OLD HEROES NEVER DIE
by George Rolph © 2002
A blinding flash of white light seemed to fill his vision. He jerked his head upright and stared uncomprehendingly at the view through the cramped cockpit window. Automatically he checked his instruments. They seemed familiar to him but at the same time, strangely different. His altimeter read 15,000 feet. His attitude indicator showed straight and level flight. The airspeed indicator was reading 120 knots.
Beneath him the land stretched away in a patchwork quilt of greens, yellows and reds. Now and then the grey slash of a road cut rudely through the glorious colour like an impudent trespasser. He stared down at the ground below him. The countryside seemed familiar but there were landmarks missing.
"What the hell is going on here." He thought.
Far off in the distance to the west, Carter could make out the buildings of London and the silver shimmer of the winding Thames.
"This must be Biggin Hill." He thought to himself.
Something deep within his mind was telling him he had flown here before, but try as he might, he could not remember when.
A voice crackled to life in his head and startled him.
"For God's sake keep up Carter and get back in line!"
Only then did he realise he was wearing some sort of helmet made of soft leather. He pressed the microphone switch at the front and spoke, falteringly.
"Err, sorry. I blacked out there for a minute I think."
He had no idea who he was talking to. The reply was swift and curt.
"If you are sick go back to base and report to the M.O. Otherwise keep up man!"
Before he could reply a sharp cry filled his ears.
Then another voice answered the first. "Roger. Twelve-o-clock low."
Instinctively Carter pushed the stick forwards. As the nose of the aircraft dipped below the horizon the pitch of the engine changed from a low growl to a high pitched whine. He reached for the throttle control and eased it back to keep his descent under control. There, in the distance, he saw the little black dots of other aircraft at about 12,000 feet and speeding towards him. Then, from the corner of his eye he saw another plane off his port wing tip. It was a Spitfire!
His mind was reeling in confusion. What the hell was a Spitfire doing next to his plane and so close he could almost touch it? Suddenly there was another Spitfire and then another. Frantically he looked around. Scanning the sky around him.
He moved the stick left and right in slow easy movements bringing the wing tips up and down on both sides to give him a better view. To his left he counted five Spitfires. To his right there was nothing but empty sky.
The voice in his ear snapped him back from his thoughts.
"Keep the sun behind you man!"
Carter checked the small clock on the instrument panel. It read 6:25. Was that morning or evening? He thought. His compass told him he was heading west. The glare of the sun in his rear view mirror made him realise it was morning and the sun was rising quickly.
"Carter, watch it!"
A strange sound was coming from behind him. A deep chattering sound. Almost like a staccato thumping. Before his mind caught up with what the sound meant, he felt his aircraft shudder and jerk beneath him. Something was hitting it. He looked in the direction of the starboard wing. Holes were appearing in the fabric. His eyes flew to the tiny mirror above him. The glass of the mirror was filled with the shape of another aircraft Silhouetted against the sun. Flame was spitting intermittently from its nose.
"My God. That's a Messerschmitt bf 109!" He spoke out loud. His voice filled with astonishment.
"Carter, break right man. He's on your tail!"
The truth dawned in his head very quickly. The plane behind him was shooting at him. He was under attack! He slammed the stick over and throttled back. The plane responded instantly. The horizon tilted up and his plane screamed into a hard right turn. He checked the mirror again. The menacing shape was gone.
Letting the aircraft tip onto it's back before pulling the stick hard towards him, Carter pushed her into a dive. As the plane became vertical he rolled her over to his left and at the same time lifted his head upwards to check the horizon. Finally he pulled back on the stick and felt the aircraft pull up into level flight again.
He kept the pressure on the stick until he was climbing at a steep angle, at the same time slamming the throttle control forwards to raise the engine speed and keep the momentum he needed to gain height.
"Wow!" He said aloud. "This thing can fly."
To his left hand side he could see other aircraft wheeling about the sky. Their engines growling and whining in protest. He checked his mirror. All clear. Shifting as much as he could in his tiny seat he checked the sky around him. Nothing was close by. All of the action appeared to be off his port wing.
