““Last year, complaints about airlines increased 22%. There were probably more complaints, but the airlines lost them.” ”
Until a few months ago, I had somehow overlooked Stuart Woods and his nearly four-dozen novels and two nonfiction books, many of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller lists. But then while browsing in a library, I noticed the cover of Loitering with Intent and picked up the book. More recently, I found Woods' latest published novel, Strategic Moves, displayed alongside 24 of his earlier works in the mystery-and-thriller section of a Borders bookstore.
Within Loitering with Intent, Woods had scattered several realistic and accurate passages in which Stone Barrington, his NYPD detective-turned-lawyer protagonist, flies his own airplane. Woods had even included a tail number, N123TF. "This guy is either a pilot," I thought, "or he has done his research very, very well."
Google took me quickly to the author's Web site (www.stuartwoods.com) and a photo of N123TF, his Citation Mustang. The site also includes an autobiographical essay and what Woods calls a "Reader Interview." As he explains, "I get a lot of e-mail from readers, and many of them ask the same questions. Since I am very lazy, I thought it would be a lot easier to answer them in an interview instead of answering the same questions over and over again."
While Woods describes himself as "lazy," he writes three novels a year. (Number 46, Bel-Air Dead, should be in stores any day now.)
With homes in Maine, New York and Florida, and book tours that take him all over the country, he also spends lots of time traveling. Private aviation makes his busy schedule possible.
When did flying privately become a business tool for you?
Almost from the beginning. I began doing short-hop book appearances in my first airplane, which was a Cessna 182RG. I would go up to Charleston [S.C.] and Charlotte [N.C.], and later on I expanded that. As my airplanes got faster, I went farther afield.
You fly to book signings and promotional events and you can write anywhere you are. Does that make all your flying business flying?
More than 90 percent of it is, yes.
Have you ever used charter, a jet card or a fractional share?
No. It always seemed crazily expensive. But, of course, nothing is as crazily expensive as owning an airplane. If I ever get to where I can't fly, if I lose my medical or something, I think my first move would be to just hire a pilot and start downsizing. Then I might go down to a card.
You've progressed from single-engine piston to single-engine turboprop to twin-engine jet. How has this changed the way you fly?
It was an easy transition to the turboprop because I had a Piper Malibu and I went to a JetPROP, which is a Malibu with a turbine-engine conversion. I flew that for eight years, and that was the last airplane I had before I got the jet.
Why did you choose the Citation Mustang for your first jet?
I originally placed an order for the Piper jet. I liked the parameters. It's faster than the Mustang and has a slightly longer range, and it was a logical step up from the Malibu. But the company disappointed me after the program was put off for two years. At that point, I withdrew my deposit.
When I first looked at the Mustang, there was a three-year wait for it. Then when the recession came, suddenly there were Mustangs immediately available. Also, the bonus [tax] depreciation was extended, and those two things together made it possible for me.
When did you get the Mustang?
On Friday, April 17, 2009. I only had about 10 days' notice. I was astonished at how much paperwork was involved to get the whole thing together. I had to hire a law firm and start three corporations. We just barely got it done in time for the delivery.
I was starting a book tour on April 20, so I hired a pilot that Cessna had recommended, and he came with me. We picked up the airplane in Independence [Kansas] on Friday and flew to New York, where we overnighted. The next day we flew to Key West, then Atlanta, New Orleans and back to Key West. I think we flew about 12 hours that weekend. On Monday I started the book tour and we flew to my hometown in Manchester, Georgia, on to Atlanta and then coast to coast.
I got about 30 hours in the airplane before I went to FlightSafety for simulator training. That flight time really made me confident of the avionics, though it didn't help me much with the simulator.
You had problems with the Mustang simulator?
The simulator and I had to agree to disagree. It was the way the thing felt. I thought it was squirrely. But I went back, got my type rating and did recurrent training in the simulator there and I had no problems with it. I just found the simulator very "un-airplane-like" the first time.
