A Spectrum ‘Challenge of Five’ Story
By Caroline Smith
Stratocumulus, Stratus, Cumulus, Cumulonimbus.
The early meteorologists must have been poets, Rhapsody Angel thought, coining such melodious names for what were essentially various collections of droplets of water vapour and ice suspended within the Earth’s atmosphere.
Altocumulus, Altostratus, Nimbostratus, she recited in her mind, as she floated above the hazy green patchwork quilt of southern England in her glider. The mantra always flitted into her head when she was in one of these simple aircraft – perhaps due to the unhurried pace of the flight, the way the feather-light machine soared like a long, white bird on the thermals – a voyage serene and untroubled, and almost silent. A vast difference from the way she felt when she was ripping across the sky at speeds greater than Mach 3 in her Interceptor.
Cirrus, Cirrostratus, Cirrocumulus.
How incredible it was for Nature to be able to fashion such a breathtaking variety of shapes and forms with the same basic tools. The billowing cotton wool or whipped cream of Cumulus clouds, the wispy streamers of Cirrus clouds, the fish scales of Cirrocumulus and the roiling anvil-headed Cumulonimbus, the harbinger of stormy weather. Even a massive carrier like Cloudbase was moved out of the path of those vertical towers, sometimes reaching over forty thousand feet in height.
Today, however, was warm and moist, with only a sprinkling of cauliflower topped cumulus humilis clouds dotted around the pristine blue sky. These particular clouds were a boon to the glider pilot, a signpost for the air currents existing around them that allowed the glider to gain height and stay in the air for longer periods of time, defeating the inexorable forces of gravity that continually dragged it back to Earth.
Rhapsody moved her control stick to the left, to dip one wing, and the glider banked, heading towards another billowing cumulus cloud, a giant marshmallow castle suspended in the sky. She pressed her foot onto the left rudder pedal, ensuring that her turn was smooth and accurate. Seconds later she felt the glider catch the thermal, which sent it gently upwards. The variometer beeped loudly as the craft increased its speed within the air mass. She glanced at the altimeter – the dial climbing rapidly – several meters per second, and she continued to bank the glider around in a lazy circle as she soared aloft.
For a moment she leant her head back against the padded head-rest so that she could stare directly up at the achingly blue sky beyond the transparent cockpit. The view was so panoramic Rhapsody imagined she was suspended in mid-air, with nothing but sky around her – flying without wings.
She reached out an arm, her fingers stretching up towards that wide expanse of ultramarine, so close that she could almost touch it.
Like touching heaven.
Was this why people had the primal urge to take to the skies? From the dawn of recorded history, it seemed that theme of flight existed in myth and legend, art and literature, the yearning to elevate oneself above one’s environment, to conquer the dwelling of God, or at least to be equal to the angels.
She grimaced at her unintended pun. That’s me. An Angel who flies faster than anyone on Earth, dressed in white and gold and riding a delta-winged chariot to dispense fiery justice to those who threaten our lives and our liberty.
The memory, recent and raw, changed her mood, quicksilver, from carefree to sombre. She’d come up here, alone, to try to forget…but she had been kidding herself. In fact she had done everything to bring back all those poignant reminiscences.
Lee showed me how to fly…
She made the movements, automatically, to take advantage of another rising air stream, lifting her still higher and higher, soaring into the troposphere. Her movements were involuntary; the dozens of elements of coordination of mind and body working in perfect control, a testament to the hundreds of hours she had spent flying. Her skill was so consummate that her body was practically an extension of the craft.
And yet, her mind was wandering now, and she could only see that day a week ago…
In a spur-of-the-moment twenty-four hour furlough, she took a break to be plain ordinary Dianne Simms once more, forgetting the strains of dealing with the alien menace they fought constantly. She chose Miami because it was closest to Cloudbase’s position, absently forgetting it was one of Lee’s favourite haunts.
Skiing on the blue waters, she heard the sound of another automatic motor-launch coming up behind, and then alongside her, and her heart leapt in her chest when she saw Lee Johnson waving at her, as fit and handsome as ever, his quick-and-easy smile instantly bringing back all sorts of bittersweet memories. Despite the difficulties of conversation with the noise and the spray, they began to rekindle their old friendship. If Lee bore her any grudges, he didn’t show any evidence of it at all, for which she was very grateful. Perhaps men were better at that, she thought.
With a laugh he began showing-off to her, taking the tow rope between his teeth, but then in a split second he hit a freak wave and lost control, disappearing beneath the surface of the churning waters. Rhapsody killed the engine on her launch and waited for him to resurface, and when he didn’t, her heart started beating frantically in her chest. Without thinking, she dived again and again to search for him, but all she could see were the patterns of light playing on the bottom of the sea bed.
Desolate with the belief that he might actually have drowned while only metres away from her, Dianne made her way back to shore. She hunted down the nearest lifeguard station, hoping to organise a proper search for him. The beach was very busy and obviously none of the three lifeguards on duty had noticed the little drama taking place offshore. Dianne didn’t want to think all they might find was Lee’s lifeless body.
On impulse, she turned around to scan the horizon again. Then, her eyes fastened onto a tiny blob of gold against the blue of the sky and ocean. She turned and ran down to the edge of the shoreline, watching as the blob got larger, turning into a figure swimming strongly towards the beach. It was Lee! She felt her heart beating faster as he waded ashore.
He was a little short with her, cutting off her exclamations of relief at his safe return, and she put it down to the embarrassment of looking foolish in front of her. She thought that they might have a drink together, but he excused himself abruptly, saying he was running late for a flight due to take off at Miami Airport. She shrugged it off – she couldn’t blame him really, after all, she was the one who had ended their relationship.
In fact he’d told the truth. Unbeknown to her, Lee Johnson was due to fly the French Interior Minister, Madame La Roche, from Miami to vital trade-agreement talks with the Minister of the Free Sahara in Marrakech, and he was, with his usual devil-may-care charm, pushing his schedule to the limit.
