It’s a pity that so few people ever get a chance to cut loose and blow something out of the sky. Only a combat pilot can do it in such a way that is like no other moment in life. A ground gunner doesn’t get the experience of stalking his prey through all three dimensions of space. A sport hunter never knows the adrenaline rush of awareness that he might just as easily be the victim as the hunter. And the blast of an orgasm, while thrilling, never brings you to the edge of death. No, there is nothing like it on earth. A killing in the bright blue heavens is an anomaly. Its a spiritual awakening.
October, 1st. 1944 found me flying in the pea soup of English fog, and all the world was an endless grey. A little lighter here, a bit darker there. I felt quite useless as a fighter pilot. How could I shoot at anything out there when I could barely see the nose of my own aircraft? Unfortunately I couldn’t choose where to fight my enemy. He, or I should say it, was somewhere in all that cloud, not caring a hoot about visibility because it was a robot, programmed to fly a steady course until it simply ran out of fuel and fell out of the sky.
“Poker One, this is Starburst,” the controller charged over the R/T, “bandit should be dead level at your twelve o’clock. Range, 220 feet. You should have joy, over.”
“Have joy,” meant that I should be able to eyeball it. I wanted to shout back at the controller, “I don’t have joy on my boot laces! Never mind the target.” But the controller was cool as a cucumber, because he had to be. The bandit was a V-1, which might drop out of the sky at any minute and blow an enormous hole out of His Majesty’s precious Kingdom. These V-1s were a vexing annoyance at the time. We called them “Buzz bombs” because of the monotonous noise that spewed from its simple jet engine. It was more of a “baa” than a buzz. The things sounded like a sheep “baaing” one continuous note of complaint across the countryside. The danger wasn’t near if you actually heard that damn droning. But if you heard the last sputter of the beast as it drank its last drop, and then you heard the ominous silence afterward, you had better make yourself flat as a pancake on the ground, cover your ears and repent all your sins because that baby was going to fall down and blow itself up with the force of an entire Lancaster bomb load.
That is, unless somebody could blow it up in the sky first. That was where I came in. Having been carefully guided by radar to the target, I was ready with armed machine guns and cannons to put my training to the test. Just as soon as I could see anything.
Still all was grey. Seemed almost like a metaphor for my life. A bit darker grey over there where I didn’t think I wanted to go. Somewhat brighter up there where I might think of going, maybe law school, probably not business. It probably didn’t matter much one way or another when everything was just dull shades of grey. These days I might have been diagnosed with depression and been given some pills. Back then though, I was simply thought of as being aimless. Until my Dad got so fed up with me that he took me down to the recruiting office. He knew the military would straighten me out and that was all he cared about. Until the actual show began. The Second World War. He hadn’t counted on that. Oh sure he saw the gathering tide and followed the news and all that. But he never connected the dots between world events and the typical Canadian family home. And Mom, never keen on the idea of her son holding a gun, nearly divorced Dad when she found out I was being shipped over the pond to be “used as cannon fodder” as she so indelicately put it to both him and me. But I didn’t mind going to war. At least being afraid for my life would be more fun than being bored with it.
“Poker One, this is Starburst. Bandit near. Please advise your situation. Do you have joy? Over.”
“Starburst, Poker One. No joy. I’m in the soup. Over.”
I stared into the mist so hard for a second that Starburst scared the crap out of me when he radioed a reply to my last statement. “Poker One, this is Starburst. Situation…ah…understood. Over.”
That made me feel better, leaving the controller uncomfortable enough to stutter. At least now I knew that nobody had any better idea than I had. So I might as well just keep staring and hoping, staring at that particular patch of grey. But then something happened. The grey got a little colourful. Yes definitely a little greenish. A little greener still and then wham! Suddenly I was in a bubble of clear air and so was it. The V-1. It was smaller than I expected with a tapered cylinder for a body, straight stub wings and a tube sitting on a couple of struts atop the fuselage that housed the engine. Beautifully simple really, and it was only about a hundred feet away, almost dead ahead flying straight and level. I let myself think for just an instant, so this is what its all about.
As I fingered the trigger, a wave of horror swept me violently. I yanked the stick back, the fighter leapt nose up into the sky and spewed its .303 and 20 millimetre shells harmlessly into the clouds for about one second while my finger remained paralyzed with terror. Then I let go, leveled off and found my target still there in front of my nose, oblivious to its near destruction, and of the fact that a man very close by was feeling his heart beating as hard and clear as if he was holding the muscle in his hand. I had just about killed myself with one finger on the trigger, and then just barely saved myself with the same hand pulling the stick into my stomach, all this while simultaneously thinking Shit, if I pop this kraut robot at this range I’ll blow up with it!
