Happy Landings by Duncan James - HTML preview

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by Duncan James


Luke Edwards was in a bit of a sweat, if he was honest.  

Not that it was hot or anything, although it should have been, bearing in mind it was the end of August.   But he was in a rush, and it was late on a Friday.   Everyone else went home early for the weekend on Fridays.   But not him.   His editor had decided he desperately wanted photographs, and Luke was a photographer on the staff, so Luke got sent.   His was a 24/7 job – that’s what they called it these days.   None of this 9 till 5 stuff for him.   He was on-call all the time.   Accidents, fires, murders, VIPs, you name it – he got called out to get pictures for the paper, and to get them before anyone else got them for a rival paper.

So that’s why he was in a bit of a sweat.  

It seemed to him that it had been raining for weeks.   They said, whoever ‘they’ were, that it was the wettest August since records began, although nobody seemed quite sure when that was.   But suddenly the river had burst its banks, as ‘they’ said it would, and the town was flooding, and there were people in rowing boats down the High Street, and the trains had stopped, and cars had been abandoned and everything.

“So get some pictures”, was the message.

Except that if the town was flooded, he couldn’t get into it, could he, he pointed out to his editor, looking at how near it was to going home time.

“I’ll fix that,” said the editor, grabbing the phone.   “I’ll hire an aeroplane, and you can take pictures from the air.   Much better!”

That was another reason Luke was in a bit of a sweat.   He hated flying, and he just knew what was in store.   The editor had done it to him before.   There was a small private airfield not far out of town, and the editor knew someone who had one of those little aeroplanes which was parked there.   Propeller at the front, wings on top, two seats and that was it.   You know the sort.

“Perfect for air-to-ground photography,” claimed the editor.   “The wings don’t get in the way of the view.”

Luke’s stomach churned at the very thought of it, but there was no escape.

“My chum’s aeroplane is not being used, so get there fast,” he was ordered, phone call over.   “It’ll be on the end of the runway with the engine going by the time you arrive.”

‘Runway’ was a bit of a joke, too.   It was a grass airstrip.   But at least it wasn’t far from the flooded town or from the newspaper’s office.   With any luck it would all be over in half an hour or so.

The Chief Photographer (he was actually the only one on the paper’s staff) grabbed his bag of kit, hurried to the car park and drove off.   It had been a nice day for a change, and he made good time.

Near the airstrip, there was a ludicrous road sign pointing to ‘The Airport’, with a pictogram of an aeroplane.   Not only ludicrous, but quite un-necessary, as you could see it from the road.   There was a collection of huts, one of which had a bit added to the roof to act as a control tower, an old red Landrover with a ladder and two fire extinguishers – a Health and Safety requirement, no doubt, - and that was about all.   One of the huts, near the car park, grandly proclaimed itself to be a ‘Flying Training School’ where, for a hefty fee, you could be taught to fly.   There were three or four small aircraft parked near the huts, and Luke noticed one on the edge of the grass with its door open and the engine running.   His, no doubt.

He parked his car, grabbed his bag and ran to the aircraft, waving cheerily to a man in the control tower who was leaning out of the  window.   As Luke threw his bag into the plane and scrambled aboard, the man shouted something, which he didn’t hear over the noise of the engine.

He slammed the door and climbed into the left-hand seat.

“Let’s go,” he shouted, as he did up his seat belt.

The pilot nodded and slowly taxied into wind.

“Get a move on ,” demanded the photographer.   “I haven’t got all day.”

“You want me to take off ?” asked the young man.

“What else.”

The man revved up the engine, and trundled off across the grass.   A bit bumpy and not very straight, Luke thought, but they eventually managed to get into the air just before reaching the hedge at the end of the field.

The little plane slowly climbed away from the field with its collection huts.

“Shouldn’t we be turning towards the town?” asked Luke, “its over that way, I think.”   He jerked his thumb.

“I normally get to 5,000 feet before starting a turn,” replied the pilot.

“We need to be lower than that,” said Luke.

“If you say so,” said the pilot, and very gingerly turned right.   The town was on the left, but Luke thought that perhaps it was what they had to do because of the radar or something, so said nothing immediately.

“How low can you fly this thing?” asked Luke, eventually.

“5,000 feet normally, but if you want me to, I can try to go a bit lower.”

“As low as you can,” replied Luke.   “I’ll never get any decent pictures from this height.”

The pilot looked across at him, and Luke noticed that he tightened his grip on the control column.


“That’s right.   Pictures.”


“For the newspaper, that’s why.”

“Pictures of what?”

“The flooding in the town,” replied Luke.   “Didn’t anybody brief you?”

