Thursday 25 May 2023

Flying in the Dark by James Swallow

I’ve always been a bit of an aviation geek; I mean, with a surname like mine, how could I not love things that fly? 

I grew up in North London under the approaches to Heathrow, not far from the aerial car park known as the “Lambourne Stack” – for the uninitiated, that’s one of the four volumes of sky around the edges of Greater London, where airliners circle in race-track patterns while they’re waiting permission to land at one of the world’s busiest airports. I watched jets from my bedroom window when I wasn’t making models of them; I had parents who shared my interest, who toured me around museums and air shows, and when I reached seventeen, they gifted me my first flying lesson, in a little single-engine Cessna 152. 

I love the drama of flight, the romance and the excitement of it. The thrill never gets old for me, even when I’m experiencing it from back in coach class, crammed into a seat too small for my long-legged frame. I’m still looking out of that window, watching the sky streak by. 

In my previous novel AIRSIDE (Welbeck,2022) I wrote a thriller about a man whose luck had run out, bumped off the last flight home and trapped in a storm-bound airport terminal. Following it with my newest book DARK HORIZON, I realized I was writing a loosely-connected duology, with both books carrying a common aviation theme – but where AIRSIDE is about being stuck on the ground, DARK HORIZON’s pilot heroine Kate Hood finds herself trapped in the air, in the middle of a violent conspiracy that she wants no part of...but that fate won’t let her escape.

When I write a thriller, my stock in trade is a narrative at a fast pace, a page-turner high on the action. So to give that a foundation, I do my best to make sure the setting of the story is as genuine as I can make it. Writing DARK HORIZON, I talked to experts, aviation historians, fighter pilots and civil flyers alike, to make Kate’s dramatic journey feel authentic.

The concept behind her story takes inspiration from real events – several years ago, after I moved south to the leafy environs of Kent, I once more found myself under an airport approach path, but this time it was for Biggin Hill, a former World War II RAF airfield. I still get to watch flights from my office window, but now they are sleek executive jets, helicopters and occasionally, my old friend the Cessna.

As I read up on the history of the area, a detail pinged on my thriller writer radar and I immediately filed it away as the seed of a potential story. In the early-to-mid 2000s there was a scandal about the alleged use of British airports like Biggin as waypoints for clandestine “renditions” undertaken by America's Central Intelligence Agency. In these covert operations, the CIA would transport suspected terrorist captives outside of US borders, to countries with non-extradition treaties and lax laws with regard to forcible interrogation. The end-point of these flights were the infamous off-grid prisons known in the intelligence community as “black sites”. Morally and ethically grey, operations like these challenge us to consider the lines our governments and security forces are prepared to cross in the name of security. 

It’s the nature of the author that we go through life sifting the world around us for the starting points of our stories, and when I read about these “dark flights” I knew that the enclosed set-up and the secret, highly-charged nature of it would form the solid bedrock of a compelling thriller novel; and from that concept, I formulated the plot line that would become the novel DARK HORIZON, putting a lone pilot with a past she can’t escape on a collision course with a mysterious passenger who may be an innocent victim, or a murderous terrorist hiding in plain sight.

DARK HORIZON by James Swallow is published by Welbeck, out now in hardcover and eBook.

At 40,000 feet up... There is no place to hide. A fatal crash on a rain-slick road and a brutal murder in an English village set off a deadly chain of events, leading from stormy skies over the Mediterranean Sea to an explosive confrontation on a remote airstrip in North Africa... Only a handful of people know the reason why Kate Hood left the military in disgrace; now a contract pilot for a private jet company, she’s looking for a second chance and a better life. But to keep her secrets, she must take a last-minute assignment to fly a covert cargo out of the country to a non-extradition nation, with no questions asked. The cargo is a prisoner who may be the key to a violent terrorist conspiracy – but he swears he is an innocent man, wrongly accused of crimes he played no part in. And as Kate races through the night, on the ground a team of ruthless killers are hunting the people she cares about, threatening their lives to force the pilot to hijack her own aircraft. But do they plan to liberate the captive – or execute him? Trapped at the heart of an escalating crisis, Kate and her mysterious passenger must navigate the conflicting agendas of enemies and allies alike, on a flight into danger that neither of them may survive...

Learn more about James Swallow and his writing at his website You can also find him on Twitter @jmswallow

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