Lamar Fontaine and I, we’re sitting on a grassy rise, just outside the boundary fence of the airfield at Newport, and we can’t believe what we’re seeing. “Shee-it,” Lamar says, goggle-eyed, “Bubba, I think that there is a B-17.”
I roll my eyes. “What would one of those be doing out here at this podunk airport?”
He’s right, you can’t. I wasn’t always a plane freak. When I was a kid, my bedroom was full of tank models. I was a groundhugger, an armor guy. But even then, I knew the profile of a B-17. It’s an icon, as familiar as the bleached grin of a movie star. For whatever reason, one of them is here now, in the fading daylight, parked alone on the ramp at a tiny coastal Oregon airport. It’s a mystery.
“I need to get closer,” Lamar says.
I point to the fence. “Can’t. Besides, we can see it fine from here.”
We’ve been down at the beach most of the afternoon, and we’ve got our fishing tackle with us. Lamar reaches into his box, and pulls out a set of bolt cutters. Why he needs them for fishing is anybody’s guess. I laugh. Then I see the look in his eye. “Oh no, uh-uh. I’m not spending the rest of my life in a federal prison.” I mean it, too.
Lamar flashes one of his poisonous grins, and I know we’re both goners. He turns away, starts working on the fence. Snip, snip, snip. Before I know it, he’s holding a slit aside like a curtain, waving me through. “Come on, we’re just gonna have a closer look. Ain’t nobody on the ramp. They won’t even notice us.”
Lamar Fontaine is a very bad influence on me.
I’m not sure I want to start my life of crime just yet, but that lovely big plane is calling for us to get closer. Before I know it, we’re sneaking through shin-high grass, me hoping there aren’t any snakes around. He’s right about there being nobody on the ramp. We arrive at the sleeping lady and march up like we own her.
She’s a winged paradox. Made for war, her job was to destroy property and take human lives. Yet as we walk around, mouths agape, the only thing I can think of is how graceful she looks, how every line is tuned to flow into a unified whole that seems to ache for flight. Among her designers, there must have been a few poets.
“Reckon them are live?” Lamar points toward the stub of a machine gun barrel lolling from one of the waist gunner ports. Leave it to him to focus on the firepower.
I shake my head. “What’re they going to shoot? Passing Cessnas? I seriously doubt the FAA lets civilians fly around with loaded guns hanging out of their windows.”
He sniffs, “yeah,” sounding disappointed.
“Does it seem odd to you, the paint job?” I ask.
Lamar cocks his head. “How do you mean? Looks like the real deal to me. That’s dubya-dubya-two vintage skin.”
“That’s what I’m saying. Normally, you go to an airshow and see a restored fighter or bomber, their paint is glossy and perfect. This one’s not like that. It’s worn, looks used. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it’s seen action.”
Lamar points to a puddle of oil dripping lazily from the engine above him. “Leaky mother, too.” I notice the cowl flaps with their chipped paint, the blued patina on the exhaust stacks. This lady’s no hangar queen. She looks like she just dropped in on her way back from Bremen.
Lamar’s voice is reedy with excitement. “Hey, c’mere! Check this out!”
I duck under the wing and trot toward the nose. He’s standing transfixed, pointing at a metal flap that hangs from her belly. “It’s open!”
What is this, some sort of test? Her entrance hatch yawns wide, practically daring us to climb aboard. The next thing I know, Lamar’s feet are disappearing into it. This is a bad idea, I think. And then I follow.
The first thing that hits me: those bomber crews must have been really small fellas. Inside it’s cramped, and I bang my skull against a bulkhead and smash my knee into something protruding from the hatch at the same time. I groan, and Lamar snickers. Pain is funny to him, especially mine.
It smells like oil in here, a flat metallic odor that means business. My heart is pounding as I squeeze into the cockpit to find my delinquent buddy already sitting in the copilot’s seat. He’s bouncing on the hard perch, humming to himself like a five-year-old, running his hands across the dash.
“This is awesome,” he yelps.
