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“A cunningly wrought tale.” —Financial Times
“Stirring and beautiful.” —The Times (London)
For a brief moment, while waiting for the control tower to clear me for takeoff, I glanced out through the Perspex cockpit canopy at the surrounding German countryside. It lay white and crisp beneath the crackling December moon.
Behind me lay the boundary fence of the Royal Air Force base, and beyond the fence, as I had seen while swinging my little fighter into line with the takeoff runway, the sheet of snow covering the flat farmland stretched away to the line of the pine trees, two miles distant in the night yet so clear I could almost see the shapes of the trees themselves.
Ahead of me, as I waited for the voice of the controller to come through the headphones, was the runway itself, a slick black ribbon of tarmac, flanked by twin rows of bright-burning lights, illuminating the solid path cut earlier by the snowplows. Behind the lights were the humped banks of the morning's snow, frozen hard once again where the snowplow blades had pushed them. Far away to my right, the airfield tower stood up like a single glowing candle amid the brilliant hangars where the muffled aircraftmen were even now closing down the station for the night.
Inside the control tower, I knew, all was warmth and merriment, the staff waiting only for my departure to close down also, jump into the waiting cars, and head back to the parties in the mess. Within minutes of my going, the lights would die out, leaving only the huddled hangars, seeming hunched against the bitter night, the shrouded fighter planes, the sleeping fuel-bowser trucks, and, above them all, the single flickering station light, brilliant red above the black-and-white airfield, beating out in Morse code the name of the station—CELLE—to an unheeding sky. For tonight there would be no wandering aviators to look down and check their bearings; tonight was Christmas Eve, in the year of grace 1957, and I was a young pilot trying to get home to Blighty for his Christmas leave.
I was in a hurry and my watch read ten-fifteen by the dim blue glow of the control panel where the rows of dials quivered and danced. It was warm and snug inside the cockpit, the heating turned up full to prevent the Perspex' icing up. It was like a cocoon, small and warm and safe, shielding me from the bitter cold outside, from the freezing night that can kill a man inside a minute if he is exposed to it at six hundred miles an hour.
"Charlie Delta ..."
The controller's voice woke me from my reverie, sounding in my headphones as if he were with me in the tiny cockpit, shouting in my ear. He's had a jar or two already, I thought. Strictly against orders, but what the hell? It's Christmas Eve.
"Charlie Delta ... Control," I responded.
"Charlie Delta, clear takeoff," he said.
I saw no point in responding. I simply eased the throttle forward slowly with the left hand, holding the Vampire steady down the central line with the right hand. Behind me the low whine of the Goblin engine rose and rose, passing through a cry and into a scream. The snub-nosed fighter rolled, the lights each side of the runway passed in ever quicker succession, till they were flashing in a continuous blur. She became light, the nose rose fractionally, freeing the nosewheel from contact with the runway, and the rumble vanished instantly. Seconds later the main wheels came away and their soft drumming also stopped. I held her low above the deck, letting the speed build up till a glance at the air-speed indicator told me we were through 120 knots and heading for 150. As the end of the runway whizzed beneath my feet I pulled the Vampire into a gently climbing turn to the left, easing up the undercarriage lever as I did so.
From beneath and behind me I heard the dull clunk of the wheels entering their bays and felt the lunge forward of the jet as the drag of the undercarriage vanished. In front of me the three red lights representing three wheels extinguished themselves. I held her into the climbing turn, pressing the radio button with the left thumb.
"Charlie Delta, clear airfield, wheels up and locked," I said into my oxygen mask.
"Charlie Delta, roger, over to Channel D," said the controller, and then, before I could change radio channels, he added, "Happy Christmas."
Strictly against the rules of radio procedure, of course. I was very young then, and very conscientious. But I replied, "Thank you, Tower, and same to you." Then I switched channels to tune into the RAF's North Germany Air Control frequency.
Down on my right thigh was strapped the map with my course charted on it in blue ink, but I did not need it. I knew the details by heart, worked out earlier with the navigation officer in the nav. hut. Turn overhead Celle airfield onto course 265 degrees, continue climbing to 27,000 feet. On reaching height, maintain course and keep speed to 485 knots. Check in with Channel D to let them know you're in their airspace, then a straight run over the Dutch coast south of the Bevelands into the North Sea. After forty-four minutes' flying time, change to Channel F and call Lakenheath Control to give you a "steer." Fourteen minutes later you'll be overhead Lakenheath. After that, follow instructions and they'll bring you down on a radio-controlled descent. No problem, all routine procedures. Sixty-six minutes' flying time, with the descent and landing, and the Vampire had enough fuel for over eighty minutes in the air.
