Peal dragged his heavy navigator’s bag to his station behind the cockpit and settled into his seat. He carefully closed the curtain around his workstation, grateful that it protected him from prying eyes. It was standard equipment on Lancasters because the navigator needed light to do his work, yet any light that escaped into the cockpit during a night raid interfered with the pilot’s night vision. It might even attract fighters. For Peal it had the added benefit of ensuring that the others couldn’t see just how shaky he was.
The flight with Moran five days ago had restored his confidence — until today’s briefing. As he had sat there listening to the briefers, terror returned. Memories of his flight with Forrester became so vivid that he froze. Terry had to nudge him to take notes. He managed to do that, but he left tell-tale smears of cold sweat on the chart. The moment the briefing ended he dashed to the lavatory. He needed several minutes to pull himself together and arrived in the crew room late. He hadn’t been able to joke with the others. As he double checked his curtains now, however, a small measure of calm started to return.
He turned on the light directed at his table and started setting up. From his bag, he removed first his charts, on which were pencilled in the route they were to fly with the bearings of each course neatly noted above the lines. He spread the first chart out on his little table, holding the lower corners down with his slide-rule and Dalton computer. Next, he lined up his ruler, parallel ruler, dividers, pencils, pencil sharper and rubber. Beside these he placed his chocolate bar and a thermos full of sweet, hot tea.
He took a deep breath, knowing he could delay no longer. He pulled on his flying helmet and plugged into the intercom via the socket over his desk. He was connected to the others again and could hear the steady voices of Moran and MacDonald going through the cockpit check.
“300 lbs per square inch.”
“Set to Magnetic.”
Like clockwork, they went through the preparatory steps for starting engines. They did this on every flight including training and test flights, so this dull dialogue had a soothing effect on Peal’s nerves. It was almost like a litany. When the engines started without mishap, he found that comforting as well. The deep rumbling would now — hopefully — accompany them unbroken until they were safely home.
The low-keyed, steady vibrations brought Zebra to life, and soon, almost imperceptibly, she rolled forward. Behind his curtain, Peal could see neither their own, halting progress nor the other aircraft moving carefully away from their dispersals, trundling onto the taxiway and lining up for take-off. He could follow their progress only by the rumble of the wheels, the squeal of the brakes, the swaying of the fuselage after each halt. Meanwhile, the laconic exchange from the cockpit continued as the final checks were carried out.
“Set for take-off.”
“Set for take-off.”
“Tanks one and two selected. Booster pumps on.”
Even blind, Peal knew when they turned onto the runway. Unconsciously he held his breath waiting for the invisible green light that would send them on their way. Finally, Zebra rolled slowly forward and gradually started to accelerate. MacDonald serenely read the speed indicator. The rumbling of the wheels picked up pace — and then abruptly stopped. The nose lifted and the whole kite swayed slightly, caught in a cross wind. The undercarriage clunked into the belly of the metal beast. Peal looked down at his chart with the course clearly pencilled in. His hand was shaking slightly, but he pressed down to stop it.
“Pilot to navigator: course?”
Peal double-checked the heading and cleared his throat once before he switched on his intercom and gave Moran the bearing. He was terrified both of what lay ahead of them and of cracking up again. If he froze or got confused, they might all die. He would deserve that fate for breaking down, but the others didn’t. He mustn’t let them down.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish