Uncontrolled Flight

Wildfire season in the British Columbia Interior. Experienced firefighting pilot Rafe Mackie loses control of his airplane while doing a routine drop and plummets to his death.

The investigation that follows unleashes revelations that forever change the lives of three people: Will, the pilot who watches his mentor crash; Sharon, the widow struggling to come to terms with her loss; and Nathalie, an accident investigator with shadowy connections to the incident. As a form of the truth emerges, these three are drawn into a tangle of secrets and lies, passion and grief, blame and forgiveness that forces them to confront the actions that brought one man’s life crashing down.



As I tore down the highway, leaving the storied gold-rush town of Quesnel behind, the sky thickened, daylight barely leaking through. I’d shut the Tacoma’s windows tight to keep out the soot and burnt air, but it did no good. Even with the AC set to recirculate, the whole cab smelled of it: a forest of century-old fir and pine, giving way tree by tree.

By the time I made it to the runway, just before eight, the day was brewing up hot and dry, like every July day so far of this record-breaking year in this corner of the British Columbia Interior. A handful of pilots and mechanics milled around, doing precious little from what I could see, mostly burning off nervous energy before we got the signal to go. In front of the fire centre—centre a fancy term for two Atco trailers yoked together by a rough front porch—three guys from the ground crew sprawled in the shade, scarfing down coffees and fistfuls of Timbits. Crazy bastards. Every minute they’re not humping loads of protective gear and hoses and pulaskis up the slopes, they’re stuffing their faces, and even then some of them lose weight. No wonder, trying to keep up with the fire’s punishing pace.

I saw him as soon as I parked the truck. Off to one side near the tarmac, head tilted skyward, still as a photo, taking it all in. Rafe Mackie, whose air tanker I’d soon guide in for a drop. Oddly for the most genial pilot on our team of cranky loners, he stood by himself. His hulking frame, slimmer than usual now that we were a couple of months into the season, cast an exaggerated shadow against the dingy vinyl siding of the maintenance shed. He stood motionless, like he was anchored there, staring up. My chest hitched a little seeing him that way, huge and alone. A solitary giant surveying an empty sky.

I downed the last of my coffee, stepped into the smoky heat, and jogged over, willing my body to wake the rest of the way up. At first Rafe didn’t see me, gazing as he was into the smoke-tinged blue, but when I called his name he turned. I waited for the broad grin that said you were the best thing he’d seen all day, except for maybe his wife on the lucky mornings he opened his eyes at home. It didn’t come.

“What’s with you? Didn’t get your Wheaties this morning?”

One corner of his mouth pulled up, unconvincingly. “Nah. Tired. Didn’t sleep worth shit.”

“Yeah. Same here.”

Was it a look in my eye, or the way I hitched up my jeans? Who knows, but like that he was on to me. “Young Will. Don’t tell me you had company.”

I ducked my head. “Might’ve.”

“Jumpin’ Jesus, boy. You’re gonna wear it off you keep at it like that.” He shook his shaggy head. “Gonna get yourself in trouble one day.”

“Nah. I’m always protected.”

“That’s not the kind of trouble I’m talking about.” He trailed off, scanning the sky again. He was there but not there, it seemed, his mind on something else. Probably the intense day we had ahead.

“I’m always a hundred percent upfront,” I said. “They know it’s just for fun, no getting serious. Not till I’m an old guy like you.” I elbowed him, hoping to provoke the grin.

He frowned. Something was eating him for sure, but it was too good a morning to go digging into anyone’s bad mood. Whether it was the afterglow of long-legged Gracie or the certainty that we were going to tame this fucking fire, I was pumped and ready to roll. So we compared notes on what lay ahead: the wind, the weather, which direction the fire was headed, and our aircraft, which despite their advanced age and peculiarities we loved like the memory of our first girlfriends. Rafe still seemed out of sorts—nothing major, just a few beats behind. Lost in his thoughts maybe. Or, like he said, tired. We were all tired. But when it came time he clapped my shoulder twice for good luck, our decade-long ritual before every flight, his broad hand as powerful as always.

“Gonna treat us to a bull’s eye today?” I asked.

“Ah, William. You’re the finest kind.” Seeing my puzzled expression, he shrugged. “Something my father used to say.” He hesitated and I thought there’d be more, but instead—finally—he grinned. It was like the sun breaking. It told me everything would be fine.

The cover of Uncontrolled Flight.
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