By Mike Day
Word count 3391
The wind moved through the grass in the pasture in slow sinuous waves; so that to Patrick, high above, the black cattle appeared to wade in a shallow green sea. He inched the throttle up a notch and the light yet powerful engine responded instantly, pushing the micro-light faster. By moving the control bar forwards he swapped the extra speed for height and climbed from two to three thousand feet.
Out above the lush fields, he felt his head begin to clear. The problems that still awaited him back on the ground started to seem less important in the crystal air. The cold made his cheeks ache and, despite his aviator sunglasses, his eyes watered and ran. He glanced down at the instrument binnacle and tipped the bar until he was heading west, out towards the coast.
Ahead of him a river shone silver as it snaked across the flat land, repeatedly bending back on itself, determined to delay its consumption by the sea. Beyond it, despite the clear day, the horizon was still blurred by a faint dirty brown haze.
‘Air Traffic Control this is Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike,’ He spoke into the helmet mounted microphone.
‘Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, go ahead.’
Patrick gave his altitude and location as a flight of geese in classic V formation crossed hundreds of feet below him. Their wings beat out a slow steady rhythm as they laboured across the countryside.
He watched them until he couldn’t crane his neck any further. High above a jet liner carved a white trail silently across the sky. He thought back to his take off. When he’d first bought the micro-light, Helen his wife, had come to the airstrip just to see him fly. This morning he’d been alone.
One dark thought led to another; the business was struggling, so was his marriage. Flying now was the only pure thing he had left. Beneath the industrial haze a thin band of chrome steel began to guild the horizon. It grew thicker until a smudged graphite line appeared beneath, sketching out the shore line itself.
He checked the compass and fuel. Good enough to get where he was going. As the land slipped by beneath him he felt the inevitable thump and twist of air pockets, thermals and down drafts. Under his experienced hands the flight bar moved smoothly, correcting, controlling the little planes attitude, yaw and pitch.
Cultivated fields turned into scrub, scrub into marsh and marsh into wide mud flats. Flocks of wadding birds scrambled into the air at the shadow of his wing. Tiny streams of silver water divided the mud into discrete islands, crazy paving for giants.
His radio crackled into life, ‘Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, you are about to leave controlled airspace, please confirm that you have sufficient fuel to reach the airstrip on Seal Island, over.’
In a reflex motion he tapped the fuel gauge just to make sure it hadn’t stuck, ‘Control, Tango Foxtrot Alpha Mike here. Confirming I have three quarters of a tank should see me there and back with an half an hour’s margin, over.’
‘Thank you Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, have a good trip, out.’
‘Thank you control,’ he flicked off the radio and pushed the microphone arm away from his face and unplugged the cable that linked him to the radio.
As the water slipped by beneath him he felt the thermals vanish, the air was cooler now and he had to adjust the attitude of the wing to compensate. She’d never really understood his love of flying. Oh at first the thrill and glamour of it had certainly appealed to her, but the cold had soon dissuaded her from joining him a second time.
Last night as he sat at the kitchen table trying to make headway through the company’s books she’d announced, ‘You know I really cannot remember what it was I saw in you.’
He’d glanced up, not entirely sure that he’d heard her quite right, ‘Oh?’
‘I don’t even know if I ever really loved you… not properly at least,’ she poured the last dregs of her second bottle of chardonnay into her glass.
He’d looked at her silently for a long moment, words looping around his mind, hers and the ones he wanted to say. Finally he looked back down at the printouts in front of him and simply said ‘Oh.’
She’d snorted and bombed the swing-top bin with the empty bottle as she swayed out of the room.
‘That goes in the recycle bin,’ he said as she closed door.
On the horizon the outline of Seal Island began to appear. It was a barren patch of sand and grass, about a mile long and three hundred feet wide. No more than a sand bar really, exposed as it was to the waves and wind. He often flew out during the summer, the warm sand and the solitude helped to ease the tension that knotted inside him.