A sudden updraft took Rhapsody by surprise, and the variometer beeped loudly into the tiny cockpit of the glider, bringing her back to the present with a nudge. With a sigh she realised it was time to land. However skilled a pilot she might be, it was worth remembering the cardinal rule that both Lee and Terry had drummed into her head every time she got into an aircraft - that inattention in the air was a mortal sin.
She allowed the glider to make its slow descent towards the ground, skimming the thermals to curve around in a lazy circle, heading for her chosen landing site, a large field very close to White Waltham airfield. With the merest of jolts the glider came to a halt onto the stubby grass surface and she radioed the control tower for them to send a truck out to collect both her and the glider.
She looked out beyond the field to the hangars of the airfield. If she squinted she could almost make out the blue and white sign of Freebird Aviation. She brushed the stinging moisture that had suddenly gathered in her eyes, annoyed with herself for allowing her emotions to get the better of her. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t. She laid her head back again, staring at the sky until white sparkles danced in front of her eyes, but the treacherous tendrils of memory refused to let go of her, and she surrendered to the lure of the past.
Jack Hudson, the American CEO of Euro-Charter Airlines, reached across the desk in his plush office that overlooked the spectacular skyline of London and the Thames River. Dianne Simms shook the proffered hand, and it was a grip as solid and dynamic as the man himself.
“I’m delighted you’ve accepted our offer, Dianne, I sure hope you won’t regret it!”
“Thank you. I’m quite sure I’ll enjoy the job.”
Hudson sat down again and Dianne saw him consider her for a few seconds. “I sure hope so. I know you couldn’t fill me in on many aspects of your previous career, naturally, but I’ve heard enough about the Federal Agents Bureau to figure that a position like Chief Security Officer for a civilian airline isn’t exactly the high point of excitement or adventure in comparison.”
He stopped, and chuckled. “Listen to me, I sound like I’m trying to put you off, when I should be delighted at my coup, hiring the most sought after agent in Europe.”
Dianne smiled. “Sometimes even secret agents need a little time to unwind.”
Hudson laughed out loud this time in obvious delight. “Unwind, she says. Most people would consider this to be a tough job, you call it a vacation. You’re my kind of woman!”
“I only hope I can fulfil your expectations of me.”
“Are you kidding? You’re highly intelligent, extremely articulate, and from your work with the FAB, you’re obviously cool under all kinds of pressure. I have absolutely no doubt you will.”
After the formalities were signed, Jack took Dianne to her new office where she met with her team of two, the chief information security officer and the director of corporate security and safety. Her personal assistant, Valerie Kingston, fetched them refreshments while Dianne discussed what she would like to see done in the company. If the older men harboured any thoughts on Dianne’s seeming immaturity, these thoughts were immediately expelled with her shrewd grasp of the principles of her new position.
Despite her new CEO’s claim to the contrary, the role was tough and complex. Dianne would coordinate all aspects of security across the company, including information technology, finance, human resources, communications, legal, and facilities management. In ten years Jack Hudson had taken Euro-Charter from being a budget charter airline into one of the big players in international aviation, and, in a world where terrorism was an everyday reality, and airlines always a target, she would be responsible for ensuring the security and safety of every one of the company’s employees and passengers. No small feat.
Dianne settled into her new job, actually enjoying the change of pace. Jack was a fine boss, and trusted her to just get on with things in her own way. Coupled with the easy-going, yet professional attitude of everyone in Euro-Charter, she began to feel this was the right decision for her after all.
Only now that she was away from the FAB, did she realise that she was almost at the point of burning out, at only twenty-three years old. Perhaps it was a blessing that the Bureau had been forced to close, finally succumbing to pressure from the official governmental secret-agencies like the USS and the WIN, who were unhappy at what they saw as a go-it alone operation ‘muddying the waters’. Frankly, Dianne suspected it was more a case of petty jealousy; the fact that two women had achieved several brilliant espionage ‘coups’ that had put the more labyrinthine organisations to shame.
On the other hand, she’d spent so much of the last two years in disguise that she’d almost forgotten who Dianne Simms actually was. So, for a while she was going to forget the black Hepburn wigs and svelte evening gowns, or the other extreme of facial moles and bag-lady dresses. She was happy to say goodbye to clandestine meetings in dark, smoky bars, and spending long months undercover, tracking double agents across Europe, with the ever-present possibility of a bullet in her head or back for the trouble. Here at Euro-Charter she could just be herself in relative safety for a while.
A week later, she took a company jet out to Miami Airport, one of Euro-Charter’s main hubs, to discuss new security operations with the staff based there. As she came into the Slipstream by the front stairs the cockpit door was wide open, and she was surprised to see the blond-haired man in his late twenties who filled the pilots’ seat. Dianne had never met Lee Johnson, but she recognised him instantly from the photographs from the employee files, and she knew he was one of Jack’s top men, chief pilot for Euro-Charter. He normally captained the big sub-sonic passenger jets on the Blue-Riband routes from London to Miami and New York, and she wondered what he was here doing chauffeur duty.
He flashed her a smile. “I’ve got some furlough, so I figured I’d do the honours of taking you over to the other side of the pond and do a bit of jet-skiing on Miami Beach before we fly back again. I hope you don’t mind?”
Dianne couldn’t help responding to his boyish grin, and at the laughing light in his clear grey-blue eyes which were surrounded by a sunray of faint lines. The photos hadn’t done him justice.
“Why should I mind? It’s your free-time, after all,” she replied airily, as she made her way inside the small main cabin. She settled back in the comfortable leather armchair for the flight. The Slipstream lifted smoothly into the sky and soon it was at cruising altitude above the clouds. Dianne got out her personal data-console and studied her plans for the impending meeting. She was totally engrossed, head bent, but even so, she sensed immediately when the Texan pilot entered the cabin.
“I just wanted to see if you were comfortable,” he said in his pleasant drawl.
“I’m fine thanks, Captain Johnson.”
“Please, call me Lee.”
“Of course, then you must call me Dianne.”
“You look younger than your photo.”
“I’m meaner too.”
