From his edgy days as a USAF Alert pilot above Europe in an armed F84-F Thunderstreak during the Cold War to a meander across America in a 1929 biplane, Bach explores the extreme edges of the air, his airplane, and himself in glorious writing about how it feels to climb into a machine, leave the earth, and fly.
Only a handful of writers have translated their experiences in the cockpit into books that have mesmerized generations.
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The wind tonight is from the west, down runway two eight. It pushes gently at my polka-dot scarf and makes the steel buckles of my parachute harness tinkle in the darkness. It is a cold wind, and because of it my takeoff roll will be shorter than usual and my airplane will climb more quickly than it usually does when it lifts into the sky.
Two ground crewmen work together to lift a heavy padlocked canvas bag of Top Secret documents into the nose of the airplane. It sags awkwardly into space normally occupied by contoured ammunition cans, above four oiled black machine guns, and forward of the bomb release computers. Tonight I am not a fighter pilot. I am a courier for thirty-nine pounds of paper that is of sudden urgent interest to my wing commander, and though the weather this night over Europe is already freakish and violent, I have been asked to move these pounds of paper from England into the heart of France.
In the bright beam of my flashlight, the Form One, with its inked boxes and penciled initials, tells me that the airplane is ready, that it carries only minor shortcomings of which I already know: a dent in one drop tank, an inspection of the command radio antenna is due, the ATO system is disconnected. It is hard to turn the thin pages of the Form One with gloves on, but the cold wind helps me turn them.
Form signed, gun bay door locked over the mysterious canvas bag, I climb the narrow yellow ladder to my dark cockpit, like a high-booted mountain climber pulling himself to a peak from whose snows he can stand and look down upon the world. My peak is the small cockpit of a Republic F-84F Thunderstreak.
The safety belt of the yellow-handled ejection seat is wide nylon web, heavy and olive-drab; into its explosive buckle fits the nylon harness from over my shoulders and the amber steel link that automatically opens my parachute if I should have to bail out tonight. I surround myself with the universal quiet metallic noises of a pilot joining himself to his airplane. The two straps to the seat cushion survival kit, after their usual struggle, are captured and clink softly to my parachute harness. The green oxygen mask fits into its regulator hose with a muffled rubbery snap. The steel D-ring lanyard clanks as it fastens to the curved bar of the parachute rip-cord handle. The red-streamered ejection seat safety pin scrapes out of its hole drilled in the trigger of the right armrest and rustles in the darkness into the small pocket on the leg of my tight-laced G suit. The elastic leg strap of my scratched aluminum kneeboard cinches around my left thigh, latching itself with a hollow clank. My hard white fiberglass crash helmet, dark-visored, gold-lettered 1/lt. bach, fits stiffly down to cover my head, its soft sponge-rubber earphones waiting a long cold moment before they begin to warm against my ears. The chamois chinstrap snaps at the left side, microphone cable connects with its own frosty click into the aircraft radio cord, and at last the wind-chilled green rubber oxygen mask snugs over my nose and mouth, fitting with a tight click-click of the smooth chromed fastener at the right side of the helmet. When the little family of noises is still, by tubes and wires and snaps and buckles, my body is attached to the larger, sleeping body of my airplane.
Outside, in the dark moving blanket of cold, a ghostly yellow auxiliary power unit roars into life, controlled by a man in a heavy issue parka who is hoping that I will be quick to start my engine and taxi away. Despite the parka, he is cold. The clatter and roar of the big gasoline engine under his hands settles a bit, and on its voltage dials, white needles spring into their green arcs.
From the engine of the power unit, through the spinning generator, through the black rubber snake into the cold silver wing of my airplane, through the marked wires of the DC electrical system, the power explodes in my dark cockpit as six brilliant red and yellow warning lights, and as quick tremblings of a few instrument pointers.
My leather gloves, stamped with the white wings and star of Air Force property, go through a familiar little act for the interested audience that watches from behind my eyes. From left to right around the cockpit they travel; checking left console circuit breakers in, gun heater switch off, engine screen switch extend, drop tank pressure switches off, speed break switch extend, throttle off, altimeter, drag chute handle, sight caging lever, radio compass, TACAN, oxygen, generator, IFF, inverter selector. The gloves dance, the eyes watch. The right glove flourishes into the air at the end of its act and spins a little circle of information to the man waiting in the wind below: checks are finished, engine is starting in two seconds. Now it is throttle on, down with the glove, and starter switch to start.
There is no time to take a breath or blink the eye. There is one tiny tenth-second hiss before concussion shatters icy air. Suddenly, instantly, air and sparks and Jet Propellant Four. My airplane is designed to start its engine with an explosion. It can be started in no other way. But the sound is a keg of black powder under the match, a cannon firing, the burst of a hand grenade. The man outside blinks, painfully.
With the blast, as though with suddenly opened eyes, my airplane is alive. Instantly awake. The thunderclap is gone as quickly as it came, replaced by a quiet rising whine that peaks quickly, very high, and slides back down the scale into nothingness. But before the whine is gone, deep inside the engine, combustion chambers have earned their name. The luminous white pointer of the gage marked exhaust gas temperature pivots upward, lifting as thermocouples taste a swirling flood of yellow fire that twists from fourteen stainless steel chambers. The fire spins a turbine. The turbine spins a compressor. The compressor crushes fuel and air for the fire. Weak yellow flames change to businesslike blue torches held in their separate round offices, and the ghostly power unit is needed no more.
Flourish with the right glove, finger pointing away; away the power, I'm on my own.
Tailpipe temperature is settled and at home with 450 degrees of centigrade, tachometer steadies to note that the engine is turning at 45 percent of its possible rpm. The rush of air to the insatiable steel engine is a constant rasping scream at the oval intake, a chained banshee shrieking in the icy black air and the searing blue fire.
Hydraulic pressure shows on a dial, under a pointer. Speed brake switch to retract, and the pressure pulls two great slabs of steel to disappear into the smooth sides of my airplane. Rainbow lights go dark as pressure rises in systems for fuel and oil. I have just been born, with the press of wind at my scarf. With the wind keening along the tall swept silver of my rudder. With the rush of wind to the torches of my engine.
There is one light left on, stubbornly glowing over a placard marked canopy unlocked. My left glove moves a steel handle aft. With the right I reach high overhead to grasp the frame of the counterbalanced section of double-walled Plexiglas. A gentle pull downward, and the smooth-hinged canopy settles over my little world. I move the handle forward in my left glove, I hear a muffled sound of latches engaging, I see the light wink out. The wind at my scarf is gone.
I am held by my straps and my buckles and my wires in a deep pool of dim red light. In the pool is all that I must know about my airplane and my position and my altitude until I pull the throttle back to off, one hour and twenty-nine minutes and 579 airway miles from Wethersfield Air Base, England.
This base means nothing to me. When I landed it was a long runway in the sunset, a tower operator giving taxi directions, a stranger waiting for me in Operations with a heavy padlocked canvas bag. I was in a hurry when I arrived, I am in a hurry to leave. Wethersfield, with its hedges and its oak trees that I assume are part of all English towns, with its stone houses and mossed roofs and its people who watched the Battle of Britain cross the sky with black smoke, is to me Half Way. The sooner I leave Wethersfield a smudge in the darkness behind, the sooner I can finish the letter to my wife and my daughter, the sooner I can settle into a lonely bed and mark another day gone from the calendar. The sooner I can take myself beyond the unknown that is the weather high over Europe.
On the heavy black throttle under my left glove there is a microphone button, and I press it with my thumb. "Wethersfield Tower," I say to the microphone buried in the snug green rubber of my oxygen mask. I hear my own voice in the earphones of my helmet, and know that in the high glass cube of the control tower the same voice and the same words are this moment speaking. "Air Force Jet Two Niner Four Zero Five; taxi information and standing by for ATC clearance."
It still sounds strange. Air Force Jet. Six months ago it was Air Guard Jet. It was one weekend a month, and fly when you have the spare time. It was the game of flying better than Air Force pilots and shooting straighter than Air Force pilots, with old airplanes and with a full-time civilian job. It was watching the clouds of tension mushroom over the world, and knowing for certain that if the country needed more firepower, my squadron would be a part of it. It was thirty-one pilots in the squadron knowing that fact, knowing that they could leave the squadron before the recall came; and it was the same thirty-one pilots, two months later, flying their worn airplanes without inflight refueling, across the Atlantic into France. Air Force Jet.
"Roger, Zero Five," comes a new voice in the earphones. "Taxi runway two eight; wind is two seven zero degrees at one five knots, altimeter is two niner niner five, tower time is two one two five, clearance is on request. Type aircraft, please."
I twist the small knurled knob near the altimeter to set 29.95 in a red-lit window. The hands of the altimeter move slightly. My gloved thumb is down again on the microphone button. "Roger, tower, Zero Five is a Fox Eight Four, courier: returning to Chaumont Air Base, France."
Forward goes the thick black throttle and in the quickening roar of startled, very hot thunder, my Republic F-84F, slightly dented, slightly old-fashioned, governed by my left glove, begins to move. A touch of boot on left brake and the airplane turns. Back with the throttle to keep from blasting the man and his power unit with a 600-degree hurricane from the tailpipe. Tactical Air Navigation selector to transmit and receive.
The sleeping silver silhouettes of the F-100's of Wethersfield Air Base sweep by in the dark as I taxi, and I am engulfed in comfort. The endless crackle of light static in my earphones, the intimate weight of my helmet, the tremble of my airplane, rocking and slowly pitching as it rolls on hard tires and oil-filled struts over the bumps and ridges of the taxiway. Like an animal. Like a trusted and trusting eager heavy swift animal of prey, the airplane that I control from its birth to its sleep trundles toward the two-mile runway lulled by the murmur of the cold wind.
The filtered voice of the tower operator shatters the serene static in the earphones. "Air Force Jet Two Niner Four Zero Five, clearance received. Ready to copy?"
My pencil springs from flight jacket sleeve to poise itself over the folded flight plan trapped in the jaws of the clipboard on my left leg. "Ready to copy."
"ATC clears; Air Force Jet Two Niner Four Zero Five to the Chaumont Airport..." I mark the words in scrawled shorthand. I have been cleared to fly the route I have planned. "...via direct Abbeville, direct Laon, direct Spangdahlem, direct Wiesbaden, direct Phalsbourg, direct Chaumont." A route detoured before it begins; planned to avoid the mass of storms and severe weather that the forecaster has marked in red squares across the direct route to my home base. "Climb in radar control to flight level three three zero, contact Anglia control..." The clearance comes in through the earphones and out through the sharp point of the pencil; whom to contact and when and on which frequency, one hour and twenty-nine minutes of flying pressed onto a four-inch square of penciled paper bathed in dim red light. I read the shorthand back to the tower operator, and tap the brakes to stop short of the runway.
"Roger, Zero Five, readback is correct. Cleared for takeoff; no reported traffic in the local area."
Throttle forward again and the airplane swings into takeoff position on runway two eight. The concrete is wide and long. The painted white stripe along its center is held at one end by my nosewheel, at the invisible other end by the tough nylon webbing of the overrun barrier. A twin row of white edge lights converges in the black distance ahead, pointing the way. The throttle moves now, under my left glove, all the way forward; until the radium-caked tachometer needle covers the line marked 100 percent, until the tailpipe temperature is up by the short red arc on the dial that means 642 degrees centigrade, until each pointer on each dial of the red-soaked instrument panel agrees with what we are to do, until I say to myself, as I say every time, Here we go. I release the brakes.
