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In 1937 the United States government launched a daring undercover spy mission to learn what the Japanese were up to in the South Pacific. The secrecy of that mission depended on the perpetration of an audacious hoax with international implications. Ultimately the mission was a complete success, but the hoax contained at its heart a single human flaw. That flaw exposed the coverup just long enough for one man to learn the truth. E.A. is that man's story.
San Francisco Municipal Airport (Mills Field) - 18 June, 1947
At three a.m. Mills Field was quiet as a graveyard. A soggy wool blanket of San Francisco fog hanging over the runways swallowed up the rasp of my shoes on wet concrete and drizzled its silent silver mist through the glare from hangar floodlights. A shiny new United DC-4 Mainliner stood dripping quietly next to the terminal building while half a dozen DC-3s poked their blunt noses out of the shadows surrounding the parking ramp. From where I stood, the only signs of life on the field were the throbbing in my head and a lingering ache inside the plaster cast encasing my right arm.
The pain killer they'd given me at the hospital wasn't putting up much of a fight, but the doctor expected me to stay in bed where anyone with a concussion and a lick of sense should be. Apparently I didn't have a lick of sense. What I did have was an intense need to solve a mystery, and to do that I had to be at the airfield.
San Francisco Municipal Airport (Mills Field).
Our old C-47 war horse was the last ship on the ramp. It stood out from its DC-3 twin sisters because of the leaping cat silhouette on its broad tail fin. The cat seemed an appropriate insignia for an outfit calling itself Coastal Air Transport, or C-A-T for short. If things really happened the way my scrambled brains remembered them, the solution to my mystery was in the cockpit of that ship. What I found there would either make sense out of my confusion or prove beyond a doubt that I was due for a Section Eight.
During the taxi ride from the hospital I thought it all through for the umpteenth time, methodically examining the past two-and-a-half years of my life beginning with the day everything changed. That was 12 November, 1945--the day I came home to Los Angeles after three years of touring Europe from the driver's seat of a B-17. I survived thirty-four bombing missions over Germany, so I figured returning to the minor trials and tribulations of civilian life would be a piece of cake. Brother, was I off the beam!
Los Angeles - November, 1945
My best friend, Nate Parsons, had already been home for a few months from island-hopping around the Pacific. Before the war we were both loyal employees of Trans-National Airways. I flew their DC-3s on cross-country passenger routes and Nate was TNA's southern California Operations Manager. Then, while we were busy saving the world from Nazis and Japs, Trans-National was bought out by another line. So when we showed up expecting to get our jobs back like the government said we would, the airline simply said our jobs didn't exist anymore. That left Nate and me out pounding the pavement with a zillion other unemployed GIs.
It was a bad time to be an out-of-work pilot. What was an elite profession before the war was suddenly crowded with die-cast throttle jockeys cranked out by Uncle Sam's instant pilot factories. Now don't read me wrong; I've got a lot of respect for guys who logged their hundredth hour trying to keep a B-24 in the air while a bunch of Krauts in Messerschmitt 109s turned their bombers into Swiss cheese. But the war was over and it seemed like the civilian airline jobs should go to guys like Nate and me-guys who helped build commercial aviation into a thriving industry before the war.
Consolidated Aircraft B-24 Liberator bombers over Germany during World War II.
the airlines didn't see it that way. They could hire less experienced
pilots for less money, so while I was holding out for a fair wage, the
demand for commercial pilots evaporated. And
if my prospects were poor, Nate's were downright lousy. He'd lost most
of his left arm on some obscure atoll in the Pacific, and hero or not,
there weren't a lot of openings for one-armed airline executives.
We both saved a few bucks before the war, so we weren't starving, but concern over the rapidly dwindling balance in my retirement fund had me scraping close to the bottom of the employment barrel. Then one morning when I was about to leave for a job interview with an auto insurance company, Nate called and asked me to meet him for coffee. He said he had a proposition to discuss with me. He wouldn't say what his idea was, just that it had something to do with our employment prospects or the lack thereof. In my frame of mind, the simple fact that Nate had an idea was justification for canceling my interview with the insurance company. We met at our old hangout, a doughnut shop in Inglewood near Mines Field.
Nate is one of those freckle-faced redheads who will still look twenty at age fifty, and when he's particularly pleased with himself, Nate gets a twinkle in his eyes you can see fifty yards away. The twinkle was turned up to full power that morning. Nate greeted me with enthusiasm and got right down to brass tacks. "Chip, I've been thinking about our situation, and I have the answer."
"Great! I'm all ears."
He dunked his glazed old fashioned and said, "It's so damned simple I can't think why we didn't figure it out before. If we can't find jobs doing what we do best, we make our own jobs."
"Brilliant, Einstein! And while we're at it, let's hire ourselves on at about fifty-thousand per."
Nate concentrated on his dunking. "Okay, if you don't want to hear the best idea I ever had . . . ."
