FLIGHT TO DESTINY
D. K. FINDLAY
Starboard engine afire, oxygen system smashed, but "these babies don’t quit easily" . . . a thrilling story of ferry flying
THE HANGAR doors growled along their rails and bomber No. 1179 rolled out into the night. The ground mechanics flitted about her like shadows. The two members of her crew stood apart waiting; Hilton, the civilian radio operator, and the navigator, Sgt.-Obs. Williams, RCAF, who was on his way to join his unit in England.
Williams looked at the young moon swimming fast through the torn clouds.
“D’ye think we’ll push off into that?”
Hilton, who had made the crossing five times, considered.
“It’s likely. No ships have moved off the field for 12 days and the hangars are chockablock. If the skipper thinks he sees a break in the weather he’ll chance it.”
Sgt.-Obs. Williams was 20 years old, keen and competent. “It’s tough waiting—but I can wait. I want a paste at the Jerries before T drop into the drink.”
Hilton balanced his sturdy bulk against a gust. “It’s not you and me what’s so important,” he said, in his mild English voice, “it’s 1179 there. She’s badly needed over yonder. Too many ships going down.” “You ever torpedoed, Mister?”
“Yes,” said Hilton. His tone was clear that he was not going to talk about it.
A figúre came out of the flight office. They saw he was carrying an ordinary overcoat and had a dunnage bag on his shoulder. “This is it,” said Hilton, and for a moment Williams had a dismal, sinking feeling in his stomach.
The captain stood for a moment on the strip. He was 30 years old and had 3,000 hours in the air. He was single, tough and solitary. He stood looking at the bomber shape—air-borne shapes were things he understood. A good ship, he was thinking, she could take it as well as give it. He looked up at the mounting clouds, the wraithlike moon. By contrast the earth felt safe and solid under his feet. The weatherman had warned him, it was on his own head. If this were a civil flight, he would have gone back to bed.
The ground crew were finished.
“All set, Captain.”
He turned his head to look for his navigator and operator and found them waiting behind him. “Okay, boys,” he said and they swung themselves in. They stowed their bags, food and coffee and sat waiting while the captain conned the instrument panel. The motors revved up in a snarl of power and 1179 moved off, rolling over the ground like a big saurian. At the edge of the field she flung her tail around and waited. A circle of white lights outlined the field for them: the traffic control tower turned a green eye on them.
Captain Stanzal looked over his shoulder at his crew. They had three tons of gasoline aboard. A swerve on the take-off might collapse a wheel and
convert them into a blazing pyre. He knew about Hilton — pilots usually kept the same wireless operator—and Hilton accepted the risks of the air with the composure that was the outward sign of his character. The captain did not know to what age he had solemnly sworn, but his hair was silvered, he was 50 if he was a day. Sgt.-Obs. Williams’ face was colored by excitement. Stanzal felt a little sour about these starry-eyed kids they sent out to do the bombing, while they kept experienced birds like himself well out of reach of the guns.
The motors drummed at full power, the squares of light in the flight path streamed under them and 1179 inched herself info the troubled sky. Carefully she made her turn. They saw the airport lights below them—and then there were no lights. The land was dark and they headed out into the darkness of the At .lant ic.
f I iHE bomber heaved and dropped in the turbulent X air. The crew settled to their jobs at the small table behind the captain. The operator began to take bearings on radio beacons. The captain set mixtures and pressures and trimmed the ship.
The navigation lights were turned off. Only the* cockpit lights burned. They were three men in a little glass house, hurtling through the wind and dark. The captain watched the thermometer and occasionally he flashed a beam of light along the wings. He had a pretty clear picture of what lay ahead. A mass of air had been pushed up from the south into the North Atlantic where it was turning into a great hump of rain and snow. They had to climb the hump and slide down the other side. In the Arctic another storm was making and preparing to move down. He reckoned they would be across before it was strong enough to bother them.
Temperature and dew point—the terrible twins of Atlantic flying—came together where the weather map said they would. The flashlight picked up a sheen on the wings.
“Ice, boys,” he said over his shoulder and turned the switch that set the deicers working—a rubber tube, along the leading edge of the wing, which contracted and expanded as liquid was forced in and out.