Patrick was closer now, on the leeward side he could just make out the grey lozenge shapes of the seals who gave the island its name. A smile played across his lips as he tipped the nose down a few degrees, it slid faster through the air as its altitude fell away. In less than a minute he was racing twenty feet above the waves towards the beach. The compact engine buzzed like a plague of angry hornets as he flashed over the startled seals.
They watched him disappear over the dunes with wet, coal black, eyes before returning to their own concerns.
He pushed the nose up and felt his stomach sit heavy within him as the micro light began to climb. The far side of the sand bar was decorated with breaking waves, white horses his Grandfather had called them. They rolled along the beach in a diagonal, in turn swamping and then revealing the smooth sand.
The fuel gauge showed half a tank, he’d used less than a quarter to get here; he glanced at his watch and calculated that it would allow him ten minutes of spare flying time. He dipped one wing and swooped gracefully around until he was flying along the length of the narrow island.
Gulls and waders flocked and scattered, disturbed by the predatory shadow and the engines cry. To his right the sun glinted off the waves further out to sea. On impulse he turned and followed a flight of waders. Their grey wings flapping as their long necks stretched out towards some unseen finish line, out there, over the waves.
When after ten minutes the birds turned as one and headed back to the strip of sand Patrick watched them slide by his port wing. He felt intoxicated, the sea stretched out before him unbroken, clean. He knew that he should turn back, all the rules of airman ship said so, and yet he knew that he still had plenty of fuel to make land fall.
The sun shone directly above him now, his red thermal suit looked oddly dark in the yellow light that filtered through the wing’s two fabric skins. He and the three guys who worked for him, they each had a family, mortgage, kids. The company depended on work from the local factories. He made precise metal components for machines used to make other machines, but the Far East could make them cheaper and faster.
He glanced at his watch again and then took a second, harder look. Forty minutes had elapsed since he had left the island another five and he would not have made it back. Keeping calm he turned the micro-light in a slow even turn. The thin strip of land was too far away to be seen but he had flown on a steady course so he simply reversed the compass bearing.
In forty minutes he should be over the island, fifteen more and he’d be back to the coast. Fifty five minutes, taking into account his fuel, he had an hour left in the air. ‘Too bloody close,’ he growled under his breath.
Thirty minutes later he had begun to sweat, by now the Island should be in sight. He knew that a head wind might have slowed him down and by implication eaten into his tiny reserve, so he strained his eyes, willing the horizon to give up the island. A sudden thought made his gut turn sour. The rollers that had been washing over the beach, they were coming in at a diagonal. All this time he had been flying on a straight compass bearing but the wind had been pushing him South and back, all the way out. To make matters worse he had failed to correct for the return journey, doubling the error.
He was in no doubt now that he would miss the Island, he needed to call the local airfield and declare an emergency.
He flicked the radio switch, but although the lights came on the earpiece remained dead. He flipped it back and forth but the stubborn device remained silent. Now, for the first time, he felt the cold fingers of dread begin to touch his spine. So far off course, and not expected back until tomorrow, this could be really bad if he had to ditch into the cold ocean.
He looked down at the grey green waves that stretched out beneath him. If he went down, if he… died, then Helen might think that he’d done it on purpose. He looked up to the still smooth arc of water half hidden by smog. Maybe he did, subconsciously at least, the bloody business, the pressure at home, it all felt like so much constant weight pushing down on his head and shoulders, pushing him down towards the water.
He reached up and slipped the sunglasses off his face. He could feel the cold air on his closed eye lids. Fresh tears streamed from his eyes as he flew blind, feeling the wind with his hands on the control bar. Perhaps that was it, let the fates decide.
Patrick could sense the void beneath him, the invitation to oblivion.
The engine coughed and his eyes flew open in alarm. He stuffed the glasses back on and twisted in his seat to try and examine the engine. Normally it ran smoothly, but occasionally it would give a cough from a bubble in the pipe. The other possibility was that the engine was sucking the dregs from the tank.
