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Flying north in his sleek FerrJet, Captain Strobe Ferret hits equally violent weather. As chief pilot ...
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Flying north in his sleek FerrJet, Captain Strobe Ferret hits equally violent weather. As chief pilot of the giant MusTelCo, his long experience at the controls had taught him to accept whatever the sky set before him. He had adjusted to life alone in the wild pure arena of air.
The two pilots meet by chance in the most powerful twin storm ever to sweep Airway Victor 23, her voice in the night helping him survive, his voice helping her. Coincidence turns to destiny as they battle through the clouds toward an unscheduled landing and a meeting that will forever change their lives -- and the lives of thousands of others.
Air Ferrets Aloft is a tale of skill and commitment, of powerful coincidence set in motion by unseen forces from another dimension, of the life-changing consequences when like souls meet, of love discovered after all hope for it had passed.
No warning, a jolt of turbulence so sharp it took her breath, slammed her down in her seat, a clash and jangle of bell-balls from the cargo containers behind her. Yellow light glowed on the panel: Autopilot Disconnect.
She didn't notice, but at that moment Stormy Ferret had been joined in the dark by three tiny helicopters, the angel ferret fairies Prestor, Nimble and Baxter, the latter flying as close to her window as he dared, striving for a look at the pilot who could one day change his grandkit's life.
So much she didn't see. Far down the airway, a FerrJet aloft, heading north, the captain choosing to fly at a much lower altitude than usual for the failure of his airplane's cabin pressure. Had Stilton Ferret been aboard, Strobe would have returned at once for repair, but tonight he flew alone.
Also unseen, code name Goosebeak and a team of angel ferret fairies tampering with the earth's energy to boil storms for two.
"Stormy, hello!" said Baxter, his mind to hers. "It's important to everybody for you to divert tonight. We need you to land..."
"Oh-oh..." She saw the disconnect light, moved the autopilot switch to Off, then On again, pressed Heading Hold. Instead of engaging the flight controls and steering the airplane, the autopilot tugged at the control wheel, twisting to the right, and disconnected again.
Stormy Ferret sighed and took the wheel, holding the transport on heading and altitude by paw as it swept over Portland. The windows of her flight deck might as well have been painted black, the pilot alone in a tiny room suspended high midair, only her instruments to tell up from down, leftfrom right, and those submerged in a pool of dim red cockpit light.
She pulled and reset the autopilot circuit breaker, adjusted trim wheels to be certain the machine was flying without pressures on the flight controls, then one more time tried the autopilot switch. One more time the airplane lurched to the right before the system shut itself off.
Ferret transports have backup communication and navigation radios, of course, and fuel cross-feed, should an engine fail. They do not have standby autopilots, however, and though her workload increases when the system fails, the captain is expected to control the airplane the old-fashioned way, by paw.
She shifted her seat forward a notch and continued her instrument scan, coaxing the transport left when it was thrown right by the rough air, lifting it up when it was pushed down, moving the controls with small pressures this way and that to keep the SkyFreighter on course.
A younger pilot would have wondered, Why this weather, when the forecast was clear from Portland south? But Stormy had learned early on...a pilot does not fly the forecast, she flies the weather that's in the sky, makes no difference it's not supposed to be there, makes no difference there's no warning of a change.
For a split moment she considered diverting from her plan, landing to repair the autopilot. In a flash of horror at the idea, though, she pushed the suggestion from her mind. She was flying to deliver her cargo to Salinas, and it would arrive at Salinas, on time, before dawn. I'll land if all four engines are on fire, she thought, or if they all quit. Otherwise, there's a mission to fly.
Outside her window, Baxter looked to heaven. His job was not going to be easy.
As she flew, Stormy Ferret considered what may have failed in the autopilot system. A tension bar broken by the shock of that hard bump, perhaps. That would make the electronics veer the plane in the opposite direction, when the failproofs would shut it down. It was a loss she could not correct from the cockpit.
Slowly fell the needle of her outside air temperature gage. When the pilot touched the ice-light switch once more, snowflakes rocketed past the wings as ever, but raindrops struck the metal and froze at once. The SkyFreighter's airspeed had dropped already, for the weight of the ice and the effect it had, dragging on the wings. Nothing about ice in the air is a friend to aviators.
