Hello Space Cadets! Today, I wanted to introduce you to another author from my WARRIOR WEEKEND INTERVIEW SERIES. Francesco “Paco” Chierici is the author of Lions of the Sky. During his active duty career in the US Navy, 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 concurrent with his employment as a commercial pilot. Throughout his military career, Paco accumulated nearly 3,000 tactical hours, 400 carrier landings, a Southwest Asia Service Medal with Bronze Star, and three Strike/Flight Air Medals. Chierici’s writing has appeared in Aviation Classics magazine, AOPA magazine, and Fighter Sweep. He also created and produced the award-winning naval aviation documentary, Speed and Angels. Currently a 737 captain, Chierici 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. He lives in Northern California with his wife Hillary, and two children.
Without further ado, let’s get this interview cranking!
- Tell me a little about your military service?
A little! Alright, here goes. I’ll start at the very beginning. I needed money for college, so I applied for a Navy ROTC scholarship. Once I signed the contract, I was committed to serving in the Navy in one of four general capacities; ship driver, Marine, submariner, or aviation. The summer before my Junior year, as part of a Midshipman program, I got a ride in the back seat of an F-14. From that point on I was completely smitten with Naval Aviation.
After graduation, I went directly to flight school. A few years later, I received my wings of gold and reported to NAS Whidbey Island to begin my career as an A-6E Intruder pilot. I did a work-up, a 6-month Persian Gulf/Somalia deployment aboard USS Ranger, and a further work-up, as an A-6 pilot. The Intruder community began to draw down at that point, so I was able to transition to the F-14 Tomcat at the legendary Fightertown USA – NAS Miramar in San Diego.
I deployed to the Gulf once again as a Tomcat pilot, this time aboard the USS Lincoln. Then finished up my active duty career with a 3-month RimPac aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
After ten years of active duty, I crossed over to the reserves, joining VFC-13 at NAS Fallon, NV as an Adversary pilot flying the F-5E Tiger II. I flew with that squadron for ten years before finally retiring with twenty years of total service.
- How do you feel that your military service has influenced your writing?
That’s an interesting question. I write military thrillers set in Naval Aviation, so there’s the obvious connection that I lived in the world I now portray in fiction. But the integrity of the community affects the manner in which I tell my stories a great deal. I endeavor to be as honest and accurate as possible while still spinning fiction. I feel a great sense of duty to maintain as much realism even as I take creative license to stretch the action here and there. As we always said of our banter in the Ready Room, never let facts get in the way of a good story.
- Do you think your military service, and more specifically your training, adds to the realism in your books? If so, how?
My twenty years of experience and training are what gives my stories the gritty details that make them rich. I have enough material for two-dozen novels easy. Practically every scene in Lions of the Sky is a real event which was adapted to the story, down to the climactic battle scene at the end. Everything about the setup for that scene, with the submarine and the Chinese Flankers, actually happened, right up until the missiles start flying.
By its very nature, Naval Aviation is dramatic. Just to begin the working-day, we are hurled from a ship like a rock in a slingshot. And the excitement builds from that moment forward. It’s a world filled with adrenaline and danger, so the ingredients for a compelling thriller are readily available.
- When did you start pursuing your writing more seriously?
I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. My internal monologue has always been composed in prose. I had written articles for various publications concurrent to my time in service. As I saw my military flying days coming to a close, I began to write non-fiction more seriously. The Naval Aviation documentary I created and produced, Speed and Angels, was a byproduct of a screenplay I had written. A few years after the documentary was completed, I decided to pursue the dream I had always had, to complete a full-length thriller. It took a bit longer than I anticipated and was a lot more difficult than I ever imagined it would be.
- Of all your work, which was your favorite to write?
My favorite non-fiction piece is an article I wrote about flying the F-5 as an Aggressor. It encapsulated all the mystique of flying an outdated fighter from a remote base in the middle of the Nevada desert in the service of challenging and improving the students.
My recently released novel is my favorite work of fiction. I loved bringing the scenes to life and weaving them into a compelling story. My storytelling goal is always to make the reader feel as if they are in the cockpit, experiencing the thrills and hazards of flying fighter jets first hand.
- How many of your characters were inspired by your military service?
All of them! Though no character is a whole, actual real person. All of my characters are compilations of the crazy, colorful people I served with. I borrowed the name and call sign of my protagonist, Slammer Richardson, from the real Slammer. But other than both being great pilots and people, they don’t really share much. I stole real call signs quite liberally and anointed my fictional aviators with them. But for the most part, my characters are an aggregation of bits and pieces of real people.
