The Mail Run (Runner Up Let’s Talk Magazine Short Story Competition 2015)
There is a muffled whirring sound like a bee stuck in a glass and the left hand propeller of the American Mitchell bomber jerks a quarter of a turn, stops, and then jerks another quarter. The bomber grunts like a prize fighter before bellowing into life. The pilot starts the second engine and the noise echoes across the Suffolk airfield scaring a flock of crows out of the nearby trees. Despite the warmth of the summer’s day Guy is wearing a thick wool lined leather flying jacket over his RAF blue and his hands are shaking. He settles his tall, thin frame down into the cramped space behind the pilots and carefully bends his artificial leg into the sitting position. He stows the briefcase of documents he has to deliver behind his seat.
‘Comfortable?’ The Captain asks, his Texan drawl sounding in Guy’s headset over the racket of the rapidly warming engines. He is a big solid man and an experienced pilot even though he is still only in his late twenties.
‘Welcome to American Army Airways,’ Al the co pilot cuts in. ‘Sorry there’s no tea.’
Al’s accent is softer; he is from Boston and has a thatch of straw like blonde hair and a wide grin that wins over the girls at all the dances.
Guy nervously holds up a thumb hoping Al does not notice the tremor in his hand.
The Mitchell is a twin engine bomber, bigger and faster, a more pugnacious heavyweight, than the Blenheim he used to fly. The cabin of the American plane smells different but there are still the familiar odours of oil and stale sweat that permeate all fighting aircraft. This is the first time he has been back in a cockpit since the crash four years ago. Even though he is only a passenger the vivid memories come rushing back. The roar of the explosive flak shell ripping through the wing and demolishing one engine as his squadron tried to slow the German advance at Dunkirk. The moans of his injured navigator as he nursed the crippled bomber across the channel and the dark brown furrows of an English field rushing up to meet them. He remembers waking up in hospital and the sense of guilt when they said his crew were dead. The relief that he would not have to fly in combat again when the doctor told him they had amputated his left leg just above the knee.
After his painful recovery the RAF had offered him a post as liaison officer to a US army air force unit and he was secretly relieved to be busy. At first he had found the Americans loud and arrogant but as their losses mounted he had realised that they were just and skilled, just as courageous, and just as frightened as the RAF crews.
With the checks complete the Captain taxis onto the runway. There is a brief tap on the brakes and a swift final check before the pilots push the throttles forward. The power takes Guy by surprise. The Mitchell is carrying sacks of mail in the bomb bay rather than a heavy load of bombs and the plane surges forward. His whole world shakes and his vision blurs. The noise sounds like a crowd hammering on the metal fuselage with a hundred sticks. The nose rises and Guy feels the familiar lightness that means they have ceased to be a very fast truck and have become an aircraft.
Three quarters of an hour later they have crossed the Channel are near the front line. The allies are steadily pushing the Germans back across France but they are not leaving without a fight. The mail runs to the forward airfields are one of the less dangerous tasks allocated to the crew but, looking over the pilots’ heads, Guy can see puffs of light anti aircraft flak ahead. He feels his pulse increasing; flying in a bomber is always fairly hazardous and just one German shooting at you makes it even more so. Now there seemed to be quite a lot intent on doing them harm. The Captain begins to bank to the right trying to avoid the black smoke of the exploding shells that appear like genies in front of them.
Guy is punched back into the bulkhead. He shakes his head; the roar of the engines sounds like a distant echo and his vision has blurred. His nose is full of smoke and the sickening smell of burning. He feels the bomber lurch as he fights against his artificial leg to stand up. The rush of air on his face nearly blows him back into the bulkhead again. He shakes his head trying to clear his vision. The cockpit is a mess of twisted metal. The captain is slumped in his seat and Al is hanging onto the control yoke with one bloody hand.
‘I can’t hold her,’ he yells. ‘I’ve been hit in both hands.
The wind is increasing through the smashed cockpit as the plane begins to dive. Cursing his leg Guy manages to lean across the unconscious Captain and haul on the control yoke. The nose of the aircraft starts to rise and the gunner appears beside him.
‘Get him out of the seat.’ Guy bellows against the noise. ‘Al try and hold us level.’
Painfully they haul the captain out of his seat and clumsily Guy clambers into his place. They are starting to dive again and Al’s face is contorted in pain. Guy hauls back on the controls again and the plane staggers into level flight. ‘I have it,’ he yells.
‘I knew you wanted to fly again.’ Al almost manages to smile.
Guy looks around him. The instrument panel is smashed, half the windscreen is gone. Looking down he can see daylight and the ground, which looks horribly close, through the side of the fuselage on his left. He cranes his neck round; both engines are still running. With no instruments he has no idea how fast they are going but figures, since they are still airborne, that it must be fast enough. Carefully Guy moves the control yoke left and right and the plane waggles its wings; for the moment everything seems to be working.
‘We are only about ten minutes out,’ Al shouts. ‘The airfield should be in front of us.’
Guy’s arms are beginning to ache from pulling back on the control yoke and trying to keep the plane level. In the right hand seat Al is trying to keep conscious and relay instructions.
The gunner is stood behind them. ‘There,’ he shouts, pointing to the airfield on their right.
‘Get her below 170 miles per hour before you lower the gear,’ Al shouts.
With no instruments to guide him Guy pulls back on the throttle levers. Following Al’s instructions the gunner reaches forwards and selects undercarriage down. Nothing happens and they are losing height rapidly.
‘It’s going to be a belly landing,’ Guy yells.
‘Flaps,’ Al is pointing a bloody finger at the lever. ‘Keep above 80.’
Guy selects full flap and feels the aircraft wallow as they deploy. He adds a little power to stop the plane from stalling and smashing straight into the ground. The engines are roaring in his ears as he aims the aircraft at the grass beside the runway. The ground rushes towards them he pulls hard on the control yoke lifting the nose of the plane so it settles tail first onto the grass. To the outside observer it looks like a graceful, even elegant, belly landing. Inside the aircraft there is a jarring thump followed by another impact and the screeching noise of metal being ripped apart. Guy’s world is shrouded in dust and he is thrown hard against his harness as the Mitchell rips a furrow into the grass and seems to plough on, unwilling to stop. The thick metal propeller blades bend into claws and one of the engines is ripped from its mounting as the wreck finally crunches to a halt.
There is silence. Al looks at him. They are still alive.
They both start struggling with their harnesses. Al is up out of his seat but Guy’s leg is pinned in the wreckage.
‘Get out,’ Al shouts.
‘I’m stuck. Wait …’ Guy bends forward, ‘…get the Captain out.
Al and the gunner manoeuvre the Captain out of the escape hatch as Guy un-straps his leg and extracts himself from the seat. Al runs back to help him out and supports him as he hops across the grass until they collapse in a heap.
‘Any landing you can walk away from is a good one,’ Al grins.
An ambulance skids to a halt and a medic runs up to them and stops and stares. There is confusion on his face as he tries to work out why a pilot who has just lost a leg is roaring with laughter.