This is an exerpt from my novel in progress, "High Probabilty", which is about events surrounding and following the crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in July of 1947. This particular scene describes the novel's main character, Col. Arthur "Keach" Thompson's, flying abilities while he attempts to emulate reported aerial maneuvers of flying saucers. I would appreciate any feedback anyone may wish to give me. Thanks for reading.
The Mustang, already climbing, gave a surge up and forward as the two bomb-like fuel tanks dropped away from beneath the wings, freeing the airplane from approximately seven hundred pounds of additional weight.
He quickly corrected his center of gravity and adjusted his fuel mixture from half and half to Auto Rich, and checked the rpms on his continuous pitch propeller. He passed the five thousand feet mark on his altimeter, and gave the Mustang a touch more throttle, keeping his climb shallow, so as not to lose airspeed. With a rate of climb of 3500 feet in two minutes, it wouldn’t take him long at all to reach ten thousand feet. Above ten thousand, in the thinner air, that would increase to 2,000 feet per minute.
As soon as the Mustang reached ten thousand, he leveled off and went over his mental checklist again. His plan called for him to climb to twenty-thousand feet, where his little test would begin. But there were a couple of other factors he had to consider before going any further.
It was colder at higher altitude. He could feel the temperature change already in the air that came into the cockpit. By the time he reached twenty-thousand feet, it would be about twenty-five below zero. Keach wasn’t exactly dressed for this particular mission, wearing only lightweight flight coveralls of olive drab wool and cotton gabardine, A-2 leather flight jacket, and his crushed service hat with headphones over it. True, the cockpit had a heater, but it was less effective the higher he went.
But, he rationalized, he wouldn’t be up that high that long, and his lighter weight flight gear and the heater should be enough.
He strapped the oxygen mask around his face, and checked the regulator valve. He took two or three deep breaths of electrically heated, metallic-tasting oxygen, and looked at its pressure gauge. It was in the green. The rubber rebreather bag beneath the mask was inflating and deflating correctly with each breath he inhaled and exhaled, all he had to do was make sure that condensation from his breath or spittle didn’t clog and freeze the vents or the hose. He gave the elastic retainer straps a final tug to satisfy himself that the mask was snug.
Keach gave his instruments another check, the sky above and around another scan. “Ah, Com Center, be advised that I will be climbing to between angels twenty and angels twenty-five, over.”
“Roger that, 173. Let us know if you get in any trouble, over.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, boys,” Keach grinned wryly and answered with earned confidence. “But thanks for your concern.”
He adjusted his mirrored Ray-Bans, took a deep, rubber-flavored breath through the oxygen mask, gave all of his instruments another check, adjusted the fuel mixture to Full Rich, and ran the throttle right to the gate, just kissing the restraining wire.
The P-51 lunged forward, g-forces easing Keach back in his seat. The airspeed indicator swung past 390 . . . 395 . . . 400 miles per hour.
“Off we go, into the wild blue yonder . . .” Keach pulled back on the stick. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine snarled thunderously in front of him. The engine’s vibrations seeped through the airframe. Keach felt it through his seat, through the soles of his service shoes on the rudder pedals: a gently rippling sensation. The nose of the Mustang came up slowly, just like he wanted it to. The horizon gradually dropped below him as the angle of climb increased to thirty degrees. “Climbing high, into the sun . . .”
Not wanting to lose airspeed, he kept the angle of climb moderate, the airspeed between four hundred and four hundred ten miles per hour. Now racing upstairs at two thousand feet per minute, it would take him roughly five minutes to reach twenty-thousand feet.
The cockpit brightened as he passed through fifteen-thousand. It was barely perceptible through his shades, but he could still detect it. The intense sunlight getting stronger the higher he got as the atmosphere got thinner.
“Here they come, zooming to meet our thunder,” Keach grinned beneath the mask and sang. “At ‘em boys, give ‘er the gun . . .”
He also noticed the ambient temperature growing colder, seeping into the cockpit despite the valiant efforts of the heater. It wasn’t bad, not yet. But without the protection of the heavy shearling and electrically heated clothing he would normally wear at high altitude, he would feel it, and soon. The extreme cold would ooze through the light flight coveralls, through his flesh, into his bones, into his brain. Hypothermia would set in after a few minutes, maybe twenty, thirty tops, and he would drift into an unconscious sleep, and he would die when the airplane fell and exploded on the desert floor.
But he was too good to let that happen. He didn’t plan on staying up that long. Just long enough.
At nineteen thousand feet, a shiver ran through his body from the cold. He cranked the cockpit heater all the way to maximum. He didn’t feel any difference. Except maybe colder.