I sighed and said, "Sorry, Nate. Tell me your idea."
He began by reminding me of some things I already knew. The air cargo business was booming. In fact, there was so much business, the big carriers could afford to be choosey about the freight they flew. Since there was more money to be made on big loads and long hauls, large cross-country shippers got the good rates. The little guys who needed short-haul service either paid through the nose or sent their freight by truck.
Nate said he looked into things and figured there was enough cargo business for a few small enterprising companies flying the San Francisco-Los Angeles route at a reasonable rate to make a profit. In a nutshell, Nate's plan was that he and I should start such a company.
I was dubious, to say the least. "That's all fine and dandy, amigo, but where do we get the moolah to buy airplanes and hire pilots?"
"That's the beauty of it! We don't need a whole fleet of ships to start with. We can do it with one plane. And you'll do the flying, so the only employees we'll need are a copilot, a reliable mechanic and an agent in San Francisco. Alice and I can handle the rest of it at this end. Then, after we get established, we can add a ship or two and expand our route up the coast to Portland and Seattle."
Alice is Nate's wife and she's a real go-getter. I had no doubt that between them Nate and Alice could easily run a small cargo airline, but that was the only part of his plan in which I had any faith. "Nate, we'd have to have a big, economical twin, like a DC-3, and unless Don Douglas has started givin' 'em away, I don't know how the hell we can afford one."
"Douglas isn't givin' ships away, but our good old Uncle Sam is. At least, he's selling them so cheap that even we can afford one. Hell, between us we've collected enough overseas points that the War Department Assets Administration will probably pay us for taking a surplus R4D off their hands.
"Plus we both have a little cash stashed. If we put our savings together, we've got enough to convince a bank that we're serious about this thing. Add our combined experience to all that, and I think we've got a damned good chance of getting a loan and making this thing work."
The airplanes Uncle Sam was selling so cheaply were surplus R4Ds and C-47s, the Navy and Army transport versions of the DC-3. Most of them were beat to hell during the war, but I'd heard that if you picked the right ship, there were a few good deals to be made.
C-47: The US Army Air Corps cargo/transport version of the Douglas DC-3 airliner.
|Even if we found a good ship to buy cheap, there would still be fuel, maintenance, and a hundred other operating costs I couldn't even begin to think of. Nate had it all figured out, though, right down to the last detail, and his arguments were pretty convincing. In the end I agreed to part with what was left of my savings in exchange for becoming Coastal Air Transport's Chief Pilot. Nate was right about one thing for sure. Landing a job is a lot easier when you own the company. It turned out he was right about everything else, too.|
We celebrated C-A-T's first anniversary by extending our route to Seattle with a stop in Portland. At the end of our second year we were in the black with two ships and ten employees.
I give Nate and Alice full credit for our success. They did the hard part. Aside from a lot of monotony during long hours in the cockpit, the only real problems I had to contend with were occasional bad weather and a copilot with a taste for booze. I couldn't do anything about the weather, but I sure as hell did something about the copilot.
Don wasn't drinking that much at first. Sure, he'd be out late once in a while and show up with a hangover the next morning, but he still did his job. Then his nights on the town and his hangovers grew more frequent until he was all but worthless in the air, to say nothing of the Civil Aeronautics Board rules he was violating. It was a bum deal because sober, Don was a pretty conscientious guy.
The last straw came about an hour out of Portland on a southbound flight. Don said he was going back to check the cargo tie-downs, and when he was gone longer than he should have been, I leaned over and looked back through the cockpit door to see if he was having trouble with the load. I could see him back there all right, but the only load he was concerned with was the one he was taking on from a pint of Old Forester.
When we landed in Los Angeles I told Don I had no use for a drunk in the cockpit and to get his last check from Alice because he was through flying for C-A-T. Surprisingly, he didn't put up an argument. He just accepted the situation like he'd been expecting it and walked off. Nate didn't take it nearly as well.
"Geez, Chip! Couldn't you have waited a little before canning the guy so we'd have time to find a replacement? How we gonna keep the schedule?"
"I don't think you heard what I said, Nate. The guy was tying one on right there in the cargo bay! I've got enough to do up there without nurse-maiding a damned drunk! I'd sooner fly the ship all by myself."
|Many passenger airlines and cargo companies, like Coastal Air Transport, were based at Los Angeles Municipal Airport (Mines Field) located southwest of downtown L.A.|
As it turned out, I didn't have to fly by myself. An old Trans-National buddy, Jack Titus, had two weeks vacation coming from Pan American. For old time's sake and a few bucks under the table, he agreed to fly the right seat while Nate looked for a new copilot.
Truthfully, I felt a little guilty about sticking Nate with the problem. Two years earlier we could have tacked a note to the nearest telephone pole and there'd have been out of work fliers lined up around the block within an hour. But things had changed.
