From On Wings of the Morning
a novel in progress by WbtR member Dan Verner

Otto Kerchner, a descendant of German immigrants growing up in Wisconsin in the 1920’s and 30’s, is taken with flying. He dreams of little else, and manages to secure his private license when he is 16. When World War II breaks out, he signs up for the Army Air Force and becomes a B-17 pilot. Assigned to the Eighth Air Force based in England, he participates in 22 missions over Europe. On the 23rd mission, his aircraft is torn apart by flak and fighters. Otto must keep the ship up to allow his crew to bail out safely. Then he tries to bring it in. (His British Red Cross girlfriend is Alice; Mata is his sister. The “Jug” is an nickname for a P-47 fighter aircraft which escorted heavy bombers on their missions.)

Chapter 25

Falling Fast—1227 hours Zulu

The Fort rattled and bucked as it came over turbulence created by the water of the Channel. Otto kept them at a thousand feet, but he was losing altitude faster than he liked. He punched the bailout horn and felt the aircraft lurch up slightly as each man jumped out the side hatch. He counted, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…where was ten? Then he remembered that Schmidt and Donovan went out together. A good crew.

His thoughts flickered briefly to Alice and to his mother and to Mata. He wrenched them back to the task at hand. Concentrate, Kerchner, concentrate. He had 150 miles to go to the airfield but he didn’t think he could hold it up that long. Croyden looked like a good alternative, about half the distance. Yes, that would be the ticket. Straight in approach.

He had plenty of fuel since only two engines were operating, although they were at full power. He prayed that they would hold up, scanning constantly for potential landing sites. His altitude crept down gradually. He had to be trailing smoke, and surely the Jug in formation with him had radioed ahead about his predicament.

The crew had by now would have been recovered from the Channel, provided they landed all right. He would find out later. The CP did an amazing job of plucking fliers out of the water.

He saw the airfield from about thirty miles out. Five hundred feet. Otto kept his hands and feet busy, right at stall speed, which was about all he could manage. He didn’t have the bomb load, but he had more fuel than he wanted.

Four hundred feet. He was about twenty miles out. Too soon to shoot the flare that would indicate to the ground that his radio was out and he was coming straight in on an emergency.

Three hundred feet. He had the controls wrenched all the way over to starboard and the big aircraft still wanted to pull to port. He was practically standing on full right rudder to keep what marginal control he had. He pulled the throttles back and the Boeing started to nose up into a stall. He rammed the levers back to full power. If the engines quit entirely it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.

Farms slid by, with farmers harvesting what looked like wheat or hay. They used horses. Otto idly wondered what his mother and Mata were doing at this hour. It would be about 8 AM in Wisconsin, and they would have been up for hours. Their hired man helped a great deal, but he knew they worked hard as well.

Two hundred feet. He had the field in sight, straight ahead. He dropped the gear, hoping that the hydraulics weren’t shot out. The light for the port gear came on. Ah, crap. He’d be better off having gear up and making a belly landing. He toggled the gear switch. The light stayed on. Stuck. Shit.

One hundred feet. Time for the flare. As if they couldn’t tell he was in trouble by looking at what must have been a smoking, tattered wreck.

Gott in Himmel, help me now, Otto breathed, opening the side window and sticking the flare gun out into the slipstream. He was at 100 knots. Needed to slow down to land. He popped the flare as the ’17 slid off to the left. Otto dropped the flare gun outside the window and slammed his hand on the column. The aircraft wallowed and came back to a mushy, porpoising path. He pulled the flaps lever, to no effect.

The ground rushed up to meet him. He held the plane off the ground as long as he could to bleed off speed, and felt the port gear touch. The aircraft bounced, once, twice and then he was down, jouncing along on one wheel, trying to hold the wings level as long as he could. He could see an ambulance and a fire truck rolling toward him. He chopped the throttles and braced himself.

The starboard wing quit flying and fell to the grass. The Fort wheeled around the pivot point created by the stub dug into the dirt. The field whirled dizzily by. Otto thought of the ride at the county fair which twirled riders around and around. The aircraft described two ground loops. Right before it came to rest, Otto heard the sound of metal tearing. It was probably the tail breaking off. He hit his head on the instrument panel.

Half conscious, he heard an explosion from behind him and then smelled smoke. He was on fire, but he couldn’t stir himself to move. He needed to undo his harness and get out, but he was sleepy…so sleepy…

The flames swept up around him. Otto closed his eyes. He did not feel the heat. He felt nothing.

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