“Not about pictures,” said the pilot.

“Well, that’s why I need to go low, over the town.   For pictures of the floods.”

“For the newspaper.”

“Right”, said Luke, groping in his bag for his camera.   “So let’s get over the town, low level, so I can get this job done and we can get home.”

There was silence for a bit, as the plane droned on.

“Are you a photographer then?” asked the pilot.

“Of course I’m a photographer.”   Luke was getting a bit cross by now.

“For the newspaper?”

“The penny is dropping at last!”

“And you want me to fly low over the town?”

“Right again!”

More silence.

“The town’s over there,” said Luke, waving his thumb.   “Let’s get over there, shall we.   Then we can all go home.   Once I’ve got some low level shots of the floods, my job’s done, and we can get back on the ground.”

The pilot looked across at Luke, in silence.

“You really are a newspaper photographer, are you?” he asked.

“Of course I bloody am!   And you’ve been chartered to take me low level over the town, so let’s get this show on the road, shall we?”

Silence again.

“So if you’re a photographer,” said the pilot, after a time, “where’s my instructor?”

This time, it was Luke who was silent.   A shocked silence.


“Instructor.   I’m supposed to be having a lesson.”

“What sort of lesson?”

“A sort of ‘how-to-fly’ lesson”.

“What sort of ‘how-fly-lesson’ for heaven’s sake?   You’re flying, aren’t you?”

Luke was beginning to feel a bit hysterical.

“Yes.   But I’m not supposed to be.   Not without an instructor, anyway.”

“But you’re a pilot, aren’t you?”  

“Not really.”

“What do you mean, ‘not really’?”

“Well, I’m not qualified yet.”

“To do what?”

“To take passengers, for a start.”

“What can you do then?”

“Not a lot, really.”

“How many lessons have you had, then?”

“Three.   This was to be my fourth.”

“What have they taught you to do, in these three lessons?”

“Things called ‘general familiarisation’ - that was the first – then ‘straight and level and left turns’ and, last week, ‘straight and level and right turns’.”


“Haven’t done that yet,” replied the man.

“But you just did!”

“That was my first, but I’ve not had the lesson yet.”

Luke broke out into another sweat.

“I hardly dare ask this,” he said, “but what about landing this thing.”

“Lesson six, I think.” The young man frowned.   “Or perhaps seven.   I can’t remember.”


“Is there a parachute on board?” asked Luke.

“I don’t think so.   And if there was, you wouldn’t leave me up here on my own, would you?”

“I’d be very tempted.”

Silence again.

“This is typical of my Dad,” said Luke.

“Your Dad?   What’s he got to do with it.”

“Never there when he was wanted, my Dad,” explained Luke.

“How could he have helped, then?”

“A real pilot, he was,” replied Luke.   “No disrespect or anything, but he was in the RAF and flew proper aeroplanes.”

“What’s he doing now then?”

“Teaching angels to fly, I shouldn’t be surprised.   He died two years ago.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said the pilot.

Luke looked across at the man.

“Cock this up, sunshine, and I could be introducing you in an hour or so.”

“Don’t make jokes like that.   It doesn’t do my confidence any good.   We’re in this together, remember.”

“Sorry,” said Luke.   “No offence meant.”

“None taken,” said the pilot.   “But I’m going to need your help if we’re to get out of this.”

“So what can I do?”

“For a start, keep your hands to yourself.   I don’t want you twiddling knobs or turning switches on and off unless I ask you.”

“You’re in charge,” replied Luke.

“Right!   Just remember that,” said the student, grandly.   “I’m captain of this aircraft, and strictly speaking, I should be sitting in the left hand seat.”

“Let’s not change round now.”

“Of course not.   But don’t forget you’re only a passenger, so you must do what I say and nothing else, - if you don’t mind.”

“You’re quite sure about the parachutes, are you?”

“Stop it!” demanded the pilot.   “By the way, my name’s Harry.   Harry Fowler.”

“Luke Edwards – but let’s shake hands later, if you don’t mind.   I’d rather you kept yours on the controls at the moment.”

“Agreed,” said Harry.

“Is there a sick-bag, by the way?”

“No!   If you’re ill, use your camera bag.   Otherwise, you’ll spend the rest of the day cleaning up.”

“OK – only joking again.   And I wouldn’t be joking if I wasn’t confident you were going to get us out of this mess,” lied Luke reassuringly.

“Thank you.”

“Let’s head for home, then, shall we?” suggested Luke.

There was a pause.

“I’m not exactly sure which way that is,” replied Harry.

“Don’t tell me we’re lost as well!”

“Pilots never get lost,” replied Harry.   “It’s just that I am temporally unsure of where we are.”