He laughed at that, sitting down in the seat opposite her. He had a nice laugh, robust and honest, as if he was filled inside with the sun. She couldn’t help being flattered at being singled out by such an attractive man, although she had absolutely no intention of being side-tracked from her new career. She turned to look out of the porthole window to the pristine blue sky beyond.
“It’s rather peaceful up here, isn’t it?” she said, to deflect his attention.
“Sure is, the best place to be, although flying one of these babies is a little boring.”
“I’m sure you must be joking.”
He laughed. “I mean it. Heck, everything’s pretty much computer controlled; takes all the fun out of it, even if you hit bad weather. Now, flying a little prop, or a glider, hardly anything between you and the sky, that’s a whole different ball-game, that’s real flying. Have you ever flown a plane, Dianne?”
She shook her head. “I dreamed about it when I was a little girl, even toyed with the idea of being an astronaut.” She felt surprised at sharing this old fantasy with a total stranger. “Silly really,” she added.
“No it isn’t,” he replied, and his thoughtful eyes reflected the serious tone in his voice. “I felt exactly the same way. It’s one of the reasons I learnt to fly, although I never quite made it into space…” He stopped for a moment, regarding her carefully. “But you’re not a little girl now, so what’s stopping you learning to fly?”
“You’re full of questions, Captain,” Dianne replied with a little laugh, amused at the refreshing directness of North Americans, a characteristic born of the relentless intensity of pace of that huge continent, and the need to establish quick friendships in their fluid society.
His grin was unabashed. “I just can’t help thinking that someone with your…capabilities... would let anything stop you if you really wanted to do something badly enough.”
Dianne raised an eyebrow. “You seem to have me at disadvantage, when I know so little about you…”
“Yeah sure, Ms Chief of Security, I’ll bet you even know what breakfast cereal I like.”
“Not at the moment, but I’m sure I could find out,” she retorted without thinking, and then sighed inwardly at her unintentional double-entendre.
“Can I buy you dinner, after your meeting?” he asked her, the complete change of direction catching her, unusually, by surprise.
“I’m not sure that would be such a good idea.”
“You got other plans?”
“Actually, I don’t… it’s just that…”
“Last thing I heard it wasn’t a felony to take a colleague to dinner, especially since we don’t have direct reporting lines. Unless there’s something else you’re concerned about?”
Dianne laughed this time, a little self-consciously and he leant forward, closer to her, and his intense blue-grey eyes held hers. “This is dinner, not a marriage proposal - absolutely no strings attached. If all you need is a friend…then… I’m happy with that.”
The look on his face was so open and honest that she couldn’t help feeling that refusing his offer would be totally churlish.
“All right, Lee, you’ve convinced me. Dinner it is.”
Her meetings had run late and Dianne found herself hurrying into the Art Deco lobby of her hotel, a touch breathless, to find him sitting nonchalantly in one of the guest sofas near the reception desk. He got to his feet as soon as he saw her, and then whisked her away in a cab to the restaurant, a Cuban place that was one of his favourites every time he had a layover in Miami.
He ordered aperitifs for both of them and they clinked glasses.
“Did you have a successful meeting?” he asked.
“It went well…did you enjoy your jet-skiing?”
“Sure, and while I was in the water…I had a dumb idea...”
Dianne raised an eyebrow. “Oh, yes?”
“I was thinking that maybe, if you wanted to have a flying lesson, you could come up with me.”
“In a jet? I think you might be a little presumptuous of my abilities.”
“God, no,” he said with a laugh. “I own a little two-seater Diamond Katana.” He saw Dianne’s quizzical look. “It’s a propeller plane. I keep it at a friend’s flying school in Maidenhead and take her up in my spare time.”
“Well that’s a busman’s holiday if I ever heard of it…”
“Flying isn’t a hobby, it’s an obsession.”
“I can tell in your case.”
“So…what about it? Are you gonna let that old dream fly?”
“Come on,” he urged. “What’s the harm in it?”
“Why are you so keen to get me a plane?”
He grinned. “Who wouldn’t want to fly with such a pretty lady?”
She rolled her eyes and gave him a reproving stare.
“Just kidding…well…half-kidding,” he said. “Seriously? I just have a hunch that you’d fall in love with flying, same way I did.”
“Whatever makes you think that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, pilot’s instinct, maybe.”
Dianne hesitated for a moment. What was the harm in it, after all? The idea to fly a plane had always been there, lurking, at the back of her mind, although it always seemed that other things took precedence, riding, fencing, martial arts, learning languages, her crazy career at FAB. Now she was being offered it on a plate. Perhaps it was time she took the plunge.
“We’ll see,” she said at last.
Lee called her every day that week, on her cell-phone, wherever she was. She chuckled every time she heard his warm, low drawl, asking her first, how she was, and then to remind her that he hadn’t forgotten his wish to take her flying. Finally she succeeded in clearing a space for the weekend, which happily coincided with Lee coming back to London for a few days.
It was a clear, bright day when Dianne arrived at the airfield of White Whaltham near Maidenhead. Several flying schools were based there, and it took her a few minutes to follow Lee’s directions to the hangar with FreeBird Aviation emblazoned across the top of it, owned by his friend, Terry Harris. Lee was already there, his head under the wing of a tiny aircraft which looked like something from the last century.
“We’re going up in this?” she said as she had walked close enough to be within his earshot. “It looks like something the Wright Brothers might have flown.”
He popped his head up from the wing, and gave her a bright grin. “These little props haven’t changed much in style in a long time. There are even a few original Piper Cubs from the 1980’s floating about, although it’s really tough to get spares for them now.” He patted the wing of the Katana with affection. “This little beauty was built in 2004 though, and she flies like a dream. If it’s good enough for WAAF training, it’s sure good enough for me.”
“Are you sure we’re going to both fit in the cockpit?”
He winked at her. “Sure it’s snug, that’s part of the fun. Just you and me and the big ol’ sky.”
He gently pulled her arm around and pointed underneath the wing with his other. “I’m just doing the pre-flight checks. You don’t ever go up without religiously completing it every time.”
