Early Morning Edition: A short story

I can’t pick up a Sunday newspaper without thinking of Bob Slade. He was a pilot you see, like myself.

Ex R.A.F of course and three years after the war, neither of us could find a flying job. In desperation, I had got a job as a ‘bobby on the beat’ policeman. On this particular day, I was doing point duty just off Tottenham Court Road.

It was a Wednesday morning, with all Hell let loose and traffic coming out of no-where when this little red M.G. Sports coupe` stopped a yard from my nose.

“Hey Geoff, you miserable old sod, what the Devil are you doing?”

I lowered my arms and stared at the occupant of the car, then almost went into convulsions. “Bob…Bob Slade! Jeez I`ve been wondering where you were, you look mighty prosperous sitting in your old Dads car?”

“Dads?” He chortled. “ Not a chance my man, bought it with my own down payment of a thousand bucks, if you`re interested in a flying career again, I have a proposition.”

By this time the traffic was really snarled up, and hooters going right, left and center.

“Damn it yes, of course I am.” I shouted. “Anything to get out of this uniform!”

Bob ground the gears of the sports car and let in the clutch. “Meet me at the Elephant tonight about eight, I think I can fix you up.”

Naturally I was overjoyed. There were many thousands of ex-flyers in my predicament, all qualified pilots with valid logs to prove it yet there just weren’t enough ‘planes to keep us in employment.

I knew the Elephant and Castle pub where I was to meet Bob mainly because we had spent much of our spare time there, lapping pints of beer and sending ourselves into oblivion. Both Bob Slade and myself were on the Murmansk run flying Wellington bombers well into the Arctic Circle during the last few months of the war.

Twenty thousand feet up and with temperatures of minus thirty even the mechanisms of the guns in the ‘dust-bin turret’ slung below the aircraft seized up, and the gunner in the rear reported his pee had frozen as he was taking a leak.

How we ever got back to Cardington beats me. We were flyers, and there was no doubt in my mind that we must have been carefully guarded by a flock of angels on those dreadful jaunts up North.

I put the last ten bob I had into my pocket and headed for the Elephant and hopefully a new career. Bob was really excited when he saw me. He ordered me a pint of mild and bitter and we sat at a table near the fire.

“You are licensed for Daks aren’t you?” he asked, lowering his glass.

I nodded. The Douglas Dakota D.C.3. aircraft was perhaps the one aircraft that every flyer that ever was, managed to pass with flying colors when taking his twin engine rating. “Absolutely Bob, now what’s this all about?”

“I fly for Globe Aviation. A respectable company who, among other things, fly the Sunday newspapers from London to the Paris, making sure they get there before breakfast on Sunday Mornings. Its five hundred smackers each run Geoff, an absolute doddle of a job with no questions asked.”

My mind did a quick calculation. I wasn’t earning five hundred pounds a month on the Metropolitan Police Force, and I could earn that in one crossing.

Smiling broadly, I raised my glass. “You can count me in Bob. Hell man, I can earn four times the salary I get now!”

We finished our drinks and wandered outside. Bob`s M.G. was parked just around the corner. “You don`t mind a spot of night flying then, do you Geoff?”

“No problem, when do I start?” I said, remembering the thousands of night landings I had performed without error.

“Take me to your place, and then I`ll know where to pick you up on Saturday. We fly from Gatwick and I`ll be at your place at seven PM.”

I had three days to familiar myself with the D.C. 3. Luckily I had the air manual in my trunk at the foot of my bed, and an hour of reading made me feel pretty confidant that I could fly the old airplane without difficulty.

Saturday came. Bob Slade arrived on time and although he appeared to be three sheets to the wind, it was nothing to worry about. He never ever appeared to be sober, and I had known him for some five years. We drove up the North Orbital and onto Gatwick in the pouring rain. It was only then that a little doubt crept into my mind. “Not a nice night for flying,” I thought.