No. 1179 was starting over the hump—going up into the colder, drier air where ice would not form but where the motors needed more fuel and where they needed oxygen. She climbed as fast as the motors would lift her.
“Put your masks on,” said Stanzal.
He levelled off at 18,000 but the frost crystals pattered at the windows and he went on up. The outside air was below zero and the cold crept into 1179 s cabin. The emptiness of the air made the cold worse.
Stanzal caught himself shaking his head. Drunks do that, trying to clear their heads. He had found himself doing it in the pressure chamber. Alarmed, he breathed deeply into his mask and looked around at the crew. Williams was concentrated on his chart but Hilton’s place was empty. The captain spoke into the intercommunication tube and Williams jumped.
“Where is Hilton?”
Williams jerked his head toward the tail. “Gone aft, sir.”
Two minutes passed.
“Go get him,” said the captain.
He heard Williams’ shout over the motor noise. The sergeant came into sight, dragging Hilton along by his arms.
“He was on the floor —out cold.”
Stanzal left 1179 to the gyro pilot and went to help. They put back his mask and made sure there were no frost crystals in it. Then they turned the regulator to increase the flow of oxygen from the flasks, breathing carefully themselves. Hilton regained consciousness after a few breaths.
“What’s the idea—trying to suffocate yourself?”
“I— I was only gone a minute.” He was apologetic. “I didn’t feel very well.”
Stanzal knew that Hilton had been airsick on every trip across but he did not allow it to interfere with his work. He had enough oxygen now to exhilarate him but he still looked white and dopey. Feeling uneasy, Stanzal went back to his seat.
THE bomber droned through the cold, pushed by the wind. They were halfway now. He felt tired. They had been on the high levels too long. Staring fixedly at the dials he saw them getting smaller— withdrawing to a distance . . .
“He’s out again, sir.”
In the shock of the sergeant’s voice against his ear, Stanzal realized that he was feeling much as he had felt in the pressure chamber before he began to give
wrong answers to simple questions. Their lives depended on right answers. The altimeter said
20.000 feet, the pointer on the regulator of the oxygen pipe was set at 20,000 feet. But they were not getting enough oxygen. Williams had not noticed it, but Williams was the youngest. He himself was feeling it and Hilton, the oldest, was unconscious. He was thinking slowly, painstakingly. Therefore the regulator was wrong. He reached out and turned it full open. In a few moments he felt better. His mind retraced in a twinkling his slow, groping thoughts to the same conclusion. Something was impeding the flow of oxygen through the valve—frost crystals or a speck of matter. Full open, they seemed to be getting enough. Enough for them—not enough for Hilton.
Struggling on the edge of a coma, he showed the symptoms of drowning. Every now and then his mouth and chest would make a convulsive effort to find more air.
They would go down, decided Stanzal, down where there was pressure and oxygen and where there was ice.
He throttled hack the motors to keep the speed constant and slanted down\ Below 12,000 every hundred feet was an ounce of safety given away. The air was wild and bumpy, with gusts of snow. Impenetrable grey rolled against the windshields and at 9,000 drops began to form. He flicked the deicer switch and went on down, hoping to get under the clouds that hovered over the ocean .
He heard Hilton giving their code signal on his key on the appointed time and turned around.
“Okay, sir.” He looked ghastly under the cabin lights. His skin had been ruddy; it was pasty now with a blue tinge and a gloss of sweat. He managed a shamed smile. “You’ll think me a poor sort of sailor to be upset by a bit o’ weather.”
The captain nodded at him and turned away with conjecture in his mind. The effect of lack of oxygen and decreased atmospheric preasure had been explained to the crews. They had been told that over
18.000 feet a man must have oxygen; at 30,000 he will die in two minutes without it. Over 20,000 feet gases begin to expand in a man’s body and if atmospheric
pressure is reduced too suddenly, nitrogen bubbles will form in his blood. Aeroembolism. Divers called it the “bends.” Horribly painful and often fatal. How much of this had Hilton understood?