As soon as the needle topped twenty-thousand, he pushed the stick forward again. The P-51’s nose dropped gently as it leveled off and his airspeed increased, the needle moving quickly past four-ten . . . four-fifteen . . . four-twenty.
The entire world seemed to spread out below him, around him. Many times he’d seen similar views from a similar altitude, usually over Germany, but not desert or prehistoric basalt lava flows. He could see White Sands sprawling to the north, see the slight curvature of the earth, eroded mountain peaks to his left and right, a few of those clouds scudding peacefully beneath him.
For a moment – just a moment – he savored the view, and then the encroaching subzero cold reminded him that he did have a purpose, of sorts, doing this. The airspeed indicator was hovering at four-hundred and forty-five mph.
“Okay, baby,” he said to the Mustang, giving the instruments another look. “Let’s see what you got. Show me what you can do.”
Now he wanted speed, as much as he could get. He adjusted the rpms of the four-bladed, continuous-pitch prop to get the most bite from the thin air. His left hand went to the throttle, paused for just an instant, then slammed it through the wire, all the way to the firewall, and put the stick forward.
The Mustang leaped ahead at full WEP, nose down at forty-five degrees. The horizon came up suddenly, above eye level, then above Keach’s head. He watched the airspeed indicator’s needle arc quickly past four-twenty-five . . . four-thirty-five . . . past four-forty-five . . . four-fifty . . . four-fifty-five . . .
“Down we dive, spouting our flames from under,
Off with one helluva roar . . .”
Through the blocking insulation of the headphones Keach heard the Merlin engine begin to whine eerily, then its pitch increased to a scream. The sudden change in speed and air temperature, though slight, caused condensation to form, creating narrow contrails streaming back from the squared wingtips.
Four-seventy-five . . . Four-eighty . . . Four-eighty-five . . .
The altimeter dropped quickly from twenty-thousand to nineteen-thousand-five-hundred, nineteen-thousand-two-fifty . . .
Airspeed inched to four-hundred-ninety miles per hour. Four-hundred-ninety-five. . . .
Keach smiled under the oxygen mask. The altimeter dropped just under eighteen thousand feet.
The airspeed indicator was wobbling at five-hundred-and-five mph indicated airspeed. According to his instruments, he’d reached Mach point, point eight, as fast as he could safely go without the laws of physics and gravity doing something unpleasant like ripping the wings from the airplane. The indicated airspeed was 505. But he knew that in reality, he was probably doing between five-fifteen and five-hundred-twenty miles per hour.
The P-51 buffeted slightly, the joystick trembled in his hand. Keach was in his element, now. He owned the sky, and he was going to prove it.
“Straight up, huh?” he zeroed-in on the airspeed. “Straight fucking up, they go. Okay. Let’s do it, baby.”
Keach yanked the joystick straight back. The Mustang gave a shudder as the nose suddenly came up, up, and the engine howled its raw power into blue sky. The horizon lurched downward, out of sight as the P-51 shot straight up at ninety degrees with a moaning creak of metal. Keach was shoved rudely back in his seat by g-forces, and his vision blurred for an instant. With gravity pressing him down in the seat, he found himself looking straight up as the P-51 climbed again. Keach’s breath came in short gulps. He refocused on the instruments, on the horizontal flight indicator, the airspeed indicator, and finally the altimeter, which was shooting back up, fast, through nineteen-thousand, nineteen-five, twenty thousand . . .
The tremendous airspeed he’d built up in the dive would hold for awhile, a few minutes, he wasn’t quite sure just how long. The thrill caused by the adrenaline rushing through his system would keep the dangerous cold at bay as well, at least he hoped. He had to be very careful, stay focused, stay concentrated.
Racing past twenty-one thousand feet, the speed started to drop, slowly at first. The P-51 screamed through twenty-one thousand feet, rushed through twenty-two, went beyond twenty-three thousand. Keach felt an easing around his chest and abdomen as g-forces lessened.
“C’mon, baby,” he rasped, his grip tightening on the joystick. “C’mon, baby. C’mon . . .”
At twenty-four thousand feet the airspeed needle dropped noticeably, the P-51 slowing appreciably. Aerodynamics and physics would have their way as the airplane reached stall speed. The engine would continue to run, but the Mustang would lose its forward momentum.
The needle just kissed twenty-five thousand feet, and Keach readied himself to correct for the stall. He glanced quickly to either side, at the sky, at the earth below. Those clouds were still there, balls of white fluff parading serenely across the landscape. About a mile below and to his left, in his three o’clock position, one of those desert thunderheads marched resolutely to the east. He was about five thousand feet above it.
Once the needle reached twenty-five-thousand one-hundred-fifty feet, the Mustang stopped, its forward momentum gone. It hung there, for just a moment, nose up, the propeller a spinning, iridescent disc . . .