“Is there someone we can talk to?” asked Luke, helpfully.   “How does the wireless work on this machine?”

“Don’t know.   ‘Radio procedures’ is lesson nine.”

“There are headphones hanging on the back of your seat, plugged into a hole thing on the dashboard.   Put them on and see what happens.”

Harry put them on, and listened intently.


“Classic FM,” he said.   “The last bloke to fly this tuned it in to Classic FM.”

“So how do you tune in to something else more useful?”

“Don’t know,” replied Harry again, looking at a forest of knobs and dials.

Luke always knew he hated flying.  Even the annual trip to Spain with the kids was a nightmare, but at least that had someone on board who served gins and tonic, and there were sick-bags in the seat in front.   The plane he was in now didn’t even have a pilot.

“There’s a railway down there,” he pointed out.   “Let’s follow that and see where we end up.   It goes within a few miles of the airfield.”

“Good idea,” said Harry.   “If I fly low enough, we might even read the station name when we get to one, but low flying is lesson eleven.”

“Please,” begged Luke.   “Don’t even think about it.”

“It would help if we could talk to someone,” said Harry.

“Tell you what,” said Luke, rummaging in his bag.   “I’ll try my mobile phone.   It should work from up here.”

“Good idea.   Who will you ring?”

“I suppose you haven’t got the airfield’s phone number, by any chance?”

“Not with me.”

“No good ringing the police.   We’re not illegally parked and haven’t started a fight or anything.”

Pause for thought.

“I know,” said Luke, “I’ll ring my editor, that’s what I’ll do, and he can ring his friend who owns this aeroplane.   Actually, he doesn’t own it, because I seem to have caught the wrong one, but he should be able to contact the airfield for us.”

His editor was over the moon.

“My God, Luke, what a story!!   Forget the flood pictures.   Tell me again everything that’s happened.   And while you’re up there, get some pictures of the pilot chappy, and …”

“Shut up,” shouted Luke.   “Forget the story.   We need help to get down on the ground in one piece, and you’re our only link, so please get on with it.   Ring your friend with the aeroplane, and tell him to get on to the airfield people.   And please hurry.   We can’t stay up here all day waiting for you.”

“OK, OK!   But don’t hang up – keep the line open and I’ll get back to you.   I’ll use the other phone.”

“As a matter of passing interest,” said Luke to Harry, keeping the phone pressed to his ear,  “How long can we stay up here?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” came the reply.   “Probably about another half an hour, at a guess.”

“We haven’t got long then.”

They were flying parallel to the railway line now, trying to recognise something.

“Are we flying away from London, or towards it?” asked Luke.

“How can you tell?”

“No idea, really.”

“Does it matter?”

“Probably not, in our case.”

They were silent for a bit, watching the passing fields, the odd farmhouse here and there, but failing to discover their exact position in relation to anything else.

“How do you feel about the landing, then,” asked Luke.   “When we come to it, that is.”

“As a matter of fact, pretty confident,” Harry almost boasted.   “I’ve got plenty of computer flight simulator games at home, so I do quite a bit of flying from behind a desk.   This is different, of course – the real thing – but I have actually landed an American F/A 18 jet fighter on an aircraft carrier deck, and didn’t go over the end.”

“That’s great,” said Luke looking around him.   “Is there an aircraft carrier within half an hour of here, do you think?”

“Don’t joke,” demanded Harry.   “I’m concentrating.”

The editor shouted at Luke, who still had the phone pressed to his ear.

“This story gets better and better,” shouted the man excitedly.

“Never mind the bloody story, help us get home, will you.”

“There’s help on the way, don’t worry.”

“What sort of help.   We’re up here and you’re down there.”

“The RAF has scrambled one of its air defence Tornado fighters, and it’s on the way even as we speak.”

“How will that help?”

“They think you’ve hijacked that aircraft, and that your bag you put on board is a bomb, and that you going to dive on to some strategic target or other.   They haven’t quite worked out yet what that might be, but they’re guessing that the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Aldermaston is your target.   They’ve already started to evacuate the whole area, and have sent up a Tornado to find you before you get there.”

“You mean they’re going to shoot us down or something?”


“WHAT?” screamed Luke.

“Don’t panic,” said the editor.

“It’s all very well you saying ‘don’t panic.’   You’re down there, and we’re up here, and we’re about to be shot down!”

 “Relax!   I’m trying to stop them.   My God, Luke, this is some story you’ve got.   Can you get the pilot’s home address for me, while I’m on?”

“Sod off,” shouted Luke, thinking he would rather survive and be sacked than not survive at all.

