Hornet Flight

Chapter 32

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Karen thrust the Y-shaped control column sharply to the left, banging it against Harald's knee. The Hornet Moth banked as it climbed, but Harald could see that the turn was not sharp enough, and the aircraft was going to hit the bell tower.

"Left rudder!" Karen screamed.

He remembered that he, too, could steer. He jammed his left foot down hard on the pedal and immediately felt the aircraft bank more steeply. Still he felt sure the right wing would smash into the brickwork. The aircraft came around with excruciating slowness. He braced himself for the crash. The wingtip missed the tower by inches.

"Jesus Christ," he said.

The gusty wind made the aircraft buck like a pony. Harald felt they could fall out of the sky at any second. But Karen continued the climbing turn. Harald gritted his teeth. The aircraft came around a hundred and eighty degrees. At last, when it was heading back over the castle, she straightened out. As they gained altitude, the aircraft steadied, and Harald recalled Poul Kirke saying there was more turbulence near the ground.

He looked down. Flames still flickered in the petrol tanker, and by their light he could see the soldiers emerging from the monastery in their nightwear. Captain Kleiss was waving his arms and shouting orders. Mrs. Jespersen lay still, apparently out cold. Hermia Mount was nowhere to be seen. At the door of the castle, a few servants stood looking up at the aircraft.

Karen pointed to a dial on the instrument panel. "Keep an eye on this," she said. "It's the turn-and-slip indicator. Use the rudder to hold the needle straight upright, at the twelve o'clock position."

Bright moonlight came through the transparent roof of the cabin, but it was not quite enough to read the instruments. Harald shone the flashlight on the dial.

They continued to climb, and the castle shrank behind them. Karen kept looking to the left and right as well as ahead, although there was nothing much to see but the moonlit Danish landscape.

"Fasten your seat belt," she said. He saw that hers was done up. "It will save you banging your head on the cabin roof if the ride gets bumpy."

Harald fastened his belt. He began to believe that they had escaped. He allowed himself to feel triumphant. "I thought I was going to die," he said.

"So did I - several times!"

"Your parents will go out of their minds with worry."

"I left them a note."

"That's more than I did." He had not thought of it.

"Let's just stay alive, that will make them happy."

He touched her cheek. "How do you feel?"

"A bit feverish."

"You've got a temperature. You should sip water."

"No, thanks. We've got a six-hour flight ahead of us, and no bathroom. I don't want to have to pee on a newspaper in front of you. It could be the end of a beautiful friendship."

"I'll close my eyes."

"And fly the aircraft with your eyes shut? Forget it. I'll be all right."

She was being jocular, but he was anxious about her. He felt shattered by what they had been through, and she had done all the same things with a sprained ankle and a sprained wrist. He hoped she would not pass out.

"Look at the compass," she said. "What's our course?"

He had examined the compass while the aircraft was in the church, and knew how to read it. "Two hundred and thirty."

Karen banked right. "I figure our heading for England is two-fifty. Tell me when we're on course."

He shone the flashlight on the compass until it showed the right course, then said, "That's it."

"Time?"

"Twelve-forty."

"We should write all this down, but we didn't bring pencils."

"I don't think I'll forget any of it."

"I'd like to get above this patchy cloud," she said. "What's our altitude?"

Harald shone the flashlight on the altimeter. "Four thousand seven hundred feet."

"So this cloud is at about five thousand."

A few moments later the aircraft was engulfed by what looked like smoke, and Harald realized they had entered the cloud.

"Keep the light on the airspeed indicator," Karen said. "Let me know if our speed changes."

"Why?"

"When you're flying blind, it's difficult to keep the aircraft in the correct attitude. I could put the nose up or down without realizing it. But if that happens we'll know because our speed will increase or decrease."

He found it unnerving to be blind. This must be how accidents happen, he thought. An aircraft could easily hit the side of a mountain in cloud. Fortunately there were no mountains in Denmark. But if another aircraft happened to be flying through the same cloud, neither pilot would know until it was too late.