She did not notice that the sudden flare of the ice-light had blinded poor Baxter, sending his helicopter spinning away, out of control.
"Stormy!" he cried. "Think before you hit the ice-light, please! Think time for the ice-light, please? A little warning?"
In a few seconds he could see again, and forgiving her because she did not know he was there, the angel ferret fairy closed once more on the mortal's transport.
High in the night alongside the Air Ferrets transport, Baxter thought of Willow, grieving the death of her grampa. What gift could he send, to let her know he loved her, that he wasn't dead? How could he help her understand that life does not end?
There was not enough ice, Stormy decided, that she needed to inflate the de-icing boots. She was cautious about them. On one flight she had let the ice build, and when she activated the boots, only half the system inflated. Ice on one wing and not the other. She had made it to Modesto, cargo arrived on time, but the strain of flying an unbalanced freighter had made that a flight she did not want to repeat.
"Seattle Center," she called, "Ferret Three-Five requesting seven thousand, if that's convenient."
Two thousand paws lower would increase outside air temperature by four degrees. For the time being, it would solve the icing problem, put it off till later.
"Roger, Ferret Three-Five, you can expect lower in two minutes."
"We'll expect it in two."
Once she had wondered why pilots say we on the radio, even when they fly alone. Me and the airplane, she had answered herself, me and my airplane is we.
"Stormy Ferret! It's me, Baxter, I'll be your angel ferret fairy tonight. You'll need to follow my suggestions..."
How pleasant it would be, she thought, if the copilot seat were not empty. Another pilot aboard to ease the burden, every half hour or so, share the task of flying by paw. And melt the loneliness. Is there no special ferret I'm destined to meet? Would that be asking too much?
"Interesting that you would mention that," said Baxter to her in his mind. "As a matter of fact, if you divert to Redding, you'll meet a flier by the name of Strobe..."
But there is no copilot, she told herself sternly, special ferret or otherwise, and whatever must be done to get this cargo to Salinas, I shall do by myself.
Knot my tail! thought Baxter. Why can't she listen? A little practice, they had told him, it's easy to talk to mortals who pay attention. What about when you haven't practiced and she doesn't care?
"Ferret Three-Five," called the Center, "you're cleared to seven thousand paws, pilot's discretion."
"Ferret Three-Five, out of nine for seven thousand."
Stormy reset the failed autopilot altitude display to 7, pressed the control yoke forward and trimmed it to stay. The freighter sank through the night, a thousand paws per minute, swallowed in darkness.
Frightening at first, isolated in a machine that flies, becomes deep easy pleasure with practice. Why do I love it so, she wandered, why is this fascinating? I take off into the weather, sit alone in the sky for hours, no moon, no stars sometimes, I glide down, break out of the clouds, there's the runway ahead, I land. Why does this mean so much to me?
The only others to share her peculiar loves and skills were the ferrets who fly, distinguished more by their silence in the face of visions aloft than their descriptions of what it means, to have wings. Pilots, she had noticed, rarely show their love for the calling in words.
For Stormy, flying was a mystical waterfall, a rippling enchanted mirror through which she passed every day to a different land beyond. One moment a ground creature, surveying her aircraft from a distance, the next she bound her spirit to the spirit of her airplane, the two a different being than either had been before.
"Attention, Stormy Ferret, attention, Stormy Ferret!" called Baxter. "The next suggestion you will hear will be authorized by your guardian angel: You must land at Redding airport. You must change your destination to Redding airport! Over."
She could not believe that other ferrets had different loves, and convinced that could only happen because the poor dears hadn't been properly introduced to the air, she resolved to make the introductions herself.
Dawns and sunsets of most every day off, she lifted young ferrets into the cabin of her own polished seaplane. She showed them how she started the engine, how to taxi from shore into the silver-blue lake by her modest home; she let them push the throttle forward, pull the control wheel back and slant them away into the sky.
"If you hear me, touch your nose," called Baxter.
The pilot flew on, paws on the control wheel.
It was as though, unable to hold the beauty of flight within her, Stormy Ferret had to give it away to love it best; unable to see flying's joy mirrored in her own eyes, it pleasured her to watch it in the eyes of others.