Swinging over Celle airfield at 5,000 feet, I straightened up and watched the needle on my compass settle happily down on a course of 265 degrees. The nose was pointing toward the black, freezing vault of the night sky, studded with stars so brilliant they flickered their white fire against the eyeballs. Below, the black-and-white map of north Germany was growing smaller, the dark masses of the pine forests blending into the white expanses of the fields. Here and there a village or small town glittered with lights. Down there amid the gaily lit streets the carol singers would be out, knocking on the holly-studded doors to sing "Silent Night" and collect pfennigs for charity. The Westphalian housewives would be preparing hams and geese.
Four hundred miles ahead of me the story would be the same, the carols in my own language but many of the tunes the same, and it would be turkey instead of goose. But whether you call it Weihnacht or Christmas, it's the same all over the Christian world, and it was good to be going home.
From Lakenheath I knew I could get a lift down to London in the liberty bus, leaving just after midnight; from London I was confident I could hitch a lift to my parents' home in Kent. By breakfast time I'd be celebrating with my own family. The altimeter read 27,000 feet. I eased the nose forward, reduced throttle setting to give me an air speed of 485 knots and held her steady on 265 degrees. Somewhere beneath me in the gloom the Dutch border would be slipping away, and I had been airborne for twenty-one minutes. No problem.
The problem started ten minutes out over the North Sea, and it started so quietly that it was several minutes before I realized I had one at all. For some time I had been unaware that the low hum coming through my headphones into my ears had ceased, to be replaced by the strange nothingness of total silence. I must have been failing to concentrate, my thoughts being of home and my waiting family. The first thing I knew was when I flicked a glance downward to check my course on the compass. Instead of being rock-steady on 265 degrees, the needle was drifting lazily round the clock, passing through east, west, south, and north with total impartiality.
I swore a most unseasonal sentiment against the compass and the instrument fitter who should have checked it for 100-percent reliability. Compass failure at night, even a brilliant moonlit night such as the one beyond the cockpit Perspex, was no fun. Still, it was not too serious: there was a standby compass—the alcohol kind. But, when I glanced at it, that one seemed to be in trouble, too. The needle was swinging wildly. Apparently something had jarred the case—which isn't uncommon. In any event, I could call up Lakenheath in a few minutes and they would give me a GCA—Ground Controlled Approach—the second-by-second instructions that a well-equipped airfield can give a pilot to bring him home in the worst of weathers, following his progress on ultraprecise radar screens, watching him descend all the way to the tarmac, tracing his position in the sky yard by yard and second by second. I glanced at my watch: thirty-four minutes airborne. I could try to raise Lakenheath now, at the outside limit of my radio range.
Before trying Lakenheath, the correct procedure would be to inform Channel D, to which I was tuned, of my little problem, so they could advise Lakenheath that I was on my way without a compass. I pressed the TRANSMIT button and called:
"Celle, Charlie Delta, Celle, Charlie Delta, calling North Beveland Control ..."
I stopped. There was no point in going on. Instead of the lively crackle of static and the sharp sound of my own voice coming back into my own ears, there was a muffled murmur inside my oxygen mask. My own voice speaking ... and going nowhere. I tried again. Same result. Far back across the wastes of the black and bitter North Sea, in the warm, cheery concrete complex of North Beveland Control, men sat back from their control panel, chatting and sipping their steaming coffee and cocoa. And they could not hear me. The radio was dead.
Fighting down the rising sense of panic that can kill a pilot faster than anything else, I swallowed and slowly counted to ten. Then I switched to Channel F and tried to raise Lakenheath, ahead of me amid the Suffolk countryside, lying in its forest of pine trees south of Thetford, beautifully equipped with its GCA system for bringing home lost aircraft. On Channel F the radio was as dead as ever. My own muttering into the oxygen mask was smothered by the surrounding rubber. The steady whistle of my own jet engine behind me was my only answer.
It's a very lonely place, the sky, and even more so the sky on a winter's night. And a single-seater jet fighter is a lonely home, a tiny steel box held aloft on stubby wings, hurled through the freezing emptiness by a blazing tube throwing out the strength of six thousand horses every second. But the loneliness is offset, canceled out, by the knowledge that at the touch of a button on the throttle, the pilot can talk to other human beings, people who care about him, men and women who staff a network of stations around the world; just one touch of that button, the TRANSMIT button, and scores of them in control towers across the land that are tuned to his channel can hear him call for help. When the pilot transmits, on every one of those screens a line of light streaks from the center of the screen to the outside rim, which is marked with figures, from one to three hundred and sixty. Where the streak of light hits the ring, that is where the aircraft lies in relation to the control tower listening to him. The control towers are linked, so with two cross bearings they can locate his position to within a few hundred yards. He is not lost any more. People begin working to bring him down.