Most ex-G.I. fliers had either found flying jobs or they were selling shoes and insurance. The glut was over and qualified pilots were getting hard to find again. Also, I hadn't made Nate's job any easier by telling him in no uncertain terms that I wanted a right-seat jockey with absolutely no vices . . . no womanizing, no boozing, no nothing!
Nate mumbled something about finding a saint with wings and set off on his quAest. Two weeks later, after my last trip with Jack, I went to see what sort of whiz-kid Nate had hired--assuming he'd found a whiz-kid to hire.
I should have been suspicious the minute I walked into his office. Nate's twinkle flashed to high beam and he greeted me with a good deal more enthusiasm than usual. I said, "From the way you're grinnin' like the Cheshire cat, I gather you've got good news."
"I have indeed, Chip, old boy! After a long and exhaustive search, I have found you the perfect copilot."
Figuring there had to be catch, I asked, "Has he got multi-engine time?"
"Tons of it--a fat logbook with scads of time in Threes, 247s and Electras."
"What about the other stuff? Is he reliable?"
"This pilot is just exactly what you ordered. There's no problem with booze, and I guarantee there will be no womanizing."
By this time I was skeptical as hell. "Okay, what's the catch? If this guy's so wonderful, how come he's available?"
"Been flying out on the east coast and got tired of the lousy weather. Got into LA a few days ago and heard about our opening."
I relaxed a little. Maybe Nate really had found a saint with wings. "Okay. I'd like to check this guy out before our first trip together on Monday. When do I meet him?"
| "I told
her to stop by this afternoon. She should be here any minute."
I came out of my chair like a V-2 rocket! "SHE? Geez, Nate! You didn't hire a woman? Tell me you didn't do that to me!"
"Calm down, partner. You'll like her. She's got great qualifications, and she's straight as an arrow. This gal's just what the doctor ordered."
"Not this doctor, buddy boy!"
"Aw, come on, Chip. What's so wrong with havin' a woman in the right seat?"
"What's wrong? I'll tell you what's wrong. There isn't a woman born who can think about anything besides her looks long enough to drive an automobile safely, let alone fly an airplane."
I was just getting warmed up, and Nate looked like he was having the time of his life. If this was his way of getting even with me for firing Don at the last minute, he wasn't gonna get away with it. "Hell, Nate, we'll spend all our time mushin' around the pattern waitin' for her to get her face out of a mirror long enough to lower the gear!"
Unfortunately, I was so busy fussing and fuming I didn't hear the office door open behind me. So when someone behind me responded to my tirade, it took me by surprise. "I assure you, Captain Williams, the gear will be down just as soon as you ask for it."
The female voice was rich and low-pitched. It carried no hint of irritation. She was just stating fact, and that was that. I felt my face redden as I turned around. Nate put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Chip, old pal, meet your new copilot, Emily Aarons. Miss Aarons, as you've already concluded, this is Coastal Air Transport's Chief Pilot, Chip Williams."
Emily Aarons was tall and slender in baggy white slacks and a dark blue sweater under a well-worn leather flight jacket with a blue and white scarf tied cowboy-style around her neck. She had high cheekbones and narrow features that were softened a little by auburn hair that hung almost to her shoulders. She wasn't bad looking, but dressed that way, you'd be hard pressed to tell at a distance whether Emily Aarons was a he or a she.
I shook the hand she offered and stammered what I hoped sounded like a sincere apology. "I'm sorry you had to hear that outburst, Miss Aarons. Please understand, I have nothing against you personally. I just don't feel . . . I mean . . . ."
"I didn't take your comments personally, Captain Williams, but I think you ought to give me a chance before putting me in the same category with an old girlfriend or whoever it was that gave you such a low opinion of women."
I felt my face heating up all over again, and I was about to tell Miss Emily Aarons where to get off in no uncertain terms when Nate stepped between us. "Now, children, let's play nice. Chip, why don't you show Emily around? I'm sure she'd appreciate a guided tour."
Nate didn't leave me a whole lot of choice in the matter, so I showed her around, all the while vowing that this matter was by no means settled. As we walked through the hangar, you could have carried the silence between us in buckets. I was somewhat relieved to discover, however, that Miss Aarons really did know her way around a C-47. And while I wasn't looking forward to Monday's flight, I was heartened by the knowledge that there certainly wouldn't be a lot of unnecessary chitchat in the cockpit.
way things went, the following week turned out to be a big lesson in
humility for yours truly. Emily Aarons was all business. She carried
out my orders efficiently with an uncanny knack for anticipating what
needed to be done. Copilots don't come with that kind of smarts built
in so I began to wonder where she learned her stuff. Wherever it was,
she obviously knew what she was doing, and in an effort to give credit
where it was due, I told her so. Emily thanked me for the compliment,
but there was something in her smile that made me feel like I just told
Joe DiMaggio he was a pretty fair ball player.
