Monday, 16 February 2015

Air Force One is Down by John Denis, 1981

First, a clarification: John Denis is not Alistair MacLean as I wrongly assumed and mentioned in earlier posts, since corrected.

According to Wikipedia, John Denis is the collective pseudonym for John Edwards, former editor of BBC’s That's Life programme, and Denis Frost, his collaborator on the show. Together, they authored the initial two UNACO books, Hostage Tower (1980) and Air Force One is Down (1981).

UNACO, which stands for United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, was invented by Alistair MacLean as part of a series for an American movie company that was to produce the action films. While MacLean wrote the story outlines, the novels were completed by other writers beginning with John Denis. Interestingly, in 2013, Cilla Ware directed a two-part mini television series titled Air Force One is Down credited to Alistair MacLean. I'm assuming it’s based on the John Denis novel.


Below are the eleven UNACO books.

1980: Hostage Tower - John Denis
1981: Air Force One is Down - John Denis
1989: Death Train - Alastair MacNeill
1989: Night Watch - Alastair MacNeill
1990: Red Alert - Alastair MacNeill
1991: Time of the Assassins - Alastair MacNeill
1992: Dead Halt - Alastair MacNeill
1993: Code Breaker - Alastair MacNeill
1995: Rendezvous - Alastair MacNeill
1997: Prime Target - Hugh Miller
1998: Borrowed Time - Hugh Miller


Alastair MacNeill is a Scottish writer and not to be confused with fellow Scottish author Alistair MacLean. I'm not sure who Hugh Miller is.

UNACO does not exist in reality. The closest I can think of is the United Nations Security Council which has the mandate to launch wars and end conflicts.

Alistair MacLean’s UNACO is not a council of member-states; it’s an influential security agency within the United Nations led by its charismatic director, General Malcolm G. Philpott, and ably assisted by his beautiful girlfriend Sonya Kolchinsky. Philpott has managed to keep UNACO independent of other intelligence agencies like CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad, although it cooperates with them in global espionage and peacekeeping.

In Air Force One is Down, Philpott and his anti-crime organisation are tested to the limit as the US President’s aircraft is hijacked from Bahrain by international criminal Mister Smith and taken to distant Yugoslavia, which, in spite of its proximity to Soviet Russia, is a law-abiding member of UNACO. Fortunately, the President is in Washington D.C. He has lent his aircraft to ferry OPEC ministers from the Middle East to America to sign a crucial oil treaty. They are held captive for a fat ransom.

However, there is more to the hijacking of the President’s aircraft, the kidnapping of the oil ministers, and the subsequent destruction of a fake Air Force One, to make it seem like the real one.

The real story is about the kidnapping of Joe McCafferty, a US Secret Service agent on loan to UNACO and head of security aboard Air Force One, and his replacement by a lookalike, the ruthless Cody Jagger, who would fool the real Joe’s mother. Jagger goes under the scalpel to look like McCafferty's identical twin, take over the plane, and "betray" his friends on board.

The Cold War plot of Air Force One is Down is as farfetched as that of Irving Wallace’s The Second Lady (1980) where a KGB impostor takes the First Lady’s place in the White House and even sleeps with the President without arousing his suspicion. However, Denis’ action story is no patch on Wallace’s political thriller.

Equally implausible is the situation where UNACO’s commander Philpott succeeds in keeping the western intelligence community at bay, in the hijack drama, although a general within the Pentagon provides assistance from his office. The Secret Service is nowhere in the picture. Neither is CIA. The KGB is in on the plot for its own sinister motive and doesn’t hesitate to backstab hijack mastermind Mister Smith.

There is plenty of action in Air Force One is Down and while the story, 
even if unconvincing, is well-written and entertaining, it lacks the narrative stamp of an Alistair MacLean thriller.

12 comments:

  1. Sounds like fun Prashant - I remember when a lot of these books, based on his outlines, started coming out and I was a bit sniffy about them, though I did watch some of the TV-Movies based on them (I think Pierce Brosnan did a couple in his pre-Bond days) - I didn't realise there were so many of them though!

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    1. Sergio, I wasn't sure if any movies or television movies were made out of the story outlines drawn by Alistair MacLean. I'll look out for those two Brosnan films. In his own writing MacLean was one of two successful bestselling authors whose novels were made into films; the other being Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson). I find similarities in their style.

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  2. I very recently watched a movie where Air Force One was hijacked with the President, his wife and daughter on the flight and taken or rather almost taken to a border of Chechyna. Could it be an adaptation from this book I wonder.

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    1. Mystica, the idea for AIR FORCE ONE directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Harrison Ford as President may have been borrowed from this novel and probably others that touched upon the theme. Gary Oldman who plays the bad guy is a fine actor.

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  3. Our small town library had several Alistair Maclean books and I read those. I have a few others around here I haven't read. Always liked his stuff.

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    1. Charles, I grew up on a regular diet of Alistair MacLeans and other bestselling authors of the seventies and eighties. He wrote a western novel too, called BREAKHEART PASS, and did a fine job of it. It was also made into a movie with Charles Bronson in the lead.

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  4. Glad you enjoyed it, even though you haven't convinced me to keep an eye out for it.

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    1. Col, you can skip this particular novel though I can't say the same for the others in the UNACO series which I haven't read.

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  5. Since I have yet to read many of the genuine article - MacLean books - I'll go that direction, but it's good to understand the relationship between that author and this series, so thinks very much.

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    1. Richard, you're welcome. I haven't read everything by MacLean and while I'll try and read those novels, I also want to reread the ones I already have.

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  6. These novels sound fine but I haven't read many (if any) Alistair MacLean books so I am going to focus my efforts on that for now.

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    1. Tracy, go straight to Alistair MacLean who, along with Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) has written some fine action novels.

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