The C-47 Skytrain banked sharply left and the runway came into view, a slash in the thick evergreens. Cresting the top of the ridge, the pilot pulled the power back on the twin engines and set the flaps at twenty degrees. The plane rose slightly with the added lift until the airspeed dropped and the nose of the plane settled flat. The aircraft was on a final approach to a muddy airstrip cut in the center of the pine forest, coming in low and fast at 100 knots, trickier, but less dangerous than a normal approach.
A gusty headwind came straight down the runway, the sky mottled with white clouds hung on bright blue. The sun flickered through the starboard windows into the eyes of a single passenger. The staccato light gave him a headache so Jean-Claude Ouvrier unbuckled from his position on the left side of the aircraft and crossed to the other side. He sat down on one of the right seats and pulled the strap around his chest as tightly as he could, sinking into the webbed seat. These planes were built sparely, to haul people and cargo, and not always too comfortably. Last week’s passengers were eighty or so pigs, crated and as nervous as Jean-Claude. The cabin floor had been hurriedly washed down, and not too thoroughly. It stank.
Another strong gust lifted the nose of the craft and then dissipated, swooning the airplane and the middle-aged scientist. It was hot and smelled of burlap and fuel and excrement in the cabin and Jean-Claude was now sweating and felt a little ill.
He craned his neck and tried to look out the front of the plane as the nose fell toward Earth; he glimpsed the tail of a wrecked aircraft just short of the end of the runway. A lump formed in his throat.
The pilot and co-pilot were talking to each other, gesturing and pointing, the pilot’s right hand on the dual throttles. Suddenly the twins roared with their combined twenty-four hundred horses, and the pilot twisted the props for maximum pitch, grabbing as much air as they could. The plane rose quickly as it was nearly empty and gently banked again—this time to the right—and down over a valley picking up airspeed as it dove off the ridge. The pilot hugged the ground and set the pitch on the propellers for maximum speed. He was in no hurry to climb out, running at 190 mph, nearly as fast as she could fly. The clouds were too broken to offer any cover and, since he was denied a place to land, he raced the plane down the length of the valley away, which opened out to the sea. There, a front had developed and clouds were collecting.
They rolled out offshore, staying in the clouds until they could gain some altitude and try to survey the landing strip from a safer height. Jean-Claude decided to move a little closer to the front, which afforded a slightly better view out the cockpit and, as he found out, would save his life. He unstrapped himself and quickly switched back to the right side, taking up a seat and cinching the seatbelt and harness tightly around his body. The other jump seat buckles were clamped around emptiness and rattled loosely as the plane made what would be its last run.
The plane plunged into a cloudbank and the windows turned white and the ride turned turbulent and not just bumpy, but with 50-foot drops, like falling into small holes in the sky. Jean-Claude looked at the other three riding in the front of the plane rising weightless in their seats as the plane dropped. This plane was fitted as luxuriously as a cattle car and the aluminum frame and skin rattled nervously as the pilot put the plane into a steep climb.
His stomach lifted as he gripped the leather case he held and suppressed a gag. As the plane climbed, the third in the cockpit, an Army Air Corps officer, neatly folded a map he was reading and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He unsnapped the buckle of his seat belt and clambered out of the cockpit. The plane was rising now at a fairly steep angle, climbing as quickly as she could and the officer had difficulty keeping his feet as he scrambled down the inclined floor of the main cabin to speak with the passenger. He was trim and clean, about thirty-five years old, Jean-Claude judged. A pistol was strapped to his waist. He did not wear a nameplate above his breast and had introduced himself only as Joe Smith.
Jean-Claude settled back and waited for the verdict: he really didn’t care at this point where the plane would land; he just wanted to put his feet on solid mother Earth.
The officer leaned in close and yelled over the wind and noise of the engines, smiling a little as he noticed how green his charge looked. The officer caught himself and leaned over Jean-Claude. “We’re going around to have another look. We can’t put down there if the runway is damaged.”
Jean-Claude thought to himself that the officer had the keen ability to make observations of the obvious. But he smiled and shook his head, settled back and waited for the turn. The plane kept climbing.
“I’ve got to get down soon! My appointment.” Jean-Claude shouted.