We were stopped at Gatwick security gates and asked for our pass-cards and for a while it was touch and go whether they would let me in. Bob introduced me as a Group Captain and flashed my log book under their nose for several seconds until they were convinced of our identity.

We parked the car in a hanger beside an ancient D.C.3 that was being loaded with bales of newspapers. Stepping aboard the aircraft I noted that every seat had been removed, and the cabin loaded shoulder high with Sunday Newspapers and their supplements.

“What’s this lot weigh?” I queried.

Bob swigged from a hip flask that he had in the pocket of his fur lined leather Irvine jacket. “God knows!” he replied. “Must be bloody tons!”

I kept quiet. He was probably right, it must have been tons I thought, while I tried to remember the maximum gross take-off weight and un-stick speed of a D.C.3.

I have a habit of walking round any aircraft that I intend to fly and doing a casual inspection at the same time. Three steps was all I needed. The tyres on the under-cart were worn to a frazzle, their canvas moulding showing white through the dark rubber.

More worrying was the puddle of oil beneath the port engine.

“Have you seen this Bob?” I asked seriously.

Bob nonchalantly lit a cigarette. “These old tubs all leak a bit of oil Geoff. No problem once we get the ‘old gel’ into the air.”

My enthusiasm melted like snow in sunshine. What had I let myself in for?

There wasn’t a corner in the aircraft that didn’t hold a bale of newspaper. Even the Elsan toilet had been stacked and the door left open.

With the rain pattering against the fuselage and with one windscreen wiper not functioning we were cleared for take off. I glanced at my watch, it was thirty minutes after midnight. Bob nosed the aircraft onto the runway and opened the throttle of both engines as wide as they would go. Golf Alpha Mike Yankee Tango rolled forward and gathered momentum.

For one awful moment I didn’t think we would make it as the end of the runway loomed before us. Cigarette stuck between his lips and the yoke drawn back into his gut, Bob Slade winced as the under-cart clipped the tips of a row of trees below. “There we go,” he said enthusiastically.

“Piece of old takkie!”

At five hundred feet I pressed the under-cart button and waited for it to lock and show a green indicator lamp. Ten minutes went by and it still showed red. Bob tapped the red light with his cigarette lighter. “Damn!” he said. “Looks like the hydraulic fluid is low Geoff. Do you mind giving it a pump, the handle is just behind the bulkhead.

I knew where it was all right.

“What’s the heading Bob, lets get set up first, the under-cart can wait.”

Holding a dirty scrap of paper towards a light on the instrument panel, he gave me the co-ordinates. “One five nine degrees at ..er…altitude of twelve thousand, Orly Tower frequency one two five, comma five zero, ” I set the auto pilot and hoped to God it worked.

Twenty or thirty pumps on the hydraulic emergency handle locked our under-cart, and I went back to the co-pilots seat next to Bob.

“It’ll take about two and a half hours in this lot,” he said, pointing to the rain swept cockpit window. I agreed and checked the instrument panel for anything untoward.

The port engine cylinder head temperature looked a little high to me, but nothing untoward, so I kept quiet.

Twenty minutes out, with the English channel below us Bob stretched and yawned.

“Think I’ll go back and stretch out for a bit Geoff, hold her on one five nine at twelve thousand and wake me for the finals.”

Bob moved out of his seat and as soon as he’d gone I clambered into it. I must admit it felt good to be back in the drivers seat and in command of an aircraft again.

Feeling complacent is not good when it comes to flying, and the flashing red light beneath the port engine cylinder head temperature gage soon proved this. The needle on the instrument was pressed hard against its stop. I said a rude word and gently tapped its glass cover, hoping for some kind of miracle.

Still flying on autopilot, I went back to call Bob. He was stretched out of a pile of newspaper bales snoring his head off! I tried to shake him awake. “Bob, listen to me Bob, the port engine temperature is off scale.”

Bob continued to snore.

