“This story was selected as a Semi-Finalist in the 2019 Machigonne Fiction Contest, sponsored by the New Guard literary review. It appeared in The New Guard, Volume VIII, October, 2019.”
S I MADE THE FINAL APPROACH TURN to Shannon Airport, Ireland, I felt wretched, the unsightly blotches of dirty-dark rain pelting the Douglas DC-4’s windshield mirroring my ugly mood. Due to a lack of available European cargoes, the home office had ordered my immediate return to California to await a new contract. The crew and I had been glum-faced the entire day contemplating the empty trans-Atlantic back-haul.
After landing at Shannon in the rain-soaked darkness, I groped my way down one nearly-invisible taxiway after another until finally arriving at the designated parking spot. Once the ship was secured for the night and the endless paperwork that accompanies all international airline traffic had been filled out, we four—myself, co-pilot, navigator, and flight engineer/radio operator—shuffled off to our lodgings. The hostelry was standard issue for transient aircrews in that it offered the two essential requirements: Close proximity to the airport and cheap rates. As usual, it was too late for any kind of restaurant service and so once again we resorted to the candy bars, potato chips, peanuts, and bottled soft drinks we kept cached in the plane, ostensibly as extra survival rations should we be forced down.
My airline is a ‘non-sked’ carrier, which is to say we are not a regularly scheduled operator such as Lufthansa, Air France, TWA, or Pan American. This circumstance has not come about by choice but is due rather to the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration’s unwillingness to grant so-called ‘legitimate’ status to we post-World War Two upstarts, they unwilling to sanction additional competition to the long-established route carriers. It is, therefore, my line’s lot to roam the world in the manner of nineteenth-century clipper ships, forever in search of passengers and cargoes.
We could not have been more down in the mouth as we entered the hotel’s modest lobby, its near-terminally bored English desk clerk doing nothing to improve our state. He insisted the room slips be filled out to the last blank and then carefully examined each for completeness and accuracy, taking all the time in the world—a classic petty tyrant—before finally handing over the keys. As we turned to drag our grips up the stairs, however, lightning struck; the man’s demeanor was magically transformed.
“Oh, wait, captain,” he said deferentially. “I only this instant recognized your name.” He rummaged about for an envelope. “Delivered an hour ago,” the clerk went on ingratiatingly, “the messenger was in a terrible whirl making the rounds.” The fellow was getting wound up, apparently enjoying the spotlight. “Off the poor sod went, back into the rain, all the while blathering away ‘There’s a reward out for whomever catches that crew—’”
The man dipped his head in embarrassment, realizing instantly he’d caught himself out. “Very sorry, sir,” he said, looking away, “that I hadn’t made the connection straightaway.” With that, the Western Union envelope was at last handed over and I ripped it open.
“Hot dog, boys!” I yelled. “We got us a new deal!” The men crowded around wanting a look at the message, they all grins and back slaps. Even the room clerk managed a thin smile.
That summer of 1957 had been slower than I’d ever before experienced and so the appearance of this new business was most heartily welcomed, the result of a French-flagged ocean freighter running aground near Athens, Greece, damaging its propulsion system. The home office had gotten wind of the emergency and left telegrams at all the hotels surrounding Shannon in hopes they might catch me before I started back across the Atlantic. It had been a close call; sometimes in the flying business you get a tail wind when it’s least expected.
“Well,” I continued in my more captainly manner, “good thing we had the ship refueled before leaving the field ‘cause we got no time to lose.” I looked at the navigator, who had some quick flight planning to do. “Figure takeoff at dawn. We head first to Glasgow, Scotland to load up the parts, a stop at Marseilles for the repairmen, and then it’s off to Athens.” I brought the telegram to my lips and gave it a big kiss. “Blue Med, here we come!” The rest of the dope I gave the guys in the morning; we were beat and needed to get into the sack pronto. Daylight was only a few hours away.
From there things moved blindingly fast. After our bootlegger departure from Shannon we picked up three tons of propeller shaft bearings at the ship-building city of Glasgow and promptly departed for Marseilles. Now, a few hours later, as the English Channel passes beneath our wings, all the fatigue and disappointment of but a day earlier is a distant memory, for the French freighter’s misery has become our good fortune.
Earlier, I had leveled off at 13,000 feet on a southeasterly heading, cruising at 220 m.p.h. After synchronizing my four Pratt & Whitney engines, I turned the airplane over to the copilot and leaned back to enjoy the ride. I am at this moment exceedingly content—the air is smooth, the weather ‘severe clear,’ and I have a lucrative haul in my hold. What’s more, from a personal standpoint, my seniority ranking within the line is high enough so that even during these slow times I need not suffer the indignity of either dropping back to second pilot status or of being furloughed. No matter what my economic or social standing among earth’s groundlings might be or become, in the sky I reign supreme.
I take the most satisfaction, however, in knowing that my crew has absolute confidence in my ability to ensure their safe passage through the not always welcoming skies. In their eyes, I am Master of the Ship, capable of handling any emergency we might encounter. I exult in this adulation, intensely proud of what I do, of the finely-honed skills I have learned over the years—a “natural stickman,” so some have said. I’ve proven myself on numerous occasions involving engine fires, zero-zero landings, and any number of fuel emergencies. Unlike most of my kind, I relish those difficult and dangerous moments, my chosen profession representing the life I have always wished to lead, one filled to overflowing with good and great adventure. I pray God it never ends.
Only one thing bothers me as we enter French airspace. Due to unusual airway congestion, Air Traffic Control has directed us to descend to 11,000 feet. In so complying, my four 1,450 hp Pratt & Whitney radial engines have fallen out of synchronization.