Dianne walked around with him, and he talked her through it, pointing our all every critical part of the aircraft: the rudder, elevator, flaps and ailerons, the struts and tyres, and all the while his eyes and fingers probed every inch of the pale-white surface of the aircraft, checking for nicks, cracks, weak points in the structure, and leaks of oil or brake fluid.
When he finished he gallantly helped her in to the left-hand seat of the Katana with her own control stick between her knees.
“Is this an instructor’s plane?” Dianne asked him.
“Yeah, I taught part-time, when I was getting started in aviation. It helped to pay some of the bills. I could have got another plane when I was finally earning enough money in Euro-Charter, but somehow, I couldn’t bear to part with her.”
“Well, it seems I’m the lucky one, then.”
He grinned, then he shut her door, circled the plane, and climbed back into the right-hand seat. He hadn’t been joking, Dianne thought, for the Katana was indeed very cosy, and she felt his arm brush against hers as he settled in. She waited patiently as Lee put on his headset and fiddled about with the controls, making his pre-flight checks. Then he fired the engine up and the single propeller thrummed noisily into life, and Dianne could feel the vibrations all the way from the soles of her feet to the top of her scalp. She looked around. The view was panoramic, and felt entirely different from sitting in a jet.
“Okay,” Lee announced. “I’ve got clearance from the tower, we can go.”
He taxied the little Katana towards the runway, and moments later they were airborne. At around three thousand feet he levelled off and slanted away from the sun.
“Right,” he said, “Flying 101. Take the control stick in both hands, and gently push it forward.”
She did, and the plane dropped. Dianne’s heart leapt in her chest.
“Now pull it towards you again.”
“We went back up!” she exclaimed in excitement at the unexpected thrill of it. She turned to bestow Lee a brilliant smile. “That was fun.”
“Sure was,” he replied, with an equally wide grin. “So, forward takes you down, and back takes you up. That’s the first thing. Now put your feet on the rudder pedals, they steer the plane’s direction. If we want to go left, which one do you press?”
Dianne pushed hard on the left pedal and the little Katana’s left wing dipped. She saw the sky fall away, the greens and browns of the land rushing in to fill the space, and this time her heart raced. Then the plane righted itself suddenly as Lee pressed his own pedals.
“Slowly does it, Dianne, we don’t want to hit dirt.”
“That’s okay. It’s not easy to get the feel of it first time. You want to try that again? Let’s bank right this time, then see if you can bring her back to level on your own.”
She nodded, and concentrated as she pushed gently down on the pedals. Now, the Katana’s movements were smooth and unhurried.
“Nice,” Lee said with approval in his voice. “Right, keep your hands on the control stick and look at your instrument panel.” He pointed at it and she followed his finger. “That’s the altimeter, tells you how high you are, this one’s the airspeed indicator, and this here – is the throttle. Push it in, you go faster, and pull it out, you go slower.”
“That’s all? It seems quite simple, really.”
Lee glanced sideways are her, and his expression suggested he wasn’t entirely sure if she was joking or not. But then, an evil smile spread across his face. “Okay, so you’re such a hotshot, take her up, four hundred feet, all on your lonesome.”
Dianne wasn’t going to let him get away with that. She pushed the throttle in with her right hand whilst pulling in the stick with her left.
“Whoa!” she heard Lee gasp, as the little plane shot up into the wide, blue sky, while her pealing laugh almost drowned him out.
“Okay,” he recovered almost instantly. “Gentle, this lady likes to be treated gently, and she’ll fly you to hell and back. Okay, another two hundred feet higher, and slower this time, or you’ll stall her.”
Dianne did as he asked, loving the way the little aircraft obeyed the merest touch of her fingers and feet.
“That was a whole lot better. Now see if you can take us back where we started. How’re you going to do that?”
“Other way, of course, push the stick forward, and pull out the throttle.”
“You got it. Now, why don’t you just fly her for a little while, take her up and down, and maybe even change direction when I say so. Think you can do that?”
For the next thirty minutes, Dianne took control of the Katana.
I’m flying – all by myself!
As she felt the little craft respond to her touch, feeling it soaring up and gently dropping, banking it when Lee told her to, she felt an elation that surpassed anything she had ever experienced before in her life. It was elemental, something that had been triggered deep in the atavistic reaches of her psyche when she first touched the control stick, starting her down a path that would forever alter her destiny. She knew at that moment that she could never go back to being just a passenger.
She glanced sideways to catch Lee grinning at her.
“I just knew it,” he said, “You’re a natural.”
“Thank you, but you made it easy, you’re a good teacher.”
He shrugged, “Yeah, well, I guess I always did enjoy instructing.” He glanced at his watch. “We’d better turn around and go back, I guess. I’ll take her in to land, but if you keep your hands on the controls so you can feel what I’m doing.”
Reluctantly, Dianne surrendered control of the Katana.
“How long would it take for me to fly one of these by myself?” she asked, as they finally rolled to a stop beside the hangar.
“Depends. It’s not just about flying. You have to know how to log flight plans, make ground checks on an aircraft, then there’s navigation, meteorology, how to fly in bad weather…”
She pressed her fingers to his forearm to halt his flow. “Are you trying to put me off?”
He shook his head. “No way.”
“Well, how long did you take?”
“Is that good?”
“Guess so, the average is about sixty to seventy.”
“You’re the hotshot then.”
He grinned. “I guess so. I don’t like to brag about it.”
“Can you help me to fly, Lee?”
His grin got wider. “Just try and stop me.”
Stratocumulus, Stratus, Cumulus, Cumulonimbus.
She’d learnt all about them in her meteorology module, although as a trainee she wasn’t actually allowed to fly in anything but clear weather for the moment, at least until she completed some instrument flying. And Lee hadn’t been joking about all the other things she needed to know either, after a hard day at work in Euro-Charter’s main headquarters in London, she would get back to her apartment overlooking the Thames, throw off her high-heels, have a chilled glass of wine and a salad, and spend the next few hours hunched over her computer console reading about Aviation Law and Regulations, Aerodynamics, Aircraft performance, Navigation and Radio-Telephony.