There is no instant rush of speed, no head forced against the headrest. I feel only a gentle push at my back. The stripe of the runway unrolls, lazily at first, beneath the nosewheel. Crackling thunder twists and blasts and tumbles behind me, and, slowly, I see the runway lights begin to blur at the side of the concrete and the airspeed needle lifts to cover 50 knots, to cover 80 knots, to cover 120 knots (go/no-go speed checks OK) and between the two white rows of blur I see the barrier waiting in the darkness at the end of the runway and the control stick tilts easily back in my right glove and the airspeed needle is covering 160 knots and the nosewheel lifts from the concrete and the main wheels follow a half second later and there is nothing in the world but me and an airplane alive and together and the cool wind lifts us to its heart and we are one with the wind and one with the dark sky and the stars ahead and the barrier is a forgotten dwindling blur behind and the wheels swing up to tuck themselves away in my seamless aluminum skin and the airspeed is up to one nine zero and flap lever forward and airspeed two two zero and I am in my element and I am flying. I am flying.
The voice that I hear in the soft earphones is unlike my own. It is the voice of a man concerned only with business; a man speaking while he has yet many things to do. Still it is my thumb down on the microphone button and my words screened through the receiver in the tower. "Wethersfield Tower, Air Force Jet Two Niner Four Zero Five departing on course, leaving your station and frequency."
My airplane climbs easily through the strange clear air over southern England, and my gloves, not content to accept idleness, move across the cockpit and complete the little tasks that have been assigned to them. The needles of my altimeter swing quickly through the 5,000-foot mark, and while my gloves work at the task of retracting the engine screens, pressurizing the drop tanks, loosing the D-ring lanyard from the rip cord, setting the pneumatic compressor into life, I notice suddenly that there is no moon. I had hoped for a moon.
My eyes, at the command of the audience behind them, check once again that all the small-dialed engine instruments have pointers properly under their arcs of green paint on the glass. The right glove, conscientious, pushes the oxygen lever from 100 percent to normal, and sets the four white numbers of the departure control frequency in the four black windows of the command ultrahigh-frequency transmitter.
The strange voice that is mine speaks to the radar control center guiding my departure. The voice is capable of doing the necessary talking, the gloves are capable of moving throttle and control stick to guide the slanting climb of my airplane into the night. Ahead of me, through the heavy angled glass of the windscreen, through a shrinking wall of clear air, is the weather. I can see that it hugs the ground at first, low and thin, as if uncertain that it is over the land that it has been assigned to cover.
The three white hands of the altimeter swing through 10,000 feet, sending my right glove into another, shorter, series of menial tasks in the cockpit. It dials now the numbers 387 into the pie-slice of window on the radio compass control panel. In the soft earphones are the faint Morse letters A-B: the Abbeville radio beacon.
Abbeville. Twenty years ago the Abbeville Boys, flying Messerschmitt 109's with yellow-spiral spinners around their propeller-hub cannon, were the best fighter pilots in the German Luftwaffe. Abbeville was the place to go when you were looking for a fight, and a place to avoid when you carried canvas sacks instead of machine-gun bullets. Abbeville on one side of the Channel, Tangmere and Biggin Hill on the other. Messerschmitt on one side and Spitfire on the other. And a tangle of white contrails and lines of falling black smoke in the crystal air between.
The only distance that lies between me and a yellow-nosed ME-109 is a little bend of the river called time. The wash of waves on the sands of Calais. The hush of wind across chessboard Europe. The spinning of one hour hand. Same air, same sea, same hour hand, same river of time. But the Messerschmitts are gone. And the magnificent Spitfires. Could my airplane tonight carry me not along the river, but across the bend of it, the world would look exactly as it looks tonight. And in this same air before them, in another block of old air, the Breguets and the Latés and One Lonely Ryan, coming in from the west, into the glare of searchlights over Le Bourget. And back across the confluences of the river, a host of Nieuports and Pfalzes and Fokkers and Sopwiths, of Farmans and Bleriots, of Wright Flyers, of Santos-Dumont dirigibles, of Montgolfiers, of hawks circling, circling. As men looked up from the ground. Into the sky just as it is tonight.
