“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 10October 11, 2009
The Righteous Stuff
by Jeffrey D. Waggoner
based on characters and situations in the
“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling
CATAWBA COUNTY, OHIO
“Esther! Esther! Quick! Come up here, before the passengers come out!” Allan Northfield was in the pilot’s seat of the Stout trimotor, calling out the window on the side away from the flightline. A minute later, Esther Landry, a tall, dark-haired girl, came running up the aisle of the plane and dropped into the copilot’s seat. She gave Al a quick kiss on the cheek before fastening her seat belt and harness.
“Are you sure it’s all right for me to fly up here with you? What did Myron say?” Ester looked a little nervous about the whole idea, especially flying with a young pilot, one she knew she could distract from most things.
“He said…well, I sorta didn’t ask him. He’s been busy, and kinda grumpy, so I figured, I’d ask forgiveness afterwards. Anyway, it’s only a ten-minute flight. What could go wrong? I’ve been flying this plane for two years now, the last year completely on my own. I know it better than Myron does.”
“Still…” She still looked nervous. “Here come the passengers.” Esther scrunched down in her seat so no one would see her–maybe.
Al got through the entire spiel, as Myron put it, without laughing. Esther stayed put, and tried to stay quiet, but she had to stuff her fist in her mouth to keep from laughing herself. She knew someone would hear her. Since the war started the rules that governed flying had been changed, since domestic air travel had to continue and yet so many pilots were in the Pacific. Al routinely flew without a copilot, and nobody thought anything of it. These are probably regulars, and they know him, Esther thought. Nobody will notice me, as long as I can keep quiet!
The roll-out and takeoff was routine. Esther watched as Al handled the big trimotor with ease, and she marveled at his concentration. Only once, after they were airborne and at cruising altitude, did he even glance in her direction. He smiled quickly, then went back to scanning instrument dials and the sky ahead.
There was little air traffic at any time in the islands, and especially little during the war. No other aircraft were in sight. It was a beautiful spring day, Esther thought, even if the engines do make a horrible roar. Even that doesn’t spoil it. She looked over at Al once again. I think I’m in love with him, but is he in love with me, or with the airplane? Would he ever be devoted to me?
The islands lay only a few miles off the shore, and the trip normally took only about ten to fifteen minutes. The running joke among the pilots was that the wheels wouldn’t stop spinning from takeoff before they touched down for the landing. Al had the plane lined up on the runway on South Bass, but the plane was still over water. The runway literally started at the water’s edge, with a sand-bluff drop to the lake of about ten feet. The plane was flying at less than eighty miles an hour, perilously close to its stalling speed. This was the only difficult part. The island was small, and the runway was short. The pilot had to have the plane ready to touch down within the first fifty feet of runway to avoid overrunning the gravel airstrip.
Suddenly the pitch of the right-side engine changed, going higher and higher. Al quickly glanced out the window, frowned, and pulled the throttle for that engine all the way back. It quickly died, and as it did, he gently increased power to the center and left-side engines.
“Al…” Esther’s voice trailed off, as she realized in mid-word that she should be quiet and let him fly the plane. They were getting close to the island now, and the plane actually seemed to be dropping below the level of the bluff. The wheels seemed to be skimming the waves, and Al glanced out the left window repeatedly as he nursed the throttles for the two remaining engines. As he increased power, the center engine suddenly changed pitch just as the right one had, and Al flipped the throttle all the way back, then quickly pushed the left engine throttle bar all the way forward.
Sweat was standing out on his brow as Al fought to keep the plane in the air. He knew the chance of a stall was imminent, and he was engaged in a delicate balance of attitude of the aircraft and power to the one remaining outboard engine.
“Come on, come on…” he muttered as he pulled back on the wheel a little more. The plane was too old for hydraulics, and the flaps and ailerons only functioned if physical effort was applied. “You can do it, old girl, come on…”
The plane shot over the edge of the bluff with about three feet to spare. Al pulled the throttle back, and the trimotor dropped quickly. The main gear hit the ground a little too hard, and the plane bounced twice before Al killed the third engine completely and began to apply the brakes. The brakes worked fine, to his relief, and the plane came to a stop about fifty yards from the fence that divided the airstrip from the grape arbors that surrounded it.
Al stood up slowly, turning to the passengers. “Sorry, folks. You’ll have to walk back to the terminal. We had a bit of a mechanical problem, there.”
A mechanic came running out to the plane and undogged the door. As the passengers began to file out, one matronly woman turned back to Al and said in a loud voice, “Young man, I have never had such a poor experience flying in my life. You may tell your superiors that I will never take your airline in the future!” She turned and tried to stomp out of the plane, but the low headroom made it impossible. She settled for a half-crouch, but still managed to look haughty. She had apparently forgotten that there were no other airlines that flew to the islands.
Al sneaked a look at Esther, who realized it was now a good time to start breathing again. She smiled weakly, and said in a small voice, “Is this is way you always land this plane, or were you just trying to impress me?”
Al frowned. “I don’t know what it was. This has never happened before. Not just not to me, but to anyone. There are no noted loss-of-power accidents on any of the reports.”
Esther sensed his no-nonsense attitude. “How do you know that?”
Al shrugged. “Because I’ve read them all. All of them that have been written since the plane was put into production. I just don’t understand it.”
“What happens now?” Esther asked, more than a little amazed. All the reports – over twenty years’ worth. Just like that.
“Well, I need to talk to Bob and Jack, and go over the engines with them. I’m afraid we won’t be able to go into town yet.”
“Al, you’re not a mechanic, are you?” Esther was partly upset by the near disaster, but now that they were safe, partly by the fact that her day was about to be spoiled.
“Well, no, but you know what, Esther? I figure I better know everything about every plane I fly, you know why? Because it’s my skin, my passengers’ skins, and…” he gulped before he went on, “and, and, and people I care about.”
“Why Allen Northfield, that’s about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Esther said with an impish grin. Nope, the planes will always be first, but being second just might be all right with me, she thought.