STANZAL got a sensation straight out of a nightmare. Under his hands the life drained out of the controls. He rocked the column and the big ship rolled a little, dead tired. Almost as quickly as he had taken to realize it, ice had begun to form on the wings and ailerons and rudder. He needed full power—something was wrong with the deicers. He pushed the nose down and 1179 fell sickeningly off one wing. She spun down through the darkness and Stanzal thought he saw the floor of the darkness before a burst of full engine into the wind steadied her and she levelled off. • Williams’ face was white and ashen. His own face was wet and cold but his voice was steady.
“Deicers quit. Probably a fuse blown in the pump.”
He told the sergeant what to do, and the fuse replaced, the pump began to force liquid into the wingboots and the ice began to crack and rain from the edge. But over the main surfaces a coat of glaze was building. Too much ice—too much weight— another stall—and they would be in the ocean.
They should go up. But the captain pushed along through the cloud. A spasm of vibration racked 1179 —ice forming on a propeller blade.
Hilton did an unprecedented thing. He came to sit on the edge of the copilot’s seat.
“We’re not going to lose her, are we, Captain?” Stanzal scowled at the instrument board.
“It’ll be fine and clear up yonder.”
“Too damned cold. Use too much fuel.”
“We’ve never lost one yet . . . This will be the seventh. A fine good ship and badly needed.”
“We’re all needed, Dad.”
“Aye . . . We had an old skipper once who used to say that the ship is more than the men in it.”
So he knew. There was no dismay or doubt in his mild blue eyes. Stanzal turned over in his mind what he knew about Hilton. It was very little. He had come into the ferry service when they asked for volunteers. He had been in the merchant marine and
his ship had been torpedoed. She had been carrying passengers—it must have been pretty bad but he would never talk about it. His wife and family lived in Bristol, or had lived there. Bristol had been badly blitzed.
Hilton went back to his table. Stanzal summoned Williams to sit beside him.
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“We’ve got to climb out of this. The clear should be about 18,000. If we have to go much above that Hilton will die.”
Williams turned with a start to see if he were in earnest.
“He isn’t in any shape to stand a strain now. Oxygen starved. Maybe some nitrogen squeezed into his blood . . . He knows it. He figures to take the chance on account of the ship. Get the cot from the tail and set it up beside his key. Make him lie down and put his mask on now. When you’ve done that see if you can do anything about the oxygen. It’s not flowing properly. Follow the pipe to the regulator, tap it with a hammer. Try heat around the valve ...”
THE bomber rose through grey layers of rain and snow. At 16,000 the clouds began to thin and shred and at 18,000 they saw the stars. The tops of the cumulus rose above 20,000. He tried to dodge between them. He had to hold her up there to allow the dry air to blow some of the ice from the controls. From the stars they got the bearings they badly needed, the astrocheck. He let down again to the top of the overcast.
“How is he?”
“Pretty bad, I guess.”
“If he can hold out—we’re almost through this zone.”
The stars had paled and now they were flying out of darkness into a twilight. The temperature was falling and the air was clearing quickly. Instead of a solid floor, the clouds floated in ghostly islands. The bomber nosed down through the lanes between them. Every drop in the altimeter reading was a gift to Hilton who lay, grey-faced and still, on the cot.
THE clouds in the eastern sky were tinged with pink. The sun had risen but it was hidden behind the dark grey overcast. It would be a cold day with the wind shifting to the northeast and becoming a gale as the Arctic storm moved down. It would be a head wind for them, holding them back.
It was Williams who saw the gleam through the starboard window. It brought him to his feet, shouting. “Fire! We’re on fire!”
Stanzal saw a spurt of flame from the cowling of the starboard engine and eased the throttle. He looked at the instrument panel—temperature needle lying over to red, oil pressure dropping.
Williams made a scrambling .leap for the parachute locker on the door.
Stanzal let out a roar. “Get back to your post!”
The boy stared at him, his eyes young and wild. “We’re on fire! Don’t you see!”
“Yes, I see! Get back to your table!” The boy obeyed at once. A red glare at the window brought him half to his feet but he sat again with his jaw set.
The motors turned over just at flying speed. The fire puffed from the cowling ring and blew back like a red mane. Stanzal put her nose down and 1179 dived through a cloud. Between the wind and the wet, the flame disappeared.
