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Robert J. Serling dies at 92; one of the nation's top aviation writers

The author of the bestselling novel 'The President's Plane Is Missing,' he was the older brother of 'Twilight Zone' creator Rod Serling.

May 20, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert J. Serling, author of “The President’s Plane Is Missing,” was the older brother of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling.
Robert J. Serling, author of “The President’s Plane Is Missing,”… (George Janoff )

Robert J. Serling, one of the nation's top aviation writers and the author of the bestselling novel "The President's Plane Is Missing," has died. He was 92.

Serling, the older brother of "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling, died May 6 in a hospice facility in Tucson, said his wife, Patricia Hoyer. He had been diagnosed with cancer five days earlier.

A former award-winning aviation writer for United Press International, Serling became UPI's aviation editor in Washington, D.C., in 1960, the same year his first book, "The Probable Cause: The Truth About Air Travel Today," was published.

His numerous nonfiction and fiction books included the histories of Eastern, Western, TWA, Continental and American airlines. He also wrote "Legend and Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People" and coauthored former astronaut Frank Borman's autobiography "Countdown."

Serling's most recent book, "Character & Characters: the Spirit of Alaska Airlines," was published in 2008.

While at UPI in the early 1960s, Serling was at Andrews Air Force Base waiting for the arrival of the president on Air Force One. During his wait, he began wondering how the headline would read if the plane never arrived.

"The President's Plane Is Missing," his 1967 Cold War thriller about the vice president having to take over after Air Force One mysteriously disappears during a routine flight with the president on board, enabled Serling to quit UPI and write books full time.

The novel was turned into a 1973 TV movie starring Buddy Ebsen as the vice president.

Among Serling's other novels are "Air Force One Is Haunted" and "Something's Alive on the Titanic."

"The last two books are the kind of books Rod would have written," Serling said in a 1991 Associated Press interview. "There are times when I wonder if Rod is putting some of these stories in my mind. I know it sounds screwy."

Serling served as a technical advisor on "The Odyssey of Flight 33," a "Twilight Zone" episode his brother wrote about an airline that travels back in time after passing through the sound barrier.

Serling said he never felt overshadowed by his more famous brother, who died in 1975 at age 50.

"We never did compete," he said in the 1991 interview. "Our careers really took different paths. He wrote for television; I wrote for print. But I think he was prouder than hell of me and I was prouder than hell of him."

He was born Jerome Robert Serling on March 28, 1918, in Cortland, N.Y., and grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., where he and his brother staged plays in their backyard. (His wife said he didn't like the name Jerome and officially switched his names as a young adult.)

After earning a bachelor's degree in political science at Antioch College in Ohio in 1942, he served in the Army as an instructor in aircraft identification during World War II.

He joined UPI in 1945 and worked as a reporter and manager of the Radio News Division before becoming aviation editor. He also covered the Washington Redskins for UPI.

Serling's first marriage, to Patricia Huntley, ended in divorce. His second wife, Priscilla Arone, with whom he had two children, died in 2000.

In addition to Patricia, his wife of seven years, he is survived by his children, Jennifer Serling and Jeffrey Serling; and four grandsons.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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