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2 September 2010
  Charlie Bellman:
Night Mail

Chapter 4
by Antonia T. Tiger

  A journey to the new posting

Night Mail

A Charlie Bellman story

Chapter 4

No Highway in the Sky.

Helen dropped into the copilot's seat and plugged in her headset. “Cati?” She looked at the young Ensign, and the way her hands were tight on the controls. Bother. They needed that training, not just a pilot. “I have control.”

You have control.” The response, and the loosing of that death-grip, were automatic, and Helen felt the pressure on her hands and feet, and held the heading and altitude, wings level. She didn't have an instrument rating, but she'd spent a lot of time in a Link trainer. And then, startled, “What!”

A long pause. The plane held steady in the night.

Mom reckons some sort of food poisoning, and it seems to have come on damn fast. It's a mess back there, but I don't think anyone's going to die. Dehydration, but it takes time, and we should be landing in a couple of hours.” Helen paused. “Don't expect me to land this thing. And don't expect me to do any navigation. Charlie, he knows Morse from his time in the Army, and he thinks he can work the wireless to get a bearing, if you show him the knobs to turn.”

MacDonald nodded. “Understood. You can give me the time to sort things out.”

Yes. Now, take a deep breath, take the chance to think things through. Together, we're going to be fine.”

I was going to crack, wasn't I.”

You weren't flying the plane like I was taught,” remarked Helen. Her eyes flicked across the panel. Compass, air-speed, altimeter, artificial horizon. Why couldn't the instruments be put together? Didn't any of the designers ever fly a plane?

Ever flown on instruments before?”

Nope. Link trainer.” She looked out of the cockpit for a moment. “I don't see an horizon.”

You're doing OK.” Ensign MacDonald touched the Thunderbird on her uniform, murmured a prayer. “Glad you people are here, or I'd be on my own. Wouldn't be good.” She blinked. “Heading?”

Two four five, maybe a degree north.”

Ouch. Turn to two-forty. But we're flying far enough that we could have started out with a north wind, and be getting a southerly now.”

Get back there and do your navigation magic...” Helen watched the artificial horizon, starting a gentle bank to port. “Turning port to heading two four zero.”

MacDonald slipped out of her seat. Only a Link trainer, eh, and flying a light plane in clear skies. But this Englishwoman seemed to have a good touch. Yep, they needed some navigation magic. And if Bellman could pick up the radio station on the Spontoons, they would get an hourly weather report.

The cabin reeked of vomit. Two pilots, one Dutch, navigator, wireless telegraphist, and two air-gunners. All of them looking pretty bad after heaving their guts out. Carol Todd didn't look much like a Duchess, or a nurse, but she was sharing out the water. They needed some, if only to wash the acid out of their mouths.

Bellman was sitting at the wireless sets, peering at all the dials and switches through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, and, she realised, taking careful notes of the settings. He might not know what a switch did, but he was making sure that he could put everything back as it was. Good thinking. She felt a little better. These people, she could rely on them. They were not going to be stupid.

She plugged in, noticing that Bellman was on the cabin circuit. “Were you a signaller?”

Ordinary infantry. We had some weird gadgets in the trenches, I can send bad Morse slowly, and I've done a couple of short how-not-to-be-stupid courses.”

Better than nothing, a lot better, Mr. Bellman.” She took a deep breath. “I need a bearing on the radio transmitter in the Spontoons. We're flying far enough that the wind can have changed a lot, and that throws off our navigation. Give me a bearing, and I can do something to sort it out.”

Got it. One of the things I was taught about, in outline. The gunners would like nothing better than to chuck a few bricks at the other side's headquarters, so we're told to be careful.”

That set.” She pointed. “And that crank above you is for turning the aerial.” She looked over the bench. “Yep, and that's the frequency you want. Now, we'll work through this together. Power is on...”

The first bearing was worrying, though less so after Bellman reminded her about the corrections. “Just like a compass,” he said. She'd started an explanation, about how the whole airplane was a wireless aerial, but Bellman shushed her. “You'll confuse me, lass.”

