December 18th 1923 - 8.45am
Captain William Hobson sheltered himself from the worst of the wind coming off the boiling ocean. The San Francisco Airport, office building, was little more than a glorified shed. Hobson watched his DeHaviland biplane twitch in the gusts as it sat on the grass runway. He lifted a cigarette to his lips, cupping the glowing tip in his palm, and drew the pungent smoke deep into his lungs. The door of the office opened and the clerk appeared clutching the east bound mail sack in his arms.
As the clerk handed over the canvas bag, he lifted the collar of his wool jacket, and regarded the dark clouds above their heads.
“Are you sure you should be making this run, Willy?” he asked. Captain Hobson shouldered the bag, his flying cap flapping in the wind when he moved from the lee of the office.
“As long as I get going now, I’ll be safely in front of the storm all the way to Cheyenne.” He jogged toward his waiting aircraft, the heavy flying suit making his movements stunted, but once he was up in the clouds, he would need every ounce of it's thick insulation, and more. Hobson stowed the mail securely in the co-pilot’s bay, before hopping into the pilot’s seat behind. A ground engineer stood by at the propeller. When Hobson was ready, he gave a thumbs up, and the engineer threw his full weight down on the timber blade. The engine coughed then caught with a belch. The engine smoked black before heating up. When the Liberty 12 engine was purring nicely, Hobson gave the signal to pull the chocks. Instead of doing that, the engineer ran around the wing and approached the side of the plane.
“Hay Captain, can I ask you something?” he yelled over the roar of the engine.
“Sure, but make it quick,” said Hobson, pointing at the huge bank of black clouds appearing on the horizon.
“Can you slip this into the sack,” the engineer asked, pulling a small parcel from inside his jacket. “It’s for my boy, back home. For Christmas,” said the man guiltily. Hobson regarded the package, he could lose his job for doing what the man asked. He also knew that the cost of Air Mail was far beyond most, even him. Hobson smiled and took the package. He tucked it into his flight suit and said, “Safer in here than in any sack.”
The engine revved when the chocks were finally pulled and the flimsy aircraft took to the sky with a wobble, before turning away from the thunderheads.
Seven hours into the journey, Hobson was completely numb with cold. He was constantly changing altitude to break up the ice forming on the flaps. This was the most difficult conditions for flying in. The cloud hung low, making every direction look the same. He had to place all his trust in his altimeter and compass. He kept track of his progress on the air map, stowed by his left leg.
Whenever a break in the cloud appeared, he tried to confirm his position with landmarks on the ground. Rail tracks were a God send, they were the road signs of the sky, still many planes vanished without a trace, it was like the pony express all over again. Flyers were never sure they’d see home again anytime they pulled back on that joystick and aimed for the sky.
When the Liberty engine gave its first cough, Hobson craned his neck to see the engine better. Minutes ticked by and the engine purred smoothly. It was a long time later that the engine spluttered again, twice this time. Despite the cold, Willy Hobson began to sweat. By the time the plane rumbled to a stop on Cheyenne airfield, the gloom was turning to night. Willy killed the engine as the engineers secured the wheels.
“She misfired a few times, I think it might be dirty fuel,” shouted Hobson to the head mechanic. The mechanic shook his head and said “Cheep Bastards,” to nobody in particular. The company spent thousand on planes but tried to save a few cents by buying cheap fuel. Hobson knew airplanes were insured and pilots were easily replaced. That would all change if it were fat management asses strapped into the things, rather than him.
Hobson trudged toward the Airport Office with the mail sack over his shoulder. As he kicked the door closed behind him, Jack appeared from the back office holding a steaming tin mug of jet black coffee.
“You beat the storm,” he said, handing over the mug when Hobson had stripped off his heavy flying gloves.
“It’s a nasty one, won’t be going back until it passes.”
“Yea, got to talk to you about that,” said Jack, taking a sip of his own coffee.
“There is no way I’m flying back to San Fran through that,” said Hobson, knowing damn well that was just what Jack was about to ask.
“I don’t want you to go back, I need you to go on,” said Jack, straightening up in his chair.
“I’ve a package in the back that has to get to Chicago before tomorrow.”
“What’s so important that it can’t wait a few hours until the Chicago guys get here?”
“No idea. All I know is that the order has come straight from the Whitehouse, and she won’t tell me another thing about it,” Jack said.
“She?” asked Hobson.
“Yea, she,” said Jack pointing to the back office with a frown. Standing in the door was a woman with flaming red hair and a black case manacled to her wrist.
“Evening Ma’am,” said Hobson, half rising from his chair. She gave Hobson a stony look and said, “Are we ready to leave Captain, time is of the essence.”