“We live in fame, or go down in flame,
Nothing’ll stop the Army Air Corps! . . .”
Well, he thought. I mighta caught a flying saucer . . .
As he peered straight ahead through the windscreen, up at the deep blue New Mexico sky, he saw it. It was a shape that he was all too familiar with, formed like the Ace of Spades, standing motionless in the æther, gleaming dully grey in the afternoon sun.
“Holy shit!” Keach’s eyes opened wide beneath the Ray-Bans. It was maybe a thousand feet above him. It seemed close enough that he could reach out and touch it. For one of those moments that stretched out forever, his mind quickly raced through the visual information and processed it. There it was, one of those damnable flying saucers that had caused him so much grief recently, and it was virtually swimming there in his gunsight, the real McCoy, all wrapped up and given to him like a present from God. His rockets were gone, but he still had all that fifty caliber left. He had it.
He HAD IT!
Automatically, he thumbed the safety switch for the six fifties in the wings. His guns were now hot. A blind rush of anticipation swelled through him as he nosed the fighter just enough, and the N9 gunsight was trained just ahead of the craft, leading it and he instantly calculated his deflection.
His hand reflexively tightened on the trigger.
Then, the Mustang dropped, straight back on its tail with a lurch before Keach could pull it into a diving half-loop and get it back in level flight. It fell maybe a hundred feet like that, fast, straight down, tail-first. Now, the weight of the engine would drag it nose-over, either right or left. It happened faster than Keach thought it would, the entire airplane slipping in a vertical half-arc pendulum-like to the left, back through ninety degrees, gravity assuming command. The engine whined as airspeed picked up again.
“No, no, NO!” he didn’t just exclaim he screamed his frustration to the sky.
Before Keach could correct and level out, the Mustang began to spin, catching him unawares. The engine still growled madly as the spin increased, centrifugal force drawing him to the side of the cockpit. But it was just a spin, and Keach knew how to get out of a spin. He’d done it before, back in flight school, at Randolph and Kelly Field. It was simple. You centered your controls and applied rudder in the direction away from the spin.
Provided you knew which direction you were spinning. Because it happened so fast, Keach wasn’t quite sure which way the airplane was rotating, clockwise or counterclockwise. The turn needle was spinning as well, and so was the compass, and the horizontal flight indicator was useless. Instinct told him that he was spinning to the right, counterclockwise. The only way he could tell, now, was to get a visual on the horizon and the ground below.
He wrapped his hand around the joystick, and was about to center it while applying right rudder, when the ground wasn’t there any more and everything went dark.
It wasn’t black dark. But the vivid bright sunshine and blue sky that had been flooding the cockpit suddenly turned a woolly, wispy grey, and that began to get darker as well.
While trying to concentrate on which way he was spinning, that monstrous desert thunderhead had moved a lot more quickly across the sky than Keach had estimated, and he’d fallen right into the top of it.
“Shit!” he exclaimed into his oxygen mask. Without a visual confirmation, it was difficult if not impossible to determine which way he was spinning, except trust his instincts.
His instincts told him that the spin was to the left, and he continued to correct for it. But the Mustang didn’t come out of the spin.
“You son of a bitch!” he snarled, but he wasn’t sure at whom his anger was directed. Again, he tromped on the right rudder pedal.
The Mustang continued to spin, faster and faster.
He was completely disoriented, now. His stomach was nailed to his spine, along with his spleen and other internal organs. The cloud’s internal weather systems also began to have an effect. In addition to spinning, winds began to buffet the Mustang, and rain spattered the plexiglas canopy and windscreen. Lightning flared around him, illuminating the cockpit, static electricity making the hair on his body rise.
And the plane still wouldn’t respond. Keach began to experience the first symptoms of vertigo.
Jesus H. Christ I think I screwed the pooch . . . he thought, wondering just why the hell something simple like getting out of a spin was suddenly so damned hard?
His instruments were unwinding rapidly, more quickly than he could keep track of, except the altimeter, and that was frightening enough as the P-51 dropped through fifteen thousand, fourteen thousand, thirteen thousand, twelve . . .
“Fuck!” Keach dumped his flaps, but that did no good. His eyes went across the instrument panel again, and came to Erika’s photo. Those eyes and that impish smile stared back at him, but not accusingly. There was more of a challenge in that expression, something that implied come and get me, Ace.
He tried to concentrate, which was difficult, given the circumstances, but he gave it every effort he had. The way that altimeter was unwinding, he didn’t have much time to react, to think. One thing he did rather incongruously notice was that it was no longer bone chilling, mind numbingly cold. So the predicament did have its positive aspects as far as it went. For a moment, just an instant, he considered bailing out, but knew that centrifugal force would probably pin him in the cockpit. Besides, he’d never had to bail out before, he always brought ‘em home.