So now what? The mindless bandit was already slinking back into the clouds to vanish, possibly forever. I was suddenly angry. How could I, a trained fighter pilot, driving one of the best, most maneuverable aircraft in the world, be bloody stymied by a drone that was flying straight and level as a farmer’s wife on a prairie road? For a second I was tempted to put the balls to the wall and go charging into that cloud and possibly ram the thing. Then better judgement took over.
I raised the nose of my plane ever so gently and began a shallow climb up out of the clouds. I knew that the bomb would begin accelerating away from me but I needed to spread the distance anyway and maybe by looking down from above I could find the bastard more easily.
“Starburst to Poker One, Bandit now beneath you, distance increasing to three hundred yards. Over.” There was a hint of urgency in the controller’s voice but I didn’t care. I was swimming in the bright blue of an endless sky and I alone, in all of England, had the private audience with the sun, while all those millions of British peasants, including the controller, lived in the muck that lay beneath me.
“Starburst to Poker…”
“Poker One to Starburst, am attacking. Over.” I wasn’t attacking but that was the only way I could shut him up for a minute. I needed quiet. Getting back to business, I nosed down into a very shallow dive, checking my speed at three-twenty knots, holding the compass heading steady, trying to calculate mentally where the bandit should be. I fixed my gaze on that patch of the clouds and waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. But there was only cloud. I knew the controller was going to call me again at any second, wanting to know what the hell was happening. Or maybe he was going to tell me that the bandit was off the radar screen. Maybe it had just fallen on a school and wiped out a hundred odd children.
No! That couldn’t be. Not that I was worried about civilians. I just couldn’t lose that battle. I was afraid of having a heart attack, not knowing the organ could work so hard. My eyes watered because I refused to blink.
Then it was there, beneath and ahead of me. Four Hundred yards, cruising blithely in a small oasis of clear air. The drone would be a clear target for maybe three seconds before it vanished into the next cloud. God had given me those seconds. I knew it. He gave me three seconds to prove my worth to him, to put my cross-hairs on my target, to calculate lead angle, (how far ahead the target would be when the shells arrived to kill it) and to factor bullet drop (the force of gravity on a traveling bullet), when the guns fired.
I was ready.
I squeezed the trigger. My plane shuddered from the recoil of all the guns and cannon spewing hundreds of rounds in a second, making my teeth chatter. Then I let go and had to give myself up to fate as I watched all my tracer shells flinging through space.
It only takes a second for a stream of shells to travel four hundred yards. But what a long second it was, the farther away the shells flew, the more they gave the illusion of slowing down, of lazily dropping away, as if by the time they reached their target, they’d lose so much momentum that they’d just harmlessly bounce off like soft, light little tennis balls.
But they didn’t. Two or three of my cannon shells sparkled on the green metal of the nose of the V-1 as it flew into the stream of lead, just like it was supposed to. Then a couple more shells hit further back down the fuselage where at least one of them must have penetrated the skin and buried itself into the explosive stomach of the beast.
Everything was silent and so brilliant white for an instant. Then the shock wave hit my bird and flung it up what seemed like a few hundred feet. When I could finally steady my gaze again, the breath was stolen from my lungs. A great circle of flaming fragments was expanding across the sky, against a backdrop of clouds that were rushing away from the scene like sheep rushing away from a rabid dog. And there in the middle of it all, was a hole where the clouds had just burned up in an instant, leaving a clear view of the countryside below. I could even see a tractor way down there, plowing a field.
I had done all that. Not only blown my target into a million tiny, flaming bits, but even changed the world! Punched a hole in the sky just as surely as the Thor would toss a bolt of lightning.
What joy! What sheer elation!
“Poker One to Starburst, bandit destroyed! Bandit destroyed! Over!” I shouted without any professional restraint.
“Starburst to Poker One,” the controller said with a bland tone that was almost insulting. “acknowledged. Bandit destroyed. Good job, Poker. Over and out.”
That vision of the changing sky, with all its fire and billowing clouds and bending streams of light was the prize of a dream chased so hard, and then caught so perfectly. I vowed to always live like that, from that moment on until the day I died.
And that was a good thing too. Because the next day my squadron was posted to France, where everything was so much on the line between life and death that I’d have to live like that.