The ice was broken, though, and during the next few weeks we even began to develop a little of the camaraderie I experienced with flight crews during the war. The biggest difference was that the favorite topics of conversation then were mostly friends and family back home. Emily talked about neither, except once. We were northbound out of San Francisco and the subject of booze came up. I was telling Emily how I caught her predecessor drinking on the job, and quickly found out we'd hit a subject about which she had strong feelings.
When I finished the story she said, "You really have to wonder about a flier like that. They say alcoholics drink to escape reality, but with all this freedom," she gestured toward the brilliant blue sky beyond our windshield, "why would anybody need to drink? "I knew a fellow once who was probably the best navigator in the business. But he started drinking, and after that, the only fliers who would touch him with a ten-foot pole were the ones who knew him before and felt sorry for him. He navigated for me a few times, and the last time, when the pressure was really on us to hit our spot, he let me down and darn near got us both killed."
It was the only time Emily ever talked about her past or the people she knew. Maybe that aura of mystery was one of the reasons I found myself more and more attracted to her. Whatever the attraction, I really enjoyed flying with Emily and we even began spending time together on the ground. We would meet up on our Sundays off for a steamer trip to Catalina or an afternoon on the pier at Santa Monica. Emily didn't care for crowds, though, so more often we took a picnic lunch up to the less populated beaches near Ventura.
On those occasions she was perfectly content to sit on a rock and watch the breakers. Or she got out her notebook and wrote. Emily never showed me what was in the notebook, but I could tell she was writing something serious because her mood became contemplative and she would stare out at the ocean for long moments between writing lines on the page. Then her mood would suddenly change to giddiness and I would find myself challenged to a sprint through the surf or a footrace out to the point and back. Then, as the day cooled, we would build a driftwood fire and huddle close to it while we enjoyed spectacular Pacific sunsets.
|"Then, as the day cooled, we would build a driftwood fire and huddle close to it while we enjoyed spectacular Pacific sunsets."|
I can't remember ever being happier than I was on those lazy days off at the beach, and on our last Sunday together, Emily let me know she felt the same way. As we watched the red sun-disk turn our ocean from deep blue to fiery orange, she kissed my cheek.
"Mmmm," I asked, "what was that for?"
She said quietly, "That was for being the way you are and for letting me be the way I am."
"Oh? And how are you?"
"Content . . . free . . . far from anything confining or restrictive."
I put my arm around her, and she leaned against my shoulder. Then, as the Pacific's orange glow faded to black velvet, a friendship that grew out of animosity turned into love.
San Francisco Municipal Airport (Mills Field) - 18 June, 1947
Since that night, Emily and I had flown more than a thousand miles, from Los Angeles to Seattle and back here to San Francisco. Now I would be making the last leg of our trip without her.
My bum arm turned the simple job of opening the small passenger door set in the C-47's cargo hatch into a task of monumental proportions. When I finally mastered it and scrambled inside, the hangar lights cast distorted shadows against the curved interior walls and gave the empty cargo bay a gloomy feeling that was a perfect match for my mood.
To my right, the toilet compartment hatch and the smaller tail access hatch beyond it were still open, just the way I left them twenty-thousand feet above Eureka, California. Under the circumstances, though, I was pretty sure the Gods of Aviation would forgive me for not battening down all the hatches.
We climbed out of Seattle yesterday morning into a glorious sunrise. The sun always seems brighter after a storm cleans the air, and old Sol was in all his glory. A fierce weather front had moved down from the north during the night, and we caught up with the tail end of it just as we entered the pattern at Portland-Columbia. The field was thoroughly drenched, and we heard the spray kicked up by our main gear as we splashed through puddles the size of small lakes.
While C-A-T's Portland agent directed the loading and unloading of our cargo, Emily and I headed into the terminal for coffee and a weather briefing. The Java was bad and the briefing was worse. We were chasing a wide front that extended nearly two hundred miles inland from the coast. The only good news was that the front was moving southeast. If we jogged west and followed the coastline rather than taking a straight-line route to San Francisco, we could slip through the trailing edge of the storm. We would still get wet, but we'd miss the worst of it. The plan looked okay on paper, but half an hour out of Portland we were in the soup up to our necks.
The C-47 is a tough old bird, and every pilot who's ever logged much time in one has a hair-raising tale or two about how the Gooney Bird managed to get him out of some impossible predicament he should have had sense enough to avoid in the first place. In spite of the plane's tough reputation, however, even experienced pilots have some doubts when flying into a storm like the one we were facing. The rain pounding against our thin aluminum skin sounded like someone was out there slinging handfuls of gravel at us. The airframe creaked and groaned loudly as we rode out the endless turbulence, and water leaked in around the windshield panels like they weren't even there.
|"The C-47 is a tough old bird, and every pilot who's ever logged much time in one has a hair-raising tale or two about how the Gooney Bird managed to get him out of some impossible predicament he should have had sense enough to avoid in the first place."|
Emily and I had flown through weather before, and though our pulses were probably up a beat or two, neither of us felt any panic. In fact, I was even feeling a bit of exhilaration . . . until the first brilliant flash of lightning lit up the cockpit.