Still climbing, he pulled the stick left and gently increased pressure on the rudder bar beneath his left foot. The Nose of the aircraft swept left in response. Too much. He eased back with his feet correcting the angle of the turn. His eyes scanned the instruments again. Unable to see the horizon because of the steep climb he was in, he checked his attitude indicator. He was almost vertical.
He pushed the stick forward and the nose instantly came down. He was amazed at how responsive this aircraft was. What was it he was flying anyway? He looked around hoping to find some clue. There, just beneath the throttle controls was a panel. He read the words engraved there. Mk1 Spitfire. Bristol Aircraft Factory. Model No: 77984 Jun1940.
His voice filled with astonishment as he cried out, "June 1940? What the bloody hell..!"
The crackley voice in his ear sounded frightened.
"I have got one on my tail and I can't shake him off."
Carter eased the stick forward again until he was flying straight and level. There, about 600 hundred yards ahead, he saw two aircraft locked in a dance in the clear blue sky. The one ahead was a Spitfire. The one behind, a bf 109. The Messerschmitt bf 109, was spitting cannon shells and Carter could see pieces of fabric flying off of the Spitfire's fuselage.
Suddenly he realised that the bf 109 was filling his gun sight. On the stick in his right hand he lifted a red safety cover and pressed the small black button beneath it. His whole plane juddered and shook with the recoil effect of the browning machine guns that spat their fire at the plane before him. He watched as the rounds ripped and tore into the bf 109s engine compartment.
Then, to his shock, he saw the enemy plane shudder before disappearing in a ball of orange and red flame. When the smoke and flame cleared seconds later, there was nothing but debris falling to earth to show that a plane and a man had ever existed in that part of the sky.
"My God. I killed him." Carter thought to himself.
"Good show Carter!" Someone shouted in his ear through his head set.
Almost simultaneously some else said, "Thanks Carter, old man. Thought I was a goner then."
The radio was silent again.
Carter felt confused and exhilarated at the same time. He tried to think. "What am I doing in a Spitfire at..."
He checked his altimeter again, "16,000 feet over England in the 1940s?"
A dark shape flashed across his cockpit's forward windscreen and the roar of the bf 109 engine filled his ears.
"That was bloody close!" Carter swore, out loud.
He looked right. The 109 was growing smaller in the distance. He pushed the stick right and gave chase. Keeping his Spitfire in a shallow dive, he was quickly catching the German plane ahead. With gentle and deliberate movements of the stick and rudder pedals he kept the enemy plane centred in his gun site. He waited until he was very close and pressed the button on the control stick between his legs. He felt the recoil again and watched as the red hot lead tore into the plane in front.
He saw the pilot clearly, for maybe half a second. He watched the enemy pilot snap his head backwards and his body jerk and twist as the shells slammed into it. The windscreen's perspex shattered and fell away from the bf 109s cockpit. Then, thick brown oil smoke filled the cockpit space and the enemy pilot vanished within it.
As he took his finger from the fire button on the joystick, Carter watched in detached fascination as the starboard wing of the enemy plane peeled backwards and off of the fuselage in a shower of shattered metal and fabric. The bf 109 turned lazily over onto it's side and began a frantic spin towards earth and its explosive grave below.
Snapping out of his reverie Carter pulled his plane around in a tight left hand turn and searched for the other aircraft. He watched as a distant Spitfire flew a gentle arc downwards, trailing smoke and flame.
No parachute opened. Another dead son.
The main battle was about half a mile away and Carter began to head towards it. Planes wheeled and skidded about the sky in their dance of death slightly below and ahead of him. As he closed the gap between himself and them, on instinct, he glanced left.
There, in the glare of the sun, he saw the specks of other approaching aircraft.
"Great!" He thought, exultantly. "The cavalry's here."
Then he noticed that the oncoming aircraft had a different shape to the Spits. Their wings were clipped sharply at the tips and not rounded like the Hurricanes or Spitfires the British pilots flew. Their fuselages were narrow and the cockpits were also squared off. He reached for his microphone switch.
"More bandits!" He shouted.
"Where?" Came an insistent reply.