That’s a good word for it. I reach out with one clumsy foot and feel for the floor in front of the pilot’s seat. Carefully, I wedge my big frame into place and ease onto the shiny, worn leather. It makes a crackling noise as I sit. The yoke is canted away from me, lying dead against the dash, and I can’t help but touch it. It’s worn, too, has felt a lot of palms it in its time. Gripping the cold steel, I pull it toward me. I’m surprised by how heavy it is.
The instruments catch my eye next. I’m a pilot, albeit it a green one, with only thirty hours or so in a 172 under my belt. Somehow I figured a beast like this would be complex, but the layout isn’t much fancier than my Cessna.
“I could fly this,” I say. Lamar nods. He’s engrossed in a panel to his right.
“Seriously. Look, here’s the attitude indicator,” I point to the middle of the panel. “Airspeed here, VSI. Hey, wait a minute…”
“What?” Lamar glances over at me.
“This isn’t set up for modern flight.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“Lookit, no radio nav of any sort. No transponder. Obviously no GPS.” I scratch my chin. “It’s like it just dropped in from 1943.”
There’s a rustling sound of paper next to me, and I turn to see Lamar paging through a small book he’s found.
“Manual,” he says, triumphant. He wags it at me, then turns more pages. He points to the cockpit wall to my left. “See a battery switch over there?”
I look down, straining to see in the low light. “I think so, yeah.”
“You’re crazy, man.”
“Flick it,” he says, the devil in his eyes.
He’s scaring me, and against my better judgment, I flick it.
The next few seconds are a blur. I see him reach across the wide center console and fiddle with a paddle switch. Then he hunches down over the panel to his right and I hear the hollow click of toggles being thrown. There’s a low whirring sound.
“Damn,” Lamar mutters. He looks at the book, tracing the page with his finger. Then he returns to the panel. There’s another whir, and over his shoulder I see a propeller wake up and start to move. My heart leaps into my throat.
“Got it,” he snaps. In the same instant, the air is split with an explosive thud. A cloud of choking white smoke boils from the exhaust stacks, billowing outside the window. The drone of a big radial engine nearly splits our skulls.
Lamar yells something, but his words are swept away by the engine. He lifts an ancient bakelite headset from the floor and points to it, clipping it on his head with a maniacal grin. I find mine and do the same.
“What are you doing?” I bellow into the microphone. He’s lost in his task and pays me no mind. He flicks another magneto, throws more switches, and the next thing I know, all four engines are growling in harmony. I’ve reached a new level of panic as I see my freedom flash before my eyes. The panic has a new edge to it, though, one that I’m almost afraid to acknowledge. It feels like thrill.
My headphones crackle with static. “This is where you come in,” he yells, tinny in my ears.
“I can’t fly this thing,” I respond, “I’m not certified. I’ll kill us both!”
He shoots me a look of disapproval. “Does it have a propeller?”
“You can work it, flyboy. The guys who flew these didn’t have a hell of a lot more training than you do now.”
Before I can think about it too much, my hand brushes something cold. I realize that I’m caressing the huge throttle levers. Maybe Lamar is right. Maybe I could fly this huge thing. It’s just like your Skyhawk, only bigger, I tell myself. Same principle. Tentatively, I push forward on the levers. They’re stiff and slow, and I pull my hand back instantly when the engine note rises.
“Wuss!” Lamar taunts. He grabs the levers and shoves them. My eyes grow huge and I white-knuckle the yoke. We’re rolling! Then we keep rolling. We pick up speed. There’s a turn in the taxiway coming up, and I instinctively shove on the right rudder pedal. The plane keeps moving dead forward at a stately pace.
“Aagh!” I shout, “It won’t turn!”
“Throttle!” he screams, then grabs the right half of the split lever, pulling it back to idle. With only the left engines raging, the plane starts to curve slowly to the right. Too slowly. I press the right brake a little, then a lot. It’s like kicking a brick wall. Almost too late, the big bird swings through the turn. I tuck my forehead against my shoulder and wipe the building sweat onto my sleeve.
Somehow, through cursing and calf power, I manage to wrestle the plane to the edge of the runway. We both stomp the brakes in unison and bring her to a halt just this side of the numbers.