While it would take one hell of a storm to tear a C-47 apart, it only takes one lightning strike to knock out the ship's electrical system. Even then, the old bird will keep on flying. It's the risk of fire you worry about. When wires designed to carry twenty-four volts are suddenly charged with ten thousand times that amount, insulation melts instantly and sparks fly.
The greatest danger we faced, however, was icing. Flying through cold air loaded with moisture causes thin layers of ice buildup along the leading edges of the wings and tail surfaces. The shapes of those surfaces were carefully designed to provide the lift that keeps a ship in the air, so when ice layers change those shapes enough to affect the flow of air over them, flight characteristics change drastically for the worse.
The designers of the C-47 anticipated the possibility that some fool might fly their airplane into icing conditions, though, and provided pneumatic deicing boots along the leading edges of the wings and tail. The idea is, after a little ice builds up, you press a button that inflates the rubber boots enough to break the ice free. It's a simple system that usually works.
Since leaving Portland we had inflated the deicing boots three times. We could see the ice forming along the leading edges of the wings, and when I began feeling sluggishness in the controls, Emily pushed the button and the ice broke away. After the last time, however, I still felt stiffness in the rudder pedals.
My first guess was that the deicing boot on the tail fin had failed to operate. Since we couldn't see the tail from the cockpit, I asked Emily to slip back into the radio compartment and take a look through the astrodome--a small Plexiglas bubble in the roof designed for use by those intrepid navigators who still knew how to operate a sextant. Well, at least it's handy for looking at the tail.
|The black areas along the front edges of the wings and tail are rubber deicing boots that inflate to break away ice that forms on those critical surfaces. That bubble sticking up from the top of the plane behind the cockpit is the astrodome.|
Emily reported she couldn't see any ice on the tail fin or around the rudder. I tried the pedals again, and it took a lot of pressure to induce the slightest yawing motion. Something was definitely out of whack back there. Then I remembered the puddles on Portland's runway and came up with a pretty fair guess as to what was wrong. I told Emily to take over while I grabbed the flashlight and headed aft.
Douglas engineers built a lot of range into the C-47, and knowing that pilots tend to consume considerable quantities of coffee, the engineers thoughtfully provided a toilet behind the cargo bay. In the aft bulkhead of the toilet compartment, there is a small hatch which gives access to the tail section of the fuselage. A quick inspection of this tiny compartment with the flashlight confirmed my suspicions. Everything was covered with a thick coating of ice, including the rudder control cables. I even had a pretty good idea how all that ice got there.
The C-47's tail wheel strut extends down through a hole in the fuselage. Originally, there was a rubber boot around the strut to seal the opening, but over time the boot had disintegrated and no one bothered to replace it. As a result, a lot of water splashed up through the hole during our landing and takeoff at Portland. It wasn't something that happened very often, and even when it did, water in the tail section wasn't a serious problem--unless you happened to be flying through extremely cold air, which was exactly what we happened to be doing.
|This C47 interior view aft shows the hatch to the lavatory compartment and the vertical tail wheel strut beyond it.|
my head at the ice coating the rudder control cables and their pulleys.
At least the problem was correctable. I fished out my pocket knife to
scrape the ice away and squeezed my shoulders through the small hatch
so I could reach the cables. It was colder than Greenland back there and
my fingers quickly went numb. I thought about going forward to warm up,
but the ice was chipping away fairly easily, so I stayed with it to finish
Next to the cold, the toughest part of the job was the turbulence. Back there, as far from the supporting wings as I could be, it was like riding a bucking bronco. To reach the rearmost sections of cable, I braced my hand against the tail wheel strut, which tilts forward at about a thirty degree angle. Just as I reached past the strut and leaned aft, the ship gave one hell of a lurch. I felt my hand slipping down the strut's frosty surface, and I remember seeing the tailplane cross-member flying up at my face.
Chip, wake up!"
I wished she wouldn't yell like that. My head was already pounding like a bass drum and . . . . A sharp movement of the ship sent a lightning bolt of pain through my right arm and jolted me wide awake.
Emily yelled in my ear again. "Chip, I can't stay back here. The autopilot won't hold it for long. Can you make it forward?"
I nodded with more confidence than I felt, and she hurried back to the cockpit. Besides the pain in my head and arm, there also seemed to be a little problem with my vision. I wasn't exactly seeing two of everything, but what I did see was fuzzy and a little dim around the edges.