“Bob, for God’s sake wake up, the port…”

He opened his eyes and blinked. “Port?” he queried. “No thanks old chap, it always gives me a nasty headache.”

“No dammit Bob, the PORT ENGINE is failing, you better get up front quick!”

As Bob slipped into his seat there was a loud bang and the sound of metal particles hitting the side of the fuselage. Bob seemed dazed, stupefied perhaps and stared at the instrument panel doing nothing.

“Feather the prop for God’s sake Bod or we’ll have a runaway!” I screamed.

Here I must explain that a runaway propeller is about the most dangerous of all engine failures in a D.C.3. Without proper control, it will either shake the `plane to pieces or slice itself through the fuselage taking both pilots with it.

Bob feathered the propeller but the engine continued to spit chunks of metal, con rods, spark plugs and other bits at the fuselage. The trip was fast becoming a nightmare.

We had already lost a thousand feet in altitude when I alerted Orly Tower.

“Port engine out of commission, attempting to maintain altitude, will jettison freight over English Channel.”

“You can’t do that.” screamed Bob, who was looking decidedly pale and half the man he was.

“Why the Hell not?” I shouted.

“Because we are over France already!”, he replied.

Normally the D.C.3 flies extremely well on one engine, but loaded with freight is a different story. We were going down, there was no doubt about that, and the only way to keep the `plane in the air was by throwing out our cargo of newspapers.

“Cut the twine that holds the bales together before throwing them out and they will open out by our slip stream and flutter down….its stopped raining now, its our only chance.”

Still on course for Orly, and at an altitude of six thousand feet, we spent the next few minutes searching for something to cut the baling string with. A pair of surgical scissors taken from the first aid box sufficed. I started cutting through the first forty odd bales of newspapers before I opened the cargo door, then went back to Bob.

“Are you ready for this?” I asked, knowing what kind of trauma opening the door might set up. Bob gave me thumbs up pointing to the altimeter. It showed four thousand and still going down. I said another rude word and headed for the cabin.

Bob called me back! “Jettison the bales on the port side first, I`d like to save as many as we can.” he called.

“Will do,” I replied, knowing there was sense in what he said.

I released the locking device on the door and with all my strength pushed it against the slipstream of the aircraft perhaps an inch! It was enough. The first fifty bales of newspapers were automatically sucked out of the aircraft in less than two seconds in one almighty roar of speeding turbulent air.

The suction was so great that some of the uncut bales began to slide and vibrate their way out the open hatchway! I began to frantically cut the rest of the bales, in the forward section of the aircraft, leaving the ones aft until last.

Estimating more than ten thousand newspapers had been jettisoned, I went back to the flight deck.

“Is she holding altitude?” I asked.

Bob gave me a thumbs up sign. We flew on with the door opened. With the incredible scream of the racing air splitting our ear-drums, he offered me his hip flask.

“Nice work,” he shouted.

Holding the flask to my lips, I drained what little was left down in one gulp. The fiery liquid burned its way down my gullet. Probably the most worthwhile drink I ever had!

The plane was flying pretty normally now, and Orly Tower had standby crews alerted for our touch down just in case.

As we slowed to a halt Bob punched me on the shoulder. “I bet you never done a paper round like that before?”

Sweat pouring down my face and trickling down my back, and my knees weak from exertion, I replied, “Early morning edition delivered at your doorstep?”

We both howled with laughter but at the same time I knew this was going to be my very last airborne adventure.

I returned to the Metropolitan Police Force for a while. Bob Slade, bless him, continued his career as a pilot and notched up a further thousand hours in the air before his luck turned sour.

Sitting in my Hotel room around ten on the following morning, a waiter knocked at my door holding my breakfast tray.

He bowed, as French waiters do, and asked seriously. “Sunday Times Monsieur?”

I smiled inside my gut, wondering whether it was one that had fallen from the skies.

Geoffrey Kennell
Off the cuff

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