The eternal sky, the dreaming man.
The river flows.
The eternal sky, the striving man.
The river flows.
The eternal sky, the conquering man.
Tonight Tangmere and Biggin Hill are quiet lighted rectangles of concrete under the cloud that slips beneath my airplane, and the airport near Abbeville is dark. But there is still the crystal air and it whispers over my canopy and blasts into the gaping oval intake a gun's length ahead of my boots.
It is sad, to be suddenly a living part of what should belong to old memory and faded gun-camera films. My reason for being on the far shore of the Atlantic is to be always ready to mold new memories of the victory of Us against Them, and to squeeze the trigger that adds another few feet to history's reel of gun-camera film. I am here to become a part of a War That Could Be, and this is the only place I belong if it changes into a War That Is.
But rather than learning to hate, or even to be more uncaring about the enemy who threatens on the other side of the mythical iron curtain, I have learned in spite of myself that he might actually be a man, a human being. During my short months in Europe, I have lived with German pilots, with French pilots, Norwegian pilots, with pilots from Canada and from England. I have discovered, almost to my surprise, that Americans are not the only people in the world who fly airplanes for the sheer love of flying them. I have learned that airplane pilots speak the same language and understand the same unspoken words, whatever their country. They face the same headwinds and the same storms. And as the days pass without war, I find myself asking if a pilot, because of the political situation under which he lives, can possibly be a totally different man from all the pilots living in all the political systems across the earth.
This man of mystery, this Russian pilot about whose life and thoughts I know so little, becomes in my mind a man not unlike myself, who is flying an airplane fitted with rockets and bombs and machine guns not because he loves destruction but because he loves his airplane, and the job of flying a capable, spirited airplane in any air force cannot be divorced from the job of killing when there is a war to be fought.
I am growing to like this probable pilot of the enemy, the more so because he is an unknown and forbidden man, with no one to bear witness of the good in him, and so many at hand to condemn his evils.
If war is declared here in Europe, I will never know the truth of the man who mounts the cockpit of a red-starred airplane. If war is declared, we are unleashed against each other, like starved wolves, to fight. A friend of mine, a true proven friend, neither imagined nor conjured out of possibilities, will fall to the guns of a Russian pilot. Somewhere an American will die under his bombs. In that instant I will be swallowed up in one of the thousand evils of war; I will have lost the host of unmet friends who are the Russian pilots. I will rejoice in their death, take pride in the destruction of their beautiful airplanes under my own rockets and my own guns. If I succumb to hate, I will myself become certainly and unavoidably a lesser man. In my pride I will be less worthy of pride. I will kill the enemy, and in so doing will bring my own death upon me. And I am sad.
But this night no war has been declared. It seems, in the quiet days, almost as if our nations might learn to live with each other, and this night the eastern pilot of my imagining, more real than the specter he would become in wartime, is flying his own solitary airplane into his own capricious weather.
My gloves are at work again, leveling the airplane at 33,000 feet. Throttle comes back under the left glove until the engine tachometer shows 94 percent rpm. The thumb of the right glove touches the trim button on the control stick once and again, quickly, forward. The eyes flick from instrument to instrument, and all is in order. Fuel flow is 2,500 pounds per hour. Mach needle is resting over .8, which means that my true airspeed is settling at 465 knots. The thin luminous needle of the radio compass, over its many-numbered dial, pivots suddenly as the Abbeville radio beacon passes beneath my airplane, under the black cloud. Eyes make a quick check of transmitter frequency, voice is ready with a position report to air traffic control, left thumb is down on the microphone button at 2200 hours, and the audience behind the eyes sees the first faint flash of lightning in the high opaque darkness ahead.
First Scribner Classics Edition 2003