It needs to be practiced on a regular basis.”
“Second, I think expectations need to be realistic,” he continued. “Some students believe they’ll go on a solo flight in 20 hours and then receive their license at 60 hours. That can happen, but it’s more likely the process will continue for a longer period. The same as planning a flight, earning a license requires patience.”