Page 53 - Beryl Markham's Transatlantic Flight, 1936
ISSUE : Issue 43
Published by Ronald Caplan on 1986/8/1
Rain continues to fall, and outside the cabin it is totally dark. My altimeter says that the Atlan? tic is two thousand feet below me, my Sperry Arti? ficial Horizon says that I am flying level. I judge my drift at three degrees more than my weath? er chart suggests, and fly accordingly. I am fly? ing blind. A beam to follow would help. So would a radio--but then, so would clear weather. The voice of the man at the Air Ministry had not promised storm. I feel the wind rising and the rain falls hard. The smell of petrol in the cabin is so strong and the roar of the plane so loud that uy senses are almost deadened. Gradually it becomes unthinkable that existence was ever otherwise. At ten o'clock P.M. I am flying along the Great Circle Course for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, in? to a forty-mile headwind at a speed of one hundred and thirty miles an hour. Because of the weather, I cannot be sure of how many more hours I have to fly, but I think it must be between sixteen and eighteen. At ten-thirty I am still flying on the large cabin tank of petrol, hoping to use it up and put an end to the liquid swirl that has rocked the plane since my take-off. The tank has no gauge, but writ? ten on its side is the assurance: 'This tank is good for four hours.' There is nothing ambiguous about such a guaranty. I believe it, but at twenty-five minutes to eleven, my motor coughs and dies, and the Gull is power? less above the sea. I realize that the heavy drone of the plane has been, until this moment, complete and comforting silence. It is the actual silence following the last splutter of the engine that stuns me. I can't feel any fear; I can't feel anything. I can only observe with a kind of stupid disinterest that my hands are violently active and know that, while they move, I am being hypnotized by the needle of my altimeter. I suppose that the denial of natural impulse is what is meant by 'keeping calm,' but impulse has reason in it. If it is night and you are sitting in an aeroplane with a stalled motor, and there are two thousand feet between you and the sea, nothing can be more reasonable than the impulse to pull back your stick in the hope of adding to that two thousand, if only by a little. The thought, the knowledge, the law that tells you that your hope lies not in this, but in a contrary act--the act of directing your impotent craft toward the wa- ter--seems a terrifying abandonment, not only of reason, but of sanity. Your mind and your heart re? ject it. It is your hands--your stranger's hands-- that follow with unfeeling precision the letter of the law. ing with agonizing composure, find the petcock and turn it; and I wait. At three hundred feet the motor is still dead, and I am conscious that the needle of my altimeter seems to whirl like the spoke of a spindle winding up the remaining distance between the plane and the water. There is some lightning, but the quick ??flash only serves to eftiphasize the darkness. How high can waves reach--twenty feet, perhaps? Thirty? • It is impossible to avoid the thought that this is the end of my flight, but my reactions are not or? thodox; the vaVious incidents of my entire life do not run through my mind like a motion-picture film gone mad. I only feel that all th-is has happened before--and it has. It has all .happened a hundred times 'n my mind, in my sleep, so that now I am not really caught in terror; I recognize a famil? iar scene, a familiar st'ory with its climax dulled by too much telling. I do not know how close to the waves I am when the motor explodes to life again. But the sound is al? most meaningless. I see my hand easing back on the stick, and I feel the Gull climb up into the storm, and I see the altimeter whirl like a spindle again, paying out the distance between myself and the sea. The storm is strong. It is comforting. It is like a friend shaking me and saying, 'Wake up! You were only dreaming!' But soon 1 am thinking'. By simple calculation I "find that my motor had been silent for perhaps an instant more than thirty seconds. I ought to thank God--and I do, though indirectly. I thank Geoffrey De Havilland who designed the in? domitable Gipsy, and who, after all, must have been designed by God in the first place. A lighted ship--the daybreak--some steep cliffs standing in the sea. The meaning of these will nev? er change for pilots. If one day an ocean can be flown within an hour, if men can build a plane that so masters time, the sight of land will be no less welcome to the steersman of that fantastic craft. He will have cheated laws that the cunning of science has taught him how to cheat, and he will feel his guilt and be eager for the sanctuary of the soil. I saw the ship and the daybreak, and then I saw the cliffs of Newfoundland wound in ribbons of fog. I felt the elation I had so long imagined, and I felt the happy guilt of having circumvented the stern authority of the weather and the sea. But mine was a minor triumph; my swift Gull was not so swift as to have escaped unnoticed. The night and the storm had caught her and we had flown blind for nineteen hours. I sit there and watch my hands push forward on the stick and feel the Gull respond and begin its dive to the sea. Of course it is a simple thing; surely the cabin tank has run dry too soon. I need only to turn another petcock... But it is dark in the cabin. It is easy to see the luminous dial of the altimeter and to note that my height is now eleven hundred feet, but it is not easy to see a petcock that is somewhere near the floor of the plane. A hand gropes and re? appears with an electric torch, and fingers, mov- I was tired now, and cold. Ice began to film the glass of the cabin windows and the fog played a ma? gician's game with the land. But the land was there. I could not see it, but I had seen it. I could not afford to believe that it was any land but the land I wanted. I could not afford to be? lieve that my navigation was at fault, because there was no time for doubt. South to Cape Race, west to Sydney on Cape Breton Island. With my protractor, my map, and my'compass, I set my new course, humming the ditty that Tom
Cape Breton's Magazine