Book Review: Vertical Lift
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Restless seeking leads a man from Rhodesia to Canada — and to his calling as a pilot
George Kelham’s memoir Vertical Lift: A Heli-Pilot’s Mission for Freedom, Family, and Success has layers of meaning about identity and career drive. As told to K.H. Bickell, the story recounts how the author formed a family and developed a business while dealing with the challenges of frequent migration. A wide audience will find much to admire in this unusual personal story.
The author’s father was a British sailor who served under U.S. command during World War II. After the war, the father, mother, and their toddler son spent a year in Japan and then intended to settle in Alaska, as the father was entitled to U.S. citizenship in return for his service.
When they saw a boat bound for Africa, however, they suddenly changed their minds, and they settled in Rhodesia (today called Zimbabwe), where they raised their four children.
The youngest was George, whose memoir this is. He describes growing up in a working-class white family in a country with deep racial and class divisions. His teachers stereotyped him as a likely delinquent. He and his siblings spent time at a Catholic school in South Africa; their mother had converted to Catholicism before marrying their father. George’s national identity, though, was primarily Rhodesian. He preferred life in his hometown of Umtali (today called Mutare), where he spent his teenage years in the early 1970s.
We learn a bit about how Rhodesia’s history affected George’s life. The European colonizers only permitted landowners to vote — that is, mostly themselves. White men were also required to perform nine months of military service. Growing up, George anticipated this conscription as an intolerable burden, but eventually he had to do it.
In basic training, the alternating heat and cold were torturous. The soldiers were plagued by insects, one was dragged off by a lion, and a number died by suicide. George, as a 17-year-old without official rank, didn’t impress many. His commanders considered him undisciplined, just as his teachers had. An official letter described him as “a thorn in the heel of his superiors” despite his performance one day on the border of Mozambique when he frightened off the enemy with a machine gun. George thought his superiors were simply prejudiced against him because his family was poor.
He chose to leave the military before his mandatory service was complete, which meant he also had to leave the country, though he had no rights to live anywhere else. He became a stateless drifter. He explored options: South Africa? The United States? Britain? Eventually, he learned to fly helicopters in Canada. He was in his mid-twenties when Canada kicked him out, having discovered his immigration status, but in a sense, he’d already won — he’d gained a desirable job skill. South Africa finally welcomed him, and his Canadian sweetheart followed him and married him there.
The story pivots to an entrepreneurial memoir, as George went on to found a helicopter transport business in Canada with his wife working on bookings. They had relatively little access to credit and could only rent a helicopter, and neighboring pilots were jealous and tried to obstruct them. Despite these challenges, after years of hard work, the family business was a success. They “had accomplished the impossible, all on their own.”
There is great attention to historical detail in this memoir, whether talking about Rhodesia in wartime (“cigarette lighters were impossible to find, so people used matches”) or a 21st-century Canadian wildfire (“residents returned to scorched earth where their homes had stood”). The tone is suffused with nostalgia. George’s identity is tied to the countries he has come to know, yet he seems ambivalent about his homeland and his family of origin, and he longs for a better life in which he can follow his bliss.
Vertical Lift rigorously sticks to chronological order. This makes George’s flight path easy to follow. On the other hand, just as when experiencing or observing real life, readers aren’t told where they’re going before they get there, and, by the end, the meaning of the story as a whole isn’t tied up with a neat bow.
Readers could take away a number of lessons in Vertical Lift, and they may have to decide for themselves what the story means for them. Someone might notice, for example, that some helicopter pilots thrive in the military while other pilots, like George, do well in private business. Is that difference driven by innate personality or by situations? Here, it’s left open.
Life presents vast possibilities for each of us, despite our challenges and constraints. This thoughtful memoir implicitly asks us to consider how war and immigration restrictions affect people’s lives, and it invites us to imagine what next year might hold for us if we put in the hard work today.
Genre: Nonfiction / Aviation
Print Length: 253 pages
Thank you for reading Tucker Lieberman’s book review of Vertical Lift by George Kelham! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.
I loved the background of George’s childhood in Africa, the depiction of his hard work ethic and passion for aviation, and the trials and tribulations he faced to become an admired heli-pilot and successful business owner.
There were several nail-biting moments in his memoir, particularly his experience in Rwanda genocides.