At weekends, her job notwithstanding, she actually got in an aircraft and flew under instruction, sometimes with Lee, when his work schedules permitted, and sometimes with Terry Harris at Freebird Aviation. Almost straight away she was flying, learning the fundamentals of aircraft manoeuvring and control: climbs, straight-and-level flight, turns, and descents.
However, things didn’t always go as smoothly as she imagined they would, back in Lee’s Katana where she first felt the magic of that very first feeling of flying. Like anyone learning a new craft, the honeymoon period was over and the hard stuff began. It was one thing to know the theory behind the aerodynamic forces of lift, weight, thrust and drag, yet another to be able to apply that knowledge to actually controlling an airplane.
There were so many things to learn: how to adjust the pitch of the aircraft to get the best rate of climb to reduce fuel consumption, how to trim the airfoils so the aircraft would maintain a constant airspeed, how to control adverse yaw in a banking turn, how to apply just enough backpressure to bleed off airspeed during landing so that the nose stayed up, but not so much that the airplane tried to climb again –
And while her hands and feet were busy with the controls, her eyes were constantly scanning her instruments, checking airspeed and height, and mentally noting the position of the nose and wings with respect to the horizon, and scanning the skies for other traffic.
All the things she visualised perfectly in her minds-eye didn’t quite seem to translate into the same fluid movements of the plane when it was under her control, at least, as flawlessly as she imagined they should.
It was like learning to drive all over again, where in the beginning, every simple action seemed to be separate from every other, all requiring total and absolute concentration. When she got out of the aircraft after an hour of flying she felt utterly drained.
“You know, maybe you’re pushing yourself too hard on this, honey,” Lee said, one drizzly Saturday afternoon in May when they met at their favourite café in Covent Garden. No matter what his schedule, or hers, they made a point of having lunch once a week, otherwise, Lee had told her, between work and learning to fly she was in danger of having no social life whatsoever.
“I mean, you’ve been at this for only five weeks. Seven hours of actual in-cockpit flying. I don’t know of anyone, even me, who learnt so much in such a short time.”
“That’s easy to say,” she said. “But you didn’t see my last landing –” she gave him a grimace. “Well, just let’s say I had all the elegance of a brick.”
“This is supposed to be fun, you know.”
Dianne stirred her coffee and blew a strand of her long hair away from her face. “I’m sorry, I can’t help it. It’s just that I’m –”
“Obsessed?” he offered with a grin, echoing his own admission to her in what seemed like an age ago.
She punched him gently on his forearm. He made her laugh, one of the many things she liked about him. Every time they met up it was like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers and true to his word Lee had never made a single romantic advance towards her since they’d met on her flight to Miami.
And yet when she studied his charming, good-looking face, and guiltily allowed her eyes to flit across his rangy – and, she suspected, muscular – body, underneath the casual clothes he wore off-duty, she fleetingly, wondered what he would be like as a lover, and not just a friend. Tut tut, she admonished herself, much better to keep his solid, uncomplicated friendship, rather than risk losing it entirely in the muddy waters of sexual attraction. She’d knew he’d dated a couple of the female Euro-Charter flight attendants, but Valerie, who was an inveterate gossip, slyly assured Dianne that there was nothing serious in it, to which Dianne had replied that it was no-one’s business but Lee’s.
“Anyway,” he was saying, “What’s the rush about this? I mean, when was the last time you visited your folks?”
“I saw them three weeks ago, actually,” she said archly. “When did you last see yours?”
“Stop changing the subject.”
Dianne had told her parents she was learning to fly, simply out of courtesy. She felt she’d hidden too many things from them recently. Her father was pleased, as always, her mother less so, as Dianne could instantly tell from her tone of her voice and the way her chin lifted. However, Lady Charlotte had long since given up trying to run her daughter’s life, at least ever since Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward had taken her under her wing.
“Are you scared I might run out on you and join another airline?” she said, in a sudden moment of mischief.
His eyes flickered in surprise. “Is that what you want to do? Fly for a living?”
“It worked for you, didn’t it?”
“Sure, it did,” he replied slowly.
On impulse she squeezed his forearm. “Anyway, no point in thinking about that just now, I haven’t even soloed yet.”
He smiled. “But you will. I do know just how you feel, really, I was every bit as nuts as you, always wanting to be up there, itching to fly all by myself, without someone babysitting me. But you’re gonna get there, and before you know it Terry will be officially signing your logbook so you can go solo. Until then, do you think you could skip work early Friday afternoon?”
“So you can take me for a little cross-country jaunt, and practice a few of those landings?”
She laughed. “I’ll see if Jack allows me.”
“Tell me if he doesn’t, and I’ll sort him out.”
The cross-country flight with Lee helped to consolidate many of the elements Dianne believed she was struggling with, and two weeks later, after another instruction flight with Terry, he handed her logbook back with a knowing grin. She looked at his signature, authorising her to fly solo, and her stomach started to flutter, and she continued to stare at it, spellbound, as he wandered back, smiling and shaking his head, to his office next to the hangar. When she’d recovered from her delightful shock, she called Lee on his cell-phone. She was desperate to share the news with someone and he was perhaps the only person she knew that would understand exactly how she felt at this very moment.
“Go. Get back in a plane and get up there,” he said when she finally made the connection and she told him, almost breathlessly of her success.
“I haven’t booked a training plane, I don’t think there’s anything available right now, and in any case, I wanted to wait for you. You got me to this point, I feel it’s only right that you to be there when I fly solo for the first time.”
“No, don’t wait for me, I’m stuck in traffic out of London Airport and I’ve no idea when I’ll get out to the airfield.” He hesitated for a second, then said, “Take my Katana, and go file a flight plan, even if all you do is circle the airfield ten times and come back down again.”
“Lee, I can’t, she’s your pride and joy, what if I…”
“The hell you will. You’ll do fine, but you’ve got to do it right now, before you think about it, while you have all that euphoria buzzing through you. You’ve worked for this moment; you don’t want to leave it one second longer than you have to.”
“You really mean it, don’t you?”
“Sure do, so quit flapping your lips and go fly!”