She doubted it. He didn't look like a man who could be confused. But she had better plot on the chart, get a position line. But one wouldn't be enough. “Take a bearing every ten minutes,” she said. That'd be maybe twenty miles on the ground, depending on the wind. And three hundred or so out from the Lagoon. If Bellman was any good, there'd be something useful. It might be a bit slovenly, but they could run down the bearings.

She was feeling much better about the whole mess. And she would make damn sure she wasn't going to clean out the cabin.

Half an hour, and a new heading, and Helen thought she could make out an horizon. She remembered the stories from the flying-club bar, and concentrated on her instruments. They didn't lie. A bank of cloud, running at an angle, could be very misleading. She looked at the fuel gauges, the engine temperatures and oil pressure. Some things were the same for every plane, and this one was easy to fly. Big, and slow to respond, but stable. Not that she was going to fiddle with the throttles. She couldn't help grinning. Her brother might have forced her to sell her 'plane, but she was still flying. She was still an aviator. She was still alive.

OK, I have control.”

Helen rattled through the altitude, airspeed, and heading, and finished, “You have control.” She blinked, it was harder work than she had expected.

There was silence for a moment. except for the engines.

You ought to go for an instrument rating, you're good at it.”


Always work out here for good pilots. Australia, the New Guinea goldfield, all over the Pacific.”

Tempting,” said Helen.

MacDonald looked over the engine gauges. “Port engine is running a little warm.” She reached for a control. “Open the cooling flaps a little, they can never quite get the linkages to match.” She glanced sideways. “Australia, maybe. You could get your ticket, but they can be a bit dismissive of women.”

There are men like that everywhere.”

Rain Island and the Spontoons, they're the places to be.”

How's Bellman?”

MacDonald smiled to herself. So it was like that. “He's doing fine. A good bloke to have around.”

He is that.”

The sky was lightening in the east when Helen took over again, and there soon might be enough to see the horizon. There was maybe a hundred miles to go. Plenty of fuel. The weather was good. And Bellman was looking closely at the voice HF set. There was a frequency given for Spontoon Control, and he could find it on the tuning dial, but there was no signal. Maybe it was too early in the morning? How did you tune in if there was nothing to tune into? The tuning knob was almost three inches across, and there was a little wheel, with a friction drive to the knob's rim, for the fine adjustments. Nothing to hear. He looked over the other controls. Power was on, but the rest?

He yawned, glanced at his watch and started taking another DF bearing. It shouldn't change much, unless they were right over the islands. He went through the routine, checking that he hadn't done the duffer's trick of getting the bearing 180° wrong, so they had been flying away from the islands. Out here, that was the sort of dumb move that killed people.

He wasn't sure about the music that ws being broadcast, but maybe he could get to like it. He expected to be in the Spontoons for a while. And he knew he was going to get there. That MacDonald lass had come through, and, whatever had happened in the cockpit, he was pretty sure she'd not go like that again.

We OK, Charlie?” He glanced sideways. Carol was plugged in beside him. “Those guys, they do need water.”

We're OK. Not lost, anyway.”

And Helen will have been Helen. She's good.”

Sound head on her shoulders.”

You got it, Charlie. And you don't mess her up, OK.”

He looked at Carol again. “Understood.”

She grinned. “Smudging her lipstick is maybe OK.”

Bellman nodded. Maybe OK, and dangerous. Why, it might lead to dancing.

She said nothing.

He looked her her, and tried a grin. “How about your lipstick?”

Oh, Charlie...” She punched gently at his shoulder. “I'm not going to get in my daughter's way, whatever she chooses.”

I'm married,” said Bellman. He didn't sound quite so certain.

I know.” Carol Todd, widow of a Duke, straightened. “You're the sort of man who does the right thing.”

He nodded again. “If I don't remind myself, I'm scared I'll drift into the really wrong things.”

Could be fun.” She sighed again. “Charlie, I do know about your wife. Would it be so terrible to...”

If I betrayed her? Yes.”

She nodded, and turned away, unplugging her headset, back slumping a little. Charlie leaned over the desk, burying his head in his hands. He felt trapped, with no honourable way out. Well, there was one, but he wasn't that stupid. And, whatever his choice, he'd know. He'd have to live with himself.

That would be the hard part.

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