Pilots

Richard Bach

June 1, 2002

Richard Bach doesn't have the stern, clipped voice of an ex-jet jock. He has a soothing voice, a kindly voice, kind of like the one your father gets when he becomes a granddad. But Bach was once a fighter pilot: In the 1950s, after soloing in a Luscombe, he dropped out of college to join the U.S. Air Force. He learned to fly F-86s and F-84s. He even logged a few hours in the F-100. Then came The Downsizing. After the Korean War, all Air Force pilots with fewer than 500 hours were to be reassigned. So Bach became a supply officer.

"I was very aggressive," he recalls. "It didn't fit my image of myself, handing out mop handles, so in 1958 I wrote a letter and they let me go." He soon discovered that he couldn't hold down a real job. Sure, he could last maybe 10 months, maybe 11. "Then I'd go wild with boredom and quit," he says. Back in high school he had taken a class in creative writing — to avoid English Lit. The teacher wrote for outdoor magazines. The only way he would give out an A in the class was if a student sold a story and showed him the check. Bach wrote an article on a local astronomy club, which he sold to the Long Beach Press Telegram. He got a $25 check and put it on the teacher's desk. One A, coming up.

So Bach at least knew he could write for hire. And he loved airplanes, so he wrote for airplane magazines. One editor told him he couldn't make a living as an aviation writer, and one night Bach was thinking about just how right that editor was and wondering how he was going to pay the rent. "But then I had this very strange experience, hearing someone talking behind me in the night, and it was Jonathan Livingston Seagull," Bach recalls. "It was another level of myself. It was an odd psychic experience — I saw the story happen in bright Technicolor, and I wrote as fast as I could write. I loved the little guy and loved the adventure." Two-thirds of the way through the story, someone pulled the plug on the projector. Bach stopped work on that story and wrote three other books on flying ( Stranger to the Ground, Biplane, and Nothing By Chance). Then in 1968 his mind picked up the Technicolor film of that seagull story again, and he finished it. Bach sent it to an agent in New York who shopped it around to 18 publishers in Manhattan, but no one would buy a story about a talking seagull. So the agent returned the manuscript to Bach's home in Ohio. When the package arrived, Bach stood at the mailbox tearing open the envelope with his agent's rejection letter. Beneath that envelope was a letter from an editor saying she'd read all his flying books and asking if he had any unpublished manuscripts. He sent her the seagull book, she argued with the sales staff, and Macmillan reluctantly published Jonathan Livingston Seagull in 1970. At first sales were slow. Bach himself bought a few hundred copies and sold them through an ad in Trade-A-Plane. Word got around slowly but steadily, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull became the number-one bestseller of 1971 and 1972. Today those Trade-A-Plane copies go for $300 apiece on eBay.

From his experiences barnstorming in the 1960s, selling rides in his Travel Air biplane for $3, and sleeping alone under the wing came his next book. "I thought it would be wonderful to hear someone who spoke my language and could also answer any question. I talked with this character, Donald Shimoda, the Savior of the World, long after barnstorming." That book, Illusions, was a huge bestseller in 1977. Bach followed that up with a string of strong-selling fiction titles. Now he's releasing a new series titled The Ferret Chronicles. The first two, Rescue Ferrets at Sea and Air Ferrets Aloft, were released recently.

Bach long ago stopped logging his flying time, but he estimates he has somewhere around 8,000 hours. "No matter how much you have it doesn't seem like much," he says. He still flies today, but mostly in his motorglider.

"The neat thing about flying is everywhere you go, every hangar is a home," he says. "You know it so well. No introduction required, you just join in the middle of a conversation. It's not unusual to go out in the world and pay for gas for your airplane and they recognize your name on the credit card. It's a wonderful feeling to know that shacked out in the jungle or at large airports there is this family of those who love to fly."

Topics Pilots