Valhalla rising, p.23

Valhalla Rising, page 23

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  Hill smiled faintly at Davis. "A domestic as well as an international act of terror. Looks like our two agencies will have to work closely together."

  Davis and Hill left together. After the door closed, Sandecker sat down again. His eyes narrowed until they had a fierce twinkle in them. "As long as both crimes took place at sea, there's no way they're leaving NUMA out of the investigation. We'll go our own separate way without rocking the CIA and the FBI's boat." He looked at Pitt and Giordino. "You two take three days off and rest up. Then come back and get to work."

  Pitt looked candidly back at Sandecker, then around the table. "Where do we start?"

  "I'll have a plan when you return. In the meantime, Rudi and Hiram will gather all the data possible."

  "What are you going to do for relaxation?" Gunn asked Pitt and Giordino jointly.

  "Before I left for the Pacific, I bought a thirty-six-foot sailboat that I keep at a marina near Annapolis. I thought I'd gather up a couple of ladies and cruise Chesapeake Bay."

  Gunn turned to Pitt. "And you?"

  "Me?" Pitt shrugged casually. "I'm going to an air show."

  23

  The day could not have been more perfect for the air show and the benefit for the disabled children. More than ten thousand people attended under a cobalt sky free of clouds. A slight breeze blew in off the Atlantic Ocean and cooled the warm summer temperatures.

  Gene Taylor Field was a private airport in the middle of a housing community whose residents all owned airplanes. The streets were laid out so families could taxi their aircraft from their houses to the runway and back. Unlike most fields, the immediate area around the runway was landscaped with small bushes, hedges and flowerbeds. Acres of grass surrounded most of the paved area for car parking and picnicking. The crowds could congregate on the grassy lawns to watch the planes and their pilots performing acrobatics in the air, or they could walk among the vintage aircraft that were parked on display around one end of the runway.

  The disabled children were brought in by families, schools and hospitals from four states. There was no shortage of volunteers to escort them around the aircraft on display. It was an emotional event, and everyone was proud to be a part of it.

  Kelly was stressed to the limit. She knew her blood pressure was reaching the point of no return. Until now, everything had run smoothly, no glitches, no problems, the volunteers incredibly helpful. The owners and pilots of the ninety aircraft were happy to give their time and participate at their own expense. They were extremely gracious in allowing the children to sit in the cockpits while explaining the story behind their airplanes.

  But the one aircraft Kelly was counting on, the transport that was scheduled to give rides to the children, flying them over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, had failed to show. She was on the verge of announcing the bad news to the children when her close friend and co-worker Mary Conrow approached her.

  "I'm sorry," she said sympathetically. "I know you were counting on him."

  "I can't believe Dirk didn't call me if he couldn't arrange for a plane," Kelly murmured dejectedly.

  Mary was a very attractive woman, in her middle thirties, stylishly groomed and fashionably dressed. She wore her autumn-leaf blond hair in long ringlets that fanned out over her shoulders. Wide pale-green eyes stared at the world with a self-assurance that accented her high cheekbones and tapered chin. She was about to say something, when suddenly she shaded her eyes with one hand and pointed into the sky.

  "What's that flying in from the south?"

  Kelly stared in the direction where Mary gestured. "I can't make it out."

  "Looks like an old transport plane!" said Mary excitedly. "I think he's coming!"

  Vast relief flowed through Kelly's veins, and her heartbeat increased. "It has to be him!" she shouted. "Dirk didn't let me down."

  They watched, the children watched, the whole crowd watched, as the strange-looking old aircraft lumbered across the sky only a few hundred feet above the tops of the trees surrounding the field. It came slowly, no more than seventy-five miles an hour. There was an awkward sort of grace in her flight through the sky, the reason she had been affectionately known as the Tin Goose, the most successful commercial airliner of her time.

  The 5-AT Trimotor had been built by the Ford Motor Company in the early nineteen thirties; Pitt's was one of the few that still survived in museums or private collections. Most had color schemes painted with the identifying schemes and emblems of the old airlines they served. He had retained the pure silver look on the corrugated aluminum wings and fuselage, with only the registration number and Ford logo as markings.

  Since it was the only plane in the air at that moment, the crowd and participating pilots all paused and gazed skyward at the legendary aircraft as it banked and lined up on the runway. The toothpick-fixed propellers on the engines flashed in the sun and whipped the air with a distinctive buzzing sound.

  Two engines hung from the wings while the third protruded from the bow of the fuselage. The big, thick wings looked like they could lift a plane twice its size. The forward vee-windshield had a comical look to it, but the side windows were large, offering the pilots more than ample vision. The ageless machine seemed to hang motionlessly for a moment, like a true goose just before its feet touched water. Then, very slowly, she settled to the ground, her big tires biting the asphalt with a slight puff of white smoke and a barely audible squeal.

  A volunteer raced across the runway in a World War II restored jeep and motioned the trimotor to follow toward its assigned parking place near the end of a row of vintage and antique aircraft. Pitt taxied between a World War I Fokker DR.l triplane, painted a bright red like Baron Von Richthofen's famous aircraft, and a blue 1932 Sikorsky S-38 amphibian that could land on water as well as land.