Recovering the flashlight from the compartment floor, I worked my way forward, but it was slow going. My head kept spinning, and I had to stop several times to regain my balance and fight down nausea. Eventually, I made it and even had the presence of mind to grab the first-aid kit from its brackets on the radio compartment bulkhead before stepping into the cockpit.
|Looking forward through the C47's cargo area to the radio compartment and cockpit.|
had moved to the left seat. It's easier to fly the ship from there, and
it was obvious she was going to be doing the flying for a while. I fell
into the right seat and managed to get the belt across my lap so I'd stay
there. My next concern was doing something about the pounding in my head
and the pain in my right arm. It would be a hell of a lot easier to think
clearly without those distractions.
I found some aspirin in the first-aid kit and forced a few of the little white pills down. I was sort of sitting there in a daze, waiting for the aspirin to do something, when Emily nudged my arm. I turned and she yelled to be heard over the combined racket of our engines and the storm. "Chip, put something on that head wound to stop the bleeding."
Dimly wondering what head wound she was talking about, I reached up and wiped at my forehead. Even in the dark cockpit, I saw the blood on my hand. There was an alarming amount of it.
Doing everything one-handed was awkward as hell, but I finally got a roll of gauze wrapped and taped around my head. Then I used the rag we kept in the cockpit for mopping up windshield leaks to wipe away some of the blood from my face and jacket. If nothing else, I was determined to be neat and tidy.
I looked at Emily again and she nodded approval of my first aid technique. I felt rather pleased with myself and decided to tackle the next challenge, which was to find some way of keeping my right arm pinned in place. The arm was obviously broken, and every time the ship was jarred by turbulence, I got a jolt of pain like an electric shock.
Emily saw me grappling with the problem and came to the rescue again. She hollered, "There's a long scarf in my flight bag. Use it for a sling."
Her bag was jammed down along the right side of my seat and getting into it with my left hand took some doing. When I finally found the scarf, tying it into a sling became a whole new challenge which I managed to meet with the help of my teeth. But once I had it around my neck, the makeshift sling worked pretty well. "Wow," I thought, "a white silk sling-monogrammed, no less. I was really traveling in style!"
The first-aid chores completed, I turned what attention I could muster to our situation. Even with something less than twenty-twenty vision I could see it was considerably darker outside than it was before I went aft. That meant the clouds above us were getting denser and every turn of the props was pulling us deeper into the heart of the storm.
that time I remembered why I'd gone aft in the first place. I yelled across
the cockpit, "How are the rudder pedals?"
She yelled back, "They're freer now. Whatever you did solved the problem."
"It was ice on the cables," I hollered.
Emily nodded and returned her attention to the job at hand. She was doing just fine on her own, but it seemed like I ought to be contributing something to the task of getting us back in one piece. I stared at the jiggling instruments in front of me and tried to make some sense out of their gyrating needles.
The compass ball bounced around between one-sixty and one-ninety. That meant we'd passed Eureka, a coastal community just south of the California-Oregon boarder, and Emily had already made the course change that was taking us down along the coast to San Francisco. The airspeed indicator was swinging back and forth over the two-ten mark. Since Eureka is about two hundred and fifty miles from San Francisco, we had about an hour to go--that is, if the heavy winds hadn't blown us off course or altered our ground speed too much.
As I studied the instruments, lightning lit the cockpit like a flashbulb. For a second Emily's face was captured in its harsh blue-white light, like a Kodak snapshot. There was no hint of panic in her expression, only calm determination. If I hadn't already known it, I knew it then for sure; Emily had been here before.
Seconds later another brilliant flash lit up the cockpit and the ship lurched with a bang. We'd been hit! Sparks flew from under the instrument panel and clouds of acrid fumes burned my nose and throat. Almost immediately there was a loud snap and the panel lights winked out.
I was still struggling with my seat belt buckle so I could reach the fire extinguisher on the bulkhead behind me when I realized the smoke was clearing. The snap we heard was the circuit breakers kicking in. They popped under the high voltage load, which prevented a fire, but the acrid smoke told us the breakers and a fair amount of wiring had been fried in the process. That meant we would be making the rest of the trip without radios, instrument lights, or anything else that ran on electricity.
|Not many of the instruments in a C47's cockpit run on electricity, but they all need electrical lighting to be seen in the dark. On top of that, without electricity, the radios turn into excess baggage.|
I dug the flashlight out and pointed it toward the panel in front of Emily. I held the beam of light as steady as I could, but the turbulence made it dance over the instrument faces like a drunken firefly.
"There," Emily yelled. "Point it over there!"
She was gesturing to the engine instruments on my side of the panel. It took a moment, but I finally spotted the problem. The needle on the starboard engine oil temperature gauge was over in the red and the corresponding oil pressure gauge was pointing at zero. Since neither of these gauges was electrical, there was no reason to doubt what they were telling us. They were stating the undeniable fact that the big fourteen-cylinder Pratt and Whitney radial just beyond my cockpit window was about to pack it in.
After the lightning strike, the engine failure didn't surprise me, even though the two problems were probably unrelated. It stood to reason something else was bound to break because, on an airplane, things never go wrong one at a time.