Dianne sat in the cockpit of Lee’s Katana, the empty seat next to her a witness as to how far she’d come. This is it. It’s all up to me now, there’s no one to tell me what to do.
She taxied to the runway, heard the control tower give her clearance, then she gave the little Katana full throttle. It raced towards the take-off point, and every one of Dianne’s senses were utterly focused onto that precise and miraculous instant when she knew there was enough speed and enough lift to raise the wings aloft. Just those few heart-stopping, stomach-dropping seconds as gravity resisted her escape from its clutches, and then she was soaring upwards into the irresistible, endless sky.
Dianne’s fingers and feet calmly made all the necessary adjustments – climbing to a cruising altitude then smoothly banking to change direction, her eyes scanning the sky and her instruments, with the steady drone of the propeller a comforting presence.
She flew up, up into the red tinged sky, towards the setting sun, and realised she had done all these things countless times before, and yet, in this, her newly-found solitude, every action was born anew, every contact and movement tinged with a spiritual joy that made her heart beat wildly in her chest.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
The small aircraft responded to her touch as if it wasn’t merely a collection of metal plates and bolts, but something else entirely – an extension of her body, a marvellous symbiosis of woman and machine.
She flew on, exultant in the knowledge that whatever happened after this, nothing could take away this moment, she was now truly a part of that unique band of people who claimed the skies for their own.
The evening star was flickering against the darkening backdrop of the sky when she finally tore herself away from the heavens to make an immaculate landing at the airfield. She rolled the Katana to a stop in front of the hangar, and saw Lee standing there, still in his dark blue Euro-Charter pilot’s uniform, waiting for her. She cut the engines and climbed down from the cockpit, her heart still racing with the joy of it all. She felt incandescent, as if a firecracker had gone off inside her.
“I did it, Lee. I did it!” she shouted, and before she knew it she was wrapping her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly against her.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he said, his hands coming up to cup her chin, the dancing light in his own eyes reflecting the elation in hers, and suddenly, he kissed her tenderly on the lips.
Dianne’s heart started racing again. Don’t be silly, she thought quickly, logically. He’d meant it as a friendly kiss; and she was overcome by the emotion of the moment.
She disengaged from Lee’s embrace, a fraction awkwardly, finding his grey-blue eyes fixed on her with astonishing intensity, obvious even in the fading crepuscular light.
“That felt…nice,” he said, and his voice was rougher than she’d ever heard it, turning her immobile.
Lee moved closer.
“What are we doing?” she said, almost inaudibly.
His hands gently gripped her shoulders, preventing her running away. She felt his breath against her mouth, and his voice murmuring, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to analyse it, either. Just go with the flow, Dianne, I always have.”
Then, Lee’s lips were on hers again, warmer, and more insistent. Dianne’s fingers involuntarily gripped the short blond hair at the back of his head, melding into the solidity of his body, her mouth responding to his, succumbing to the burning swirls of desire that stoked the wild endorphins already running free inside her.
“Fly with me,” Lee whispered against her hair, when they finally broke from that breathless kiss.
She would always remember that night, maybe because it was the first time she had felt such bliss in a man’s embrace. Or perhaps it was the aphrodisiac of the solo flight, that released her sensual nature and lifted her spirit to a sublime awareness, so that every touch of Lee’s hands and mouth on her body was filled with something elemental, mystical.
She felt his soul climbing with hers, both of them soaring into a black star-filled sky on the wings of ecstasy, transcending the mere physicality of their bodies, and taking them to a higher plane of existence…
Dianne now relentlessly pursued her pilot’s certificate, and she achieved it two months later, beating Lee’s cockpit in-flight time by ten hours. He was delighted for her, and made a joke about the padawan being overtaken by his apprentice, but Dianne sensed a shadow rising behind his smile that day, as if he’d known, even then, that her future didn’t include him in it. She flew whenever she had the chance, and her obsession grew with her skill in the air.
Then one day Lee took her to the air-show at Farnborough and she fell in love with aerobatic flying.
It was the first time they’d ever argued about anything.
“Christ, Di, barrel-rolls and Cuban-eights are risky enough in a prop, but you’re doing them in an old F-15 for God’s sake! Have you lost your mind?”
“How can you say that, Lee – you of all people? If this is anyone’s fault – it’s yours! You were the one who got me into your plane, and made me fall in love with flying in the first place!”
“Yeah, but I never thought you’d end up trying to splatter yourself all over Southern England!”
She set her mouth in a line. “I can do this, I know I can.”
He threw up his hands, and she saw the fight go out of his eyes.
“I know you can too. That’s what bothers me. You’re like an addict, always needing the next fix to take you higher. When’s it going to end?”
“That’s not fair.”
He ran a hand through his hair, and he stared at her with an expression she’d never seen before. “You’re right. I’m not being fair. But I can’t stand the thought that I might lose you, and I hate the way that makes me feel.”
Dianne’s felt her heart beat a little faster at his words, and as she saw the hurt expression in his eyes, it brought her to a sudden, shocking insight. Neither of them had ever uttered those three dangerous little words to one another, even when they were caught in the whirlwind of sexual passion. Dianne was convinced Lee was a no-commitment type of man, and for her part, she was content with the no-strings attached nature of their relationship, given the busy lives they both led.
Is Lee in love with me?
And what about me? What do I feel?
The aircraft of life that up to now had been serenely in flight suddenly teetered out of control.
“Sorry, honey.” Lee broke into her confused thoughts, and his face wore an almost apologetic look that brought a lump to her throat. “Just forget I said that, okay? You go fly, it’s what you were born to do.”
Lee was right. She was an addict. The eternal lure of the sky, once tasted, fuelled her irresistible need to go faster and higher, pushing both the limits of both body and aircraft. She twisted and turned in that great circus tent in the sky, defying death with ever more imaginative loops and rolls and spins. In no time at all she reached the pinnacle of competition flying – the ‘Unlimited’ level.
Her daredevil skills rapidly made her a household name in aerobatic flying circles, and before she knew it, she was sought after to headline many prestigious air-shows, both in the UK and abroad.
