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10 Seconds To Disaster - Page [II]

2006-07-13 21:02

  Unfit to Fly

  A crisp wind was blowing in from the sea as Mitch and Bill drove through the gates of Norton Airframes Ltd. The rays of the morning sun bounced off the glass roof of control tower as Mitch drove around the apron, braked outside the big, operational hangar.

  Inside the hangar, engineers were already swarming over the slim, silver pencil of the Skystreak, pumping fuel into the conventional jet engines that would lift the aircraft to its maximum operational height of eighty thousand feet, where the rocket boosters would take over.

  As Mitch and Bill got out of the car, two men detached themselves from the group of scientists near the rocket plane.

  Mitch recognized the lean, businesslike figure of Henry Norton, and the friendly, wholesome bulk of John Flavell, the company's medical adviser.

  Norton greeted the pilots in the hard voice that was typical of the man. “Morning, Bill…Mitch. You're early.'

  'Thought I'd take a quick look at the ship before we got to grips, Mister Norton.' Mitch glanced at John Flavell. 'Nothing wrong with that, eh, doc?' he grinned warmly.

  The doctor laughed. 'They say it's unlucky to see the bride before the happy event. But then, you were never the superstitious kind were you, Mitch?'

  Mitch was about to reply when he noticed that Henry Norton was regarding him keenly.

  'You look a bit pale, Mitch. Feel all right? Get good night's sleep?'

  Mitch glanced quickly at Bill Maitland before forcing a smile. 'Slept like a log, Mister Norton. Don't worry. I feel fine.'

  Mitch nodded towards the Skystreak. Did you find anything?'

  Norton shook his head. We've been over her with a fine toothcomb, but there's nothing to indicate that there may have been structural failure in the first prototype. I still think that Tracey had a blackout, probably caused by an oxygen blockage. But we've allowed for that…。'

  Mitch thought again of his dream, the blinding flash, and the slow horrible disintegration. What had happened to Pete Tracey?

  Norton glanced at his watch? 'Time's getting on, Mitch. Soon as you're through with your medical, I'll see you in the briefing room. I want to make a slight alteration in the flight plan.'

  'Okay, Mister Norton.' Mitch threw a parting grin at John Flavell. I'm bit worried about Rawson, John. He looks restless…on edge, somehow.'

  'That's normal, Henry,' Flavell said. He's probably keyed-up for the test.'

  Norton glanced sharply at the doctor. 'I might have expected that from you, John. Rawson's an old friend of yours. It was you who persuaded me to contract him to fly Skystreak. I hope I don't regret the decision.'

  John Flavell smiled gravely. I've known Mitch a long time, Henry. I don't think he'll let you down.'

  Norton nodded, looked thoughtfully back at the Skystreak.

  'Let's hope not, John. All the same, you'd better give Rawson a thorough check-over. A lot depends on this flight…。'

  Perhaps John Flavell shared his chief's misgivings. Later, in the airfield sick quarters, he took long time over Mitch Rawson's pre-flight medical. At last, Mitch broke the uneasy silence. 'Doc… you've taken ten minutes to check my heart, blood count, and reflexes. Anything wrong?'

  The doctor hesitated, glanced uncomfortably at the veteran pilot. His next words surprised Mitch.

  'Hold out your arms, Mitch…straight in front of you, with your hands close together.'

  Mitch obeyed, puzzled and irritated.

  'That's it…now keep them there.'

  After thirty seconds, Mitch felt his fingers beginning to tremble. The trembling grew to a tremor, flowing uncontrollably through his arms.

  Mitch dropped his arms as if had been stung. He looked into John Flavell's eyes, shaken by the concern and sympathy he saw there. 'Now look, Doc,' he began harshly, 'this doesn't mean a thing. I'm as fit as blazes, I tell you…as fit as any man could be at 48!'

  The old doctor was packing his bag, not looking at Mitch. The pilot went on in a desperate rush of words. 'You know what they're saying about me, Doc…that I'm finished, too old for this job. But they're wrong…and I'm going to prove it…to them, and to myself. I've got to make this flight, Doc. I've got to!'

  John Flavell looked up, his weathered face betraying nothing. 'I know, Mitch…I know. Now you'd better get dressed…。'

  After the medical, Mitch tackled a light breakfast in the airfield canteen. He toyed with the food, disturbed by his encounter with Flavell.

  At twenty minutes to take off, he walked out across the tarmac. The Skystreak was already standing on the runway, shimmering sleekly in the sunlight, the crewman fussing with her boosters.

