Winner of the Author's Club Best First Novel Award
A Finalist for the East Anglian Book Award for Fiction
One of The Guardian's Favorite Reads of the Year (Chosen by Jenny Rohn)
“The Last Pilot made me cry and brought back all my old Right Stuff feels. A brilliant debut. I loved it.”—Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk
Jim Harrison is a test pilot in the United States Air Force, one of the exalted few. He spends his days cheating death in the skies above the Mojave Desert and his nights at his friend Pancho’s bar, often with his wife, Grace. She and Harrison are secretly desperate for a child, and when, unexpectedly, Grace learns that she is pregnant, the two are overjoyed. America becomes swept up in the fervor of the Space Race, while Harrison turns his attention home to welcome his daughter, Florence, into the world. But as he and Grace confront thrills and challenges of parenthood, they are met with sudden tragedy.
The aftermath will haunt the Harrisons and strain their marriage, as Jim struggles to make life-and-death decisions under circumstances that are altogether new. Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock is the mesmerizing story of a couple’s crisis of faith—in themselves, and in each another—and the limits they test to rediscover it.
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About the Author
BENJAMIN JOHNCOCK was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press's National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.
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The Last Pilot
By Benjamin Johncock
PicadorCopyright © 2015 Benjamin Johncock
All rights reserved.
MOJAVE DESERT MUROC, CALIFORNIA OCTOBER 1947
The house was part of an old ranch stuck out in the desert scrubland near Muroc, in the high desert of the Mojave, fifty miles west of Victorville. It had a narrow veranda, dustbowl front yard and picket fence. It was called Oro Verde; Green Gold, after the alfalfa that once grew there. The ranch sat on the edge of Muroc Dry Lake, the largest slab of uninterrupted flatness on Earth. Forty-four square miles. Every December, it rained, the first and only of the year. Four inches would collect on the lake's dry surface in a slick pool. The wind pulled and dragged the water, licking the wet sand smooth. In spring, it evaporated and the orange sun fired the ground hard like clay, creating a vast natural runway. The sky was a dome, endless blue; vast and clear and bright. The high elevations of the Mojave were the perfect place to fly. In the thirties it had been home to some godforsaken detachment of the Air Corps, nicknamed the Foreign Legion by the locals: seventeen poor bastards who lived out on the desert hardpan in a dozen canvas tents, with no electricity or plumbing. The Air Corps used the dry lake for training, but the Muroc Field encampment was so remote and wretched that it had no commanding officer. When conscripts arrived to train for combat in the South Pacific, tar paper barracks were quickly constructed to accommodate them, and when men burned in the skies above Europe in the autumn of forty-two, the army installed a top secret flight test program to develop the turbo-powered jet. The flight test center turned permanent after the war, with a small detachment of test pilots, engineers, technicians and ground crew. The men were slowly eaten alive by the sun slung high in the day and, at night, they froze, the hard desert wind howling loud around them, stripping paint from the planes and the trucks.
Muroc Field's two Quonset hangars gleamed on the horizon as Harrison climbed the front steps of the house. He was slender, short, dressed in brown slacks and a shirt, open at the collar. It was Saturday; just eight. He'd been up at five, in the air at six. He pushed open the screen door and dropped his bag to the floor.
What are you doing home? Grace said, from behind the cellar door. Wasn't expecting you til later.
Thought I'd surprise you, he said, make sure you're not in bed with the mailman.
You seen the mailman?
You were right to come home.
Grace opened the door and stepped into the living room. She was tall, five-eleven, slight, with boney shoulders and fair hair, tied back. She wore a pair of crimson vaquero boots and a shirt tucked into dirty jeans.
What you doing back there? he said.
Fixing the door; damn thing's been driving me crazy, she said. How was it?
That bad, huh.
She walked over, put her arms around his waist.
You tired? she said.
Want to sleep?
Yeah, but I came home to see you.
You came home to make sure I wasn't in bed with the mailman, she said.
I came to make sure you weren't in bed with any man, he said.
You think I'm a floozy?
I think we got a lot of good-lookin municipal workers round here.
I hadn't noticed, she said, tipping back on the heels of her boots.
Yes you had.
You want to get into that?
Let's get into something else, she said, tugging at his waist.
This is unexpected, he said.
Her lips touched his. They stood together in the sunlight.
You're not kissing me, she said.