This is where things get surreal. I’m staring down the runway, the white lines converging to a point under a rose-tinted sky. My ears are filled with the thrum of the massive engines and my hands are full of the yoke, warming under my palms. And here I sit with a third-class medical, and a logbook endorsement to fly a light trainer, and even then only if the weather is good.
“No turning back now,” Lamar says. He’s right. Literally. With all the trouble we had forcing this thing around a couple of loose corners, I have no idea how we’d pirouette and go back. So I do what any self-respecting plane thief would do—I clamp my hands on the controls, set my jaw, and I pray.
“Yeeeeeehaaaaaa!” he howls. We push the throttles to their stops with our hearts hammering in time with the pistons. The plane veers to one side. I stomp the opposite brake, and it lurches to the other. Somehow, I manage to keep it off the grass as we snake across the runway, picking up speed. The cockpit quakes ominously. The engine roar is deafening. The end of the runway is approaching fast and the plane is still a hurtling earthbound missile.
Lamar punches me on the shoulder, and I glance his way. He’s gesticulating wildly towards a wheel on my side of the console. “Trim”, he mouths. I can see the keys rushing at us at the far end, and feel for the elevator trim wheel. Like the other controls, it’s stiff and unresponsive, so I put my weight into it, furiously tugging it toward me.
Suddenly the ground shifts up in the view, leaving my stomach on the tarmac behind us. The tail is airborne, but it’s not going to stay that way unless we can unstick the main wheels. “Help me,” I moan, pulling back on the yoke with every once of strength. Lamar leans forward, attaches his wiry frame to the wheel, grimacing. We pass the upside-down runway numbers. Grass fills the view. I apologize to whatever deity is listening for being stupid enough to do this. And then everything stops shaking.
I glance over my left shoulder for reassurance that we’re indeed airborne, and look straight into the setting sun. I whip my head away from it, but it’s too late. Black spots float in my vision, blanking the instruments. “What speed?” I holler into my mic. Lamar is a drooling idiot, panting at the window, rocking to some unheard song. It must be nice to be completely oblivious. Finally, I resort to punching him on the shoulder, pointing at the manual. He’s slow, but he gets it. Riffling through the pages, he finds what he’s looking for. “One forty is safe.”
I look down to see the needle of the airspeed gauge quivering at about 120mph, and I push against the yoke to drop the nose a little. The engines are still howling, and I check the manifold pressure to see it cooking dangerously high on all four. Squinting at the gauges, I can make out the red line, the green safety arc. I pull on the big throttle levers and the needles settle back into less dangerous territory. Likewise, I find the four prop pitch levers, and I slow the fans down to a comfortable burble. Now we’re flying!
For the first time since the wheels left the ground, I can relax and look around. It’s not exactly a greenhouse up here, but there’s enough glass to get a decent panoramic view. I lean forward and look past Lamar to the wing outside his window. Looks like you could play a game of football out there, such a deep, wide patch of aluminum.
Stable is the best word I can think of for her personality. I rock the yoke and she responds slowly but with authority. There’s an amazing difference in how this bird sits in the air compared to the Cessna I learned in. Always before, I had the feeling of being a speck of lint on the wind that any capricious breeze could toss at will. The air seems to respect this plane, to cut it a wide berth. We plow through the twilight, climbing steadily in a light mist, in no particular rush.
Lamar looks over his shoulder at the narrow passage behind us. He’s got an idea cooking in there. I know that look. “I’m going forward,” he says. It’s not question. I shake my head and start to say something, but he’s already kicking me in the shoulder as he twists himself out of his seat. He’s built more for this plane than I am, and like water, he runs between the cracks and finds the opening to the nose in the floor behind us. He wiggles into it and is gone.
It’s not like he was helping much, but now that I’m alone on the flight deck I’m uneasy. Kinda reminds me of my first solo, how quiet the plane seemed without the chatter of an instructor. I try to stretch out and let go, just enjoy the moment. The blister of the dome jutting from the nose ahead of me catches the waning light, reflects pearly warm tones. The scene radiates tranquility, despite the drone of the engines and the hot smell of grease.