The radar operators pick up the little dot he makes on their screens from all the other dots; they call him up and give him instructions. "Begin your descent now, Charlie Delta. We have you now ..." Warm, experienced voices, voices which control an array of electronic devices that can reach out across the winter sky, through the ice and rain, above the snow and cloud, to pluck the lost one from his deadly infinity and bring him down to the flare-lit runway that means home and life itself.
When the pilot transmits. But for that he must have a radio. Before I had finished testing Channel J, the international emergency channel, and obtained the same negative result, I knew my ten-channel radio set was as dead as the dodo.
It had taken the RAF two years to train me to fly their fighters for them, and most of that time had been spent in training precisely for emergency procedures. The important thing, they used to say in flying school, is not to know how to fly in perfect conditions; it is to fly through an emergency and stay alive. Now the training was beginning to take effect.
While I was vainly testing my radio channels, my eyes scanned the instrument panel in front of me. The instruments told their own message. It was no coincidence the compass and the radio had failed together; both worked off the aircraft's electrical circuits. Somewhere beneath my feet, amid the miles of brightly colored wiring that make up the circuits, there had been a main fuse blowout. I reminded myself, idiotically, to forgive the instrument fitter and blame the electrician. Then I took stock of the nature of my disaster.
The first thing to do in such a case, I remembered old Flight Sergeant Norris telling us, is to reduce throttle setting from cruise speed to a slower setting, to give maximum flight endurance.
"We don't want to waste valuable fuel, do we, gentlemen? We might need it later. So we reduce the power setting from 10,000 revolutions per minute to 7,200. That way we will fly a little slower, but we will stay in the air rather longer, won't we, gentlemen?" He always referred to us all being in the same emergency at the same time, did Sergeant Norris. I eased the throttle back and watched the rev counter. It operates on its own generator and so I hadn't lost that, at least. I waited until the Goblin was turning over at about 7,200 rpm, and felt the aircraft slow down. The nose rose fractionally, so I adjusted the flight trim to keep her straight and level.
The main instruments in front of a pilot's eyes are six, including the compass. The five others are the air-speed indicator, the altimeter, the vertical-speed indicator, the bank indicator (which tells him if he's banking, i.e., turning, to left or right), and the slip indicator (which tells him if he's skidding crabwise across the sky). Two of these are electrically operated, and they had gone the same way as my compass. That left me with the three pressure-operated instruments—air-speed indicator, altimeter and vertical-speed indicator. In other words, I knew how fast I was going, how high I was and if I were diving or climbing.
It is perfectly possible to land an aircraft with only these three instruments, judging the rest by those old navigational aids, the human eyes. Possible, that is, in conditions of brilliant weather, by daylight and with no cloud in the sky. It is possible, just possible, though not advisable, to try to navigate a fast-moving jet by dead reckoning, using the eyes, looking down and identifying the curve of the coast where it makes an easily recognizable pattern, spotting a strange-shaped reservoir, the glint of a river that the map strapped to the thigh says can only be the Ouse, or the Trent, or the Thames. From lower down it is possible to differentiate Norwich Cathedral tower from Lincoln Cathedral tower, if you know the countryside intimately. By night it is not possible.
The only things that show up at night, even on a bright moonlit night, are the lights. These have patterns when seen from the sky. Manchester looks different from Birmingham; Southampton can be recognized from the shape of its massive harbor and the Solent, cut out in black (the sea shows up black) against the carpet of the city's lights. I knew Norwich very well, and if I could identify the great curving bulge of the Norfolk coast line from Lowestoft, round through Yarmouth to Cromer, I could find Norwich, the only major sprawl of lights set twenty miles inland from all points on the coast. Five miles north of Norwich, I knew, was the fighter airfield of Merriam St. George, whose red indicator beacon would be blipping out its Morse identification signal into the night. There, if they only had the sense to switch on the airfield lights when they heard me screaming at low level up and down the airfield, I could land safely.
I began to let the Vampire down slowly toward the oncoming coast, my mind feverishly working out how far behind schedule I was through the reduced speed. My watch told me forty-three minutes airborne. The coast of Norfolk had to be somewhere ahead of my nose, five miles below. I glanced up at the full moon, like a searchlight in the glittering sky, and thanked her for her presence.
Excerpted from The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth. Copyright © 1975 Frederick Forsyth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 5, 2013
Posted August 8, 2005
Read the book in 1978,a gift from my brother,who is an avid fan of Forsyth.Still in junior high,this is the first book I had ever read from cover to cover.Suspenseful and keeps your attention.Once you start reading you won't put it down.Short story,great for any age.
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Posted November 15, 2002
This book is short and suspenseful. It is about a pilot who gets caught in a snow storm while flying home for Christmas. It's one of my favorite stories.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 16, 2001
If you are a pilot or married to one, you will enjoy this book. Although easy to read, you feel a sense of peace after finishing the story. F. Forsyth has again moved the heart and the soul.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2014
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