When we decided to do Lofty Ambitions, one area of our lives we planned to explore was what it meant for us to grow up—to be children and become young adults—during the Cold War. As twelve-year-olds, the locus of our fears, because it was the locus of the nation’s fears, was the Soviet Union. By the time we came along, the confrontation had become familiar, and Ruskie bogeymen and the nuclear threat populated our favorite television shows. In The Six-Million-Dollar Man’s first season, conspirators try to stop Oscar Goldman from negotiating with the Soviets and Steve Austin visits an island with a cosmonaut. In The Bionic Woman, scientists try to force nations to live in peace by threatening to destroy the world if any nuclear weapon is exploded. We didn’t necessarily plan to touch upon this area of our lives this week.
But the two of us have always placed great value on the role of serendipity in our lives. How else might we explain that a single grandfather can be the seed for each of our very different novel manuscripts? One of these serendipitous moments occurred again for us just a couple of weeks ago. On the same day that Wings, a 1966 Russian film, showed up in our Netflix queue, two of Doug’s colleagues—Stacy Russo and Brett Fisher—gave him the same article about aviation museums. The film depicts a woman whose life found its greatest meaning during her harrowing days as a World War II fighter pilot. The article, clipped from the most recent issue of Westways, reviewed several of the nation’s best aviation museums, including Planes of Fame. That’s a museum in nearby Chino Hills that we’ve meant to visit—and that weekend’s program featured lectures on World War II Russian aircraft.
It’s not as if we didn’t have other pressing tasks that weekend, but serendipity isn’t something with which to trifle. Planes of Fame hosted a panel lecture and then a demonstration of the Yakovlev fighter—the Yak-3, to be precise. Small, sleek, and powerful, the Yak-3 makes it clear why flying such a plane during the campaign on the Eastern Front could be the peak of Nadezhda Petrukhina’s life in Wings. The flying scenes don’t convey whether she flew the Yak-3, but that’s where serendipity points us when we watch that film the night before our visit to the aviation museum.
At the beginning of Wings, Petrukhina is measured for civilian clothes, a suit that is really a new uniform. The middle of the film is muddled by a love story—it’s set in Russia during World War II, so you know where this is going. Her lover’s fighter is wounded. As she instinctively circles her own plane around his in their last moments together, she watches her lover’s fighter auger into a forest. By the end of the film, we know where a friendly visit to the local aerodrome is going too: back into the air.
The airspace above us in Chino was a hive of activity: two general aviation pilots practiced formation flying, assorted Pipers and Cessnas and a lone Bellanca took to the air, and several commercial jets bound for LAX passed overhead. All the while, the Yak-3 roared through gentle arcs, its every moment aloft a tense battle between too much power and barely enough wing surface. It didn’t so much fly as prowl, as if waiting for one of the lesser aircraft to get out of line.
One point the day’s speakers—Edward Maloney, Frank Mormillo, and Charles Isaacs—made shades the way we now view those flying scenes in Wings and the flight of the Yak-3 over Southern California. For the Russians, the air war on the Eastern Front was a numbers game. Estimates vary, but place Russian aircraft losses at 36,000 planes to German losses of 4,000, a 9-to-1 ratio. And yet, this wasn’t out of step with the Russian mindset, which might be crystallized as the attitude, If we have a single aircraft flying home at the end and they don’t, we win.
As the question-and-answer session was winding down at Planes of Fame, several men pointed out that what made an American aircraft most appealing to Russian aviators in World War II was the radio. If relative equals in speed or maneuverability meet, a plane with a radio is better than a plane without one. Serendipity isn’t everything, then. Planning, practice, and communication—negotiating as you go—must be part of the mix. Fortunate discoveries and happenstance connections don’t amount to very much if you can’t respond to them, if you can’t share them.