Scanning the horizon, I see no one else in the air tonight. This strikes me as odd, but I’m not going to look that gift horse in the kisser. Same for the weather. It was stormy earlier today, but now that we’re underway the overcast has thinned and developed some holes. The stars even poke through in spots. Then it occurs to me that I have only landed once before at night. With a cold sweat, reality intrudes on my daydream. Where exactly had we planned to go with this pilfered plane? How do you land an aging bomber without anyone noticing? Probably best to haul it around and go back to Newport, drop it on the ramp and escape through the fence again. If we’re lucky. Problem is, night is building. I start to wonder if I can even find the right airport in the black.
As if sensing my rising panic, Lamar pops up behind me. He crawls like a monkey over the seat, settles in, and clips his headset back on. “Hoo-wee! That’s about the best view I ever saw,” he exclaims. He holds his palm toward me, and I look down to see two long brassy tubes glinting. “Shell casings,” he says. “I found ‘em up front. How cool is that?”
Cool, very cool. He nods toward them and shakes his hand, and I take one and slip it into my pocket. If you’re going to joyride in a stolen plane, might as well bring back a souvenir.
Still yelling over the piston noise, I explain our landing conundrum. He gives me a pouty look like a kid who’s been told to eat his vegetables. “Aw man, we’re just startin’ to have fun.”
I remind him that takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. He shrugs and looks out at the landscape slipping beneath our wings. The lights are coming on along the coast, each small town becoming a twinkling galaxy of white points. “The water’s on the left, so we’re headed north,” he says. It’s the first glimmer of logic he’s uttered all day. “Won’t we be passing near Astoria at some point soon?”
Perfect. Even in the dark of night, it ought to be possible to spot the wide mouth of the Columbia river from up here. We can swing inland just a bit now, turn west, and follow the river to Astoria Regional. They’ve got a lot of good lighting, it ought to be doable. “Fine,” I say.
Squinting at the altimeter, I see we’re high. I tug the throttles back a notch and we slowly angle down. “Find me a light switch, I can’t see a thing,” I say. Lamar has to hold the manual up to the window now to catch what little is left of the light. The pages are about four inches from his face. He’s shaking his head.
The final transition to night is abrupt. We find ourselves in darkness, him fumbling with the switches and me following the ground lights and trying to make out the river. Whether it’s just bad timing or something Lamar brushes with his knuckle, I can’t tell, but all of a sudden things head south real fast.
It starts with a series of pops, like someone is tossing firecrackers out on the right wing, and I look around Lamar’s head to see an orange glow light the cowling of the outboard engine. No, no, no, is all I can think.
The airframe begins to shake, only a little at first, then building. “Rough air,” Lamar remarks.
“That’s not turbulence nimrod, we’re losing an engine.” I’m almost glad I can’t see his face well enough to read his expression. One confirmed case of panic is enough in any cockpit. The silken thrum of the engines has a new note, like someone thew gravel into the pistons. Flames lick from the cowl flaps of the wounded mill, and the glow dances on the faces of the instruments. It’s enough for me to see the number four manifold pressure needle dancing wildly on its spindle. There’s only one option.
“Shut it down,” I shout, grabbing what I hope is the right throttle. I yank it back to the stops and feel for the mixture levers, counting down the line to the farthest one.
“It’s okay, it’s going out,” Lamar says, his voice trembling.
“Only because I pulled it back,” I counter, and cut the fuel. We feel it in our stomachs as the plane swings, and I kick hard at the left rudder, pressing down with all my might. It doesn’t help that the prop is now windmilling, but I’ve got bigger problems.
Ahead, a wide expanse of black cuts across the land. I lean into the yoke, wrenching it around while bringing more pressure to bear on the rudder. I shriek for Lamar to help and the pedal sinks a little more. He’s wiry, but he’s strong.
We might be sinking, it’s hard to tell. I point the nose out over the water, just in case I’ve misjudged our altitude, and add power to the remaining three engines. We head what I think is west, following the road that looks like it runs along the riverbank.
“This might have been a bad idea,” I hear Lamar’s voice, shaky in my ‘phones.
