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'Code Black' author speaks in Detroit Lakes

Novelist Philip Donlay reads a passage from one of his books at a meeting of the Detroit Lakes Library Club on Tuesday. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

When Philip Donlay was 16 years old, he started flying. When he was 18, he wrote a magazine article and had it published. Then came the career decision -- become a pilot or become a writer. He chose pilot.

He flew planes for the first part of his career and is now pursuing, quite successfully, a career in writing fiction novels.

After having to pass up a speaking engagement last year, the Minnesota author made his appearance at the Detroit Lakes Library Club kick-off meeting Tuesday afternoon.

"Thanks for waiting a year to have me," Donlay said to the crowd gathered in Trinity Lutheran Church.

Donlay has released two fiction thrillers -- "Category Five" about a hurricane, and "Code Black" about a mid-air airplane crash. He read the prologue to "Code Black" and received plenty of "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd as he hooked them.

"I had a similar experience in the 1980s," Donlay said of the mid-air plane crash, which of course brought even more "aahs" from the crowd.

His inspiration for the novel came from a time when he was flying from Chicago and was in Indianapolis air space when he looked up and saw a Boeing 727 coming right at them.

This time period, he said, was when President Regan had fired all air traffic controllers because they went on strike illegally, so only supervisors were running the air space.

Thanks to quick thinking and maneuvering, they were able to pass about 100 feet below the other plane.

"We didn't hit him, obviously, because I'm still here talking to you," he said.

But, it was a good idea for a book.

He also took inspiration from a real-life incident in Hawaii in which the roof of an airplane ripped off mid-flight and the plane was able to land safely.

So, the airplanes collide, daylight is running out, the plane is running out of fuel "and then the book starts," Donlay said of "Code Black."

The title comes from the highest level of snow emergency at the Chicago Airport, where the book takes place. During his research for the book, "I got to play in the snow and hang out in the air traffic control tower," seeing maybe more than he should have, he admits.

He's often asked about his closest call when flying, and he said two or three years ago he was flying back from Eastern Europe, was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, and for one horrible moment, "we thought we were out of coffee," he deadpanned. "But then we found some, so that crisis was averted."

He said that autopilot is "crazy," adding that pilots are mainly there to take off and land the plane and take care of it if something should go wrong.

Although his novels are fiction, he uses true-to-life situations. For instance, he keeps the Boeing 737 pilot alive in his book.

"I don't know why they always kill the pilots," he said of Hollywood films.

A small-aircraft pilot could never land a commercial jet, regardless of how often it happens in the movies. When those pilots try their hand in simulators, they crash every time, he said.

And speaking of Hollywood, Donlay sold the movie rights option to "Code Black" and worked on the screenplay for it, which, he said, isn't the job for him.

"It's a fun place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

"It's now in development hell," he said of the movie, not knowing if it will ever hit the screen. "The check didn't bounce, so that's the main thing," he added with a laugh.

When it comes to finding and naming a character, Donlay said he is likely the only bachelor who has a book of baby names in his house. Names spark emotion, he said, but friends are always wondering if characters are based on them. He has two very close friends he has flown with for many years and their names both happen to be Michael. His hero's close friend in the series is Michael Ross, who he named for them.

When telling a story, Donlay said, "I don't stray much from the truth, so they can come true."

Case in point. "Category Five" came out right before Hurricane Katrina hit. "Code Black" came out just before a commercial flight landed safely in the Hudson River, and the hero in the book has the option of landing in Lake Michigan.

And finally, in his third novel, now under construction -- the working title is "Zero Separation" -- he had a portion of it completed about an airplane gone missing right before the Air France plane disappeared.

"I never know what's going to come out of this typewriter."

And while he's upgraded from a typewriter, he hasn't upgraded to using proper typing skills.

"I have tons and tons of notepads, but at the end of the day, it's two fingers pecking," he said. "I'm pretty fast, too -- 50 words a minute."

That pecking has paid off and he is finishing up his third novel and has the outline for a fourth ready -- all following pilot Donovan Nash, his fiancée Dr. Lauren McKenna and friend Michael Ross.

Donlay himself has flown in more than 40 countries on five continents.

"I get to go to some pretty cool places and see some pretty cool things."

The one place he hasn't been though? Hawaii.

At the Library Club meeting Tuesday, Donlay also spoke about the process of getting an agent and publisher -- "I got all the 'thanks, but no thanks' I could handle" -- and about how the actual publishing and promoting process works.

"It's like selling anything, whether it's Girl Scout cookies or novels, you have to promote your product."

For more information on Philip Donlay, visit his Web site at www.philipdonlay.


The Library Club meets the fourth Tuesday of each month at 2 p.m. in the Detroit Lakes Library.