Such were her thoughts, as she flew. Part of her mind disciplined, intent on the business of professional flying, another part the dreamer, reliving the sparkle and flash that yesterday's seaplane flight had ignited in little Estrella Luisa Ferret, her first time in the air.
"Time for the ice-light," she thought.
Outside her window, the tiny helicopter leaped aside an instant before the beam lashed out.
"Thank you," said Baxter. "Please confirm that you can hear me. I'm your angel ferret fairy, and I'm here with you in the night. You may not believe this, but I'm here to help..."
Pilot and aircraft approached the Medford, Oregon, radio beacon, Stormy Ferret holding her SkyFreighter on course, at altitude. Beneath the clouds the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains reached to the sky, driving moist air aloft where it would freeze at once on any moving surface. At this point, she knew, she would have to climb again, to the minimum airway altitude over the high country.
Desolate land below, she thought, and glanced at the aircraft clock. It was two-fifteen in the morning. "You can do anything with an airplane in perfect safety," her instructor had told her long ago, "until you hit the ground."
Stormy had never hit the ground except for gently, wheels first, on a runway. She was not interested in trying any other way.
A different channel, thought Baxter. She won't take my help, but perhaps she'll help me. "What gift can I bring to my Willow?" he called. "She thinks I've left her. She thinks I'm dead!"
A moment of old memory, then all at once came to Stormy's mind the helmet and goggles her father had given her when she was a sky-struck kit. He wouldn't take his first airplane ride until he flew with his daughter when she got her Ferret Cub, but one day, no reason except that he loved her, he had brought home a flying helmet and goggles for her, bought for pennies at a used-thing store.
How she had treasured them! Her father's love had transfigured the gift. Helmet and goggles, she had worn them on her first solo flight, kept them still, cherished them now more than ever.
Seattle Center called, breaking the dream. "Ferret Three-Five, you're cleared to one-one thousand, eleven thousand paws crossing the Rogue Valley VOR."
"Ferret Three-Five," she replied, "out of seven thousand for one-one thousand, eleven thousand."
The awkward official wording came when a pilot cleared to climb to one-one thousand paws misunderstood, began descending instead to one thousand, saw mountaintop where he expected sky. Every rule of the air, they say, was born in somebody's mistake.
Now the hard part begins, she thought, now I shall earn my keep. She advanced all throttles for her climb. At that instant the number four engine misfired, its smooth drone broken into irregular trembling. Stormy felt it through the control yoke in her paw, pushed the engine's fuel-mixture lever forward till it smoothed.
"That's not right," she said.
"Hello, Nimble," Baxter called ahead on the fairy communication frequency. "Are we failing her number four engine? I thought we were doing the weather, just the weather. It's a little dangerous, isn't it, to fail her engine up here?"
On the airway south, Nimble and Prestor had done a fine job with the storm. The energy of the Shasta Vortex exploded warm air aloft as from an invisible volcano. When they uncapped the energy of the Tahoe Vortex and turned it north, it was fuel to a fire -- lightning-forks everywhere, searing branches ripped and split through a towering electric forest.
"Of course we're not failing her engine, Baxter," Nimble called over the thunders. "And don't you do it. She's going to need all the power she can get!"
Esther, the energy boss, gave a cool warning from her helicopter high over the Sierra as the Yosemite Vortex broke loose. "Attention all angel ferret personnel, we have a force ten burst heading three-five-five, locked on the force eight aloft. All units remain clear until impact." Then, seeing the cloud-fires boiling from the horizon: "Here she comes, gentlefairies! Half Dome's coming at you!"
Nimble saw it streaking toward him from the south, an avalanche of tortured air from sea level to nearly eighty thousand paws, twisting rolls of cumulus rimmed in blue fire, tumbling up the airway at the speed of heat. When that force met the storm they had already cooked, over the Siskiyou...
He rolled and dived to the north, eyes like dinner plates. "Let's get out of here, Prestor!"
His partner agreed, the two golden helicopters darting full throttle up the airway toward Stormy's airplane, surfing the shock wave of the monster they had created.
"Baxter!" called Nimble as they flew. "We may have overdone the storm. It's got a long way to go but it's coming awfully fast..."
