Book Review: Spirituality, Racism, and the Phantom: Tranquil Skies; The Mystique of Flight
by James T. Hollin, Jr.
Publication Date: Jan 19, 2022
List Price: $32.00
Format: Hardcover, 416 pages
Imprint: Dorrance Publishing
Publisher: Dorrance Publishing
Parent Company: Dorrance Publishing Company, Inc.
Read a Description of Spirituality, Racism, and the Phantom: Tranquil Skies; The Mystique of Flight
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
How many of us pray when we board an airplane?
Not everyone. This author, James T. Hollin Jr., a former military pilot and experienced airline veteran, writes of the joy of flying, the demands made on the machines soaring through the clouds, and the spiritual requests asked of the modern Man-made airplanes in his remarkable memoir, Spirituality, Racism and The Phantom.
Raised in a desert town of Yuma, Arizona during the height of the Cold War, Hollin attended the University of Arizona, getting a degree in aerospace engineering. Some men are born to fly. Hollin was one of them, flying as an U.S. Air force pilot for almost five years, including a stint over Korea. He also did a year of combat over Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Following his military career, he flew as a Delta Air Lines pilot for thirty-one years.
Flying solo or as a crew member, Hollin wrote he was “thankful for the opportunity to soar, observe and marvel at the Earth from treetop altitude and higher. As a child, he learned from his parents, Ted and Cleo about living and experiencing each day to the fullest, all with the gift of Divine faith. In his prologue, he noted: “The skies can embrace your presence or threaten your very existence. Both history and Fate verify this statement, from opposite sides of the spectrum of time.”
A sizeable portion of the book assessed the pilot’s experiences in the Vietnam War, beginning his 1970 arrival in the huge Cam Ranh Air Base, with no rocket attacks for over a year. He viewed Vietnam as beautiful, with jungle covered mountains, waterfalls, and rice paddles. The dangerous game of life or death, he thought, of the pilots with Army medevac helicopters and gunships, descending into the shooting mayhem to save fellow comrades or the critically wounded. Another scenario was the racial discord between the races on the bases and on the battlefields, When Dr. King was killed, several white personnel displayed Confederate flags to irritate the black soldiers and pilots.
Hollin noted the highly-classified missions over Laos and other targets in Southeast Asia as “adrenalin-pumping flying assignments that many army pilots enjoyed. The pilot described the various types of air support used to direct airstrikes by bomb-loaded fighters on enemy ground positions. One thing that was downplayed was the use of white phosphorus rockets, which burned everything in its path. Still, he considered this war experience matured him greatly.
Very reflective and detail-oriented, these are words that penetrated the readers’ consciousness so that they could share what Hollin saw and felt. “The pull of the heavens attracts most humans in one way or another,” he wrote. “The effortless floating of white puffy clouds, the carefree soaring of a small bird, a full golden moon rising on the horizon of a dark sky; all of these moments are a source of inspiration beyond the confines of the body. And not to mention, the vast majority of humans look to the heavens as the abode of the Divine, or God, whatever term they choose for the concept of the Supreme Being. Flying is in humans’ DNA, since we are all part of the same cosmos materials and energy as birds and other creatures.”
Someone said the best of pilots are born, rather than schooled. Hollin, was in the 8th grade in Yuma when President Eisenhower commanded federal troops to protect nine Blacks students in an effort to integrate a white Little Rock, Arkansas. He had been attending an integrated middle school for two years. Thinking of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, his mother drove him for flying lessons with Mr. Close, his aviation science class instructor, at the Yuma County Airport. He still recalled his maiden flight a half mile above the Earth, feeling transformed when he climbed down out from the cockpit.
Aviation nerds will savor his experiences as he acquired flying skills, doing a fast taxi, moving along the runway centerline, keeping engine power to maintain forward speed. With various instructors, he gained confidence Not only he could fly solo, go through extreme conditions, and return to the field safely. A fascinating section detailed the nature of a stall where the airplane falls out of control, “similar to the sensation of slowly reaching the crest of a roller coaster peak before reaching downward.” He revealed the cure for a stall by remaining calm and going through the remedies to break out a shallow dive.
Another informative section involved the F-4 Phantom fighters (pictured below), which Hollin called “an awesome flying machine.” I was intrigued by the high tech jet which has a belly mounted Gatling gun, accompanied by air-to-ground rockets, or a 250-pound bomb. He flew in these formidable airplanes in a few dangerous missions. Despite the Phantom’s considerable firepower, over 700 of them were lost in Vietnam.
His scariest event occurred when he, as a First Officer on a DC-9, flying into a cloudy sky, with warnings of thunderstorms. As he started to take off, he lost sight of the white runaway centerline stripes and the plane went into instrument takeoff mode. Suddenly darkness totally engulfed everything. At first, the takeoff was aborted, but the Captain pulled the throttles back and the plane broke the blackness to “relative, bright, rainy skies.” Using expert timing and skill, a crash was averted.
Hats off to James T. Hollin, Jr., pilot extraordinary. He has flew so many commercial and fighter airplanes, including Boeing 757 and B-767and L-1011. He pays homage to Black history both past and present, while walking us through this illustrious aviation career. Despite the fly-boy jargon, he never ceased to offer tribute to the Supreme Power that sustains all life. “You can’t hide from the presence of Spirit; embrace the natural wonder of Life and Creation. Respect all humans; help even the seeming “lowest” of us. We all need each other and can learn from one another…God bless the Earth.”
Hollin has become our pilot-philosopher of our times. He, with his courage and boldness, has burst through the brittle, shallow façade of racism and discrimination. Each story in the book is a lesson for the heart and soul. We need more men like Mr. Hollin, a explorer in awe of the heavens but grounded in the present Earthly delights and temptations. This is a fine effort.