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Top Pen Pilot Scores His 1st Hit With ‘Sidewinder’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most men would be flattered if they were compared to film star Tom Cruise.

But Navy fighter pilot Michael Dunn isn’t among them.

“ ‘Top Gun’ pissed me off,” said Dunn, a 34-year-old lieutenant stationed at Miramar Naval Air Station. “I wanted to clear the air, I wanted to write the definitive book on naval aviators.”

Dunn’s recently released book, “Sidewinder"--a novel about a U.S. fighter pilot pitted against an Iranian counterpart--is his version of what being a naval aviator is really like.

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“Don’t get me wrong,” Dunn said, “ ‘Top Gun’ was the best navy recruiting poster ever made. But it wasn’t accurate. Tom Cruise may be a great actor, but I happen to know he puked his guts out the first time he rode in one of our planes.”

According to Dunn, who has been an instructor at the Top Gun school since 1984, most fighter pilots are extremely hard-working, intelligent people, far removed from the movie’s image of fliers as boozers and womanizers. He does agree, however, with the stereotypes of cockiness and arrogance attached to the pilots.

“You have to have a little immortality to take up a $35-million plane, with all its weaponry, off a carrier. If you’re not confident, chances are you’re not going to come back.”

When “Sidewinder” came out, the other men in his squadron didn’t believe he had really written the book, Dunn said. While he was writing it, he had kept it a secret from his fellow airmen, except for Cmdr. Pete Chisholm, his squadron commander. In order to convince his friends that he wrote the book, Dunn eventually had to ask Chisholm to confirm it.

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Dunn kept quiet about his project because he didn’t want to raise anyone’s hopes about it becoming published, including his own.

“He even kept it a secret from his parents, until he got an agent,” said his wife, Linda.

Now he is polishing his second novel, due out in fall 1992, and is working on a third.

“Sidewinder,” released in paperback this month, evolved from a journal that Dunn kept from January to June, 1988, while he was on a carrier cruise in the Indian Ocean, Dunn said.

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When he returned home to Escondido, he spent about four months submitting his manuscript to “every publisher on the planet that would be interested in military fiction,” Dunn said.

With his bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Dunn said he was confident that his writing was “better than average.” He added: “I’m seeing Tom Clancy make millions, and he’s an insurance guy.”

After several rejection slips, Dunn decided he needed an agent. But, when he went to see one, even she was dubious.

“When he walked in, I thought, ‘This guy is so good-looking, he has so much charisma, if he can write, it would be a miracle,’ ” literary agent Julie Castiglia said.

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After looking at his journal--"he didn’t have a book, nowhere near a book"--Castiglia was impressed enough to tell Dunn she would accept him as a client if he was willing to take her advice and rewrite his journal into a book.

“I have so many petulant writers, people who don’t want to take criticism,” she said. “But he worked really hard and followed instructions.”

When Dunn was finished rewriting “Sidewinder,” Castiglia said, she had no trouble selling it. In fact, she received two offers in a month, which is unusual for a first-time fiction writer, she added.

The adjustment from his nonfiction, journalism background to fiction was easy because he based many characters in his books from people he knew, Dunn said. Some friends have recognized themselves in “Sidewinder,” he added.

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“My biggest problem with the book was that he sometimes wants the pilots to be a little too good,” said Tom Colgan, Dunn’s editor at Avon Books. “In his first draft of the book, somehow they all managed to survive. I told him that he had to kill some of these characters off, and he took it really well.”

Dunn’s forte as a writer is that he is able to describe to the reader the appeal of naval aviation, Colgan said.

“It’s really a very ridiculous thing,” Colgan said. “Why a grown man would want to fly off a ship and possibly land in the water . . . . Ugh, there’s no way I could do it.”

Nor will Dunn be doing it any longer in September, when he will leave the service.

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Dunn is on extended leave from the Navy and is using his time off to promote “Sidewinder” and get a job as an airline pilot so he can work on his third book and spend more time with his wife and 13-month-old son.

Being an airline pilot would mean flying only 12 to 14 days every month and would guarantee that he would no longer be separated from his family for long periods during carrier deployments, Dunn said.

Eventually he would like to make enough money as a writer to quit an airline job and write full-time, Dunn said.

But that’s a dream that will be at least a few years down the road, provided if he can develop any sort of a following, Dunn said. He is still adjusting to the idea of being labeled a writer now.

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“It still hasn’t sunk in,” he said. “It’s still incredible to me that people go to the bookstore and pay money for my book. I just hope I don’t become a jerk because of all this.”


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