He checked his compass and took an instant bearing on the newly arriving enemy planes. "092 degrees." He answered then, checking his altimeter, he added, " 17,500 feet."
"I see the bastards." A different voice called out.
Carter counted the oncoming German fighters. Six more to deal with. He looked ahead, counting again.
"Three Spitfires left plus mine, and three enemy planes from the first tussle. That means there are nine Germans and four of us. We are outnumbered two to one."
He twisted in his seat, his eyes searching the skies, hoping against hope to see friendly aircraft rushing to reinforce their numbers, but there were none. For the first time the thought that he may die at any moment crossed his mind. Yet he felt no fear.
He was strangely calm as he turned his plane to meet the new threat hurtling towards him at 200 hundred plus, miles an hour. He could feel his heart thumping against his shirt beneath his heavy leather flying jacket. He noticed that his feet were freezing cold despite the fur lined boots he was wearing. His hands though were sweating, as he tried not to grip the stick and throttle controls too hard.
The distance between himself and the oncoming enemy aircraft closed alarmingly fast. The bf 109s were twisting and turning trying to spoil his aim as he lined one of them up in his sites. He opened fire at about 900 yards. The first plane in the attacking group splintered debris from its nose section as Carter made tiny corrections with the stick to keep the enemy plane centred in the sites.
With a mighty, "Whoomph!" sound the Enemy aircraft exploded before him. Only the engine seemed intact and hurtled towards the distant ground with its propellor still whirling. A bullet hole appeared in his windscreen and then another. Carter pulled the stick backwards into the pit of his stomach and felt the ‘G’ forces push him down hard into his seat.
A black mist decended over him as the blood drained from his head and left him temporarily unconscious. As he passed out, his lifeless hands fell from the stick and the plane righted herself under the influence of it's trim. Blood flowed again and Carter came too. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs clinging to his mind.
A sudden fierce wind was hitting him in the face and he had to move his head to the side to escape it. He realised it was the air rushing through the bullet holes in his windscreen. Pulling the plane around to his right he saw he was someway away from the battle now.
"Arrgh! I'm hit. I'm hit."
The scream in his headphones penetrated the cloying confusion still threatening to overwhelm his mind. The pain filled voice had sounded so young.
"Oh God, I'm on fire. Somebody help me. I can't get out. Help me, please!"
Carter stared forwards in morbid fascination as the Spitfire before him spiralled slowly downwards. The smoke and flames licking back at the cockpit brought an image of sheer horror to Carter's mind.
In that inferno, a young boy of perhaps just nineteen years old, was burning to death. The heat would be peeling back the skin on his face and hands and burning through to the bone. It would take almost two minutes for the pain to end as the stricken Spitfire finally slammed into the green carpet of a field far below. Two long and agonising minutes.
Daga daga daga daga daga.
Cannon fire was flashing past the nose of his Spit. Carter pulled the nose up sharply and slammed the throttle forwards for maximum power. As the nose came up he swung the Spitfire into another hard right hand turn. This time he let the plane roll onto her back and then pushed the nose down into a vertical dive.
The mist that descended this time was a bright red colour. Again Carter passed out briefly and again the Spit pulled herself out of the dive. As Carter's vision returned and his thinking switched back on, he rolled the plane level and pulled back on the stick. The airframe shook and vibrated as the excessive speed slowly bled away and Carter eased the throttle back and began to climb back up to the action above him.
About a thousand yards ahead he saw a bf 109 pull over into a roll and fasten onto the back of a Spitfire that was already chasing an enemy plane. Carter switched on his microphone.
"Watch your six!" He screamed.
He saw the Spitfire peel away and the pursuing enemy overshoot his target. The Spit expertly dropped behind the bf 109 and a short burst of fire blew it into pieces.
Carter was soon in the thick of the fight once more. Off to his port side he saw a bf 109 manoeuvring to get behind the Spitfire that had just shot down the enemy plane.
"Oh no you don't!"
