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Bringing it back home

The mechanics in the hangars are getting to know me pretty well these days, and that’s not really a good thing.

Granted, most of the time I’m able to fly my crates back from a sortie to the airfield. I’ve been blessed the war hasn’t claimed me as a casualty yet. And on that return flight, I usually take note of what damage will need to be on the after-action reports. Often, it’s the usual damage: bullet holes in the fuselage, perhaps a small hole in the wing or some cracks in the canopy. Once, it was smoke and oil spewing from the engine cowling.

It’s the landing that adds to my damage report. Substantially. As in, double or triple.

I’m not coming in particularly hot. At least, I don’t think so. I’m just coming in hard — like rip off the landing gear, jam guns 2 and 3, “I think I just lost a filling and a crown” kind of hard. It’s more than just embarrassing; it’s painful.

The flight instructors never really covered much of the landings in flight school. It’s likely they didn’t expect us to live long enough to really need that much training. And practicing doesn’t really do much if I keep practicing the same errors. Though if I keep going at my current rate, the Allies aren’t going to have many more crates with which I’m allowed to “practice.”

Take my last sortie, for example. Took off from a grass strip in a LaGG-3 after a Focke Wulf 189 bomber sighted near the field. Racing ahead of my squad mate, that for some reason couldn’t keep up, I unloaded rounds directly into its port-side engine and blew the crew back to Hell. On the return flight, we encountered a pair of Junkers 87s. My mate took down one, and I scored the other. I was so fortunate as to have not been hit once the entire flight.

Damn if I was going to meet my Maker landing in the “safety” of my own airspace with nary a Nazi for 30 klicks in any direction.

So instead of returning the plane back to our grass strip, I flew another 12 klicks south to land on the only Allied-occupied concrete tarmac airfield. My commander was furious, but better him being mad at me than me digging a 400-meter trench into the Motherland trying to land my plane on a bumpy, grass pasture that’s been mowed to give the appearance of a runway. Much better than tearing the plane to shrapnel. And far better than killing myself.

So myself and my plane returned safely from the Nazi encounters, save for the lashing of my commander.

Blowing off the dust

It’s been a while since I’ve been in the cockpit.

In fact, it’s been more than just “a while.” The years of flight training are thankfully still stored, and the muscle memory helped somewhat. But knowing my combat edge had softened since I last wrapped my hands around a flight stick and throttle, I felt it best to have the Captain run me through a few refresher runs.

I climbed into the Spitfire and ran through some basic maneuvers for the Captain, to assure him I still remembered the difference between an aileron and the elevator. Then I flew over to the designated firing area to practice on dummy balloon zeppelins. Orders then came over the radio to help dispatch a group of Nazi bombers that had clumsily found their way too close to Allied airspace. The bombers put up little resistance, and even less defensive maneuvering, and quickly succumbed to our fire.

Back down on the tarmac afterwards, I felt a bit better about once again being in a cockpit. Still not knowing where I wanted to be reassigned for the war, I asked the Captain if I could run a sortie with the nearby USSR crews having trouble with encroaching Nazi fighters. After a short train ride and a few cups of coffee, I was climbing into a Russian kitted P40 in a frozen field with little more than ice for a runway.

I managed to get the P40 airborne without killing myself or my compatriots in the process along the ice-laiden “tarmac”. We climbed to 3500m and followed our sweeping patrol of the countryside. A little over halfway through the patrol, my squadmates found and engaged several Messerschmitts. I engaged as well, though only lightly wounding one aircraft. With only one enemy actually downed, all parties were forced to disengage after the ammo wells ran dry.

Suffering mostly cosmetic damage to my P40, I followed my squad back to the airfield – field being the most appropriate term. One poor sap crashed on landing; I still have not heard if it was due to equipment failure from the engagement. On approach, my flaps jammed for one reason or another – perhaps the law of Murphy. I touched down with little other incident, and thanked God for my return once again.

Upon reporting back to the Captain, I noted to him my decision was to remain in the European theatre of operations and requested to be reassigned here. The thought of at least having dry land when ditching a plane was more comforting to me than bailing out over the Pacific ocean.

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