The engine might have run a while longer if Emily hadn't cut its magneto switch and feathered the prop, but shutting it down reduced the risk of fire and probably saved us the considerable difference in cost between a rebuild job and a new engine. As the starboard prop spun to a stop, the reliable old C-47 did exactly what she was supposed to do; she yawed hard to starboard, turning toward the dead engine.
shoved the port throttle all the way forward to compensate for the loss
of power and stomped hard on the left rudder peddle to keep us headed
in the right direction. With the engine failure Emily's job got twice
as hard. Besides having to stand on the rudder pedal to keep us on course,
altitude was now a serious concern. Under normal circumstances the ship
could hold its altitude on one engine, but bouncing around in the storm
with a full cargo hold left our faithful craft clawing at the air for
dear life and gradually losing her grip.
I slid my seat forward to give Emily some help on the rudder pedal and renewed my efforts to keep the flashlight aimed at her side of the panel. I also stared into the massive black clouds beyond our windshield and forced my fuzzy brain to think about how the hell we were going to get out of this mess.
Essentially we were the pastrami in a cloud sandwich. There was a thick layer about two thousand feet over our heads and another about a thousand feet below us. The storm obviously wasn't behaving the way the Portland weather guys predicted. My guess was the front hadn't moved as far east as expected and we'd stumbled right into the heart of it.
|"We were the pastrami in a cloud sandwich. There was a thick layer about two thousand feet over our heads and another about a thousand feet below us."|
On the plus side, we had fuel to spare, and Emily was doing a good job of hanging on to as much of our altitude as possible. So unless we lost the other engine or something equally disastrous happened, we would make it to San Francisco. The question was, what would we find when we got there?
Mills Field is a busy airport right on the edge of San Francisco Bay, which is surrounded by hills and a zillion manmade obstacles, like radio antennas and bridge towers. In other words, it's a lousy place to be when you can't see what's in front of you.
If the cloud deck below us wasn't too thick, the visibility under it might not be bad, but without a radio, the only way to find out was to go down and take a look for ourselves. That wasn't a good idea for two reasons. First, there was a range of mountains along the coast below us. Without knowing our exact position the odds of flying into a chunk of cumulus granite were pretty good. And even if we avoided a collision with terra firma, we didn't have the power to climb back up through the clouds on one engine. We'd be stuck down on the deck whether we found better visibility or not.
Suddenly a down draft dropped us thirty or forty feet and we hit bottom with a jar that sent needles through my broken arm. I must have winced because Emily looked over and yelled, "How are you doing, Chip? You gonna make it?"
"Hell, yes! I feel great! I'm just featherbedding over here so you can get some stick time."
She smiled briefly at my attempted humor and said, "I think we're about thirty minutes out now. What do you want to do?"
I figured Emily had also been considering our situation and hadn't come up with any brilliant solutions either. But it was time to make some decisions, so I took my best guess. "We should have more than ninety minutes of fuel left. How 'bout dropping down on top of those clouds so we can hunt around for a hole and maybe see what's under this mess?"
"You think we'll find one?"
"Do we have any choice?"
With a grim nod, Emily gently pushed the ship's nose over. The turbulence got noticeably more violent with every foot of altitude we lost, and by the time Emily leveled off a hundred feet above the clouds, we were bouncing around like a ping pong ball.
I leaned close to the cockpit window on my side and searched the thick swirling mass below us for a hole or a spot thin enough to give me some idea how far down the cloud deck extended. It didn't look promising.
Most of the turbulence we were experiencing was vertical-sharp up and down jolts-and I had braced myself accordingly. That's why I wasn't prepared for what happened next. Suddenly the ship rolled right, then back to the left with a violent jerk. My forehead smacked the window with a resounding thud. The clouds in my brain turned as black as the ones outside and I went out like a cheap light bulb for the second time.
The next thing I remember was wondering where the guys in the white coats came from. I was pretty sure we didn't have any passengers aboard when we left Portland. I looked around, and I could see rain still beating against the windshield. I was rather surprised, however, to see that the Mills Field terminal building was also out there. Somehow, I astutely observed, Emily had managed to get us down in one piece without any assistance from me.
Therefore, I concluded, the fellows fussing over me were much more likely to be ambulance attendants than stowaways. One of them was splinting my right arm. He tossed my makeshift sling on the cockpit floor, and then the other guy helped manhandle me onto a stretcher in the radio compartment.
The next solid piece of reality I grabbed hold of came in the shape of a hospital room. Along with my clothes, my watch was missing, so I had no idea how much time had passed since my last peek at the real world.
A large nurse, who bore a striking resemblance to my old drill sergeant, marched in while I was trying to sort things out. She informed me it was eight p.m. and I was being treated for a concussion and a broken arm. After some poking and prodding, she also let me in on the news that I was feeling much better and wanted something to eat.