After a couple of minutes, he found that enough moonlight was penetrating the cloud for him to see it swirling against the windows. Then, to his relief, they emerged, and he could see the Hornet Moth's moon shadow on the cloud below.

Karen eased the stick forward to level out. "See the rev counter?"

Harald shone the flashlight. "It says two thousand, two hundred."

"Bring the throttle smoothly back until it drops to nineteen hundred." Harald did as she said.

"We use power to change our altitude," she explained. "Throttle forward, we go up; throttle back, we go down."

"So how do we control our speed?"

"By the attitude of the aircraft. Nose down to go faster, nose up to go slower."

"Got it."

"But never raise the nose too sharply, or you will stall. That means you lose lift, and the aircraft falls out of the sky."

Harald found that a terrifying thought. "What do you do then?"

"Put the nose down and increase the revs. It's easy - except that your instinct tells you to pull the nose up, and that makes it worse."

"I'll remember that."

Karen said, "Take the stick for a while. See if you can fly straight and level. All right, you have control."

He grasped the control stick in his right hand.

She said, "You're supposed to say, 'I have control.' That's so that the pilot and copilot never get into a situation where each thinks the other is flying the aircraft."

"I have control," he said, but he did not feel it. The Hornet Moth had a life of its own, turning and dipping with air turbulence, and he found himself using all his powers of concentration to keep the wings level and the nose in the same position.

Karen said, "Do you find that you're constantly pulling back on the stick?"

"Yes."

"That's because we've used some fuel and changed the aircraft's center of gravity. Do you see that lever by the top forward corner of your door?"

He glanced up briefly. "Yes."

"That's the elevator trim lever. I set it all the way forward for takeoff, when the tank was full and the tail was heavy. Now the aircraft needs to be retrimmed."

"How do we do that?"

"Simple. Ease your grip on the stick. You feel it wanting to go forward of its own accord?"

"Yes."

"Move the trim lever back. You'll find less need for constant back pressure on the stick."

She was right.

"Adjust the trim lever until you no longer need to pull on the stick."

Harald drew the lever back gradually. Before he knew it, the control column was pressing back on his hand. "Too much," he said. He pushed the trim lever forward a fraction. "That's about right."

"You can also trim the rudder, by moving the knob in that toothed rack at the bottom of the instrument panel. When the aircraft is correctly trimmed, it should fly straight and level with no pressure on the controls."

Harald took his hand off the column experimentally. The Hornet Moth continued to fly level.

He returned his hand to the stick.

The cloud below them was not continuous, and at intervals they were able to see through gaps to the moonlit earth below. Soon they left Zealand behind and flew over the sea. Karen said, "Check the altimeter."

He found it difficult to look down at the instrument panel, feeling instinctively that he needed to concentrate on flying the aircraft. When he tore his gaze away from the exterior, he saw that they had reached seven thousand feet. "How did that happen?" he said.

"You're holding the nose too high. It's natural. Unconsciously, you're afraid of hitting the ground, so you keep trying to climb. Dip the nose."

He pushed the stick forward. As the nose came down, he saw another aircraft. It had large crosses on its wings. Harald felt sick with fear.

Karen saw it at the same time. "Hell," she said. "The Luftwaffe." She sounded as scared as Harald felt.

"I see it," Harald said. It was to their left and down, a quarter of a mile or so away, and climbing toward them.

She took the stick and put the nose sharply down. "I have control."

"You have control."


The Hornet Moth went into a dive.

Harald recognized the other aircraft as a Messerschmitt Bf110, a twin-engined night fighter with a distinctive double-finned tailplane and long, greenhouse-like cockpit canopy. He remembered Arne talking about the Bf110's armament with a mixture of fear and envy: it had cannons and machine guns in the nose, and Harald could see the rear machine guns poking up from the back end of the canopy. This was the aircraft used to shoot down Allied bombers after the radio station on Sande had detected them.

The Hornet Moth was completely defenseless.

Harald said, "What are we going to do?"

"Try to get back into that cloud layer before he gets within range. Damn, I shouldn't have let you climb so high."