Stormy glanced at the number four fuel-pressure gage. Wavering, just a little. At the number four oil pressure. Was it trembling as well, ever so slightly? She looked to her right, across the flight deck and out the window toward engine number four. No sparks, no fires, nothing out there but darkness.
Airplane crashes never happen by themselves, she knew, they always end a chain of events, and every takeoff of every flight is the beginning of a chain. These were the links that she had accepted:
She had taken off,
she was flying alone,
with a failed autopilot,
climbing into known icing,
over rugged terrain,
toward uncertain weather.
The next link, she thought:
with an engine that could fail at any time.
It didn't take imagination to finish the accident report: The pilot was unable to feather the propeller of her failed engine. The aircraft, with a heavy load of ice, lost altitude until it contacted mountainous terrain.
She double-checked the propeller anti-ice switches: On, hoped the electrics were warming the heavy blades against the cold ahead.
Everyone knows it's a pilot's job to break chains before crashes can happen, she thought. Yet a professional knows as well that it's her job to fly her cargo south, to get it there by dawn.
Stormy frowned, pulled the control yoke back, the slightest of pressures, and the SkyFreighter began to climb. This leg is the worst. It'll be a while before we're out of the mountains.
It took a minute longer to climb than she had planned, and by the time she leveled, ice was building steadily on the wings. The airspeed was down considerably. When she snapped on the light, she knew what she would see: ice a blanket over the curve of the metal surface, dazzling as angels' wings, a brilliant glare in the night.
The number four engine choked, recovered.
Stormy was a busy ferret in the cockpit, too busy to be frightened. She increased the carburetor heat to all engines and ran it full hot to number four. The engine gasped again and smoothed.
"Stormy," called Baxter. "Try to hear me. In two minutes...well, we're sorry but in two minutes it's going to be a little rough up here. All of us hope you could divert to Redding airport..."
Time to blow the boots, she thought, and pressed the switch to inflate the wing de-ice system. At once, ice like sheets of plate glass exploded from the transport's wings, shattering behind her into the night, dark silver knives spinning away.
If he hadn't already crossed the Rainbow Bridge, the eruption of razor edges through his helicopter would have taken Baxter there in the twitch of a tail. As it was, he dodged by reflex, never quite knowing whether he had missed the explosion or if the glowing daggers had passed harmlessly through the helicopter and his own body.
Everything's okay, he thought, everything's going according to plan. One minute to go.
"Come on, Stormy," the cargo pilot said aloud, "let's settle down. Everything's okay, it's just another flight. This is just one more flight."
Had she been watching with a different sense, she would have seen the rendezvous: her transport lumbering ahead, two angel ferret fairies fleeing backward from their own storm, a runaway freight train the size of Sicily.
Nimble and Prestor turned to join the transport, flew ahead of it by a hundred paws. They would meet the chaos an instant before the SkyFreighter.
Baxter closed on the cockpit, peered through the glass at Stormy Ferret.
She's going to share my Willow's destiny, he thought.
While she watched her flight instruments, he watched her dark eyes, felt her thoughts, the connection between them slowly opening.
"Tell her to hang on," Nimble panted. "We had to do it. What's coming at us, if I say so myself, pretty soon she'll change her mind..."
"It's her destiny," said Prestor, his best apology. "She's got to meet Strobe!"
Gently as he could, Baxter flew yet closer to the cockpit, reached for Stormy's mind with his own: Everything's going to be all right. But you must land, you must land at Redding!
Nimble's voice: "Here we go!"
"Stormy!" shouted Baxter to the mortal in the cockpit. "You've got to land!"
It was like nothing she had ever struck in the air. Stormy flew her SkyFreighter head-on into air torn to tumbling blocks by the updrafts, into Niagaras by the downdrafts, copper lightning forking swords and spears around her, her wings struck once and again, holes melted through metal.
Almost never does a pilot hear thunder in the cockpit; it crashed in now, time and again. So ferociously was her transport shaken by the tempest that the instrument panel shivered to an unrelenting blur.
Had she looked out her window that moment with serene and loving spirit, Stormy would have seen a tiny helicopter yanked upward by the violent air, would have seen it reappear for an instant by her window as the pilot fought for control, then disappear, yanked downward out of sight.
