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10 Seconds To Disaster - Page [I]

2006-07-13 20:59

  Mitch Rawson's pal, young Pete Tracey, had crashed to his death during the first flight of the prototype of the Skystreak rocket plane. Why? What had gone wrong? Pete hadn't lived to tell.

  Now Mitch had been detailed to test-flight the new Skystreak, pulled out of retirement at the age of 48 for the death-defying feat. Mitch was sure he would succeed. But first he had got to satisfy his old friend Doctor John Flavell that he was medically fit to fly Skystreak.

  Crouched in the tiny cockpit of the Skystreak rocket plane, test pilot Mitch Rawson licked his lips, hesitated, and then flicked the firing stud of Number One Engine. Instantly, as the rocket booster caught with a shattering blast of power, the giant thrust of acceleration crammed him back in his seat. He fired the second engine, then the third, and fourth. Already, the Skystreak was through the sound barrier, slashing forward on a mighty pillar of flame.

  Mitch glanced at the spinning dials. He looked ahead through the windscreen, at the long, lance-like nose probe, slicing through infinity. Soon, as he entered the heat barrier, the probe's heat resistant skin would turn cherry-red before his eyes. If his refrigeration system failed, Mitch knew that he would be roasted alive in seconds. He shivered, feeling suddenly afraid of the incredible forces that he must tame… and control.

  His headset crackled. A dry voice said 'Z.1 from Ground Control. Can you give me some readings, please?'

  That was Henry Norton, head of Norton Airframes Ltd., designer of Skystreak. Mitch pictured his lean, hard-faced chief, standing in the great, glass control tower, almost fifteen miles below. He glanced at the instruments again, spoke with difficulty through the rising thrust of gravity.

  'Speed, twelve hundred…height, eighty thousand. All engines firing perfectly. Diving in two minutes.'

  The dive. Rawson shuddered. Perspiration rivered his chunky face beneath the big, domed helmet.

  'Will she take it?' he asked himself for the hundredth time. This was the second and most vital test had established the efficiency of the rocket booster, the stabilization of the aircraft at a speed of fifteen hundred miles per hour.

  That had been risky enough. But now the Skystreak was to be pushed to the limit of its endurance. With his speed approaching forty miles a minute, the rocket fuel would burn out. Then Mitch would point the nose of the aircraft earthwards. As his speed increased, the nose probe would glow with heat. The slightest tremor could develop into an uncontrollable yaw. Then would come the worst moment of all…the pull-out, at thirty thousand feet, the tremendous pressure on the airframe.

  What happened then was anyone's guess. The Skystreak might stand the stress. Or it might crumple and fall, like a broken box-kite…

  Rawson's mind reeled from the thought. He looked down at the cloud layer that was nearly always there, at thirty thousand feet, shielding his view of the earth. He would be coming up the airfield now. He switched his microphone to 'send', forced himself to speak calmly. 'Twenty seconds to burn out. Stand-by.'

  He sat there, watching the quivering Mach needle, counting the seconds in his throbbing brain. Suddenly, as the rocket-motor indicator slipped to Zero, the crushing force lifted his body. In the sudden, whistling silence, Mitch reached for the two grips of the control column, spoke tautly into the microphone.

  'Ground Control from Z.1. Burn-out. Diving…now!'

  Slowly, Mitch pushed the control column forward, watched the tip of the probe move against the sky. Norton's voice stabbed in his ears. “Good luck, Z.1. Call your speed and altitudes. Out!

  A mild vibration built up in the airframe. Now the Skystreak was pointing straight down, aimed earthwards like a ballistic missile.

  'Height, sixty thousand…speed, two thousand two hundred. Pulling two G's.'

  Rawson's heart was pounding. His eyes ached from the effort of concentration. Every bone in his body ached. 'I'm too old for this!' he thought wildly. 'I should have left it to Maitland!'

  For the first time, with the cloud layer rushing at his eyes, Mitch felt the raw clutch of fear. It wouldn't be long now. The pull-out…the big question mark…。

  'Speed, two thousand five hundred…height, fifty thousand.' Now the first wisps of cloud were streaking past the cockpit. Mitch braced himself, took a firm grip on the control column. Then the cloud was all around him, a thick grey blanket. He began to tighten back on the stick, his wide, sweating eyes fixed on shuddering nose probe. At fifty miles a minute, the Skystreak slashed clear of the cloud.