You're not kissing me.
My mouth is dry; from the flight. Glass of water be good.
I'm sure it would. Help yourself, I'm going out.
She stepped away, her shirt creased from where it had pressed against him.
Where you goin? he said.
Post office has a package for us, she said, picking up her keys from the counter.
You're going to see the mailman? he said.
Your jealousy is oddly compelling.
You're oddly compelling.
You're tired, she said.
Glass of water, she said, then take a nap.
I'm up again at eleven, he said. You know that's —
I know, she said. First powered flight.
Yeah. Be the fastest anyone's gone.
She stepped toward him.
Be careful, she said.
Always am, hon, he said.
He walked into the kitchen, found a glass and turned on the cold tap. Grace watched him drink slowly, then refill the glass.
I had a phone call, she said, leaning against the kitchen doorframe. They can see me on Monday.
He paused, looking at the water in the glass.
I didn't think it would be that quick, he said.
The lady said it's been quiet; she said — doesn't matter.
Want me to come?
No, maybe; I don't know.
I can speak to Boyd? The old man owes me some slack.
I'll be fine.
The kitchen was small. It had a round table pushed into a nook at one end and a window that looked out over the open desert at the other. The planes took off over the roof, making the crockery rattle. But there were days when the blue of the sky was cut with a hard line of black smoke from the ground, the stiff air vibrating with the sirens of distant fire trucks. Those were bad days. There had been one a week since the end of August; seven in August itself. These grim streaks happened.
I'd better get going, she said, pushing herself off the doorframe with her shoulder.
Sure, he said, and paused. Rick Bong augered in yesterday.
I heard, she said. Janice told me. I'm going over to see Marjory on Wednesday. So's Jackie.
He was testing the P-80A, he said. Main fuel pump sheared on takeoff. Flamed out at fifty feet. No seat, so he pops the canopy, then his chute, but the airstream wraps him round the tail and they corkscrew in together.
He looked up at her.
He didn't turn on his auxiliary fuel pump before takeoff, he said.
How could anyone be so stupid not to turn on their auxiliary fuel pump before takeoff?
Sounds like it was just a mistake, Grace said.
There are no mistakes, Harrison said, just bad pilots.
She sighed. She stood beside him and pulled his head to her breast, holding it gently with both hands.
I'll see you later, she said.
Fancy coming over to Pancho's after? he said. Gonna be celebrating.
I'll be the fastest man alive, he said. Don't you forget that.
Doubt I'll be allowed to.
Well, it won't last long. Yeager'll go faster on Tuesday, assuming he don't drill a hole in the Sierras.
You should probably enjoy it while you can, she said.
You know, I think I will.
She kissed the top of his head.
Bye, she said.
Pick me up some Beemans, would you? he called after her. He rubbed his forehead and drank the rest of his water.
* * *
Pancho's place sat squat in six acres of bone-dry desert taut with Joshua trees. It had a wooden veranda, flyscreen door and looked like hell. She served scotch and beer and highballs and called it the Happy Bottom Riding Club. In summer, the temperature hit a hundred and ten and the bar would creak and groan. At night, it was close to freezing. The bar was part of a ranch that she'd bought from a farmer called Hannam ten years before, when the Depression sunk the price of alfalfa from thirty dollars a ton to ten.
It was still early, ten before nine, Pancho's was open. The desert was calm, the low sun nudging slowly west, burning the new day bright yellow and white. Stale carbon dioxide hung in the gloom of the bar like a bad mood. Harrison pushed open the screen door and stepped inside.
What do you want, you miserable pudknocker? Pancho said, looking up from her broom.
You know, he said.
I'm up at eleven.
Gracie know you're here?
Practically her idea.
She's too good for a peckerwood like you.
Got any Luckies? I'm all out.
Get your ass over here you ol bastard.
She poured him a drink and he sat at the bar.
You know I love you, Pancho.
Well, don't I feel better.
I'm up again at one.
You're only up at one if you don't auger in at eleven.
Can't see that bein a problem.
You all never do, sweetie, she said, glancing at the wall where photographs of dead pilots hung. The frames began behind the bar, marring the far wall with grinning men standing beside cockpits and airplanes knocking contrails into the sky. Whenever someone augered in, she'd nail their picture up and say, dumb bastard.