With a jerk of his head the captain brought Williams to the copilot’s seat.
“No use getting the wind up, kid. New motors sometimes bucket about like this. The oil has picked up something, filings probably, and lodged it in
the pump or the filter. Motor runs hot, grease and paint inside the cowling catches fire.”
The boy was Sgt.-Obs. Williams, RCAF, again.
“I’m sorry I panicked like that. What will happen?”
“Oh, we’ll bum along at reduced speed, the oil and paint will burn away. The oil may clean itself. On the other hand, perhaps it won’t. The engine will seize and go up in smoke.”
“We have flotation gear, haven’t we, sir?”
“Yes. Might hold us up for an hour in those seas. If they didn’t punch in the bow as we came down. Don’t count on it, kid. You wouldn’t live to be picked up down there.”
The cowling ring breathed fire again. A light in the boy’s face had gone out; his voice was unconsciously sad.
“I guess it doesn’t matter ... I figured I had a good chance of not coming back—seems kind of a waste, though, all that training ...”
His fingers bit into the captain’s arm. “Look down there!”
Through a hole in the clouds they saw two lines of toy ships crawling across the ocean floor. On their flanks were the destroyers with white at their bows and black smoke pouring.
“A convoy! We can sit down beside them! They’ll pick us up!”
“Sure, they’d pick us up.” The Captain’s voice was flat; the bomber droned on its course.
Williams stared at him, the excitement draining from his face. Incredulity came there and then anger.
“You’re not going to try? You’re not going to give us a chance?”
“No more of a chance than I gave Hilton. A lot of people worked hard to make this bomber. They figured she was going across to do some good not just to make a splash in the drink.” “We’ll never make it. We’re on fire —we’re losing height.”
“She’ll make it if I have to hold her up by the ears. But that’s my job. And your job is to get to your unit and fight. Go ahead and jump if you like. They’ll pick you up.”
“No, thanks, I’ll stay.”
He went aft and stood beside Hilton. There was some color in his cheeks now and his breathing was normal. Williams tucked the blanket around him again and went back to his seat.
No. 1179 crept along, losing height. They could sde each long angry wave frothing in its force. At 600 feet 1179 levelled off, climbed a little. A spark came into the captain’s eyes. “They don’t quit easy, these babies.”
He spotted the line on the horizon which Williams took to be just another cloud.
“Stand by to signal, kid. You’re going to live to use all that training.”
APTAIN STANZAL was flown ; home in one of the Ferry Command’s Liberators. A few weeks later he was sent to Halifax to pick up a group of pilots who had returned by boat. One of them had some news for him.
“Remember that bomber that gave you so much trouble?”
“Seems that 1179 turned out to be a fool for luck. They had her out on coastal patrol four days after you landed her, and the first time out she nailed a U-boat. She came out of the clouds in time to see the wake of a torpedo and the Camberia running and dodging. The sub closed in to make
sure of her and 1179 sat right down on top of the sub. They never found anything but splinters. The Camberia is a little old ship, not much bigger than a rabbit. She got in today with the rest of the convoy.”
Captain Stanzal went down to the harbor that night to see her. She had docked a few hours before. She lay alongside, a tired little ship, her forepart dark, her afterhatches, where the unloading lights were rigged, swarming with men.
He went up the gangplank and strolled aft, then stopped and leaned on the rail.
“Hullo,” said a voice.
It was a little boy of six or seven, whose head did not come to the top of the rail. He moved a little to make room for Stanzal beside him.
Stanzal smiled. “Hullo. Did you come over on this ship?”
“Yes, sir, all the way over. I came with my mum.”
“Did you have a good trip?” “Uh-huh. Some of the kids were sick but I wasn’t. I was just a little bit sick.”
Stanzal saw that he was holding a toy airplane in his hand. Someone had whittled it, with care and pains, in the image of 1179.
“What’s that you got there?”
“It’s a bomber. Like the one we saw out over the ocean—we saw it drop its bombs. I’m going to be a pilot. At first I thought I would be a sailor but now I guess I’ll be a pilot.”
They hung on the rail together like two old friends, watching the unloading of the ship. Stanzal, leaning there, had a rare feeling of contentment.