The Air Corps officer shook his head. “Yes, but we want to get you down in one piece, don’t we?” He smiled again.
Jean-Claude did not smile back.
Ever since he had taken up this task, he had been from New England to Los Alamos back to Washington. Now to Eastern Europe. Although he could appreciate how things had progressed from the days of the Wright brothers—not even fifty years had passed and planes were crossing continents and engaging in great air battles—he never got used to flying. Now, here he was in Eastern Europe, flying into an unknown meeting to review papers, stolen from the Nazis. Did they have the bomb? And moreso, unbeknownst to his hosts, could he deliver the book as he must? To someone he never met?
The world had turned inside out. The first great war, le guerre mondiale, merely precipitated another, greater war. The acceleration of technology from the turn of the century, the now-unhidden mysteries of the energy locked up in the connectedness of nature was fast-unraveling man’s ability to make moral decisions about its power. The smallest of mistakes could catalyze a disaster. Not only was the growth of knowledge moving at a blinding pace, but the unprecedented ability to destroy whole cities was not out of the question. It had already happened in this war: the fire bombing of Dresden and soon enough, Tokyo. A race was on between the Allies and Germany to find the hidden secrets of matter, secrets that would unleash the fury of the energy that held matter together, like looking into the mind of God. Great progress was made as key building blocks of understanding were laid. First, the components of materials, then the mathematics that described the construction of the universe, finally, the methods in chemistry, mechanics and electricity that could make a single bomb to destroy a city.
The brightest minds on both sides of the conflict were racing to develop atomic weapons and the bravest Allied souls were racing to thwart Nazi efforts, to capture knowledge, to disrupt the enemy and destroy their research.
Ironically, or in some way thankfully, the biggest mistake that Hitler made was to first demean and campaign against the Jewish scientists and academics, to first deny them advancements, make them persona non grata, and then to actively persecute those of that ancient faith. It is the first sign of a declining civilization that places chains on intellectuals and ideological blinders on society. Throughout the nineteen-thirties, Jewish scientists fled Germany in droves, taking their knowledge and, to no small measure, their enmity against the evil that rose and threatened to enslave Europe.
German scientists and engineers were eager to get their hands on isotopes that they could use to build reactors to create fissile material. A necessary component in these reactor designs was heavy water—deuterium oxide—a rare form of water that carried an isotope of that elemental atomic material, hydrogen. Tremendous amounts of electricity were required to produce heavy water by the process of electrolysis. When the Germans seized Norway, early in the war, they captured the Vermok Hydroelectric Plant, which had been producing heavy water for several years before British commandos and local resistance succeeded in heavily damaging the plant, slowing the German effort.
Jean-Claude knew this and he was painfully aware of the lives that had been lost trying to discern and unravel German plans. The effort was mounted by Werner Heisenberg—whom Jean-Claude met five years earlier—just before Germany pushed Europe to calamity. Heisenberg, himself, was ostracized as a “white Jew” after Hitler rose to power. Now rehabilitated, Heisenberg was a member of the Uranverein or Uranium Club and headed the effort to light an atomic fire in a German reactor. Now this Nobel Prize winner and acclaimed architect of quantum mechanics was shouldering the effort that threatened even greater destruction. Jean-Claude was now part of the effort to undo the German’s advance. He was afraid. Could this cup not pass?
The plane broke free of the clouds and climbed to six thousand feet—not high enough to be out of harm’s way, but high enough to avoid being peppered by small arms. Given the mix of the friendlies and unfriendlies below, safety was not guaranteed. The airstrip was a known safe spot—at least it was twenty-four hours ago when this mission was hastily put together. Now, with the landing area possibly compromised, they’d have to decide on another tack.
“Let’s go over this again.” The Air Corps officer was wearing the uniform as a thin disguise—Jean-Claude wasn’t sure for whom he worked, nor did he care to know. “When we reach our destination, we’ll put you out with this:” he tapped a case that was strapped to the floor with his foot. “There’s enough rations for about a week here…if you don’t enjoy them too quickly.” He paused and drew from his breast pocket a chain with a dog tag. Jean-Claude could see some numbers stamped on them. “We’ll also leave a radio hidden nearby. When you get back to the airstrip,” he held up the chain “call on this frequency. Your call sign is ‘Socrates’ and we’ll come get you.” Jean-Claude mused: He wondered if he was just offered hemlock.