Hobson settled back in his chair, and sipped his coffee. If it was really that important, they wouldn’t have sent a woman in the first place.
“You can just take it easy there Missy, we won’t be going anywhere tonight. Not in the weather that’s coming anyway.”
“You don’t understand, Captain, my instructions come from the very highest authority, from President Coolidge himself,” she said raising the case slightly, making the chain clink as it moved.
“Well, I don’t work for Coolidge, in fact I didn’t even vote for the man,” Hobson said, sitting up straight in his chair and glaring at the pretty lady. The girl regarded Hobson for a moment before saying. “Can I talk to you outside for a moment, Captain? Alone.”
“Sure,” said Hobson, following the swishing skirts of the woman as she breezed past him. Once the door closed she turned toward him, her face was ghostly in the dim light of the office window.
“What I am about to tell you, Captain, is a matter of national security. In this case are the details of an assignation attempt, on the life of Price Hirohito of Japan, unless we can get this information to them in time. There is a new Radio transmitter being finished in Pittsburgh and that’s where I have to go. If we fail, all our work building relations with Japan will be lost, and quite possibly, a new world war may be triggered. Do you want to be responsible for that?”
“No of course not,” said Hobson, shocked at what she just told him.
“Excellent, ready the plane, we leave in fifteen minutes, “ she said, striding into the office, closing the door behind her, leaving Willy Hobson standing in the cold.
Fifteen minutes later, the biplane was ticking over on the runway, the wheel-chocks holding it in place, as a slight figure appeared in the gloom. The woman climbed into the co-pilot seat wearing a flying suit far too big for her, still clutching the black document case to her chest. Once she was settled in, Hobson gave the thumbs up to the ground crew and the blocks were whipped away. For the second time in twenty four hours, Willy raced the engine and pushed the tiny plane into a forbidding sky, and this one was completely dark.
It wasn’t long before the storm caught up with them. The gusts slammed into the tiny plane from all sides, throwing them around the sky like a scrap of paper. Lightning light up the sky all around them while Hobson struggled to keep them on course. Soon he had no idea where they were. All he knew for sure was they were headed east.
When the engine spluttered and died for a moment, Willy knew he was in big trouble. The engine roared to life again and Willy quickly tried to take them below the cloud-line, hoping to find a place to land in the darkness. The woman in front of him turned, her eyes were huge and terrified.
“What’s happening?” she shouted over the roar of the wind.
“We’ve got to land, the engine is going to die,” shouted Hobson, noticing for the first time that she wasn’t wearing a parachute.
“Where is your chute?” he screamed at the woman.
“Jake didn’t have one,” she cried, clutching the black case to her chest and sinking lower into the seat.
“Bloody Hell! You better hold on so,” he said, trying to control the plane, as the engine stalled once more. When they fell through the bottom of the clouds, Hobson spotted a huge flat area of white about ten miles directly ahead. It had to be a lake, and with any luck a frozen one.
“There is a God,” mumbled Hobson, as he aimed for the middle of the lake. Lower and lower they sank until the trees were skimming the undercarriage of the flimsy plane. The wheels were only just feet above the surface of the lake when Willy saw what looked like thousands of tiny mountains dotted across the top of the ice. He pulled back hard on the stick and pushed the throttle all the way open. The woman in front of him screamed and gripped the side of the plane with vice like fingers.
As they rose high into the sky once more, the woman turned and shouted, “Why didn’t you land?”
“That ice had broken up and refrozen again in jagged shards, it would have sliced through us like a thousand knives. You’ll have to jump,” Willy said unclasping his backpack and tossing it into the woman’s lap.
“I can’t,” cried the woman beginning to sob.
“You can and you will, get a grip of yourself woman,” he shouted, leaning forward to prise her fingers from the side of the cockpit.
Hobson told her how to get into the straps and how to pull the rip cord, as she fumbled around in the seat in front of him. All the time he urged the plane higher and higher into the sky, making sure the chute would have enough time to open. The woman had just secured the last clasp when the engine coughed fatally. Willy reached inside his flight suit, drawing out the engineer’s son’s parcel and stuffed it inside the woman’s collar.
“What was that,” she screamed. Hobson smiled as he struggled to keep control of the dying plane. “A last delivery,” he said and with a flick of the joystick, Hobson rolled the plane upside down, dumping the woman out of her seat. All he could do now was pray she pulled the ripcord. He franticly searched for a place to land but knew already it was useless. Once more he aimed for the frozen lake, this time he couldn’t escape the razor sharp teeth of ice as they ripped through flesh, bone and steel with ease.