The situation must be corrected immediately. Not only do the engines sound unhealthy, in their disharmony the propellers have created a most unsettling vibration throughout the entire ship. I rest my right hand on the number 2 engine throttle and manipulate the RPM’s to match the #1 master engine. Once I am able to induce the two behemoths into singing as one, I lock in the #2 throttle setting. The procedure is repeated, slaving #3 and #4 to number 1. With the cylinder explosions in all four engines now back in concert I again settled down in my seat, nodding at the co-pilot to engage “George” the autopilot.
For several hours I doze. The engines rumble blissfully on.
Suddenly, my radio operator awakens me. He worriedly hands me the latest weather forecast for the Aéroport de Marseille Provence. His Morse Code to English translation is not reassuring; my good humor evaporates. A fast moving front has moved in from off the North Atlantic and Marseilles’ ground conditions are rapidly deteriorating, with the latest report calling for a four-hundred foot ceiling and gusting crosswinds. I grind my teeth; I will earn my pay this day.
The penetration descent begins. I ask the co-pilot to spread the Runway 31 Right instrument approach plate on my lap so I may review the data. I glance at my crew, who are looking out the windows apprehensively. To allay their nervousness, I tell a ribald joke about the bright side should we require the services of Marseilles’ ever lovely and pliant hospital nurses. Although the men’s laughter is forced, the tension eases.
Still descending, we slip into heavy cloud. I switch smoothly from VFR to instrument flight conditions. As we enter an extended downwind leg to the Marseilles airport, the radio crackles, directing us to level off at two thousand feet. Switching frequencies, the tower confirms we are number one for landing. I again refer to the approach plate, grimly reminding myself of the high, almost mountainous hills surrounding the field.
Still in the deep gloom, we turn base leg and I direct the crew to complete their landing checklists. I sense an element of fear creeping into their acknowledgements; once again I must reassure them I have the situation in hand. It does not help that turbulence has increased from moderate to severe and the ship is literally bouncing all over the sky. It is only with immense effort I am able to keep the yoke from flying out of my hands.
I turn to intercept runway heading and the ILS localizer, beginning final descent. Despite the heavy crosswinds, I am able to hold the aircraft steady on course and glide slope. My eyes are glued to the instruments while the co-pilot, who is straining mightily to see anything recognizable beyond the front windshield, is on tenterhooks.
After what seems an hour but is only a few minutes, the co-pilot announces, “Approaching minimum altitude!”
“Roger,” I reply, my voice steady. “Prepare for a go-around if runway not in sight at minimums.”
Seconds later the right-seater says, “Decision height!” Transitioning at that instant from instruments to visual flight, I lift my head for the final look. There!
“I have the runway,” I announce matter-of-factly. Moments later, the ship kisses the pavement on centerline only a few scant feet beyond the numbers 31R. I taxi to the freight terminal and twenty minutes later the French technicians are on board.
After topping off our tanks, I immediately proceed to the departure hammerhead. I had been handed another telegram during the refueling; the ocean freighter’s owners are prodding my Oakland bosses to get the men and parts to Athens as quickly as possible. We are all on edge and anxious to be off.
The ship is nearly at gross takeoff weight and I am very much annoyed that because of heavy traffic we have been directed to use the airport’s shortest runway, necessitating a more complicated departure. After reviewing the procedures, setting the flaps, and trimming the airplane for a ‘short field take off,’ I take the active, swinging the nose to runway heading, before setting the brakes. With my right hand, I grasp a fistful of throttles and firmly shove them forward to the stop. The big ship trembles and shudders, as if pawing at the runway with all its might. Once the flight engineer signals the powerful Pratt & Whitney engines have reached peak power, I release the brakes. The ship snaps forward as if launched from a slingshot. I grasped the control column with both hands; simultaneously the co-pilot covers his left hand over the four throttle levers to ensure they do not inadvertently retard.
Halfway down the runway, only moments before rotation, I hear an odd disturbance behind me. I try to push the distraction to one side, but it only grows louder. Irritated in the extreme, I whirl about to confront the intruder——
“Bobby, what in the hell goes on out here? Haven’t you got those spuds sacked yet?”
Stunned, I look up at the figure who spoke, then glance from side to side to get my bearings. Who is this man? And what is he doing in my cockpit? Which all of a sudden is dissolving before my eyes.
Reality hits me like a tsunami. I’m sitting on a pop crate in the back room of my father’s general store in our tiny village of a hundred souls, deep in the northern Minnesota forests. I slowly become aware of the two droning compressors that operate our fresh meat refrigerator and main deep freeze, their nearby motors only moments earlier providing the throaty melody, when accompanied by my special way of humming, that faithfully reproduced the rhythmic drumming of four Pratt & Whitney airplane engines. I look down at the Idaho potato in my right hand, squeezed into so much mush.
Pa is still angry. “Boy, if you don’t get your head out of the clouds, you’ll never amount to a hill of beans!” He shakes his head in deep frustration, terribly disappointed in a son who is forever distracted by idle dreams and hopeless ambitions.
Blue from the tongue lashing, I quickly finish up the potatoes and head for the pop room, anxious to make amends by voluntarily sorting out the past week’s bottle returns. The wood crates have to be organized by brand—Coca-Cola empties in this box, Nehi over to the left, 7-Up’s into that one on the right. I mull over Pa’s weekend Specials, which include potatoes at 49 cents a dozen—a mighty fine buy. I make a quick calculation; if we sell through the spuds already bagged, by Monday night after school Pa will need sacked up at least another couple hundred pounds! To help things along, I determine to talk up the Idaho’s high quality to every single customer who comes in.
Pop bottles clatter into their wooden slots with renewed verve; a temporary weight has been lifted from my shoulders and the old bounce has returned. It won’t be long at all before I’m back synchronizing those Pratt & Whitneys.