A Novel of Civilian Aviation in Afghanistan



Maxwell Hugo knows he went wrong somewhere. He had made a decent start as a helicopter pilot, dressed in snazzy blue, but thirty years later he finds himself jobless on a military base in Afghanistan, his pants splashed with mud. After a car journey through the contested countryside, he’s offered a position leading ex-Soviet pilots, whom he later learns are alcoholics to a man. It’s a career decision that begs regret because nothing perpetuates a wobbly professional arc like running an aviation operation made soggy by vodka.


Hugo and his intoxicated crews are tasked to take supplies to forward NATO bases, which have been plopped amid Taliban gangs, opium growers, and locals easily upset by noisy air machines. Any of these would kill him, given opportunity and the right mood. Hugo soon suspects that his ex-Soviets are similarly inclined, and not just because they’re drunk. NATO officials play with his life also; they’re a bit more nuanced in their technique, but death is death. Hugo trods forward, wondering what will come first: the lethal embrace, the West’s final victory over the unconquerable, or another downward jog in his arc.



After a short career in the United States Air Force, Steven Athanas answered a dangerzonejobs.com advertisement for civilian helicopter pilots willing to fly in the Afghanistan war zone. Seven years and four contracts later, he found himself looking back through a prism of filth, tragedy, and black humor, emerging with a story that could only be told as fiction. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ramrod is his second book.



In the left seat, Hugo pulled his cyclic switch upward with his left middle finger. “I used the coordinates on the landing card and I’ve checked them twice. Either they’re wrong or the picture is. We’ll never find the picture, so I say we drop down here and look for the Romanian flag.”

The Duke looked right to clear his orbit. “We could do that, but there are a lot of damn people down there.”

Hugo couldn’t disagree. There was not only the heavy road traffic, but the coordinates were near a small village. “If you haven’t been killed doing this yet, you aren’t going to be.”

“Nicely put. Okay, we’ll land south of that sinkhole.”

“Yeah, saw that. Don’t let it swallow us.”

As they descended, Hugo could see they were being noticed. The small dots below began looking up, pointing. Vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, the occupants emptying from compartments and truck beds. Hugo could only wonder if anyone below was more than curious, perhaps looking for a Taliban merit badge. At fifty feet altitude, their rotor blades began kicking dust. “Watch for a brownout.”

“Too late,” announced The Duke as the Sikorsky, with sixty-two feet of rotor disk propelling a hundred-mph column of downward air, threw an inch of fine Zabol Province skyward, cutting their visibility from six miles to ten feet in less than two seconds.


“I understand.” Hugo took the tips of his fingers and landed them on the RAF sergeant’s desk, an impromptu prop. He wondered whether the Canadian’s little speech had been rehearsed or if he was simply an eloquent bastard.

Maxwell Hugo

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