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An Aviation Christmas Story

by Jeremy Cox 1. December 2007 00:00
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Lo, thus we all scurry to and fro in our busy lives; I beseech you to never forget who you truly are, and what it that is really important to you.

The mist clung to the Newfoundland shoreline and wispy tendrils began to curl out towards the estuary Harbour at Botwood. Captain John Farmer caught the grin of his First Officer Bob Williams, as Bob slowly steered the Boeing 314 out into the main channel.

With a quick, "All set?", to the rest of the crew, Flight Engineer Joe Bingham, Navigator Ted Patrick, and Wireless Operator Sam Kensey, all gave a 'thumbs up'. In response, Farmer gave the signal for full power.

With an increase in roar and vibration, all four Wright Twin Cyclones quickly found the sixteen hundred horses that were kept stabled within. Ten minutes later they were cruise climbing above the last Atlantic peninsula east of Musgrave Harbour when the two thousand odd miles of dark and unforgiving ocean started slipping rapidly beneath them. Farmer was eager to achieve their one hundred and eighty three miles per hour cruising speed as he, and by his guess the rest of his crew, was hungry and wanted to be able to settle into the groove of the long droning night ahead.

It was now 4:00 PM Atlantic Time and their splash arrival at Foynes on the Shannon Estuary was not scheduled until 6:30 in the morning, Irish time. Farmer had flown both legs from Long Island to Shediac, New Brunswick, and Shediac to Botwood, earlier that day. Their ultimate destination was Southampton Water in war-torn Southern England, after stopping in Foynes for fuel and mail.

Scheduled flight number Four had climbed out over New York on Wednesday, December 24th, 1941, instead of the normally scheduled Thursday, to allow the last transatlantic passengers of the holiday to be in England by tea time on Christmas afternoon the next day. Earlier, Farmer had learned that Hong Kong had fallen under the offense that had been launched by the Japanese Imperial Army as a part of the Axis expansion. Although everyone on board was very aware of the terrible events that were unfurling around the world, both Pan American World Airways and British Imperial Airways defiantly maintained service across the North Atlantic.

The Pan Am harbour agent at Botwood had wished them all a very 'Happy Christmas' over the wireless, as the tow boat had waved them off past the harbour sea wall. Farmer said 'Bah' to himself in response to the agent's kindly send-off. The world was either at war, or on the brink of going to war, everywhere on the planet, and all this particular agent could do was to make an empty-headed comment like that one? 'What can the man have possibly been thinking of?' thought Farmer.

At forty two tons, 'Yankee Clipper one eight six oh three' was a behemoth, and yet she managed to appear graceful in or out of the water or air. Water was still streaming from her pontoons and hull as she lumbered Eastbound into the rapidly failing cloak of darkness, this cold and black Christmas Eve. As the instrument panel dials and indicators began to glow in a suffused yellow light, head stew Sally Ruston entered the crew compartment to report on the status of her cabin. She had thirty two passengers and three stewardesses under her authoritive care.

"All's well below Skip" she reported to Farmer. "Dinner Service begins in an hour. We're passing out drinks with their menus now."

Farmer nodded, and then asked "When do we get our dinner?"

"Soon", she promised. "Just let me get through with reheating their soup. I will send Gina up with your and the boys grub immediately after. See you all in a few," she finished and quickly disappeared down the spiral stairs back to her cabin below.

"How are we doing with our flight plan, Ted?" Farmer asked his navigator.

"If this wind stays on our tail like it's supposed to, I am planning on us quaffing Irish coffees by 06:19 Zulu tomorrow, Skip." Well at least we won't be behind schedule like we are normally, Farmer thought to himself as he gave his thanks to Ted.

"Radio that in will you, Sam? And ask Joe to stop messing about with the master throttles on engines three and four. It feels as though this boat is wing-walking its way to Ireland!"

"Okay Skip", the wireless operator replied.

Farmer lit his first cigarette of this leg and then settled back to watch his First Officer finesse the controls to match the cruise settings that Joe, the Flight Engineer had selected on his engineer's control panel. Even though this was lauded by so many as a special day, he smugly thought that this was just another crossing, like the many that he had commanded before.

It was 6:00 PM now; 1:00 AM in Ireland. The remnants of dinner were stacked neatly on the floor of the flight deck behind Bob's station in the cockpit. Cigarette smoke was drifting toward the parting in the heavy anti-glare curtain behind them, which separated Farmer and Williams from the rest of the flight crew. Apart from the twinkling lights emanating from the occasional merchant ship, trawler, or ocean liner skating past, it all was just a frigid field of darkness below them. The scent of coffee, mixed with the acridity of the crew's cigarettes, provided a warm smell, while the cabin heaters maintained a fairly even seventy degrees through-out the inhabited compartments of the Clipper.

