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Danger in the Sky: Mystery and Thriller Books Featuring Planes and Pilots

Please fasten your seat belt. 

two pilots sitting next to each other in plane facing the sun
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  • Photo Credit: Avel Chuklanov / Unsplash

Suddenly, while reading, we notice our hearts are racing and our stomachs are doing somersaults as we are allowed to become active participants in suspenseful mystery and thriller novels, uncovering evidence and piecing together clues right alongside the protagonist. The higher the stakes and the more uncertain the success of our characters, the better.

We must admit, however twisted it may seem, that the more high-pressure circumstances the characters are placed in, the more satisfying turning that last page in the book will be.  

A novel’s setting can also undeniably add to its level of suspense. Suppose a character is in danger due to sinister forces and must use their wits to stay alive and keep others from dying, all while exposing the antagonist’s devious plan.

Now imagine the protagonist having to do that while stuck in the air thousands of feet off the ground in an airplane. And what if that airplane suddenly malfunctions midair or is transporting a lethal creature out for vengeance unbeknownst to the plane’s travelers? Conditions just got a whole lot worse. 

In these eight mysteries and thrillers centered around planes and pilots, our characters are forced to face dire situations head-on, whether it be trying to land a plane that’s become a fiery, flying death trap or trying to prevent an aerial attack from those who have dark secrets they’d much rather see die alongside the passengers.

Prepare yourself for extreme turbulence.   

The Shepherd

The Shepherd

By Frederick Forsyth

English author Frederick Forsyth became one of the youngest pilots in the Royal Air Force in 1956. In his novella, The Shepherd, he pays homage to his passion for flying by crafting a heart-wrenching, but ultimately hopeful, tale of a young RAF pilot who intends to make it back home to England from West Germany in time for Christmas morning but instead finds that his De Havilland Vampire fighter plane is short-circuiting.  

After a few seemingly failed attempts to signal an air traffic controller, which would allow another aircraft to “shepherd” him safely to a nearby airstrip, the young man begins to accept the inevitability of his early demise. Then suddenly, out of the fog, a De Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber arrives just in time.

Who is the pilot responsible for saving his life? This short but impactful mystery authentically depicts the danger pilots face within the cockpit, and in doing so, demonstrates their resiliency. 

Pandora's Clock

Pandora's Clock

By John J. Nance

Earnest Helms’ day is off to a rocky start when he catches a man trying to break into his car on a snowy road in a German forest. Nonetheless, he finds himself lucky that, other than a cut on his hand, he walks away from the altercation largely unharmed. That is, until hours later, aboard a flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York, he suddenly collapses.

The pilot, Captain James Holland, springs into action and swiftly radios London for an emergency landing, but much to his astonishment, is denied permission to land.  

It turns out Helms’ condition isn’t a coincidence: He is carrying a deadly pathogen that not only threatens everyone on the plane but, if allowed to land, can quickly spread and annihilate the entire world.

Now everyone aboard is stuck flying above the clouds, fighting the deadly disease and fearing that the only way the plane is coming down is if the government decides to shoot it down, destroying the threat and all evidence of a near-global disaster.  

New York Times-bestselling author and prior lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, John J. Nance (whose terrifying aviation thriller was also adapted into a successful TV miniseries), takes readers on a heart-racing ride they won’t want to get off—quite unlike the unfortunate souls of this fatal flight.    

Free Fall

Free Fall

By Rick Mofina

The fourth book in the Kate Page suspense series returns with another high-stakes case for the experienced journalist to uncover. A plane bound for New York City loses control, spinning, and eventually crashing before the pilots can figure out the cause.

In London, another deadly crash transpires, killing more innocent lives. Despite the FBI and NTSB's insistence that the crashes were unfortunate accidents caused by human error, reporter Kate Page knows something is amiss.  

Her suspicions are confirmed after she receives a message from someone who wants widespread acknowledgment for their technological expertise, enabling them to hack into the planes’ control systems. If they are denied the recognition they seek, they promise to commit what will be the world’s worst aviation disaster in history.