The Hornet Moth was diving steeply. Harald glanced at the airspeed indicator and saw that they had reached one hundred and thirty knots. It felt like the downhill stretch of a roller-coaster. He realized he was grasping the edge of his seat. "Is this safe?" he said.

"Safer than being shot."

The other aircraft came rapidly closer. It was much faster than the Moth. There was a flash and a rattle of gunfire. Harald had been expecting the Messerschmitt to fire on them, but he could not restrain a yell of shock and fear.

Karen turned right, trying to spoil the gunner's aim. The Messerschmitt flashed past below. The gunfire stopped, and the Hornet Moth's engine droned on. They had not been hit.

Harald recalled Arne saying that it was quite difficult for a fast aircraft to shoot at a slow one. Perhaps that had saved them.

As they turned, he looked out of the window and saw the fighter receding into the distance. "I think he's out of range," he said.

"Not for long," Karen replied.

Sure enough, the Messerschmitt was turning. The seconds dragged by as the Hornet Moth dived toward the protection of the cloud and the fast-moving fighter swept through a wide turn. Harald saw that their airspeed had reached one hundred and sixty. The cloud was tantalizingly close - but not close enough.

He saw the flashes and heard the bangs as the fighter opened up. This time the aircraft were closer and the fighter had a better angle of attack. To his horror he saw a jagged rip appear in the fabric of the lower left wing. Karen shoved the stick over and the Hornet Moth banked.

Then, suddenly, they were plunged into cloud.

The gunfire stopped.

"Thank God," Harald said. Although it was cold, he was sweating.

Karen pulled back on the stick and brought them out of the dive. Harald shone the flashlight on the altimeter and watched the needle slow its counterclockwise movement and steady at just above five thousand feet. The airspeed returned gradually to the normal cruising speed of eighty knots.

She banked the aircraft again, changing direction, so that the fighter would not be able to overtake them simply by following their previous course.

"Bring the revs down to about sixteen hundred," she said. "We'll get just below this cloud."

"Why not stay in it?"

"It's difficult to fly in cloud for long. You get disoriented. You don't know up from down. The instruments tell you what's happening but you don't believe them. It's how a lot of crashes happen."

Harald found the lever in the dark and drew it back.

"Was it just luck that the fighter turned up?" Karen said. "Maybe they can see us with their radio beams."

Harald frowned, thinking. He was glad to have a puzzle to take his mind off the danger they were in. "I doubt it," he said. "Metal interferes with radio waves, but I don't think wood or linen does. A big aluminum bomber would reflect the beams back to their aerials, but only our engine would do that, and it's probably too small to show up on their detectors."

"I hope you're right," she said. "If not, we're dead."

They came out below the cloud. Harald increased the revs to nineteen hundred, and Karen pulled the stick back.

"Keep looking around," Karen said. "If we see him again, we have to go up fast."

Harald did as she said, but there was not much to see. A mile ahead, the moon was shining through a gap in the clouds, and Harald could make out the irregular geometry of fields and woodland. They must be over the large central island of Fyn, he thought. Nearer, a bright light moved perceptibly across the dark landscape, and he guessed it was a railway train or a police car.

Karen banked right. "Look up to your left," she said. Harald could see nothing. She banked the other way, and looked up out of her window. "We have to watch every angle," she explained. He noticed that she was getting hoarse with the constant shouting over the noise of the engine.

The Messerschmitt appeared ahead.

It dropped out of the cloud a quarter of a mile in front of them, dimly revealed by moonlight reflected off the ground, heading away. "Full power!" Karen shouted, but Harald had already done it. She jerked back on the stick to lift the nose.

"Maybe he won't even see us," Harald said optimistically, but his hopes were immediately dashed as the fighter went into a steep turn.

The Hornet Moth took several seconds to respond to the controls. At last they began to rise toward the cloud. The fighter came around in a wide circle and pitched up to follow their climb. As soon as he was lined up, he fired.

Then the Hornet Moth was in the cloud.

Karen changed direction immediately. Harald cheered. "Dodged him again!" he said. But his underlying fear gave a brittle tone to the triumph in his voice.