  It came without warning, a terrible, searing flash, almost scorching his eyes. Instinctively, his hands jerked away from the controls, shielding his face from the blinding light. His mouth opened in a great, soundless scream as the Skystreak yawed sharply with the sudden loss of control. Rawson's hands jerked back to the stick. But it was too late. The tortured screech of cracking metal flooded his ears.

  'Good grief! She's breaking up!'

  Rawson's eyes cleared. He saw nose probe, swinging in ever increasing circles. Slowly, horribly, the probe began disintegrate. Something whirled past the windscreen, a tattered fragment of mainplane. The earth smashed up at Mitch, reeling and pinning in the clear sunlight. He was crashing.

  He was crashing…he was going to die!

  'You won't Crack, Mitch'

  It was Bill Maitland who first heard the screaming. He raced along the corridor, threw open the door of the hotel room.

  Mitch Rawson was tossing on his bed, his eyes closed, his dark spiky hair plastered to his forehead.

  'No!' he was shouting. “She's breaking up! I can't get out…I can't get out…。'

  Maitland moved quickly to the bed, gripped the test-pilot's shuddering shoulder. 'Wakeup, Mitch! Wakeup. It's all right. Wake up, do you hear?'

  The screaming stopped as Mitch Rawson's eyes flicked open, roved widely round the room, fastened on Bill Maitland anxious face.

  'Take it easy, Mitch,' Maitland said soothingly. 'You must have been dreaming.'

  Mitch groaned and shook his head. 'A dream…' He leaned up on the bed, mopped limply at his face. 'It was more like a nightmare. Did…did anyone hear me, Bill?'

  Maitland paused, gazing sympathetically at the sweating face of the older man. 'How could they Mitch? The airfield's six miles from here.'

  'Yes…of course.' Rawson swung his legs to the floor. The sardonic ghost of a smile plucked at his lips. 'It's just as well they didn't hear me. They might have thought that Mitch Rawson was cracking up.“

  A shadow crossed Bill Maitland's clean, square-cut feature.

  'You'll never crack up, Mitch. Not you.'

  Mitch Rawson smiled bitterly.

  'Thanks for the kind words, Bill. But I'm not so sure. I can't forget that first test flight…when Pete Tracey was killed. I keep dreaming that I'm up there, in his place, with the Skystreak shaking to pieces around me…。'

  Rawson's voice trailed. He could remember it vividly, the day that young Pete Tracey had first flown the prototype of the Skystreak. Mitch could see it now, the slim rocket plane harrowing from the cloud layer, the sudden, disastrous yaw as the aircraft went out of control. The long terrible dive from, which it never pulled out…。

  'But you mustn't think of it Mitch.' Maitland's voice cut across the other's uneasy thoughts. 'What happened to Pete was nothing to do with the aircraft. We all know that.'

  'Yes.' Mitch got up slowly, walked over to the window. 'The experts are pretty convinced that Tracey must have blacked out. But no-one can really sure what happened up there.'

  Bill Maitland smiled. That's why they've handed the job to you, Mitch. That's why they pulled you out of retirement at the age of 48…to tame the Skystreak.'

  Mitch hadn't missed the note of admiration in the younger man's voice. But it gave him no pleasure. Just lately, he had been finding it hard to live up to the legend of Mitch Rawson - the greatest test pilot of them all. For some reason, he couldn't forget the death of Pete Tracey. Then there was the dream, night after night, vivid and inescapable. And by day, the lurking fear. He wished suddenly that he had never agreed to fly the Skystreak, even though they were paying him a nice fat fee, enough to buy that garage, to sit back and take it easy for the rest of his life. He turned slowly from the window.

  'Yes, Bill…this flight means a lot to me. But if I hadn't got in the way, then you, as replacement pilot, would be testing the Skystreak. Yet it doesn't seem to worry you.'

  Maitland's easy grin widened. 'Call it a case of hero worship. It's almost a pleasure to play second fiddle to Mitch Rawson.'

  'But you know what some of those boffins are saying.' Mitch persisted, 'that I should never have been brought into the project… that I'm too old to fly again.'

  'It's baloney, Mitch. You're still on the top shelf.'

  Something stirred in Mitch Rawson's breast…the old, deep-rooted pride in the legend he had created. He knew then why he was determined to go through with the flight. He wanted to show them that the legend hadn't died…that Mitch Rawson was the man to tame the Skystreak.

  'What the time, Bill?'

  'Six a.m. The flight's scheduled for eight o'clock.'

  'Right.' Mitch was smiling as he stripped off his dressing gown. 'Better not keep the egg-heads waiting.'

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