Former crime reporter and award-winning thriller author Rick Mofina writes a gripping and eerily realistic story that might not be the best to pick up during a flight of your own but will certainly be enjoyed while safely on the ground.  

Unaccompanied Minor

Unaccompanied Minor

By Hollis Gillespie

April Mae Manning may only be 14 years old, but she knows a lot about airplanes. She’s fascinated by the procedures that airlines follow and has a morbid curiosity about the history of aviation disasters, especially because her father died in a failed evacuation after surviving an initial plane crash. Now April is stuck traveling between states, visiting her mother and abusive stepdad, who are getting divorced. But one advantage of having parents in the flight business is the flight benefits she can exploit.  

She decides she will run away and live among the clouds while depending on the trusted flight crew and the best friend she’s made during her frequent travels. Then things take a turn for the worse—someone is trying to hijack the plane. And this clever young woman might be the only person who can take back control of the situation.

Readers will have to buckle in their seatbelts for this exciting YA crime thriller that introduces us to a charismatic young protagonist who will have you chuckling at her witty remarks while rooting for the success of her outrageous plan.



By Arthur Hailey

Over seven suspenseful hours, #1 New York Times-bestselling author Arthur Hailey depicts the chaos that transpires within an airport and amid the skies in this nail-biting thriller that was subsequently made into a 1970 film adaptation of the same name.

A relentless blizzard is storming outside Lincoln International Airport, causing countless canceled flights, furious patrons, and the closure of a primary runway.  

The circumstances become even more dire when there is news of a flight that is currently having a midair emergency and desperately needs to make immediate use of the blocked runway.

This is the story of how a cast of fascinating characters, including a skilled airport manager, a bigheaded pilot, and a charming stewardess, try to prevent tragedy during one of the most stressful nights of their careers.    

Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421

Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421

By T. J. Newman

T.J. Newman, a prior flight attendant and now New York Times-bestselling author, brings us a propulsive, high-stakes thriller about a flight that goes horrifically wrong and the desperate fight for survival that follows. Only six minutes after Flight 1421 takes off, it falls out of the sky and lands in the Pacific Ocean.

Some lucky passengers evacuate before an engine explodes, forcing the remaining survivors to become trapped inside as the plane begins to sink further into the depths of the ocean until caught on the edge of an underwater cliff.  

Among 12 of the plane’s captives are an engineer named Will Kent and his 11-year-old daughter, who must find a way to survive until professional diver Chris Kent—Will’s soon-to-be ex-wife and mother of his child—can devise a plan with her skilled rescue team to get everyone safely back on land.

It’s filled with gripping suspense from beginning to end and shows readers how far parents are willing to go to protect their children.    



By Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block

Not for the weak of heart—nor stomach—Mayday illustrates in gut-wrenchingly gruesome detail the events following an accidental missile strike that hits a jumbo passenger jet.

With almost all of the people on the plane dead or extremely injured and wishing they were dead, only a few survivors must somehow find a way to land the plane. This will be far from easy, especially since powerful forces on the ground would rather see this unfortunate mishap disappear.

This fast-paced thriller shows what some people are prepared to do for self-preservation, even if it means refusing responsibility for their mistakes and allowing lives to be lost.   

Nowhere to Land

Nowhere to Land

By Teretha Houston

If the fear of experiencing mechanical issues with your plane, mid-flight catastrophes due to pilot error, and plane hijacking weren’t enough to make you want to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, this horror thriller’s apex predator might just be your final straw.

Pilot Eden Stone's first Boeing 747 flight is rapidly becoming a waking nightmare as she realizes that something vicious, highly intelligent, and non-human is aboard her plane. With the help of Air Marshal Quentin Kane, the two must figure out what connection this monster has to a suspicious organization and a mysterious wooden box.

This turbulent sci-fi thrill ride has plenty of twists and turns that will keep readers fully engaged until the very last page.  

Featured image: Avel Chuklanov / Unsplash