They climbed through the cloud. When the glow of moonlight began to illuminate the swirling mist around them, Harald realized they were near the top of the cloud layer. "Throttle back," Karen said. "We'll have to stay in the cloud as long as we can." The aircraft leveled. "Watch that airspeed indicator," she said. "Make sure I'm not climbing or diving."

"Okay." He checked the altimeter, too. They were at 5,800 feet.

Just then the Messerschmitt appeared only yards away.

It was slightly lower and to the right, heading across their path. For a split second, Harald saw the terrified face of the German pilot, his mouth opening in a shout of horror. They were all an inch from death. The fighter's wing passed under the Hornet Moth, missing the undercarriage by a hair.

Harald trod on the left rudder pedal and Karen jerked back on the control stick, but the fighter was already gone from view.

Karen said, "My God, that was close."

Harald stared into the swirling cloud, expecting the Messerschmitt to appear. A minute went by, then another. Karen said, "I think he was as scared as us."

"What do you think he'll do?"

"Fly above and below the cloud for a while, hoping we'll pop out. With luck, our courses will diverge, and we'll lose him."

Harald checked the compass. "We're going north," he said.

"I went off heading in all that dodging about," she said. She banked left, and Harald helped with the rudder. When the compass read two-fifty he said, "Enough," and she straightened up.

They came out of the cloud. They both scanned the sky in all directions, but there were no other aircraft.

"I feel so tired," Karen said.

"It's not surprising. Let me take control. Rest for a while."

Harald concentrated on flying straight and level. The endless minor adjustments started to become instinctive.

"Keep an eye on the dials," Karen warned him. "Watch the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, the compass, the oil pressure, and the fuel gauge. When you're flying, you're supposed to check all the time."

"Okay." He forced himself to look at the dashboard every minute or two and he found, contrary to what his instincts told him, that the aircraft did not fall to earth as soon as he did so.

"We must be over Jutland now," Karen said. "I wonder how far north we strayed."

"How can we tell?"

"We'll have to fly low as we cross the coast. We should be able to identify some terrain features and establish our position on the map."

The moon was low on the horizon. Harald checked his watch and was astonished to see that they had been flying for almost two hours. It seemed like a few minutes.

"Let's take a look," said Karen after a while. "Pull the revs back to fourteen hundred and dip the nose." She found the atlas and studied it by the light of the flashlight. "We'll have to go lower," she said. "I can't see the land well enough."

Harald brought the aircraft down to three thousand feet, then two. The ground was visible in the moonlight, but there were no distinguishing elements, just fields. Then Karen said, "Look - is that a town ahead?"

Harald peered down. It was hard to tell. There were no lights because of the blackout - which had been imposed precisely in order to make towns hard to see from the air. But the ground ahead certainly seemed to have a different texture in the moonlight.

Suddenly, small burning lights began to appear in the air. "What the hell is that?" Karen yelled.

Was someone aiming fireworks at the Hornet Moth? Fireworks had been banned since the invasion.

Karen said, "I've never seen tracer bullets, but - "

"Shit, is that what they are?" Without waiting for instructions, Harald pushed the throttle forward all the way and lifted the nose to gain altitude.

As he did so, searchlights came on.

There was a bang and something exploded nearby. "What was that?" Karen cried.

"I think it must have been a shell."

"Someone's firing at us?"

Harald suddenly realized where they were. "This must be Morlunde! We're right over the port defenses!"

"Turn!"

He banked.

"Don't climb too steeply," she said. "You'll stall."

Another shell burst above them. Searchlight beams scythed the darkness all around. Harald felt as if he were lifting the aircraft by willpower.

They came around 180 degrees. Harald straightened out and continued to climb. Another shell exploded, but it was behind them. He began to feel they might yet survive.

The firing stopped. He turned again, flying on their original heading, still climbing.

A minute later they passed over the coast.

"We're leaving the land behind," he said.

She made no reply, and he turned to see that her eyes were closed.

He glanced back at the coastline disappearing behind him in the moonlight. "I wonder if we'll ever see Denmark again," he said.

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