How has the jet changed the way you fly?
Well, it's faster. My avionics are much more capable, although I had very good avionics in the JetPROP, too. The Mustang is much more comfortable, less tiring if there's turbulence or weather, and heavier and safer. I have about 225 hours in it now.
What "personal" weather minimums do you use when you fly?
I think that the greatest safety tool I have is my schedule. I can always go a day earlier or a day later. And I've flown a lot of approaches. It's never bothered me to fly an approach. I guess I've flown half a dozen approaches to minimums over the years. On a book tour, you want to keep to the schedule, if at all possible, but I'm not going to risk my life doing that. As long as you're paying attention and doing the right thing on that approach plate, then you're not going to bump into anything. I certainly don't want to fly in violent weather.
Do you fly with a copilot in the Mustang?
Until recently, I had a girlfriend who was a captain for US Airways and we flew together fairly often, sometimes with her in the copilot seat and sometimes with me. But I'm accustomed to flying alone. I suppose that more than 90 percent of my total hours are flying alone.
Are you looking at anything larger than the Mustang?
The next thing up would be at least a million dollars more or maybe $2 million, and you have to go up to $5 million to $10 million to get something of a superb performer. It would be wonderful to have a jet that has a 2,000-mile range and can go 400 or 450 knots, but those extra miles and knots come at a very high cost.
Do you still fly on the airlines?
The last time I flew the airlines was when an airplane was down, and I just had to fly home and then back to get it when it was fixed. That was seven or eight years ago. I fly the airlines overseas for the most part, though I have flown myself over the Atlantic, too.
What's your typical workday?
I go to work at 11 a.m. and finish at noon. I review my e-mail, I respond to readers, I read what
I did the day before and that sort of slingshots me into the next chapter. I make small corrections. When I finish the book, I don't even reread it. I just send it to my editor.
Do you think about writing while you're flying-when you have a long cross-country trip, for example?
Yes, I pretty much think about books all the time. Sometimes if I'm not sleeping well, I'll think about the plot. It isn't necessarily a conscious thing. But I work only an hour a day. I write a chapter a sitting. It used to take me four hours a day to do that, but over the years, I've become more confident and I can now do the work in an hour.
Which of your books is your favorite?
Chiefs. It was my first novel and it's still my favorite. It was not a big hit at first, but it did well in paperback and was made into a six-hour mini-series for CBS. Lots and lots of people saw the series, so that helped sales. [Chiefs, published in 1981, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel from Mystery Writers of America.]
You were born in 1938. Did World War II or the Cold War influence your writing?
Yes, The Prince of Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills Dead were immediately pre-war, during the war and immediately post-war. I am fond of that era and have a lot of memories of it. I also took my first airplane ride in 1945 or '46, in a surplus airplane that a cousin of mine had bought.
When did you start including flying references in your books?
My first use was in the book White Cargo, while I was still in training. [Woods obtained his private license and instrument rating in 1986.] I got a lot of information about a guy who had been flying drug runs between Colombia and the United States. He had lost two engines at night in a DC-3 [which has only two engines] and had to put it down in a farmer's field. There was a sheriff waiting for him, so he did a couple of years in prison. But he had some hair-raising stories that I was able to adapt for the book.
Are you still writing at the top of your game?
Yes. I'm at the peak of my career in every way. It's really been remarkable at my age.
Any plans to retire?
No. I've always said that as long as I can think and move my fingers, I'll keep working.
NAME: Stuart Woods
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, sociology, University of Georgia in Athens
TRANSPORTATION: Owns and flies a Citation Mustang. Has previously owned a Cessna 182RG, a Beech Bonanza B-36TC, a Piper Malibu Mirage and a Piper Malibu Mirage JetPROP.
PERSONAL: Shuttles seasonally among homes on Mount Desert Island, Maine, and in New York City and Key West. After three marriages, now "a born-again bachelor." Has outlived several Labrador Retrievers, all named "Fred."