  Mitch glanced up, gauging the cloud base through narrowed eyes. 'About thirty thousand feet,' he thought. It had been thirty thousand day Pete Tracey died.

  His heart was pounding as he entered the glass and aluminum control tower. He was making for the briefing room when a tannoy loudspeaker crackled above his head.

  “Will Mitch Rawson please go to the chief designer's office? Will Mitch Rawson…'

  Mitch stiffened. What did Henry Norton want to see him about? And why choose his private office? Perhaps he wants to discuss the flight plan in secret,' the pilot told himself as he retraced his steps, paused outside the door of Norton's office. He knocked. 'Come in.'

  There were only two men in the room-Henry Norton and John Flavell. The doctor was staring at his shoes as Mitch spoke hesitatingly. 'You wanted to see me, Mister Norton?'

  'Yes.' Henry Norton paused, his eye bleak, uncompromising. Then, I'm sorry to have to tell you this Rawson, but I'm taking you off this test. Bill Maitland will be flying the Skystreak.'

  Mitch stood there, numbed by the brutal words. His shocked eyes swung to John Flavell. The doctor spoke in an apologetic whisper. I had to tell him, Mitch…for your sake. Your reflexes have slowed up, and you seem to be suffering from some kind of mental stress. You're in no condition to fly the Skystreak.'

  'But…but you're wrong doc!' Mitch struggled for the words. 'I feel fine. Sure, my fingers shook a little. But what does that prove?'

  'It proves that you're a big risk, Rawson,' Henry Norton cut in flatly. 'After what happened to Tracey, I can't afford another setback. There are contracts worth millions of pounds hanging on the success of the Skystreak.'

  Mitch didn't speak. The world was crashing around his ears, cruelly, mercilessly.

  I'm sorry, Rawson,' Norton went on. 'But don't worry. You'll be amply compensate for the time you've wasted here.'

  I'm not worried about money.' The pilot's voice was harsh and desperate. 'Call it what you like-pride-self-respect-but I've just got to make this flight!'

  It's no good, Rawson…。'

  'You can't do this Norton!' Mitch was almost pleading now. I've got to fly the Skystreak! Just once…that's all I ask!'

  'You're wasting your breath, Rawson.' The chief of Norton Airframes turned his back, putting an abrupt end to the interview. 'I just can't use you…。'

  Somehow Mitch found his way into the corridor. He felt old and shattered. He had wanted so badly to fly Skystreak, the chance to crush the rumors. Not only that. There was still the dream, the strange, inexplicable flash. In some way, he felt that he had been given a clue to Pete Tracey's death.

  'I could have used that clue,' he thought bitterly. 'But now they've dropped me…tossed me away like a broken toy.'

  The pilot's dazed, stumbling steps had taken him to the door of the locker room. Bill Maitland was struggling into his pressure suit as Mitch walked in. The young pilot looked up sheepishly. 'Hello! Mitch. I guess you've heard that-that…。'

  'That you're flying the Skystreak?' Mitch forced a grin. 'Sure, Bill…I heard. And the ship couldn't be in better hands. I just dropped by to wish you luck.'

  Maitland gestured hopelessly. I'm sorry, Mitch…really sorry. In my book, you're still the man for this job.'

  Mitch shrugged. 'I wish they all felt the same as you, Bill. But that's the way it goes.' He moved closer to the younger man. 'Here…let me help you with those zips…。'

  Burn-out and After

  By now, the engineers and the technicians - the men who had developed the Skystreak - were assembled in the control tower. Soon, they would know if their gleaming brainchild was a brilliant, aeronautical milestone, or just a streamlined death-trap for anyone who tried flying her. Ten minutes before take-off, they saw the helmeted, white-clad figure plod out to the waiting aircraft.

  'There goes Maitland.' Henry Norton was standing tensely at the long glass window. 'It's up to Bill now.'

  The Skystreak's jets caught with a sudden, whining blast of sound, rattling the windows of the control tower. The aircraft was rolling sleekly down the runway when the door of the control room crashed open behind Henry Norton.

  Bill Maitland staggered across the room, nursing the angry red weal on his jaw. 'Mitch…' he began hoarsely. 'He… he was helping me…get dressed. I just didn't see the punch coming. When I came round, he's gone, and my flying gear with him. He-he must have taken my place in the Skystreak.'

  'Good grief!' Henry Norton looked back towards the runway, in time to see the Skystreak lunge smoothly into the air. The designer strode quickly to the control desk, snatched the microphone from the hands of the open-mouthed controller.

  'Rawson. This Henry Norton. I'll give you just ten minutes to pancake that aircraft. That's an order, Rawson!'

