The hangar was pitch dark inside. Fowley had to turn on the light switch. At once the whole interior lit up. It was very odd to be alone in the large, cavernous building. Fowley was fractious. He had a nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, failed to check something vital, left some lever in the wrong position. He’d barely scraped through training, passing his exams by the thinnest of margins. At the time, he hadn’t given a damn about anything but passing out, since being a fitter with an operational RAF squadron had been his dream for as long as he could remember. But in training he hadn’t had to look in the faces of the pilots whose lives depended on his skill.
Here at 606, by contrast, pilots weren’t abstract nuisances who mucked up perfectly good machines. Suddenly they were people. They weren’t all nice, of course, but that wasn’t the point. Besides, the only pilot everyone really disliked was Debsen because he always blamed his crew if something wrong. Debsen caused no end of trouble because he said this or that was wrong with the kite, and then his crew had to take the whole crate apart, and if they didn’t find anything wrong, Chiefy said they hadn’t looked hard enough, and if they still didn’t find anything wrong….
But the others seemed nice enough. In fact, Sergeant Bowles, Fowley’s pilot, was particularly nice. He’d offered to clean up his own mess, but Tufnel said that “wasn’t done” and insisted that they do it for him. Fowley was glad of the extra money, and frankly a little in awe of Bowles. He couldn’t imagine being that frightened – and then still doing it day after day. Unlike that braggart Appleby, Fowley knew he didn’t want anything to do with flying, much less fighting the Luftwaffe in a fragile little crate made of wood and canvas that could burn up in seconds. He truly admired Bowles for being willing to do that even though, unlike some of the others, he was obviously acutely aware of the danger he was in. Which was precisely why Fowley felt so bad when he thought he might have forgotten something. If he had, he might be to blame for Sgt. Pilot Bowles’ getting killed. He set his tea down on the wing of “H” and opened the cowling.
“Something wrong with her, Aircraftman?”
Fowley nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected question. He had thought he was alone in the hangar, and now there was a man in a Sidcot suit standing beside him – a man he had never seen before. The Sidcot covered all rank insignia, but he was obviously a pilot, because his hair was so long it was hanging in his forehead, and no Sergeant would have let him get away with that. He also had a silk scarf around his neck and tucked into the front of his overalls. Most important, he stood there with his hands in his pockets as if he owned the place – not to mention his upper-class accent.
“Not that I know of, sir,” Fowley answered the question. “I was just checking. To be sure.”
“What’s your name, Aircraftman?”
“I’m new to the squadron,” the officer explained. “Just come from Training Command. You don’t mind answering a few of my questions, do you?”
“No, sir.” Fowley thought the pilot looked old for coming straight out of Training, but maybe he’d been flying other aircraft, or had come from the Fleet Air Arm and had just converted to Hurricanes, or something like that.
“Any bum kites in the stable?” The pilot nodded vaguely to the other three machines in the hangar.
“Not really, sir. Those two there are brand new. They’re in here to get their ID. ‘B’ is in for a fifty-hour check. ‘Q’ is here because Pilot Officer Debsen says the engine stutters, but we can’t find the problem, sir.”
“And this kite?” Robin nodded towards the aircraft they were standing next to.
“Well, it got shot up on the eighteenth. The glycol tank was hit and the engine over-heated, but I think it’s OK now.”
“Good. Then it needs a flight check. Would you mind getting it fuelled up and ready for me? I want to make a quick test flight – might as well make it doubly useful.” The pilot was walking around the wing.
“Ah, sir, wait. May I suggest you take a different kite, sir?”
“Why?” The pilot stopped and gazed at Fowley in astonishment.
“This one – well – it stinks a bit, sir,” Fowley admitted shamefully.
“Yes, sir. We try to clean it out, but, well, somehow it still stinks.”
“All aircraft stink, Fowley,” the pilot observed with a whimsical smile.
“No, sir, not like this. I mean, like someone’s been sick in it.”
“Has someone been sick in it?”
“Yes, sir. Sergeant Pilot Bowles is sick every flight.”
The pilot was staring at Fowley so hard that it made him look down and kick at the cracked concrete under his feet with his thick-soled, scruffy boot. He felt bad to have betrayed Sergeant Pilot Bowles’ secret, but this pilot would have smelt something anyway….
“What aircraft would you recommend then, Fowley?”
“Well, ‘R’ is brand new, sir – not just a pieced-together job. Straight from the factory—”
“Fowley! Oh! Sir!” Flight Sergeant Rowe had spotted them. He came up saluting smartly to the pilot – not his usual condescending salute to new pilots. Then he cast Fowley a look laden with threat. Even if he’d only been in the squadron five days, Fowley knew that look, and it made him cringe. Rowe was in a bad temper. “What can I do for you, sir?” Rowe asked the pilot, in a tone that was almost sickeningly servile.
“The weather’s lifting. I want to test-fly one of the aircraft. I’ve been on Spitfires for the last month or so.”
“May I suggest ‘R’ or ‘S’, sir? Both were delivered by the ATA just yesterday.”
“I’ll take ‘R.’”
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