Below and behind the crew, the passengers talked, read, or played cards. The gramophone in the main lounge quietly crooned to several of the passengers who were enjoying their umpteenth Clipper Cocktail of gold rum mixed with vermouth and grenadine.

Occasionally a weird buzz could be heard on the upper right hand side of the aircraft, and there was a little lurch sideways. Not being pilots themselves, the passengers and cabin crew left any concern that they may have had to the pilots. Slowly the buzz became a whumping sound followed by judders and then violent vibration. The face of every soul on board Pan Am flight number Four suddenly drained of all colour and their fingernails started to dig painfully into their armrests or crew stations, except for Williams and Farmer who sat at the controls.

"Something's terribly wrong with three and four, Skip. We need to think about putting her down before they start shaking themselves off the wing!" Joe screamed to the curtain at the front of the flight deck.

Farmer was already scanning the sea below when he had felt the first debilitating stutter off his right shoulder. The flight deck became a blur of organized chaos as each crew member raced into emergency action. By now the vibration was beginning to cause everyone's eyeballs to blur. The gramophone needle jarred off the record. Speed was way off; the Clipper was descending even before Farmer ordered that numbers three and four were to be shut down.

"There are lights off the port side Skipper. Let's make for them and pass overhead so Ted can fire a parachute flare out of his celestial window. The light from the flare will make our approach and landing easier to see", Bob said.

Farmer nodded his approval as he was trying to speak to Sally on the interphone instructing her that they were going to ditch-land into the Atlantic. Suddenly the noise and jarring stopped as Joe secured the now silent engines on the Starboard wing.

"…52 degrees, 29 minutes North, 40 degrees, 4 minutes and 38 seconds West…" Sam was shouting into his wireless microphone, hoping that someone in the main shipping lanes would relay his message onto Pan Am in Long Island.

"Okay Bob, I've got control", said Farmer.

"Roger Skip, you've got her", Bob responded.

"All-right gentlemen, the flare has given us light enough to see that the sea state is at least reasonably calm. Ten degrees of flap please, Bob." Farmer called out to his co-pilot.

The Clipper slid down an invisible rail that was their entry into the heaving ocean, three hundred yards off the harbour light of the island that they had fortuitously spied from above.

The bow-wave diminished to a friendly wash as Farmer steered the Clipper to the right, anticipating and judging his speed and available inertia aided by the two remaining engines, to bring the Clipper into the still waters walled by the little harbour of the island. Many people could be observed running out of the port houses and the little pub at the head of the slipway. Farmer called for taxi lights, the beams of which immediately shone on the Harbourmaster and his mate who were bringing their tow boat around to allow the Clipper to nose up to their stern.

With a sturdy line tied to the nose mooring ring, the Clipper bobbed and tugged lightly as she slowly slid into the harbour in tow. With the remaining engines shutdown, their metal bodies ticking into contraction, and while the last 'after shutdown' checklist item had been read and confirmed, music and chatter could be heard spilling around the little harbour enclosure.

Relieved Clipper passengers applauded Captain Farmer as he stepped off the last riser of the bottom of the crew stair into their cabin. The entrance door under the Port wing was already open and the friendly, sea hardened face of the Harbourmaster was displaying a toothy grin, as both officers, one from the sea, the other from the air, greeted each other.

"Captain Farmer, we have been expecting you. Welcome to Freesealand sir." The Harbourmaster said.

"Well sir, I am totally confused. How could you have been expecting us, when we are bound for Ireland and we would never have stopped here if it wasn't for our engine problems forcing us to put down here?" Farmer retorted.

"It's Christmas Eve Captain, and there are many things that will become clearer to you, after you, your crew, and passengers have all joined me and my people by the fire in the pub behind us, over a round of good honest ale."

"That would be most welcome sir" replied Farmer who was sporting a very surprised frown on his face.

"Can your engineer, Joe, stay with your craft Captain? I will have two of my best mechanics come down to help him repair the engines. We have everything that Joe will need and within a couple of hours I promise that you will all be able to leave here and resume your journey to the East."

The port villagers greeted the forty bewildered visitors and led them, all except for Joe, in through the door of the 'Salty Mermaid', the quaint and ancient harbour pub. Inside there was a wood beamed ceiling with shadows that danced back and forth in time with the roaring flames of the massive fire in the hearth at the back of the common room. Along the left a worn but brightly polished bar of oak ran the full length of the room. The pump handles of the ale casks shone in the light cast by the fire. They were made from whalebone and walrus tusks that had been set in brass fittings. The interior exuded warmth and a welcoming sense of friendship and wellbeing.