Pancho had broad shoulders, dark hair and a face that looked like it was stuck in a nine-g pullout. Her real name was Florence Leontine Lowe. She grew up in a thirty- room mansion in San Marino, waited on by servants. Her grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, was an entrepreneur, engineer and balloonist; a hero of the Civil War. Papa Lowe doted on his granddaughter. When she was eight, he took her to the world's first aviation exhibition; a ten-day extravaganza in the hills above Long Beach. Florence watched Glenn Curtiss and Lincoln Beachey fly high and fast around the field in their biplanes for a three thousand dollar prize and was captivated. It wasn't the machines, it was the men. When she was old enough, she stopped riding horses and started flying airplanes. Her mother disapproved of her new lifestyle and, as soon as she turned eighteen, arranged for her to marry the Reverend C. Rankin Barnes. She lasted fourteen months as a minister's wife before disguising herself as a man and running away to South America as a crew member aboard a banana boat. She became a smuggler, running guns during the Mexican Revolution; later flying rumrunners into Ensenada and Tijuana. She spoke Spanish and Yaqui, slicked her black hair back with gardenia oil and lived like a peasant. She returned a year later with the nickname Pancho to news of her mother's death. She kept the name, inherited her mother's fortune and indulged her love of flying. She won races, broke Amelia Earhart's airspeed record and became one of Hollywood's first stunt pilots, throwing wild parties at her house in Laguna Beach. When the Depression ate its way into Southern California, it hit her hard. Broke, defaulting on loans, she sold up, headed out into the Mojave and bought Hannam's farm, just west of Muroc Dry Lake.
It won't give you no love, Hannam told her after the papers were signed. I used to get five, maybe six, cuttins a year; bale it, sell it on for a good price. Now, even with seventy or so acres planted up, man can't live on it, not now. It's all gone to hell.
Never did see myself as much of a rancher, she said.
That fall, she dragged out a private airstrip behind the hay barn with two English shire mares bought from the Washington State Fair then holed out a swimming pool. It wasn't long before she got to know the men from the base. They enjoyed her company; she knew airplanes and they got a kick out of her salty language and dirty jokes. In the evenings, the men grew restless, so they'd head over to Pancho's to take out her horses, have a drink, cool off in her pool. Pancho would curse and laugh and tell them stories and pour them drinks. Some nights she'd cook, a steak dinner; meat from her own cattle. She called up Bobby Holeston one morning and got him to turn the old cook's shack into a proper bar. She hired an enormous woman called Minnie to work the kitchen and Pancho had herself a business.
Harrison finished his drink and Pancho refilled the glass.
Help stabilize the system, she said.
He knocked it back and made to leave.
Hey, Harrison, she called after him.
He looked down at a half-smoked pack of cigarettes on the bar.
You're a peach, he said.
Get the hell out.
The screen door clattered shut, rattling the dead men hanging inside.
* * *
Pancho spent the morning running errands. Muroc was three miles north across flat dirt trails; a barren cluster of buildings founded on the Sante Fe railroad. The dull steel track stretched toward the horizon in both directions. Alongside the wooden station-house were three black sheds for the men who worked the rails. The main street was a dust strip. It had Charlie Anderson's store, Ma Green's café, and a Union Oil gas station, as well as a small post office and a one-man bank.
It was quiet. A slight wind caught a tangled cluster of loose telephone wires that grappled and rapped against each other. At the bank, Pancho settled three bills that she'd disputed the previous winter.
Anything else I can do for you, Pancho?
Nope, that's it, thanks Fredo. Good to see you.
How's things out in the boonies?
Billy Horner still working for you?
Was when I left.
Be seeing you, Pancho.
You know it.
Don't be a stranger now.
Outside, the sun hurt her eyes. She pulled down on her old cowboy hat, lit a cigar and dropped the match into the dirt. Damn weenies. She had no problem paying bills, so long as they were fair. The smoke lingered in her mouth. There'd be more money soon. She crossed the street to Charlie Anderson's.
Well, Charlie, you ol bastard, how are you?
That Pasadena's First Lady?
Depends who you ask.
Still in New York?
Last I heard.
When you gonna do it?
When I gonna do what?
She chewed on the cigar still burning between her teeth.
Now why would I go do a stupid thing like that? she said.
Case you meet a handsome fella.
Out here? I got prettier hogs.
Must be some swine. Maybe he's met someone?