“Oh no you don’t,” I reply, “You keep it together, man. I’ll kick the crap out of you once we’re on the ground, but for now we’ve got work to do.” We lock our eyes on the horizon, calves burning as we keep up the pressure on the rudder, and we hope.
I’m wondering about our chances for ditching in the river when I hear my copilot chattering. “Up there, that’s it, right?” I can see the silhouette of his finger, pointing to our two o’clock. Following it, there they are. The lights look so impossibly small and distant, but there’s no mistaking them. The runway end strobes are pulsing, and my heartbeat starts moving in time with them.
Are we at the right height? I concentrate on the wedge of the edge lighting, trying to mentally overlay it with what I remember from landings past. Then I hear a little voice in my head reminding me—it’s easy to get fooled into flying too low on a night approach. I believe it, because we look way too high for my taste right now. And quicker than I realize, here come the lights.
“Gimme some flaps, anything,” I say. There’s some animal grunting on the intercom, and I hear a short burst of hydraulic whine beneath the roar. The plane doesn’t change attitude much, and I wonder what switch he just threw.
“Gear?” Lamar asks.
“Not yet, I want to be sure I’ve made the runway.” I sure hope I said that loud enough, but I’m losing control of my voice. My grip is so tight on the yoke that I start to worry that I’ll snap it.
Somehow, through all this, my approach doesn’t quite suck. The lights line up okay, and I manage to wrestle these tons of aluminum into something resembling straight. If only my instructor could see me now, I think. It’s okay, maybe she can visit me in prison. If I live, that is.
“Now,” I say, “Lamar, landing gear. Hit it.”
“Wait, which one is it?”
“Just hit any damned lever you can find. I need wheels!” The end lights of runway 26 are rushing at us.
There’s a mechanical groan, and the air starts to burble and buffet around us. “Got it,” he says.
One hundred feet. Fifty. Forty. I can barely see for the sweat rolling into my eyes. Twenty. I haul back on the yoke to flare, but it’s mushy and the plane barely responds.
With a jolt, we slap the pavement with one wheel. I level the yoke to set the other one down. Something’s wrong. The horizon tilts, and though we’re on the ground, I get the sensation of falling in my gut. A thousand stars flash outside the window with a hideous shriek of rending metal, and we’re thrown to one side as the big bird judders sideways off the pavement. It’s like an earthquake rumbling through the cockpit. We hop on one wheel, dragging a wing, and finally plow to a stop in the grass.
The one and left-side engines are still rumbling away like a pair of giant weed whackers. I come to enough to remember to chop the throttles and cut their fuel. With a great sputtering, the whole hissing, smoking mass settles.
Lamar slurs like a man who’s spent the afternoon drinking. “Whoa,” he says. Wobbly, he climbs out of his seat, clambering over anything in his way to free himself from the ticking hulk. I decide that’s a pretty good idea, and unclip myself to follow.
My legs simply give out when I feel the ground under my feet. I roll onto my back, spread-eagle, and stare at the stars above. Any minute now, I’m sure we’ll hear the sounds of sirens, see the flashing lights. I don’t have the strength to do anything but just lay and wait.
The whole thing is so absurd, I can’t control myself and burst out laughing. “You think? Compared to what?”
My mood is contagious. He starts to guffaw, too. “Compared to being dead, hoss.”
We laugh like idiots until the tears stream down our cheeks. I hurt in places I didn’t know I had, but I don’t care. We’re alive.
When he can speak again, Lamar says, “Some ride, though, huh?”
“Yeah,” I say, “Some ride.” I close my eyes. So tired…
A mechanical ding brings me around. It was a long day at work, and must’ve dozed off in front of the computer again. An instant messenger window has popped up on screen.
LaFont459: Hey slacker, I just found a plane you’re gonna love. New Shockwave bird. I’m sending you the download info right now.
I get up and stretch, yawning. I guess I could squeeze in a flight before bed, as long as it’s short. Something in my pocket is poking me, and I reach and pull it out. I roll it around in my palm, staring at it in the blue glow of the monitor. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was a fifty caliber shell casing.
It’s true, Lamar Fontaine is a very bad influence on me.