  Kelly and Mary drove up to the aircraft, chauffeured by a volunteer in his private 1918 Cadillac touring car. They hopped out and waited until the twin-bladed propellers spun to a stop. A minute later, the passengers' door opened and Pitt leaned out. He dropped a boarding stool to the ground before stepping down.

  "You!" Kelly gasped. "You didn't say the aircraft belonged to you."

  "I thought I'd surprise you," he said, with a devilish smile. "Forgive my tardiness. I encountered strong headwinds on the way from Washington." His eyes were drawn to Mary. "Hello."

  "Oh, I'm sorry," said Kelly. "This is my very dear friend Mary Conrow. She's my assistant chairman for the event. And this is-"

  "Yes, I know. The Dirk Pitt you never stop talking about." Mary sized Pitt up and was immediately swept into his green eyes. "A pleasure to meet you," she murmured.

  "The pleasure is mine."

  "The children are excited about flying in your plane," said Kelly. "That's all they've talked about since they saw you coming. We're already lining them up for the flights."

  Pitt stared at the crowd of disabled children, many in wheelchairs, who were assembling for the rides. "How many of them want to go? The plane can only carry fifteen passengers at a time."

  "We have about sixty," replied Mary. "So it will take four trips."

  Pitt smiled. "I can handle it, but if I'm going to carry passengers, I'll need a copilot. My friend Al Giordino couldn't make it."

  "No problem," said Kelly. "Mary is a pilot with Conquest Airlines."

  "For very long?"

  "Twelve years in seven thirty-sevens and seven sixty-sevens."

  "How many hours in prop planes?"

  "Well over a thousand."

  Pitt nodded. "Okay, climb in and I'll give you a quick flight check."

  Mary's face lit up like a child's on Christmas morning. "Flying a Ford trimotor will make all the male pilots I know green with envy."

  Once they were belted into their bucket seats in the cockpit, Pitt lectured Mary on the controls and instruments. The forward instrument panel was a study in no-nonsense simplicity. Several mandatory switches and slightly more than a dozen fundamental instruments were spread strategical
ly across a large pyramid-shaped black panel. But only the nose engine's instruments were set in the panel. Oddly, the tachometer, oil pressure and oil temperature gauges for the two outboard engines were mounted outside the cockpit on the mounting struts.

  The engine's three throttles were mounted between the seats. The control columns sported steering wheels with wooden spokes that operated the ailerons and looked like they came out of old automobiles. Never one to waste a dime, Henry Ford had insisted his company could save money by using existing Model T Ford car steering wheels. Trim was altered by a small crank over the pilot's head. The big brake stick that swung left and right to steer the airplane when it was on the ground also rose between the pilot's and copilot's seats.

  Pitt fired up the engines, watching them shudder and vibrate in their mountings to the accompaniment of a series of pops and coughs, before the combustion inside the cylinders smoothed out into a steady beat. After running them up, he taxied to the end of the runway. He explained the takeoff and landing procedure before turning the controls over to Mary, reminding her that she was flying a plane with a tail wheel instead of a jetliner with tricycle gear.

  She had a light and graceful touch and quickly learned the quirks of flying a seventy-two-year-old aircraft. Pitt demonstrated how the aircraft would stall at sixty-four miles an hour, fly without effort on two engines, and still have enough power left to make a controlled landing on only one.

  "It seems strange," she said loudly, over the roar of the triple exhaust, "to see engines sitting out in the open without any cowling."

  "They were made to take the elements."

  "What is her history?"

  "She was built by the Stout Metal Airplane Company in nineteen twenty-nine," Pitt lectured, "which was a division of the Ford Motor Company. Ford built a hundred and ninety-six of them, the first all-metal airplanes in the United States. This was the one hundred and fifty-eighth off the assembly line. About eighteen still exist, and three are still flying. She began service with Transcontinental Air Transport, which later became TWA. She flew the New York-to-Chicago leg and carried many of the celebrities of the day-Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford. Franklin Roosevelt chartered her to fly to the Democratic convention in Chicago. Anybody who was somebody flew in her. There was no better air transport in her day for comfort and convenience. The Ford trimotor was the first to carry a rest room and service with a stewardess. You may not realize it, but you are sitting in the airplane that ushered in modern commercial aviation. The first queen of the skies."

  "She has an interesting pedigree."

  "When the Douglas DC-3 came out of production in 1934, Old Reliable, the nickname she picked up along her career, was retired. For the next several years, she flew passengers in Mexico. Unexpectedly, in 1942, she showed up on the island of Luzon in the Philippines and evacuated a score of our soldiers on island-hopping flights to Australia. She disappeared in the mists of time after that. She next turned up in Iceland, where she was owned by an aircraft mechanic who transported supplies to isolated farms and towns. I bought her in 1987 and flew her to Washington, where I gave her a painstaking restoration."

  "What are her specs?"