“Com Center to 173,” Bliss Control called him. “You awright up there? You’re droppin’ pretty fast. Alamogordo radar’s got you too, they wanna know if you’re okay.”
“Uh . . .” Keach grunted. “I’m . . .” It was hard to speak, coherently or otherwise.
Bliss Control must’ve caught something in his voice, because they radioed back immediately.
“Army 173, are you declaring an emergency, over?”
“Negative!” Keach blurted without thinking. “Negative!”
Once again, he centered the joystick, fought the joystick, and stomped his foot hard on the right rudder pedal, idly, stupidly wondering just how big the damn cloud was, and something else that he’d been taught about spins, and should’ve remembered in the first place. If you’re in a spin, and you become disoriented, do not trust your instincts, especially if you have no way of visually confirming the direction of the spin. What felt like left was in all probability right. Making an error like that, trusting to instincts, had turned many simple spins into graveyard spins, and claimed many pilots, some very good pilots, at that.
Keach wasn’t just a very good pilot. He was the best pilot there was. He often pointed that fact out to those less-informed, or had it pointed out by others. The Germans couldn’t kill him. He was damned if a simple spin was going to do what the Luftwaffe couldn’t.
But he had a difficult time not trusting his instincts, and every instinct he owned, visually, internally, his sense of balance, his inner ear, the whole nine yards told him he was spinning left.
He’d experienced spin disorientation before, in training, in spins less wild and more controlled, and with perfect visibility. The instructors had been right.
He knew they were right. But he knew his instincts were right . . . but they weren’t.
Brighter light burst in the cockpit as Keach and the P-51 suddenly dropped out of the bottom of the cloud. The bleakly beautiful landscape below was a lot closer, and it still spun in the windscreen before him. To the right.
Keach’s foot jammed the left rudder pedal as hard as he could, both hands clutching the stick. The Mustang gave a convulsive shudder and the spin began to decrease. But so did the distance between the fighter’s nose and the uprushing ground. A quick glance at the altimeter told Keach that he was now at two thousand feet, and getting lower. Now, he yanked back hard on the stick. The Mustang gave a stomach-wrenching lurch and rolled level. Upside down, but level, and all Keach had to do was roll her upright, which he did, slowly.
He chopped the throttle back to three-quarters and sagged in the seat, closing his eyes for a second. When he opened them again, he looked up through the bubble hood at the cloud that he’d just punched through. It continued sailing serenely along on its way toward Texas. He caught a glimpse of lightning dancing within the cloud.
“Huh,” he said, pulling the oxygen mask down, and inhaling long, deep breaths. He looked absently at Erika’s photo. She looked right back at him as if to say So? I knew you could do it. Then he laughed.
“Com Center to 173!” Bliss called urgently. “Are you awright? Come in, over.”
“Yeah, Com Center,” Keach responded wearily, feeling a little spent. “I’m okay. Just wringin’ her out a bit.”
There was a long pause, then, “If you’re sure, 173. Alamogordo GCA had you droppin’ pretty fast there.”
Keach adjusted himself more comfortably in the seat. “Aw, it was just a spin. Nothin’ to it, Com Center.”
He adjusted his fuel mixture back to Auto Rich, and moved the throttle up to full, pulling the Mustang into a climb for altitude while his heart slowed to more or less normal and his internal organs sorted themselves into their original positions. The P-51 rose gently into the air. He reached forward, and gave the instrument panel an affectionate pat.
“Good girl,” he complimented the airplane, exhaling a deep breath. “Good girl.”
Casting his eyes up again at the sky, there was no sign of the Flying Saucer. He wasn’t really sure just what he’d accomplished, except almost getting himself killed to prove . . . what? He didn’t know, but it’d been a wild ride. For a moment, he entertained the idea of calling the Bliss Com Center or Alamogordo Tower, to find out if they had picked up any anomalous radar targets. But no, they would’ve told him, and probably asked him to investigate. The last thing he wanted was to generate more paperwork and trouble for himself. He looked at Erika’s picture again, and this time winked at it. Then he looked up and around him, at the sky.
He was back in his element, and he owned the sky once more.
“Com Center to 173,” Bliss came back at him. “Just what were you doin’ up there?”
“Oh, nothing much,” he told the Com Center. “Just chasin’ a weather balloon.”
He gave the now-empty sky a wistful smile, then touched the visor of his cap with his finger.
Then, he grinned, the grin changing into a laugh, and he flipped the Mustang into a victory roll. Coming out of the roll, he banked east, and headed back to Fort Worth.