Not expecting angel ferret fairies beside her window, however, she did not turn to look. She gripped the control wheel tightly in her paws, hauling what she could see of the artificial horizon back to what she hoped might be level flight.
The windshield ahead had long since frozen over; she did nothing to clear it, halfway expecting the shaking to crack the ice, the other half expecting the windshield itself to disappear.
She pressed the microphone button on her control yoke, fought to hold it down. Her message sounded like a voice from a paint-shaker: "Seattle Center, Ferret Three-Five. We're picking up a little ice and a bit of a rough ride. Be advised we'd like a lower altitude, soon as that might be convenient for you."
Baxter appeared again by her window, gesturing, pointing. "Down!" Then he was hurled away.
Far below, a controller ferret watched his radar screen, responded to her call. "Ferret Three-Five, this is Seattle Center. The best we can give you is one-zero thousand, ten thousand paws, if that would help."
"Tell him to warn her!" called Baxter. "Nimble, tell the controller to warn her!"
"Ferret Three-Five," said Seattle Center, "you are cleared pilot's discretion to one-zero thousand, ten thousand paws."
Ten thousand paws was still above the freezing level, the ice building as fast as ever in the storm. With every cycle of the boots, it was as though the SkyFreighter had flown through some vast show window aloft, great shards and fragments shearing away, glittering, falling.
Ten thousand paws was a joke. Stormy could no more hold an altitude in the hurricane than she could read the jackhammer instrument panel.
"Sorry our radar isn't much good for weather, Air Ferret," said the Center, "but it looks something fierce from your position all the way down Victor Two-Three."
She didn't reply. Captain Janine Ferret fought to hold her aircraft on course, ice erupting now and then from her wings, Baxter striving to stay up with her transport, to change the pilot's mind, Nimble and Prestor in their own little helicopters beyond the SkyFreighter's wingtips, hanging on.
Bell-balls a crazed melody, as though the cargo plane had become some mad sleigh bounding out of control on snow boulders ten thousand paws high.
On the transport's unprotected surfaces -- the nose cone, the propeller domes, the radio antennas, the tips of the elevators and rudders -- ice built unceasingly.
Gradually the tempest gained the upper paw. Stormy gave up her fight to maintain altitude, set herself simply to hold her freighter right-side up, letting the gale hammer-toss her where it would.
She clenched her teeth, one moment her body squashed flat, the next, jammed hard against her safety belt, the pilot ignoring part within her that knew she'd had enough, tonight. Had-enough makes no difference, she thought. One can't give up. One must fly the aircraft.
Shaken in the skyquake, she thought of her seaplane, safe in the hangar at home; in a few days' time she'd be flying kits again on their first rides. In spite of the battering, as she burst the ice away from her wings yet again, she smiled at that.
Stormy thought for a long moment before calling the Center. It was her habit to understate reports of turbulence and ice, but she couldn't allow another pilot to fly this route unwarned. Any lesser machine than a Ferret SkyFreighter would be torn asunder.
Deciding to call, her paw was jerked from the microphone button. No! Gripping the wheel firmly in both paws, she braced for the updraft that was sure to follow. It did, snapping her head down as it blew the transport straight up.
For three seconds the sky went flare-white around her, not a bolt of lightning but a sheet of it, blinding. She flew the airplane by feel, waiting for sight to return.
Over the roar of engines and storm, the ferret captain heard a crash in the cargo bay behind her, a freight pallet breaking loose inside the containers. Not good. If a container itself failed in this weather, it would be thrown through the fuselage, and that would be the end.
Mountains slid below, heavy and slow as solid rock. With great difficulty, her paw continually jerked from the selector panel, Stormy changed to the Oakland Center radio frequency, desperate for a warmer, smoother lower altitude.
The radio antennas did not have de-icing boots. She was reminded of this by a call from Center.
"Ferret Three-Five, this is Oakland Center. Be advised there's a new SigMet Alpha One for convec -- "
She finished the warning in her mind, guessing that the sudden silence was not a Center radio failure but an iced antenna torn away from her airplane. The radio was dead, not a sound save for a roll of static, white noise matching the wild blizzard outside.
She didn't need a warning to tell her of the SIGnificant METeorological conditions, as air-talk so delicately put it, for she had no hope of escape. The shortest way out of difficult weather is straight ahead.