I told her I wasn't hungry, but Sergeant Nurse returned a few minutes later with a dinner tray. If I wanted to get well, she explained, I was to eat every yummy bite. In passing, she mentioned that the adorable little lady who'd visited me earlier had left with her friends, but would no doubt be back in the morning. In the meantime, I could read the note she left me.
The envelope on my dinner tray was addressed to "Chip" in the same precise printing I'd seen in Emily's logbook. I expected the note to include some explanation of how we got down through the storm or at least some word about when she'd be back to see me. Instead, what I found was a poem. The paper was a little worn, as if she'd been carrying it around for some time. The words were curious.
I read the note at the bottom over and over, but its meaning eluded me. Why did she have to leave? What was bound to happen? And what in blazes was the poem supposed to mean?
When the nurse showed up again, she was quite upset with me for not touching my dinner. I tried to cheer her up by obediently swallowing the pill she brought me. Then I asked, "You said the lady who was here earlier left with some friends. Did you see them?"
"Oh, yes. Two gentlemen came in a little after she got here. They talked for a while out in the corridor, and then they all left together."
"Did she seem happy to see them?"
"I wouldn't know about that, but they seemed very friendly when they stopped at the desk to ask which room you were in." She thought for a moment and added, "One of the gentlemen was a naval officer--a captain, I believe. Now get some sleep. She'll be back to see you in the morning."
Given the tone of Emily's note, that seemed highly unlikely. There was something very wrong about all of this, but I couldn't seem to focus on the details. Finally it dawned on me that the pill I obediently swallowed was a Mickey. I floated away on a heaving sea of nightmares.
Mills Hospital, Burlingame, California - 18 June, 1947
Emily and I were on the beach at Ventura when the sky suddenly turned dark and a fierce storm blew in. I gathered up our blanket and picnic basket so we could run to the car, but when I looked up again, Emily was gone. I started looking for her. Suddenly I had help--lots of help. Hundreds of sailors were running all over the beach, and they were looking for her, too.
The newspaper reported Emily's disappearance on the front page. They printed her picture and the headline, "A. E. Disappears! Navy Searches South Pacific for Lost Aviatrix."
I tried to tell them they had it all wrong. Emily hadn't disappeared in the South Pacific, and they printed her initials backwards. They were E. A., not A. E. I kept waving her monogrammed scarf at them to prove it, but the headlines kept screaming, "A. E.! A. E.! A. E.!"
I woke up slowly and the nightmare images gradually dissolved into those of the real world: My darkened hospital room, the heavy plaster cast on my arm, and the empty feeling you get when someone you love leaves your life. The pictures from my dream were still there, too. And as I reexamined those images, I realized they weren't all products of my imagination. Some of them were as real as the stiffly starched pillow case under my head.
In an instant of what seemed like very clear thinking, I put it all together. But what I'd figured out couldn't be. There had to be another explanation. Or did there? How could I find out?
The monogram on Emily's scarf! If she didn't pick it up when we left the ship, the scarf would still be on the cockpit floor where the ambulance attendant dropped it.
Trying gamely to ignore the pounding in my head, I climbed out of bed and found my clothes in a small closet near the door. I put them on, and with my flight jacket half on and half draped over my right shoulder, I walked out. Sergeant Nurse stopped me in the corridor and ordered me back to bed. When I finally convinced her that I was really leaving, she grudgingly gave me my watch and wallet in exchange for a promise to come back and settle my bill when the administration office opened later. It was a few minutes after two a.m. when I called Yellow Cab from a public telephone in the hospital lobby.
Now the moment of truth--or what I hoped would be a moment of truth--was here. I stepped through the radio compartment and into the cockpit. My heart pounded and my head kept time with it as I leaned over to look for the scarf.
It wasn't there. Cursing myself for running off on a fool's errand, I halfheartedly groped further back under the right seat. Then my fingers touched silk. I grabbed the scarf and turned quickly to read the monogram in the light coming through the windshield. There was an "A" and an "E" in that order.
I never saw Emily Aarons again. I have a picture of her, though; one I carefully clipped out of a decade-old Life Magazine. I keep it and Emily's note wrapped up in her silk scarf. Every so often, usually when I'm feeling a little lonely, I get the small bundle out of my top dresser drawer and reread the note she left for me at the hospital. Then I look at the photo. She's a little younger in the picture and her hair was much shorter when the photo was made, but the eyes are the same. They look back at me from the magazine page with a hint of amusement, as though the world was a joke and she was the only one who knew the punch line.
No, that wasn't quite right. She chose to share the joke with me. And sometimes I even appreciate the humor in it.
|"She's a little younger in the picture and her hair was much shorter when the photo was made, but the eyes are the same. They look back at me from the magazine page with a hint of amusement, as though the world was a joke and she was the only one who knew the punch line."|
T H E * E N D
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
2012 HPO Productions