  "Three Pratt and Whitney four-hundred-and-fifty-horsepower engines," Pitt elaborated. "She carries enough fuel to fly five hundred fifty miles at a cruising speed of one hundred fifteen miles an hour. If pushed, she can do one hundred thirty-five. She can climb at one thousand one hundred feet a minute and reach a ceiling of seventeen thousand three hundred feet. Her wingspan is seventy-seven feet and she is forty-nine feet in length. Did I miss anything?"

  "That pretty well covers it," said Mary.

  "She's all yours," said Pitt, as he lifted his hands from the controls. "She's strictly a hands-on plane. You have to fly her every second."

  "I see what you mean," said Mary, having to use her muscles to twist the wheel and move the big ailerons. After a few minutes of banks and turns, she set up for a landing.

  Pitt observed Mary land and touch down with just the slightest bump before settling the tail wheel on the asphalt. "Very nice," he complimented her. "Done like an old trimotor pro."

  "Thank you, sir," she said, with a pleased laugh.

  Once the trimotor was parked, the children began to come on board. Most had to be lifted through the doorway by volunteers into Pitt's arms, who then carried them to seats and buckled their seat belts. Seeing the severely disabled children showing such courage and humor despite their sad physical disabilities deeply touched Pitt's heart. Kelly came along to attend to the needs of the children, joking and laughing with them. After takeoff, she pointed out the sights of Manhattan from the air as Pitt headed across the Hudson River toward the city.

  The old aircraft was perfect for sightseeing. Its slow speed and the big square windows along her fuselage offered unobstructed panoramic viewing. The children sat in the old wicker chairs with their padded cushions and jabbered excitedly at seeing the buildings of the city reach upward toward them.

  Pitt made three trips, and while the plane was being refueled, he walked over and admired the triwing World War I Fokker that was parked next to the trimotor. At one time during the war it had been the scourge of the Allied air services, flown by the German aces Manfred von Richthofen, Werner Voss and Hermann Goring. Von Richthofen had claimed it climbed like a monkey and maneuvered like the devil.

  He was studying the guns mounted onto the engine cowling when a man in old flying togs walked up to him. "What do you think of her?" he asked.

  Pitt turned his head and looked into the olive eyes of a dark-skinned man, who had the sharp features of an Egyptian. There was an almost imperious look about him. He stood tall and straight, with what looked to Pitt to be a military bearing. His eyes were strange, with a hard quality that seemed focused straight ahead without orbiting left or right.

  Both men studied each other for a moment, noting that they were of equal height and weight. Finally, Pitt said, "I'm always surprised at how small the old fighters look in pictures, but become quite large when you stand next to them." He pointed at the twin guns mounted behind the propeller. "They look like the genuine articles."

  The man nodded. "Original Spandau 7.92 millimeters."

  "And the ammunition belts? They're loaded with rounds."

  "Purely to impress the onlookers," said the dark-skinned man. "She was an excellent killing machine for her time. I like to retain the image." He removed a gauntlet-style flying glove and offered his hand. "I'm Conger Rand, the owner of the plane. You're the pilot of the trimotor?"

  "Yes." Pitt had the strange feeling that the man knew him. "My name is Dirk Pitt."

  "I know" said Rand. "You're with NUMA."

  "Have we met?"

  "No, but we have a mutual acquaintance."

  Before Pitt could reply, Kelly called out. "We're ready to load for the last flight."

  Pitt turned and was about to say "Well, I guess I have to go," but the pilot of the Fokker had swiftly spun away and stepped out of view behind his aircraft.

  The fuel tanks were capped, and as soon as the fuel truck had driven away, the trimotor was loaded with children for the final flight over the city. Pitt let Mary handle the controls while he went back and talked with the children, pointing out the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as they circled them at a thousand feet. He returned to the cockpit and took over, heading the plane over the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge.

  With the outside temperature in the high eighties, Pitt slid open his side window and let the air rush into the cockpit. If he hadn't had children on board, he might have been tempted to fly under the venerable old bridge, but that would have cost him his license. Not a wise move, he decided rationally.

  He was distracted by a shadow that appeared alongside and slightly above the trimotor.

  "We have a visitor," said Mary, as he heard the children begin squealing in delight in the passenger's cabin.

&n
bsp; Pitt looked up to see a bright splash of red against the dazzling blue sky. The pilot of the Red Fokker triplane waved from his cockpit no more than fifty yards away. He was wearing a leather flight helmet and goggles with a silk ribbon streaming from the top of his head. The old Fokker was so close Pitt saw the pilot's teeth flash in a wide grin, an almost evil grin. He was about to wave back when the antique plane suddenly veered away.

  Pitt watched as the red triplane performed a loop and then abruptly swooped back toward the Ford trimotor, angling in from the forward port side.

  "What is that crazy nut doing?" asked Mary. "He can't perform acrobatics over the city."

  Her question was answered when twin bursts of laserlike light flashed from the muzzles of the twin Spandau machine guns. For a brief instant, Mary thought it was part of a staged aerial stunt. But then the glass in the windshield burst into fragments, quickly followed by a spray of oil and an eruption of smoke from the engine in front of the cockpit.

 
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