He's pastor of the Pasadena Episcopal Church, Charlie. He meets women who want to marry him every day. First whiff of a divorce and the Church would haul his ass out of there. I won't do that to him. We write each other. Suits us fine.
What's he doing in Brooklyn again?
She pulled hard on her cigar. Two women, an aisle over, peered through the shelves.
Morning, ladies, Pancho said, blowing smoke through the gap. They disappeared. Pancho smiled. It was a small town; people talked. When folks heard about her swimming pool, they couldn't believe the extravagance. The first time she filled up her blue Cadillac at Carl Bergman's Union Oil, he yapped on it for months. It had no backseat, Carl told the other ranchers. It was full of dogs!
Pancho got back to the ranch at eleven. Billy was serving two men at the bar.
Is it on? she said. Billy looked up.
The radio was wedged between the cash register and the rum. Close to the base, restricted exchanges could be picked up on the right frequency. Billy turned it on. The box popped and whistled.
Plenty fellas go up; you never listen, he said.
Shut up. Is it working?
This is different.
How you know?
This is not an airplane, Pancho said, least nothing a pudknocker like you'd understand one to be. It's a goddamn rocket with a tail; an orange bullet with razor wings and a needle-nose. They call it the X-1. And it's got one purpose: fly faster than sound.
That even possible? Fly faster than a man's own voice?
Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, Pancho said. That's what they been figuring out, and I promised a free steak dinner to any them weenies who does it first. Today's a big deal: first powered flight, pushing it up to point eight-two Mach. When Harrison hits that switch, the whole damn thing could go kaboom, or drop out the sky like a brick, or malfunction in a thousand other ways. There's no seat to punch out either; those razor wings would slice him in half. It's got to work, and he's got to land it, and he can't land it with any fuel left on board or the whole goddamn thing will go kaboom soon as it hits the lakebed. So, yeah, it's different, and everyone's got their jitters up.
Billy wiped the counter with an old cloth.
So how come you ain't down there? he said.
I seen plenty drop launches before, Pancho said, turning away to stack glasses.
At Muroc Field, a B-29 bomber took off from the south runway and climbed hard. Harrison sat on an upturned apple box behind the pilot with Jack Ridley, the flight engineer. The X-1 was strapped to the underside of the bomber. The B-29 reached altitude. Harrison climbed down the bomb bay ladder and into the X-1, the sound of the bomber's giant propellers roaring in his ears. In the tiny cockpit, he clipped on his lines and hoses; the oxygen system, radio-microphone and earphones, then pulled his leather flying helmet over his head. Stored behind him, at minus two hundred and ninety-six degrees was six hundred gallons of lox, liquid nitrogen and oxygen. Ridley climbed down after him, lowered the cockpit door in place, then returned to the bomber. Two chase planes, one flying high, one low, took off from the base to observe the X-1 in flight. Harrison's lips split, his breath condensing in the dark. In the gloom, he waited for the drop.
Pancho pulled a stool behind the bar and sat by the radio.
Listen, here we go.
Roger, take it easy son.
Ridley, Pancho said, to Billy. They heard Bob Cardenas, the B-29 pilot, announce twenty-six thousand feet, then begin his shallow dive.
Starting countdown ...
Pancho leaned in.
There was a sharp crack as the shackles released the X-1 like a bomb.
[...] looking at the sky.
Roger that, Jim.
I see you, Jim — you're dropping like a brick.
Dive speed [...] too slow.
Walt, you got a visual from the ground?
Twenty-five thousand feet.
Say again, Jim? Didn't copy.
[...] Hey [...] fuel.
You're about three thousand pounds heavier than the glide flights.
I feel it.
I'm gonna push the nose down [...] pick up speed.
Excerpted from The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock. Copyright © 2015 Benjamin Johncock. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Mojave Desert: Muroc, California, October 1947,
Mojave Desert: Muroc, California, January 1959,
Mojave Desert: Muroc, California, February 1961,
Long Beach, California, April 1961,
Houston, Texas, 1962,
Cape Canaveral: Cocoa Beach, Florida, 1962,
Mojave Desert: Muroc, California, March 1966,
Epilogue: Victorville, California, Christmas Eve, 1968,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Lovely book. It contains the excitement and nostalgia of the early race-for-space, along with the domestic drama of one of the astronauts in training.