But it was becoming ever harder to reconcile both her job and her new found love for precision flying, and after a particularly gruelling conference one day with his top staff, Jack Hudson asked Dianne to remain behind in his office.
“I got the impression your mind was somewhere else at the meeting,” he said.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been a bit tired… ”
Jack leant back in his chair, and steepled his fingers, regarding her thoughtfully. “I think you were up there again, weren’t you?”
“As far as I’m concerned this job’s too damn important not to give it one hundred and ten percent.”
Dianne blushed. Jack had every right to be mad with her. She would have felt exactly the same had their positions been reversed.
“It was unforgivable of me. I’m really sorry.”
He waved one hand, brushing her apology away. “Hell, I thought it would only be a matter of time before you got bored with us. In fact I’m kind of surprised that we held onto you for so long. Mind you, I hadn’t expected I’d lose you to three wheels and two afterburners.”
“Please don’t blame Lee.”
Hudson smiled wistfully. “I think it would have happened anyway, with or without his help. He was just lucky enough to get caught in the slipstream.”
Dianne stared at a spot on the desk.
“I don’t expect a resignation tomorrow,” he said gently, “But I think you need to decide where your priorities lie.”
“I know. Thanks, Jack, I’ll try.”
The conversation with Jack crystallised Dianne’s growing awareness that her role at Euro-Charter was beginning to pall, and with a sense of regret she realised the time had come for her to move on. But to where – and to what? She only knew that she’d fought for the chance to leave the suffocating life of a high society aristocrat behind when she joined FAB, and she was damned if she would throw it all away now and live off her inheritance. Flying had become everything to her, but she also suspected that continuing to fly simply as a hobby would go the same way as this job – she would eventually become bored with it. She realised she needed a purpose in life, and, old-fashioned as it may have sounded, to be able to make a difference to the world she lived in.
She was beginning to toy with the idea of joining the WAAF when, out of the blue, she got a call from a mystery man, a Mr Verdant, and his boss, the equally mysterious Mr Snow. They had become aware of her exploits in both the FAB and her sensationally rapid ascent within precision flying circles, and they wanted to recruit her for an elite squadron of pilots, if she was able to pass the stringent entry requirements. After her initial concern and scepticism Dianne became intrigued by the air of secrecy surrounding the discussion, and agreed to the meeting. She asked Jack for a week’s vacation, and he granted it without question.
She told Lee that she was going to visit her parents, which wasn’t entirely a lie, as she was planning to drop in to see them before going onto the interview. Some instinct told her that it might lead her to the answers she was seeking, but she had no way of explaining this to Lee just yet. After all, nothing might come of it.
For one week, along with four other young women of varying nationalities, Dianne was subjected to the most thorough and gruelling assessment she had ever faced. However, there was an upside to the onslaught of mental and physical testing. She, and the other girls, all had the opportunity to fly the most sophisticated aircraft she had ever encountered. Even the French girl, Juliette, who had been in the WAAF, didn’t recognise it. Every minute she spent in this craft melded her closer to it, and she was very glad of the cleverly designed pressure suit, extremely comfortable and yet capable of withstanding the ultra-high G-forces which would otherwise have plastered her internal organs all over the cockpit as she thundered, with heart thumping, and every muscle screaming, through the Mach 4 barrier for the first time in her life. She exulted in the unbelievable thrill of speed as she whipped through the thin air in the troposphere. Now this was flying!
Physically and mentally drained, yet on a high, Dianne returned to London, to Euro-Charter headquarters, and to Lee. He called her from London Airport where he’d just returned from a red-eye flight from Miami.
“Don’t come over just now, you’ll be tired,” Dianne said to him, as she studied her own ravaged expression in the hall mirror. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay, but you’d better have some wine chilling in the fridge. I’ve missed you and I plan to make up for it.” He said it with such warmth in his voice that it made her feel wonderful and traitorous simultaneously.
For the remainder of that day and the next, she indulged in some unaccustomed pampering at a top health spa in Mayfair to try and repair some of the damage wrought by the taxing week with Mr Snow and his band of white-coated inquisitors.
By the time Lee arrived at her apartment she looked as if she had been up to exactly what she said she had, relaxing at the Simms mansion for a few quiet days in the country. She deftly parried his questions about her stay, without actually lying to him once, and succeeding in convincing even herself that she’d been at her parents for the entire time. But in reality, she wanted desperately to tell him about the week spent flying that most incredible aircraft. Of all the other amazing new things she was capable of, and of her new-found purpose. But Snow had sworn them to secrecy and somehow she believed that the brusque Englishman would find out if she’d disobeyed him.
Other things weighed heavy on her heart too. Snow had stated, quite categorically, that if they were to be offered this job they would have to renounce much of their personal lives. As such, the majority of the prospective senior candidates had been selected as much for their unmarried status as for their unique skills. Secrecy and security were paramount for this fledgling organisation, and their dedication to the job absolute. It was a lot to demand, but for the first year the new organisation would make even greater demands on them. As Dianne listened, she wondered with a sinking heart how she could possibly hope to have a committed relationship under these restrictions. And yet she wanted this job – she knew she would never have a chance like this again. Her feelings for Lee were strong, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to give up her life to commit to a relationship, just yet.
They made love that evening, and it was as sweet and wonderful as ever. Yet, in the afterglow, as she listened to the sound of Lee’s gentle breathing, she wondered how much longer she could deceive him, or perhaps, go on deceiving herself.
A few weeks passed, and Dianne heard nothing from the mystery organisation. Disappointed on one hand, and yet oddly relieved on the other, she felt that the WAAF was now her best option.
Yet, as she was becoming resigned to this plan, she received another coded message from Mr Snow, and with myriad emotions, she read of his pleasure that she had been chosen as one of the five strike force pilots. She would, naturally, receive full fighter-jet pilot combat training, once she had accepted the commission.
Dianne sat staring at the screen for a long time.
Lee opened the door of his apartment still in his pyjama bottoms, a toothbrush in one hand and with blond stubble on his chin. His eyes registered pleasant surprise when he saw Dianne standing there.