The SkyFreighter plowed the whirling air like a tramp steamer through a typhoon at sea, pitching, thudding, rolling in the dark. The pilot switched to the number two radio, unsure how long its antenna would survive the ice.
"Hi, Center, Ferret Three-Five."
"Ferret Three-Five, acknowledge the SigMet."
"We're in the SigMet!" she said, suddenly cross. "We've lost our primary radio antenna; be advised that if we lose the number two, we will proceed as filed to Salinas."
It was standard procedure, but she wanted it on the record. She carried a battery-powered backup radio in her flight bag and thought tonight may be the night that she would need it.
"Roger Three-Five. Salinas weather is wind calm, measured five hundred paws, overcast, light rain, fog..."
She nodded. Of course, she thought. Center was hinting that Salinas weather was worse than forecast, that she might divert to an easier landing place.
"Yes!" cried Baxter. "Divert! This will not look good on the accident report, that you continued..."
Even my mind is playing tricks tonight. She clung to the control wheel. Everybody wants me to quit. A grim smile. Not likely.
She chose not to quit, aware that she was adding one more link to her chain: Pilot declined opportunity of precautionary landing after storm damaged her aircraft.
The cargo plane skidded and shuddered through a sky blacker and rougher than any Stormy had known, her charts and clipboard thrown across the flight deck, strewn back again. Her course was memorized, but as far as she knew, there was no one else over the Siskiyou tonight, no one so crazy to be here.
Not so, she thought, tightening her shoulder harness as hard as it could go. She gripped the wheel for the next careening blow. Not crazy. Determined.
"Nimble! Prestor!" called Baxter, his voice jagged in the storm. "She's set her mind, she's going to take it through! Rougher! More turbulence!"
Prestor called back, "We're full-out, Baxter! We can't make it any worse!"
Minutes were months. The SkyFreighter flew as if it were a truck run away on great square wheels, off the road, down a mountainside. Stormy's jaw ached from clenching shut, she barely remembered what an altimeter looked like that wasn't blurred just this side of invisible.
In the midst, her artificial-horizon indicator tumbled, the gyro thrown beyond its limits, screaming that the SkyFreighter was upside down and spinning. "No, you don't," said the pilot. She pulled its reset knob; the swirling instrument recovered.
In the cargo compartment, a second pallet failed, and a third. But the pilot was locked on her mission. If she lost the rudder itself, she would still fly her transport straight ahead, she'd steer with the engines, if she had to.
The calm voice of the controller, down in his calm radar room: "Ferret Three-Five, you are cleared to nine thousand paws reaching Shasta Intersection. Say the nature of your weather, please."
"Oakland Center, Ferret Three-Five," she replied, out of breath. "We've got heavy mixed rime and clear icing. And severe to extreme turbulence..."
Shasta Intersection was still long minutes to the south, hard granite patiently below, waiting.
In the midst of her struggle, the ferret watched the number four engine gages, blinked quickly to freeze an image of the shuddering dials. Oil pressure was down, all right. Above minimum pressure, it was, but down a needle-width on the instrument. A needle-width low on the oil pressure, that's a whisper to a pilot that something unpleasant is about to happen. A whisper lost. Stormy refused to believe that an engine would fail when so much else was tearing loose.
Almost to Shasta Intersection, Stormy thought, though it wasn't true.
She groped for the de-ice switch once more, pressed it, and instead of sheets of ice flying away, the de-ice circuit breaker failed.
Fang, she thought, hanging on to the control wheel against the avalanche outside. This is not what we need.
It took a long time to reset the circuit breaker, her paw missing it again and again for the SkyFreighter's bucking and rolling. Then she pressed the de-ice switch, nodded briefly at the welcome shower of ice from the wings. After a few seconds, though, the breaker failed again. Add that to your chain, she thought: de-icing equipment failed.
"Almost to Shasta," she said aloud.
Ice building, her airplane slowed. The number four engine is ready to fail, she thought, the autopilot's gone, main radio antenna's gone, standby radio is ready to fail, ice-protection system is telling me good-bye. Not many links left, before the crash.
Copyright © 2002 by Saunders-Vixen Aircraft Company, Inc.