The craft dove rapidly and the runway came into view, laying at a right angle to their path. To the left was the plane that had crashed just shy of the runway, its fuselage intact but its wings broken, like a fallen bird. The strip was open and clear; long yellow tape was unrolled and lay across the west end. It was their signal: all clear for a landing. The C-47 crossed midfield at a thousand feet above the ground to turn left to downwind, parallel to the runway. The wind was stiff, coming straight from the East, and would be right on the nose of the aircraft—ideal for a short-field landing. Two quick turns and they would be on final.
The officer leaned towards the front of the plane as the plane shed another five hundred feet of altitude, the engines thrumming at a quarter-power. To steady himself he was holding onto a conduit that was bolted to the inner wall of the plane. “Any questions?” He asked. Jean-Claude shook his head no but thought to himself ‘Yes, many questions.’
Suddenly, a flash illuminated the windows on the port side and there was a concussive BOOM. The plane rolled hard to the left, like it was falling over a cliff. The officer was pitched off his feet and flew across the cabin away from Jean-Claude. The pilot and co-pilot were yelling, yanking back on the yokes and nearly standing on the right rudder pedal. From where Jean-Claude sat he could see out the cockpit window as the plane spiraled down to the left. All he saw was the green tops of trees, coming straight towards the plane. The airframe shuddered as the pilots worked to bring the plane level again. The Air Corps officer raised himself up. His hat had fallen off and a deep gash in the back of his head bled furiously where he had hit the metal rail of the opposite seating. He was holding his head and trying to make it to the front of the plane, the cabin listing sharply to the left.
“Strap yourself in!” Jean-Claude yelled, but the officer struggled forward. Jean-Claude now noticed that one of the engines had shut down. He looked across the cabin and out one of the port windows. The propeller on the left engine was spinning slowly, wind-milling instead of pushing air. Black fluid leaked along the engine nacelle. To the outboard side, he saw the leading edge of the left wing split open, frayed and blackened. The pilot was desperately holding onto the controls, and had pushed the starboard engine throttle to its stops. The remaining engine howled angrily as the plane managed to limp back into the air, gaining altitude slowly now, just brushing the tallest of the pines that reached into the sky. Jean-Claude felt three large whacks from the tops of the trees, pounding the drooping left wing. The pilot jerked the controls hard to the right, but it was too late. With a fourth smack of a pine bough, the left aileron was ripped from its hinges and whipped violently in the airstream, held by shredded linkage from one end to the wing, and danced dumbly in the air.
The officer managed to scramble to the front and got to his seat as the nose of the aircraft dove into the forest. Dark green poured onto the cockpit. Jean-Claude closed his eyes and gripped his briefcase. The plane shook and groaned and shuddered as it passed through the thin tops of the trees, bending the smaller trees and banging hard against the larger ones. The remaining engine screamed and over-ran, free of its propeller that had been smashed off and was flying into the forest in pieces. The airplane skipped momentarily along the tops of the trees before sliding down and into the woods, both wings folding over the top of the fuselage.
The cockpit window broke and pine limbs pierced the cabin. Jean-Claude watched with horror as a long branch impaled the Air Corps officer through his neck, lifting him like a lance; his body shot backwards through the cabin. The pilots had covered their heads but were made bloody, whipped by the glass and tree limbs and dissolving instrument panel. The fuselage rolled as the left wing ripped away from its root. Jean-Claude was suspended in air, hanging from the side of the airplane cabin. Anything that had not been tied or clamped down crashed down the aisle. A large case of ammunition, three hundred pounds heavy, slid down and destroyed the seat he had left moments before. He closed his eyes and waited for the final impact that would take his life.
The forward motion of the airplane slowed and the C-47 settled through the trees to the ground, snapping off branches and boughs and finally hitting the ground, settling on the soft needle-covered floor of the forest. The trees were less dense here and the banging impact of the crash turned into a grinding skid along the ground. The last flight of the Gooney Bird ended not with a bang, but with a curiously soft crunch in a thicket of thinning trees.
Excerpted from The Bearers
For George C. in New Hampshire
is founder of Washington Laboratories and American Certification Body. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.