“By the way,” said the editor, almost as an afterthought, “that man’s instructor is going to ring you sometime, to tell you what to do.   I’d better hang up, and so had you.”

They did, and almost immediately Luke’s phone rang.   It was the instructor.

“Whatever you do, don’t hand the phone to Harry,” he commanded.   “He needs both hands to fly the aircraft, so you will have to pass messages.”

“Roger,” replied Luke, remembering from the films he’d seen that that’s what they said.

“It’s your instructor,” shouted Luke to Harry.   “He wants you to fly straight ahead for 30 seconds, then turn right 120o and fly for another 30 seconds, and then do the same again.   He reckons the radar should be able to pick you up flying that pattern.”

“Roger,” said Harry, entering in to the spirit of the thing.   “At least he’s remembered that I’m better at right-hand turns than left-hand.”

“Are you sure about the sick bags,” said Luke, reaching for his camera case with his free hand.

“Quite sure.”

“What about a toilet then?  I suppose there’s no toilet at the back, is there?”


“I really do need a loo right now,” said Luke.

“No.   There isn’t one.”

Luke held up his hand, as the instructor came on the line again.

“He says they know where we are,” he shouted at Harry.   “Not far away at all, as it happens.   They are sending up another ‘plane, with your instructor in it, to guide us home.”

“Thank the Lord for that,” replied Harry.   “For a minute, I almost began to think that we were lost.”

“You’re to turn left on to a heading of 060 degrees, he says.   Can you manage that?”

“I’m not very good at ‘left’, but I’ll try,” Harry replied, tapping the compass.   “I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this.”

It wasn’t long before another aircraft pulled up alongside.   Harry waved cheerily to his instructor.  

“I wish you’d keep your hands on the wheel thing,” objected Luke.   “Your chap says you’re to follow him, and he will guide us down.   He wants you to get on the right radio frequency so he can talk to you direct.   He says the wireless is in the roof just above your head.”

Harry looked up.

“For God’s sake look where you’re going,” yelled Luke.   “I’ll do the wireless.”

He fiddled about, as instructed by the man in the next aeroplane, and suddenly Harry shouted with glee.

“I can hear them!   I can hear them!   What a relief!   Luke, put on your headset, and you’ll hear them, too.”

Quite soon, they were within sight of the airfield – they both recognised it at the same time.   The instructor was busy instructing Harry what to do – “nose down a bit, reduce power, set 1250 revs, put on 5o of flaps, turn right ten degrees, cross the threshold at about 60 knots,” and all that sort of thing.   It seemed to Luke that the ground was coming up at them rather fast, but he could see the grass strip that served as a runway.   All the time, the instructor was flying in close formation alongside.   Rather too close, Luke thought.

“We’ll be down in a minute,” Harry said to Luke.   “This is the difficult bit, if I’m honest.”

“Don’t try to win the Air Force Cross or anything heroic – just get us on the ground.”

“I’m doing my best.”

“You’re doing a brilliant job,” said Luke encouragingly.

“But I’m not looking forward to this landing, quite frankly, in spite of the computer games,” said Harry.   “Anyway - thanks for all your help.   It’s been good knowing you.”

Luke thought that sounded a bit like an obituary, but said nothing.

“Pretend it’s an aircraft carrier,” he shouted as the ground rushed up to meet them.

The aircraft hit the ground with an almighty bang, and bounced back into the air.   Luke wanted to shut his eyes, but somehow couldn’t.   The instructor was shouting instructions all the time, flying very low just to one side and a bit behind them.   They hit the ground again, and bounced again, but not so high this time.   Harry pulled the throttle back, and they sank on to the grass.   This time they hardly bounced at all, and Harry stood on the brakes as the boundary hedge got closer and closer.   The old red Landrover, with its ladder and two fire extinguishers, appeared alongside, bouncing across the uneven grass.   The instructor zoomed past, and climbed into a tight turn to go round and land behind them.   A man from the back of the Landrover jumped across on to the aircraft, and wrenched open the door.  

Soon, Harry and Luke were on the grass.   The relief was tangible.   They both had trouble standing, their knees felt so weak.

Harry threw up.

They looked at one another in disbelief, and an RAF Tornado, with afterburners going full blast, thundered over the airfield with wings swept, very low indeed, and pulled up into a near vertical climb, missiles glinting in the evening sun.  

The two intrepid airmen embraced in self-congratulation and relief at still being alive.

“Your third landing was the best,” said Luke.   “I reckon you can go straight to lesson twelve, after that.”

Harry grinned.   “Thanks.  There’s a loo in the Flying Training hut, by the way.”

“Too late for that, now!”

Luke Edwards was in a bit of a sweat, if he was honest.