Telling stories about fictional characters is hard, but telling stories about real people can be even harder — especially when those stories involve a dangerous job. Author Colleen Mondor confronted this fact head on with her memoir The Map of My Dead Pilots, about her time working for an airline in the wilds of Alaska. Mondor’s here to talk about the balancing act telling true stories requires, and how she walked that line.
If you ask for the short description of The Map of My Dead Pilots, I always say it is about Alaska and flying and how some of the job was crazy cold and all of it was just plain crazy. I can write for pages about what it was like to run operations for a bush commuter out of Fairbanks and how sled dogs truly are the worst cargo in the world and that being the low bidders on the Interior Alaska Dead Body Contract is just as disturbing as you can imagine.
At the “Company” we flew convicts and high school sports teams, live chicks and dead moose, thousands of pounds of dog food and on one particularly memorable day, a multi-tiered wedding cake. I can write about the history of the early pilots and how those larger than life men in open cockpit biplanes created an aviation environment spawning what the NTSB refers to as “bush pilot syndrome” which is still blamed for a large quantity of accidents in the state today.
I could talk and write about all of this but none of it includes the hard part of writing the book, or the issue I am still dealing with after its release.
Map deals with the incidents, accidents and day-to-day experiences of pilots I knew and worked with at a place I refer to as the “Company”. It is specifically about several men who are still alive and well, some of them now flying corporately or in the major airlines in the Lower 48. When we worked together none of us thought I would one day end up writing about the job and there was no small amount of nervousness on their parts when I told them I was working on a book. Map has been a project over several years and I’m sure that along the way, as much as I said I was staying with it, they probably all thought it was something that would never leave my laptop let alone be read by other people.
When I announced I had signed a deal with Lyons Press, these pilots had to acknowledge that their lives were about to be shared in a way that gave them very little control. What I promised them was that their real names would not be attached to the book and the contemporary characters would all (with the exception of one brief mention that was approved) have aliases. This has proven to be a bit more complicated then I imagined, however, as family and mutual friends have asked for confirmation of their own suspicions (I’ve let the guys field those requests), but I’ve held to it. The real challenge though was never the pilots who came through just fine, but rather the ones who lost their careers and worse.
It is difficult enough to write about what your friends did when everything ended up all right, but to second guess wrong decisions knowing nothing was ever the same again, or to pore over NTSB accident reports that only reveal what happened and never consider why, brings a whole new level of seriousness to the narrative. The investigators are very good at determining where the flaps were set and the condition of the weather, but they never consider what a pilot was thinking in the air or what was happening on the ground before he ever took off. I chose to ask those questions, and thus had to acknowledge the answers I found.
In many respects Map is the final word on aircraft that crashed on the sea ice near Nome, off the end of the runway in Bethel, on an unknown mountainside near Kotzebue and worst of all, into the Yukon River. People will read Map and gain some understanding into what happened in these far flung locations, but they will never know how hard it was to tell those stories well, or not judge too harshly pilots whose final acts were unrecoverable mistakes.
This is when the telling the truth got very dicey but also most important.
In writing The Map of My Dead Pilots, I discovered the Big Idea was finding balance between wanting to protect those who could not, for whatever reason, speak up for themselves and also being as honest as possible about a job that often relied upon a certain level of dishonesty every day. (Flight loads are always exactly at legal weight, the weather is always flyable, the aircraft are always in perfect condition.) Part of why the belief persists that Alaska is a place where the rules do not apply is because so many stories about it have been mythologized for so long. (Look no further than any one of the reality tv programs set in the state for proof of that.)
In aviation the “glory stories” are particularly pervasive and I didn’t want to contribute to that cycle – in fact I wanted to expose it. But I also didn’t want to hurt the friends who were still impacted from accidents years before or the families of those who lost someone dear. It was a fine line to walk and one I continue to worry about. There are parents who will read my book and find out more than they perhaps want to know about their sons, both living and dead, and that is a responsibility I feel quite heavy on my heart. I didn’t want to do anyone wrong, because even when the crashing was their own faults, no one deserved to be judged harshly by me or anyone else years later.
The final verdict is still out on just how well I accomplished this high wire act; I’m waiting to hear from some friends who are featured prominently throughout the book. I hope I did them proud, of course, but I also hope I have shown just how much the stories we tell each other still matter, and that they don’t need false glory to make them any more powerful then they have always been.