Winner of the Author's Club Best First Novel Award
A Finalist for the East Anglian Book Award for Fiction
One of The Guardian's Favorite Reads of the Year (Chosen by Jenny Rohn)
“The Last Pilot made me cry and brought back all my old Right Stuff feels. A brilliant debut. I loved it.”—Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho’s bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child, and when, unexpectedly, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overjoyed. America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, while Harrison turns his attention home to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. But as he and Grace confront thrills and challenges of parenthood, they are met with sudden tragedy.
The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage, as Jim struggles to make life-and-death decisions under circumstances that are altogether new. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock is the mesmerizing story of a couple’s crisis of faith—in themselves, and in each another—and the limits they test to rediscover it.
Using the early days of the U.S. space exploration program as a backdrop, Johncock's impressive debut laces fact with fiction to tell the tale of Jim Harrison, an Air Force test pilot, and his wife, Grace. The story opens in the Mojave Desert in 1947, where Jim pushes innovative aircraft to their extremes and rubs elbows with the likes of Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley. Jim and Grace pine for a child and eventually welcome a daughter, Florence. But Florence becomes gravely ill at the age of two, and despite his vast knowledge of cutting-edge aerospace technology, Jim can do little to save her life. Devastated, he throws himself into his work instead of mourning her death, volunteering for the upstart NASA program and moving with Grace to Houston. Once there, Jim must race against a ticking clock the president expects a mission to the moon by 1970 and he slowly drifts away from Grace, develops anxious ticks, and suffers through disturbing visions of Florence, all as he prepares to participate in one of the Gemini space shuttles. Jim's story is fascinating, and the author writes with a strong ear for dialogue, which rattles the pages with intensity. A marvelous, emotionally powerful novel.