  Huddled in the skystreak's cockpit, Mitch grinned tautly and glanced at his altimeter. Already, the needle was flicking one thousand feet. Speed, five hundred.

  Mitch opened his throttles. The Skystreak surged with new power, climbing a twin pillar of air, lancing at the cloud layer. He spoke flatly through the howl of the jets.

  It's too late, Norton, I'm halfway there. And as I told you-I've just got to make this flight.' He paused, then added, “Tell Bill I'm sorry about that sock on the jaw. But I think he'll understand.'

  Mitch was through the cloud layer now. Ten seconds ago, the men in the control tower would have heard the shattering thunderclap as the Skystreak went through the sound barrier.

  Sixty thousand feet. His head-set crackled. 'Mitch' That was Doc Flavell's voice. 'This is crazy. You're in no condition for this test. You'll kill yourself…perhaps ruin the work of years. Besides, what can you do? You don't even know the flight plan.'

  Mitch glanced at the altimeter. Seventy thousand feet. He began to level out, turning on the wide sweep that would take him back aross the airfield. He spoke breathlessly against the pressure of oxygen cramming into his lungs. I don't need to know Doc. I'm going to follow the same flight plan as operated by Pete Tracey. I've got to find out what happened to Pete.'

  Dry-mouthed, Mitch cut the jet engines. For tenseconds of free flight, the Skystreak hurtled silently through the void. Then, automatically, he reached for the rocket switches. He flicked the stud of number one engine, flinching as the giant shoves began.

  It was like the dream all over again. As he flicked two, three and four, the sudden blasting surge of the boosters enclosed him in a brutal cocoon sound. The accelerations built frighteningly, cramming him back in his seat with three times the force of gravity.

  He heard Norton's voice, almost pleading now. 'For the last time, Rawson. Call it off…before it's too late!'

  Mitch didn't amswer.

  At the moment of burn out, his body sagged forward, mercifully released from the crushing forces of acceleration. He took a deep breath. Then, 'Burn-out. Starting dive routine…now!'

  Slowly , Mitch eased the control column forward, saw the nose probe skid across the sky. He went down steeply, straight at the grips. There was a voice somewhere, calling desperately. 'Rawson…give us some reading. For heaven's sake!'

  Mitch answered automatically. 'slight buffeting, but no yaw. Oxygen intake normal.'

  The vibrations were heavier now, his speed a fantastic forty miles a minute. In a few seconds he would know what had happened to Pete Tracey. In few seconds, Mitch Rawson was going to die…。

  No. He closed his mind to the sickening thought, watched the cloud layer rush at his eyes. His heart lurched frantically as the grey murk enclosed him. At three thousand miles an hour, the Skystreak punched clear.

  It came then, like an old, familiar nightmare, the terrible searing flash, striking at his eyes. But eben in that fearful moment of blindness, he realized what had caused the flash, found the presence of mind to hang on to the controls. Exerting all his strength out of its dive. He felt as if a giant hand were trying too force him through the floor of the cockpit. Slowly the nose probe swan clear. It was inching up, up, back to level flight, shuddering violently from the tremendous stress of pull-out. The fierce oscillations tore through his body. 'she can't take it, ' he thought wildly. 'she's going to break up. I'm going to die!'

  Then suddenly, startling, the vibration ceased, giving way to the weird, exultant ecstasy of free flight. The Skystreak was flying straight and true, and level.

  Mitch tried to laugh, but he couldn't. He was too weak, too weak with triumph. His hands moved calmly over the controls, turning the Skystreak into the long shallpw glide that would take it down to the airfield. Almost gleefully, he burbled into the microphone. She's fine, Norton! Everything's fine! I'm coming home! You can take the Skystreak off the drawing-board!'

  They were all waiting when he landed.

  Mitch stood there, limply, allowing the tide of excitement to wash around him. Norton was still talking, excitedly now. I'll expect a full report later. But right now is there anything you can tell me…any clue to what happened to Tracey?'

  Mitch nodded. His eyes lifted to the distant, gleaming cube of control tower. 'It was sunlight that killed Pete, ' he said quietly. 'Sunlight bouncing from the glass roof of the control tower, straight into Pete's eyes as he came out of the clouds. That must have been when he lost control of the ship, perhaps only for couple of seconds. But at the speed he was traveling, it was two seconds too long.'

  Norton's eyes widened. 'But the same thing must have happened to you. Yet you didn't lose control. Why?'

  Mitch smiled briefly. He remembered that dream again, the secret he could share with no one. 'You might say I was ready for it Mister Norton.'

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