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There was a ceiling of thick cumulus cloud at about five thousand feet. I never liked flying through thick cloud. It was like in Star Trek when Captain Kirk finds himself somewhere dreamlike and weird and between worlds. Dad said that when he was in Korea, sometimes he used to hide in a cloud and wait for a MiG to come on by; then he'd wax its tail before it knew what was happening. I can believe that. To me, clouds always seem like they're hiding something. But above eight thousand we found ourselves in clear blue sky with fifty-mile visibility in every direction. Below us the ground had disappeared altogether, and the cloud covering looked less like an ambush waiting to happen and more like thick and fluffy layers of whipped cream. Sometimes that's the best kind of flying there is. The kind where it's just you and the sky, without a hole in the cloud to indicate the way back home. We were in an excellent mood. And in these particular circumstances it seemed kind of fitting that there should be no reminder of an Earth that wanted us both tied down or grounded.
"Isn't this something?" said Dad.
"It's great," I said.
"How many thirteen-year-old kids do you figure ever get to do anything like this?"
"I dunno. Not many, I guess."
"I'd say less than not many. I'd say you're the only one, Scotty. Wanna take over for a while?"
"You have control of the aircraft," he said, and let go of his stick.
"I have control of the aircraft," I said, taking hold of mine.
It was probably the best that I had ever flown, a real dollar ride. I did an aileron roll and a loop and a perfect figure of eight. Then I took the Tweet up to thirty-four thousand, which was the highest I'd been in any aircraft. The sky up at that height was the bluest blue the most perfect sky I'd ever seen outside of that picture of the air above the Island of Skye that was hanging on my bedroom wall. I felt like an angel. I could hardly bear the idea that I was about to give all this up.
"Like I always say," said Dad, "you're a natural stick-and-rudder man. Something born, not made. A true MacLeod."
I whipped the Tweet the length and breadth of Harris County for about an hour before I felt him on the brakes and he said it was time to head for home. I wondered when I would ever again feel such monumental power through my hands.
"You have control of the aircraft," I said.
"I have control of the aircraft," he said, taking the stick and pushing it forward.
Dad dropped down to about seven thousand feet, just above the cloud layer, and then radioed the tower controller at Ellington, who advised him that he was clear to land. So he throttled back and began banking gently to the right, flying in a big wide circle that would bring us in to land from the southeast. Completing his turn, we dropped through the cloud and prepared to make our final approach.
Suddenly, without warning, we found ourselves faced with a flock of about a dozen snow geese flying in a V formation and coming right toward us. There was no time to get out of the way. We were going too fast for that. For me there was no time to do anything except yell and then duck as one of the geese hit the right side of the Tweet's canopy. The Tweet rocked like it had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, and the Plexiglas shattered into a dozen fragments as the goose came hurtling right through the canopy and collided heavily with my dad. The cockpit was filled with a smell like singed hair as another bird, perhaps, or even part of the same bird, was ingested by the air-breathing intakes of one of the two engines.
There was blood and feathers and pieces of Plexiglas everywhere. It was impossible to know how much of the blood and guts spread all over the right-hand cockpit seat was the bird's, and how much was Dad's. The shark pictured on his helmet looked like it had made a fresh kill. Its pointy teeth were dripping with red. It was hard to believe that an ordinary bird could cause such destruction to a jet fighter aircraft. It was equally hard to believe that we were still airborne. But we were. For the moment, at least.
"Dad?" I shouted desperately. "Are you okay?"
His chin stayed on his chest, and his hands remained motionless on his lap. He wasn't holding the stick. He didn't look like he was even awake.
"Dad?" I took him by the shoulder and shook him hard. Restrained by its harness, his body stayed put, but his head lolled alarmingly. I couldn't see his eyes behind his visor, and when I tried to push it up, I found that it was stuck, as if the impact had damaged the hinge. So I reached across and unbuckled his oxygen mask. His mouth was open and full of blood. His tongue was hanging out. A terrible feeling took hold of my stomach. For a moment I felt like throwing up. I was terribly afraid that he was dead. "Dad!"
For a moment I saw his lips move and in the earphones inside my helmet I heard him utter one word: "Eject." Then he was silent.
Instinctively, I reached down beside my thigh, took hold of one of the ejection-seat handgrips, and raised it to the full up position, exposing the trigger the way he had shown me. I felt the shoulder harness tighten. I needed only to squeeze the trigger to launch myself out of the aircraft. Except that I couldn't do it. Despite what he'd said earlier, there was no way I could eject.
For one thing, I could only eject myself, and that would have been like killing my dad. For another, the canopy was a mess. It was supposed to blow off a split second before the seat ejected. But looking at it now I had my doubts about that happening. It seemed just as likely that my seat would be fired straight through the damaged canopy, killing me outright. There could be no question of ejecting. Our only chance was for me to take control of the aircraft and land it myself something I had never done. I grabbed the stick as the Tweet gave a little shudder and began to dip to the right.
"I have control of the aircraft!" I yelled at him.
The trouble was, I didn't. Not by a long shot.
They say your whole life passes in front of your eyes in the moments that precede your own death. But this isn't what happened. Not for me, anyway. Being only thirteen years old, I guess there wasn't that much to remember. Instead, I remembered the last time I'd been really scared. That is, scared enough to think that I might be about to die. It was six months ago, in Miami, before I ever started flying with my dad. Before my life really got started. Copyright © 2008 by P. B. Kerr