“Hi hon, I didn’t expect to see you this morning, how’s your headache?”
“I’m fine, thanks. Look, I’m sorry, but we have to talk.”
His easy smile barely wavered, but Dianne heard the catch in his voice as he carelessly replied, “When a gal says she has to talk, that can only spell trouble for a guy.”
The sound of the truck drove into Rhapsody’s bittersweet thoughts, and she was brought rudely back to reality. She looked up to see the vehicle trundle across the field towards her, hauling a long trailer. She climbed out of the glider to greet the driver, and he set about attaching the harness to the machine to winch it onto the trailer. As she watched him, she felt her mind wandering again, treacherously moving from the older, bittersweet memories to those more recent, more dreadful.
Lee had been so understanding about her decision to move on, but she knew she’d hurt him. She handed her resignation to Jack Hudson the day after she told her lover, and then she went to see her parents to tell them her news. Within a few days she had moved onto her new life at Spectrum, never to see Lee again, until last week. And now…he was gone.
She angrily bit her lip. Tears wouldn’t help Lee. She thought that coming up in the glider would calm her, as it so often did, but she was wrong.
I was there. Why couldn’t I have prevented it?
During the time Rhapsody had spent water-skiing with Lee, the Mysterons had issued their latest threat: they intended to kill Madame La Roche, putting the trade agreement talks with Free Sahara in jeopardy.
Rhapsody returned to Cloudbase and went straight to the Amber Room. Melody was there and naturally asked her about her furlough. Rhapsody told her about Lee’s almost drowning, and how, as she frantically searched beneath the sea for him, the thought had flashed through her mind that he might have been Mysteronised. Melody laughed and asked why on earth they would want to kill Lee… and then her face blanched. She’d heard that name in connection with the current Mysteron threat. With a sinking heart, Rhapsody now suspected that in all likelihood, Lee Johnson had been Mysteronised right under her nose, and was now planning to kill the French Interior minister.
With her emotions in free-fall she nonetheless went straight to Colonel White and informed him of the events that had transpired at Miami Beach.
What followed was, for Rhapsody, several hours of dark dread. She was forced to make a decision to ram the tailfin of flight EC-4, forcing both her and Lee to crashland in sub-tropical jungle, miles away from Madame La Roche’s intended destination. Once Rhapsody had extricated herself from her ruined Angel Interceptor, she searched for the Frenchwoman, and with relief, found her some distance from Flight EC-4. She too was injured, but Rhapsody offered herself as crutch and the two stumbled through the dense African vegetation with the Mysteronised Lee Johnson in pursuit.
Rhapsody gritted her teeth against the pain in her broken leg, and the anguish in her heart.
When she heard the sounds of a Spectrum helicopter, relief washed over her, knowing that help was at hand. But then, the sounds of gunshot rent the air. She whirled, her heart hammering in her chest, to see Lee Johnson, closing in for the kill. Madame la Roche panicked and broke free of Rhapsody’s grip. Rhapsody called out to her – in vain - as the Frenchwoman ignored her and ran towards a patch of deadly quicksand.
Rhapsody hobbled after her, glancing back fearfully as Lee gained on the two women. Madame la Roche was doing the Mysterons’ job for them, for, in her desperation to flee from her pursuer, she had stumbled right into the quicksand, and was now struggling for her life, sheer terror in her high-pitched cries. Rhapsody wrenched a thick vine from the dense foliage, and threw it towards the flailing woman, calling out for her to grab hold of it.
Rhapsody pulled hard on the vine, sweat pouring down her face and trickling along her spine as every muscle and sinew screamed with the fight to haul Madame la Roche away from the sucking malevolence of the quicksand. With a last heave, and a small cry of victory she succeeded in pulling two thirds of the woman’s body from the sludge.
Then, she felt a strong hand clamp down on her shoulder. She whirled and the cry was torn from her lips.
The look in his eyes was inhuman, a murderous stare disfiguring his handsome features. There was nothing left of the kind, decent man that she’d known. He shoved her to the ground and Rhapsody watched with horror as he threw Madame La Roche’s lifeline away.
Rhapsody struggled to her feet, ignoring the agony of her broken leg. She had to stop Le – this Mysteron – somehow.
All at once her hair was whipped around her face in the strong downdraft of rotor blades. Blessedly, the Spectrum helicopter was almost on top of them all, and as she squinted upwards, she saw the flash of a red tunic, and a wave from a friendly compatriot.
And then… the shots of gunfire rang out and in slow motion, Rhapsody saw Lee Johnson fall….
“Well, that’s her all loaded up,” the driver broke into her thoughts. “We can head back now.”
Rhapsody thanked him and got into the front of the truck. As they approached the hangars of White Waltham airfield, Rhapsody pondered, not for the first time, on the twisted nature of the Mysterons’ war of revenge against humanity, to change decent human beings into mindless automatons, forcing them to kill – even those they cared about – without a shred of remorse.
But that Mysteron wasn’t Lee. It was… something else. Lee was kind, and gentle, and he loved me enough to let me go. I have to forget how he died and remember how he lived.
I will always remember that he was the man who showed me how to touch the sky…
This is the first in a series of five vignettes for Chris Bishop’s ‘Challenge of Five’ and is my take on how Rhapsody Angel might have become a pilot, based on her biography from the 1967 Captain Scarlet annual, where she joins Euro-Charter after leaving the FAB.
The character of Captain Lee Johnson appeared in a story called ‘We, The Mysterons Will Destroy Madame La Roche’ from the 1967 Angels Story Book published by Century 21 Books. My scenes in italics at the beginning and end are partly based on that short story.
The quote in italics comes from the beautiful poem `High Flight,' a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee Jr, who was a British-American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
I would like to thank Marion Woods for her unstinting efforts in hunting down bad grammar and clunky sentences, not to mention her invaluable suggestions for making the story flow better. And it goes without saying, my thanks to Chris, for help with the visuals, Backgrounds etc, and of course, allowing me to add this story to her wonderful site.
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