He looked around wildly wondering if he dared to turn ninety degrees and hope that the new course might reach the island. The danger was that if he turned too early or late he could fly past the island; running parallel to the coast until he ran out of fuel.
Patrick tried the radio again; the same frustrating results met his efforts. Why? He wondered would the lights come on but no sound. He felt panic begin to rise up in his chest.
He pulled off his glove and felt down behind the unit, hoping to find a loose connection. As his fingers brushed against a hanging wire he knew. In all the angst and fear he had forgotten a single simple fact. In addition to turning off the radio he had unplugged the wire to his headset. With fumbling frozen fingers he slipped along the wire until he reached the plug and pushed it back into the socket.
His hand paused over the radio switch. Patrick looked at his wedding ring glinting on his bare finger, ‘Air Traffic Control, Air Traffic Control this is Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, I am declaring an emergency.’
‘Go ahead Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike. Please state the nature of your emergency, over.’
‘Control, I am heading due West somewhere to the South of Seal Island,’ he glanced at the dial, ‘I have zero repeat zero fuel reading on my instruments. I am aiming to make land fall but I am uncertain as to my actual position, so far the engine is still running, over.’
‘Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, we have cleared channel six please move to that frequency, over.’
He clicked the dial around to six. ‘Hello control?’
‘Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, we have you loud and clear. We are notifying all shipping and aircraft in your area. Search and Rescue are spinning up a helicopter and will be in your area in fifteen, repeat fifteen minutes, over.’
Patrick wiped his hand across his face, ‘Thank you Control, I really appreciate that.’
He flew in silence for a moment then keyed the microphone, ‘Control, is it possible to patch me through to my wife? She’s at home, over.’
The calm sounding man at the other end of the radio agreed and after he had taken down the number quickly put him through.’
‘Hello,’ it was Helen sounding small and frightened.
‘Hello love, I can’t stay on long the Air Traffic people will need to talk to me in a minute.’
‘Where are you?’
‘That’s the problem I drifted off course and the fuel is getting a bit low.’
‘Are you going to be okay?’
‘Oh yeah…’ he sounded uncertain, even to himself.’
‘Look I should get to the coast ok and even if I have to ditch…’
‘Ditch?’ she sounded alarmed.
‘It probably won’t happen, but if I did there is a helicopter heading over, it should be here in a mater of minutes.’
‘About this morning…’ she sounded lost, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see you off.’
‘Its okay love, I haven’t been there even when I was at home lately.’
‘Is it me?’
‘No, no, I just… Work, you know.’ He could feel his body shaking. ‘Helen, did you mean what you said last night, about me… about us?’
‘Oh god…’ he heard her sob ‘I love you so much!’
‘But why… why did you say you didn’t?’
‘Because you don’t want me, and I guess I wanted you to know how it feels.’ He heard her begin to cry.
‘Helen I…’ The line crackled and the air traffic controller broke in.
‘Tango Alpha Foxtrot Mike, sorry to cut you short but the chopper will be with you in approximately ten minutes.’
‘Err okay; are they going to follow me in?’
‘That’s the plan but they will have to find you first.’
‘That should be easy, just look for the bright yellow Micro-light with the pilot pushing from behind.’
‘Let’s hope it won’t come to that. Do you have a survival suit, over?’
‘Unfortunately not, I have an insulated flight-overall but I don’t think it is designed for immersion, over.’
The engine coughed, rallied, coughed again and then became silent.
‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. I’m going down! The engine has quit. I will try to glide her in. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!’
‘Understood, good luck, stay by your machine if it floats, the Search and Rescue are nearly there. Good luck!’ The controller sounded hoarse with tension.
He desperately clung to the bar, trying to bring the micro-light down at a shallow angle. Each second was a balance between keeping the nose up to lose height slowly and dropping it again to gain enough speed to avoid stalling. If he stalled he would tumble out of the sky and slam into the waves below.
