"The Sea Witch." By Stephen Coonts. Forge. 256 pages. $24.99.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Stephen Coonts loves to fly. And he loves to write.
Fortunately for him, the West Virginia native has been able to combine both his passions, writing a whole shelf of high-flying best-sellers, beginning with "Flight of the Intruder," published in 1986.
Born in Morgantown, Coonts grew up in Buckhannon. After graduating from West Virginia University in 1968, he joined the Navy, where he learned to fly and spent two years piloting A-6 Intruder bombers over Vietnam and Laos. When he left the Navy, he earned a law degree at the University of Colorado and became a lawyer for an oil company. But he still had an itch to write.
Divorced in 1984, he says he found himself with "plenty of time and no money." So he sat down and wrote a novel based on his Vietnam combat experience. When he finished his manuscript and started sending it to publishers, 34 of them turned it down. Finally, an obscure military publishing house, the Naval Institute Press, agreed to publish it.
"Flight of the Intruder" spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. That success allowed Coonts to put his legal career aside and devote himself full time to writing. He's been hard at it ever since, publishing 16 New York Times best-sellers that have been translated and published around the world, in virtually every language you can think of.
His latest book, "The Sea Witch," is a collection of three novellas. In a brief preface, Coonts promises readers that the three involve "airplanes, adventures, life and death in the sky," and you don't have to read many pages before you realize he's more than made good on that promise.
The setting for the title story (for my money, easily the best of the three tales) is a squadron of PBY Catalina flying boats that's playing havoc with the Japanese in the Pacific at the height of World War II. Ordinarily the giant, ungainly planes were used for search-and-rescue missions or pressed into service as transports. But, as Coonts notes in his preface, a few Catalina squadrons painted their planes flat black, making them all but invisible at night. That enabled these Black Cat squadrons to sneak up on Japanese warships and freighters virtually undetected until they unleashed their bombs and depth charges.