Book Review: Skycruiser by Howard M. Brier
Barry Martin is not as young as he looks. He’s had three years of engineering in college, and two years training as a pilot. But he looks like a teenager, and a perception that he was too young to handle a man’s job caused him to wash out of the Navy’s pilot program. Now Barry is trying to get a job at Starwing Airplane Company as a test pilot, but things are not going well. The owner, Porter J. Hamlin, has banned Barry from his office! But Barry isn’t licked yet.
This 1939 boys’ air adventure novel (my copy is a Comet Books reprint from 1948) originally appeared as a serial in Boy’s Life magazine, the house organ of the Boy Scouts of America. Starwing is pretty transparently a fictional version of Boeing, with a touch of Hughes Aircraft. Mr. Brier set the story in the Pacific Northwest, as he did with most of his books, being most comfortable where he lived.
When Barry’s mentor becomes ill, the young man is able to use a contract loophole to demonstrate his test pilot skills to Mr. Hamlin, and seeing Barry in action is enough to overcome the older man’s objections. Barry is hired as a junior pilot, but then experiences difficulty winning over the senior pilots. Not only do they resent the implication that they’re over the hill (a media report on Barry doesn’t help) but the last junior pilot they had turned out to be crooked.
The Skycruiser of the title turns out to be an experimental aircraft Mr. Hamlin wants to build, an enormous passenger plane that will be the equivalent of a luxury liner. Rival companies would like to steal the plans for the Skycruiser, as it requires several innovative designs just to handle minor functions, let alone get the thing to fly; and if they can’t get that, sabotaging the prototype would work too. There’s an ever-present threat of industrial espionage.
But there’s plenty of work for Barry even in his regular job, as he tests planes and flies rescue missions. Barry’s pretty much married to his work–when he isn’t flying airplanes, he’s maintaining them or reading about them, and seems at something of a loss when he has to kill time without access to airplanes.
After a trip to Canada to deliver a cargo plane and demonstrate its features, Barry is approached by a smooth-talking man who offers him a job at double the salary. This turns out to be crooked pilot Deat Proctor (yes, that’s as phony a name as it sounds). Barry plays it cagey with Proctor, not promising anything in hopes of discovering what the criminal is up to. Unfortunately, this convinces Starwing senior pilot Steve Cline that Barry is in cahoots with Proctor, and every step Barry takes to try to prove himself innocent only puts him further under suspicion.
By the end of the book, Barry’s brave and intelligent actions allow the criminals to be captured, and he is now friends with the senior pilots. (There’s a sequel titled Skyblazer in which Barry has South American adventures.)
The writing is direct and free from frills, and there’s little objectionable subject matter, so this book would be suitable for middle grade readers (with a dictionary for a bit of technical vocabulary) on up. There’s no romance, but the only women seen are wives and have tiny roles at best. The primary and recommended audience, though, is boys with an interest in air adventure stories. There appears to have been a 2007 reprint which should be affordable, but the collector will probably want this heavily illustrated edition.
Comet Books was evidently a short-lived imprint of Pocket Books that issued reprints of popular juvenile fiction, both boys’ and girls’ (one of the volumes listed in the back is the first entry in the Sue Barton, Student Nurse line.)
Overall, this is a well-written boys’ adventure book; a little dated, but well worth looking up.