"What will it be, all of you? How about a tankard of our Mermaid's Best?" the Harbourmaster enquired to the throng. As the pewter tankards filled with the most delicious beer reached all of the empty hands in the room, the Harbourmaster made his speech.

"I am very happy to be able to welcome all of our new friends to our island here in the Atlantic, on this cold and dark night. I am sorry that your journey has been interrupted, however I promise you all that you will be resuming your flight very soon, back under the careful and skilful hand of Captain Farmer here. Meanwhile I must tell you all that your coming here is not entirely unexpected to us here in Freesealand."

Every one of the passengers and crew looked directly into the Harbourmaster's well-weathered face inquiringly as those words were uttered.

"Let me explain" the Harbourmaster continued. "Many of you here tonight don't even know, and I stress, really don't know what the significance of tonight. Of course it is Christmas Eve, one of the most special evenings of the entire year. Tomorrow is Christmas Day and everyone must be happy and glad to live these moments for what they are. No matter from where you hail on this planet; no matter your religion, whoever you pledge praises to, and seek forgiveness from, is completely irrelevant. You may not even have a belief or follow a given creed; all of this is of no matter. What I am speaking of to you all tonight, and the real reason why I believe that you were brought here, is because of the goodness of man and womankind."

The room collectively drew a breath as the old Harbourmaster continued his oratory.

"Yes, the world is at war, but I promise you all that this awful conflagration shall end one day and there will be other lesser wars after it. This I assure you. Many will fall and others will continue to fall, however the goodness of the human heart shall live on and prosper. Make no mistake, there is good, and there is evil, all around us. But good always wins over evil in the end. This fact is that is the greatest accomplishment of the human race. This should never be forgotten!

Both tonight and tomorrow, like every year past and future, is the focal point, the cynosure in fact, of all that is noble, decent and good. Whether you contemplate this fact along with the goodness that is within you, and within the hearts of your fellow humans, while you are lying on a beach in Australia under the blazing sun on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; or possibly hunkered down in a muddy, blood spattered and putrid trench dodging lethal bullets; or maybe huddled around the fire just like we are now in the Salty Mermaid on this frigid islet in the middle of the North Atlantic, is up to you. Wherever your travels take you at this time of the year, I impeach you to never forget my words. Never forget who you truly are and what is really important to you. No matter what disturbs you on the outside, you are all truly good deep inside of yourself; every one of you.

So, raise your vessels please and join me in wishing everyone on this wonderful earth a Very Merry and Happy Christmas!"

The room of smiling people at once cheered, drank, and then hugged all around. Music started up again and while the chatter broke into spontaneous song, the door to the Salty Mermaid swung open and Joe stepped inside followed by his two helpers.

"The Clipper is ready to go skipper. We must have picked up some water in the fuel when we refuelled in Newfoundland. We have drained and flushed the lines and sumps and thanks to the Harbourmaster here, we are fuelled up and ready to go."

Many hands were shaken and hugs exchanged. Then they were all back on board the Yankee Clipper being towed out of the harbour. With a cheery wave from all, the propellers tore at the frigid air; they turned and rushed forward, quickly making flying speed.

Farmer didn't need to confer with his crew as to what he needed to do next. As they were accelerating into the night, climbing high, he brought the massive flying boat around with all of its lights blazing in their full glory to make one swooping flypast of gratitude.

As the Clipper rounded out of its banking turn all eyes were peering out into the gloom, hoping to catch one last sight of the welcoming isle of Freesealand and its inhabitants. Much to everyone's amazement, not least of all Captain Farmer's, the sight that rapidly fell below them was not of a harbour, pub, port homes and villagers, but instead the vision of an ethereal-incandescent blue-green glow of a large iceberg, sporadically populated by tiny figures of arctic penguins, all craning their tiny necks upward to see the diminishing shape of Pan Am flight number Four as it sped Eastward.

No one spoke for several minutes. Everyone was thinking the same thought: 'Merry Christmas to all, young and old, wherever you are. Bless you all for the goodness that you keep deep, deep down inside of yourself.'


Okay, I hope that you liked this attempt at a traditional Christmas story. I will see you all next month, in the New Year. Please remember that any input that you care to make will be of great interest to all of the readers here at Globalair.com. So please don't be bashful and go ahead and write your comments and suggestions here. Please don't forget that whatever you write here, can be seen publicly by everyone that visits this page, so please be funny, be inspired, but most importantly of all, please be nice.

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Jeremy Cox


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