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Like a giant bat the transatlantic plane flew through the night, using sensitive antennas to find its way. There was no beauty of flight, only a boiling turbulence that obliterated the stars high above and the sea down below. Red, white and green lights sought hopelessly to pierce the murk, blinking on and off. The four straining engines spoke loudly in defiance of the elements as driving rain pelted the plane's aluminum skin.
The wind grew stronger, spewing rain with explosive force against glass and metal. The engines labored a little more and the night grew blacker still. Suddenly the plane lurched, its wings slicing thickly through the heavy air. It righted itself and for a moment more held a steady course, then it shuddered again as if the weight of the air mass had become too great to bear. The pitch of its propellers changed, urgently straining, pounding, seeking to thrust the plane forward and upward.
The storm fought back viciously, changing rain to sleet and hail, pummeling the plane with boiling white ice and seeking to beat it down. Beneath this attack the plane was forced to descend. In the lower air there was relief from the icy blows.
But the storm did not leave it alone for long. Lightning stabbed the sky and shattered the blackness. Suddenly the plane lurched again. It was bathed in a weird light and there seemed to be a ball of fire on its nose. Propellers became whirling wheels of green vapor. What seemed like huge balloons of red, blue and green exploded everywhere in the heavens, and storm clouds took on ever-changing, fiery shapes.
Directly in the center of this beautiful but frightening spectral light the plane flew unharmed. It could now be seen clearly and the name on its side read Bermuda Atlantic Transport. On its vertical tail fin were the large initials:
There was nothing soft about this plane or the men flying it. Together they'd made one hundred and twenty-six trips across the South Atlantic--from Portugal to the Cape Verde Islands, on to Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and then, if the cargo payload warranted it, to New York.
The red linoleum floor of the flight deck heaved beneath the seats of the crew and the captain said, "A couple more jolts like the last one and we'll end up in the drink for sure." His eyes didn't leave the shaking instrument panel with its blurred figures.
Strapped in the seat to the captain's right was the copilot, his hands, too, on the control yoke trying to keep the plane steady. "I can take jolts better than the fire," he said. "I don't like it. I never did."
"Harmless. If all we had to worry about was St. Elmo's fire we'd be sitting fine."
"I know, but I still don't like it," the copilot said. "But, baby, just as long as the fans keep turning . . ." He didn't finish his sentence, nor did he bother to look in the direction of the propellers. There was nothing on the other side of the windows anyway but swirling darkness. The fire--a discharge of electricity combined with sleeting rain--was gone.
"She won't let us down," the captain said confidently. "Not this girl." He patted the leather crash pad above the panel. "We've been going steady too long."
For a moment the propellers bit smoothly into the night air and the plane leveled off. The needles no longer danced crazily on the green dials so the captain took one hand at a time off the control wheel and wiped his palms dry. An airman expected all kinds of weather, but nothing like this, the captain thought, without some briefing before departure. The forecaster in the Cape Verde weather room had prophesied a little light rain, headwinds of forty miles on the nose and Trinidad clear. Nothing out of the ordinary; in fact it was quite a good forecast for the South Atlantic at this time of year. The captain had known weathermen to be wrong before but never so completely wrong as this one!
The plane plunged down sickeningly into an air pocket. Two pairs of hands sought urgently to pull the nose up again. Winds screamed through the antennas, propellers groaned and there was a grinding jolt as the plane hit a lower cloud bank before leveling off again.
The captain worked the controls, straining to compensate for the swirling winds. He eyed the gauges, especially the altimeter. On his next trip he'd walk into the Cape Verde weather room and tell that forecaster exactly what he thought of him! But now all he could do was to ride out this storm.
The copilot worked as hard as the captain. He advanced the throttles, keeping all four engines equal in power. "Fans, keep turning," he pleaded, "keep turning!" They were burning over two hundred gallons of gasoline an hour. He looked at the gyrocompass, its spinning needle turning in every direction but toward their initial course. He took a second more to check the time on the black-faced panel clock. How much gas was left? And where were they anyway? It was their navigator's job to know, but the copilot was too busy to turn to him now and ask. As close as he could figure it they had fuel for about two more hours.
Suddenly the hail and lightning came on again, beating and burning the aluminum skin.
The captain's legs were numb from working the worn rubber pedals; his eyes were bloodshot from the constant strain of watching the white dancing needles on the panel; his insides groaned from the beating they were taking on this crazy, bouncing deck; and his arms felt like pieces of lead. But at least the plane was still in the air.