One thousand feet, eight hundred, six hundred, five, he braced himself and feathered up the wing to force a stall. The air frame shook, the rip-stop nylon wing flapped horribly and suddenly he was rammed hard back into his harness.
He’d planned to undo the release and be out before the chariot section before it was under water, but all the breath in his body whooshed out in one explosive gasp. He’d expected the crash to be noisy but when it came it was oddly quiet. Before he could clear his head he was under water. The cold gripped him in a fist of ice as he scrabbled furiously to get to the surface. His lungs screamed for air. Horror swept over him as his harness pinned him down. He pulled at the straps for painful seconds before he overcame his panic and remembered the release catch.
It burst apart and he began to rise up towards the precious air, almost immediately though his helmeted head struck something, forcing it forward and down, holding him under. He twisted and saw that he was still under the wing. Grasping desperately he pulled himself forward using the poles that supported the chariot.
His face broke the surface and he coughed and gasped, choking on the salt laden water, as he clung to the edge of the wing. The waves that had seemed so smooth and gentle from a thousand feet dwarfed him as they lifted and the then plunged him down into troughs that reduced the horizon to only a few feet. Cold that burned like acid seeped along his legs and arms as the water pushed its way in under his overall.
He gasped over and over again feeling his heart fluttering in his chest. Patrick’s vision narrowed to a dark tunnel and his ears rang with the sound of a frantic church bell. He knew that he had to get out before the icy water took him. Taking a grip on the bar at the leading edge of the wing he pulled himself up until his chest rested over the fabric of the wing.
With a Herculean effort he flopped, kicked and scrambled until he was face down on the smooth fabric. He lay there coughing and shivering, arms stretched out on either side trying to hold on as the world tipped and rolled beneath him.
Each new wave of iron cold water almost washed him from his impromptu raft. He felt more than heard a groan run through the wing as an aluminium spar broke and tore through the fabric. Air, trapped by the ocean, whooshed out. Quickly his sanctuary began to sag under him. The surface covered and Patrick felt his grip, tenuous at best, slip. The Micro-light tipped forward suddenly and slid away, appearing to fly down through the water until it vanished out of sight below.
He was alone.
‘Helen!’ He cried, his body shaking from the cold and shock. Somewhere deep inside him a part of his consciousness split away. This fragment noted calmly that he needed her, all the other things that had weighed so heavily before had burned away in the furnace of survival.
With each sweep of his arms and legs his head lolled forward an additional inch. Fuzziness seeped into his mind and he began to slip away. When a wave broke over him he didn’t mind. The blurring was painless, hardly different from falling asleep. His last memory was the thrumming sound of water in his ears as he began to slip below the waves.
Harsh painful light burned against his eyelids and he mentally shied away, unwilling to leave the sanctuary of oblivion. ‘Can you hear me?’ the voice was a long way away.
‘Mr Barnard, Mr Barnard, can you hear me?’ The voice was louder this time more insistent.
He groaned and immediately began a series of agonising, wrenching coughs.
‘That’s it take it easy, you’ll be okay,’ the Coast Guard called over the internal microphone, ‘Mac, were good to go.’
Patrick felt the floor tilt as the helicopter began to surge towards safety. ‘Helen?’ he croaked as he began to open his eyes.
‘Well I’ve been called a lot of things but that’s a first.’
He focused with difficulty on the helmeted figure in a red Day-Glo survival suit, ‘Sorry, thanks…’ he closed his eyes and the world went away.
Helen was standing by his bed when he opened his eyes, his own personal angle. Her long blond hair running around her shoulders like a waterfall of living gold. ‘Hello,’ she said smiling.
Tears began to run unnoticed down her oval face. ‘I thought… I thought you were gone,’ she flung her arms around his neck and smothered his face in her breast.
Through the softness he could feel her muffled sobs. He held her close, fierce arms surrounding her. From deep within him a moan rose up until finally it broke out, the sound of grief and hopelessness at last finding its release.