- How many of the specific scenes you wrote were inspired by your service?
Again, I would have to say all of them. I was able to take actual events, fictionalize them just a bit, and weave them through the plotline as a consolidated story. Every day is a full day in Naval Aviation. Even a mundane training flight is composed of exciting segments. Just strapping all of the gear on is a process of transformation from the normal world to the surreal. Days with no flying are filled with Ready Room camaraderie and the constant process of learning to be a better fighter pilot balanced against the administrative demands of running the squadron.
- Do you feel like your writing has served any therapeutic value for you? Has it helped you process your military experiences?
Another interesting question. As a pilot, my experiences differ dramatically from those of the soldiers who had their boots in the dirt. While I experienced a great deal of loss, over twenty friends and shipmates perished in that time (only two in combat), aviators don’t feel the ceaseless stress of being under the gun stuck in enemy territory. We are able to predict the cycles of intensity and periods of life-threatening exposure and then pull the release valve once we land back aboard the ship. Unless something goes very wrong, you sleep in your own bed every night.
The therapeutic value of writing the novels is that it allows me to continue to live in an environment I found so wonderful I never wanted to leave. The first four years after I left active duty, I was disappointed by ‘normal life.’ It lacked the thrill and excitement of being a fleet fighter pilot, the intensity of the esprit de corps, the bond of friendships forged in fear and survivor’s guilt, the clarity of purpose to each waking day. By writing about that world, I am able to relive it and keep it alive. I find a great deal of satisfaction in sharing that special world with people who are unfamiliar with it.
- If you could serve with any of your characters, who would it be and why?
Well, I served with them all, in one form or another. Slammer, my protagonist, was a person whom I actually held in great regard. Silvers is modeled after a woman from my squadron who perished flying a Tomcat. Silvers’ character is the embodiment of her spirit and passion. They all existed in real life, and I loved them all, which is why they have combined to become such wonderful and rich fictional characters.
- If you would want to avoid serving with any of your characters, who would it be and why?
Not to spoil it too much, but there is one character who represents the wrong way of dealing with adversity. That character blames others for anything that goes wrong. I served with a few people like that, and they are difficult to deal with, and ultimately quite a danger to themselves and others. There is never a group with total harmony, in fact, a fighter Ready Room is usually filled with conflict and strife. Lots of highly trained, competitive, egotistical Type-A personalities each certain they are correct. Everything is a competition, from eating to running, to flying. But there is a chasm of difference between productive conflict and a poisonous personality.
- If you could serve in any of the worlds you created, which one would it be, and why?
I write about the world of Naval Aviation, in which I served. But I spent my entire active duty career patrolling the skies over Iraq and Somalia. I would have been thrilled to have been able to tangle a little with fighter planes from other countries, as is portrayed in the novel. There is a romance to the notion of a fighter pilot meeting another plane in a solitary duel, a circumstance which I fully recognize as fantasy. But the notion will always be alluring to me.
- Can you tell us how all of that has lent itself to your most recent release?
Lions of the Sky is a story about a group of young fighter pilot students, men and women, who grow up quickly as they face the ceaseless and increasingly difficulty demands put upon them as they learn to fly the F/A-18F Super Hornet. It’s set against a very real-world scenario of rising tensions in the South China Sea that percolate as they advance through training, ultimately coming to a boil in conjunction with their final challenge, landing on the carrier both day and night. The final third of the story proceeds at breakneck speed as the recently graduated pilots (the ones that survived training) are thrown into an extremely tense situation where Chinese fighters with real missiles patrol the skies itching to pick a fight.
I drew directly from both my experiences and the all-too-real current day tensions in the South China Sea, to create an exciting and realistic novel filled with deep characters.
- And since you’ve finished that novel, what are you currently working on and when do you expect it to be ready for publication? I mean, you don’t need sleep, right?
Ha, I don’t sleep much. I am about three chapters into the sequel. Slammer’s story continues in another adventure. This time the region is the Persian Gulf and the adversary that Slammer becomes all too familiar with is Iran, who still flies the venerable F-14 Tomcat. I am hoping to have it done by this spring to beat the release of Top Gun 2.
- How can people find you?
If this convinced you to find out more, look up Paco Chierici. I hope you all had a great time getting to know about Paco. Don’t be afraid to say hello here or on his website, https://www.lionsofthesky.com/.
Until next time, stay frosty and don’t forget to keep your powder dry!
->As usual, all images came from the Google’s “labeled for reuse” section or are screen grabs taken by JR Handley for use under the Fair Use Doctrine.