I was back to enjoying the scenery when the engine sound changed. Just a hiccup at first, quick enough to make me think I’d imagined it. Then it happened again, and again, until the engine was running noticeably rougher. The ground was closer and the duster now seemed less at home in the air. The rough engine coughed again, and then stopped. Except for the air whistling around us, we were suddenly plunged into silence. The blur of the propeller blades slowed until I could make out each individual blade, slowly turning in the wind like a child’s pinwheel. The engine cranked once, and then again, before Miss E. shut it off entirely.
“No worries, Bets,” a cheerful voice called from the rear cockpit. “Seatbelt buckled?” I gave a quick nod and turned around to see the same woman who had been sitting next to me in the Electra. Eyes smiling and hair tussled in the wind, Miss E. gave me a thumbs up. There was simply no way the woman behind me spent her days listening to quiet music in her armchair and sipping tomato juice in her kitchen. I saw in her at that moment the same energy and spirit that the crowds gathered at airfields to see forty years ago, and that my classmates walked by each day in their history classroom without noticing.
The ground was very close now. Trees that were just green patches minutes ago were now close enough to see individual branches that whipped by in a blur. Forest was on either side, and the river was still below us, but we were low enough that my view of the land ahead had been shortened to nothing. Then we were below the treetops, and the trees formed two thick green walls on either side of us. I could see the flaps on the wings moving constantly, and I was afraid to speak, knowing that Miss E. must be working the controls furiously. But I wanted to hear her voice and be reassured by it.
“No worries,” she said again. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or if she was telling herself, but it made me feel better nonetheless. The river we were following widened ahead then split, and when we reached that spot, Miss E. turned the plane to the left and took what looked like the smaller of the two branches. The trees were closer in, and branches struck one of the wing tips before Miss E centered the plane over the narrower strip of water.
Then the forest disappeared on our left side. The stream bent away to the right and took the trees with it. We found ourselves in the bright sun of a corn field just as the wheels slapped against the tall stalks. We sunk farther into the corn and then the wheels were bumping along the rutted ground while the wings plowed through the stalks and the still pin-wheeling propeller chewed them into dust. We hit a low spot that bumped us briefly into the air again, sailed over an open swath in the field that looked like a farm road, and came to a shuddering halt amongst the corn on the other side.
I kidded myself that it was sheer luck, that Miss E. had made a good guess with the left branch of the river, that we somehow ended up in the only flat patch of ground for miles. But I knew that if the woman sitting behind me was depending solely on luck, she would have used hers up long ago.
Dust hung in the afternoon sun, the air suddenly silent and still. I heard Miss E. pull herself from the cockpit and then saw her climb over onto the wing and hop nimbly to the ground. She looked up at me with a smile on her face and her hands on her hips.
“Well, come on, Bets. Not the place I had in mind for our picnic, but it seems like it will do.”
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