1964 Literary thriller, ‘by all accounts … thrilling’

Uncontrolled Flight
by Frances Peck

Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2023
$25.95 / 9781774390757

Reviewed by Caileigh Broatch


Frances Peck has once again written a story that will grip British Columbian’s fears and hearts. Her debut novel, The Broken Places, envisioned fall-out from the big earthquake predicted to hit the Vancouver area. Uncontrolled Flight’s catalyst is on a smaller, more intimate scale. There is some comfort in the fact that the novel is character-centric—a calamity whose ripple radius barely extends to the wider world—but that’s not to say that there aren’t chilling personal disasters to grapple with.

Uncontrolled Flight is set ten years ago, during and after the wildfire season of 2013. Peck’s main character, Will, notes the horrendous wildfire British Columbia that summer “I looked it up once. More than ten times the average. Some days there were hundreds of fires going at once. It was the year our life’s work seemed impossible. We’d contain one blaze only to have another break out a hundred kilometres away. We’d get the new one under control, then find out the wind fanned the first into trouble again. Anyone who lived in BC then remembers the nightmare part.”

For context, in July 2013, British Columbia had more fires than previous years, though quick response and action kept them under relative control. Still, that season was considered one of the worst for wildfires (until 2018 and 2023, that is). While fire is all-consuming for the main characters, it also serves as a backdrop to the story of the bereaved—Will, Sharon, and Nathalie.

William Joseph Werner, Will for short, “Prince Harry” to his coworkers, was born to fly. He obtained his private pilot license when he was 16. Unlike the other characters, his chapters are written in first person, and, as a result, his point of view becomes an immersive experience. In most respects, he comes across as a misguided, clumsy younger brother. His sleeping bag blankets and collapsible living room furniture make his age—he’s nearing his forties—easy to forget

Will works as a bird dog pilot—the one who coordinates the air attack on wildfires. These pilots act as air traffic control, making sure the ground crew is out of the way for the bombers and tankers to deliver water to fires. Essentially, he’s a scout. Will also calculates the safest and most effective flight path for the planes, planning both a way in and out for the pilot. He’s been a bird dog for a decade and has worked alongside Rafe Mackie, a long-time friend, mentor, and water bomber pilot, for nearly as long.

It’s hardly giving anything away to reveal that in the prologue, Rafe, an experienced firefighting pilot with two decades under his belt, plummets to his death. On a smoky July day, true, but that’s hardly remarkable for the pilots: “No matter how careful you are, things can run away on you. I learned that long ago, how fast you can lose control. It’s like flying. One minute you’re level, the next you’re going down.”

Peck alternates her chapters to capture her characters’ point of views as they grieve and learn what their days look like without the presence of the stoic and reliable form of Rafe. 

The novel is split into three parts: “Crash,” “Investigation,” and “Flight.” Chapter headers keep time for the reader—sometimes marking the calendar months, sometimes reporting how many days after the crash it’s been. These choices by Peck support the increasingly anxiety-inducing pace as characters near their flashpoints.

Sharon enters the story as a reclusive widow. Given that she was married to Rafe for 25 years, her insular state of mind makes sense. She writes simple to-do lists, goes to lunch with friends, and reads unneeded baby books. The reader can’t help but watch cautiously as Sharon teeters closer to the edge, a spellbinding portrayal of loss and reinvention. 

Author Frances Peck (photo: Rebecca Blissett)

North Vancouver’s Peck has become known for her attention to detail–perhaps due to her time as a ghostwriter, or perhaps for her preparedness about environmental catastrophes (based on her chosen subjects, one has to assume that she’ll be ready for anything). Uncontrolled Flight has the same meticulous attention that we’ve come to expect in her work. 

The mechanical aspects and the dedication to research are especially notable in Nathalie Girard’s chapters. She’s a Vancouver-based Montrealer and one of the few women in the male-dominated field of aircraft investigations. Her job is to inspect unassembled crashed vehicles and put together the puzzle of how and why they failed.

Rafe’s crash isn’t on Nathalie’s docket. She’s working another case, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t heavily entwined with the mystery of a veteran’s crash. The observations about aircraft engines, mechanics, schematics, and years of experience investigating different crashes offer interesting insights into Rafe’s crash. Despite the warning to keep her away from the investigation of her friend’s death, Nathalie is persistent. She gradually weasels information from her co-workers.

“Did he misjudge the distance from the trees, then? Possible, but not probable. Rafe Mackie had battled fires for nearly two decades and was famous for his timing and accuracy. No West Air Pilot scored more bullseye drops than he did. His plane was like an extension of his body,” Natalie says. “And he knew exactly how to position it in relation to anything around him—terrain, other aircraft, objects, people.”

Throughout Uncontrolled Flight, Peck showcases her expertise. Despite the fact that her first novel only came out last year, she knows her way around story and character as well as (if not better than) some veteran authors. It’s thrilling to see this author with ghost writer on her CV excel under her own name. 

Uncontrolled Flight is categorized as a literary thriller and by all accounts it’s thrilling. Surprises abound, especially when it comes to the interconnectivity of characters and how the mystery behind one character unfurls as we get know another character.

The mystery of what happened to Rafe is the driving force of the novel. Peck handles the mystery with subtlety, though attuned readers will notice a remark here or there by a character makes the accident feel slightly off. Something funky is going on behind the scenes, and it’s only a matter of time until Peck reveals their answers. There’s an unpredictability to the twists that make Uncontrolled Flight feel fresh. Once revealed, the mystery and betrayal feel like water dumping on a fire—ice cold. 




Caileigh Broatch

Caileigh Broatch is a writer, editor, transcriber, and bookseller from Vancouver Island. [Editor’s note: Caileigh Broatch has recently reviewed books by Katarina Jovanovic, Meredith Hambrock, Vince R. Ditrich, A.J. Devlin, Nicholas ReadNancy Hundal & Angela PanDenyse Waissbluth, and Barbara Smith.]



The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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