He pushed the nose down and the aircraft screamed towards it's foe. He saw the enemy open fire on the Spit ahead but Carter could not turn quickly enough to get a good shot. Remembering the screams of the burning young pilot he knew what he had to do. Instead of trying to pull towards the enemy plane, Carter inserted his aircraft into the gap behind the Spitfire that was under attack.
He felt the bullets meant for the other Spitfire slam into his own fuselage. One of the bullets entered his cockpit low down on the port side, flashed across his lap and out of the starboard cockpit wall. The enemy plane peeled off to the left to avoid hitting Carter and in the process lost a fatal amount of speed. Carter yanked at the stick and stamped his feet down on the rudder bar.
As the bf 109 crossed the nose of his plane Carter let off a long burst of fire. Red and yellow flame spat from the leading edge of his wings as the browning machine guns spewed their deadly cargo into the aircraft ahead. He saw the bullets stitch a pattern into the cockpit and nose of the enemy plane crossing ahead of him. Then the machine guns died as their magazines ran dry.
"My God Carter, that took guts man. Well done!" The voice in his ear sounded full of respect.
The bf 109 pitched over and began a rapid dive. As he crossed over the top of where it had been, Carter pulled back on the stick and added left rudder in order to watch the descending German plane.
As he did so, he saw the cockpit canopy of his stricken enemy slide back and the black shape of the pilot tumble out. Then he saw the parachute snake out of the pack on the pilots back before the angle became too acute and Carter lost his view. He felt a burst of relief that his enemy would survive.
By instinct, Carter glanced up at the tiny mirror above his head that was fastened to the top of his cockpit windscreen. A German plane was filling his view. Carter broke right but he was too late. Bullets tore into the cockpit and smashed his instruments into tangled metal.
He saw that his hand was bleeding as it held the stick but he felt no pain. Then he noticed the gaping hole in his left leg. Again, there was no pain. He moved the leg and it seemed to work fine.
"That's odd." He thought abstractedly.
Suddenly more shells were hitting his aircraft. He twisted and turned desperately trying to evade his pursuer but nothing would shake him off. Bullets ripped and tore through his plane. He could feel her dying beneath him. It was as if everything went into slow motion. He watched the propellor explode on the nose and heard the engine screaming as it over revved.
He saw himself move his left hand to the throttle and pull it all the way down to its idle position. He did the same with the mixture and propeller pitch controls. The engine noise died away and there was no sound other than the chattering of machine gun fire behind him and the rushing sound of wind as it bled swiftly through the bullet holes in his canopy and rushed along the surfaces of his craft.
Every now and then large pieces of his aircraft were being blown off by the pursuing German's fire but the Spitfire flew stubbornly onwards. Carter felt a thump in his chest that took his breath away. He looked down. Blood was pumping from a huge jagged hole in the centre of his chest. Again, there was no pain and no fear. Carter smiled to himself.
"So this is what death feels like," He thought.
The machine guns chattering behind him finally fell silent and Carter became aware of an aircraft pulling alongside his own. He looked across. In the German plane a helmeted figure was staring at him. For a long moment the other pilot just looked at Carter, then he slowly raised a hand in salute before peeling away and below to vanish into the busy sky.
Carter watched helplessly as the Spitfire rolled over and began a slow gracious dive towards the ground. Nothing he tried with the controls had any effect. He guessed that the control cables and surfaces had been destroyed by the enemy fire. He tried correcting his plane's attitude by adjusting the trim and using the rudder bars beneath his feet, but it was useless. At least he wasn't burning like that poor young man.
He reached up and tried to pull the canopy back but his arms and hands had no strength left in them. He gave up. His radio was shot to pieces and he knew he was now alone. Death was going to be quick. As he watched the Kent countryside slowly rise to meet him, Carter shut his eyes and prayed for Lucy.
Carter's eyes snapped open.
"Lucy. Where was Lucy?"
That was his last thought. Blackness descended over him and Carter was no more.
Beside the hospital bed the family were all weeping. Carter's mother, June, was sobbing quietly into her handkerchief. Ronald, Carter's father, was holding his wife and trying, unsuccessfully to stem his own tears. Sitting down on the edge of the bed and clutching Carter's lifeless hand, His beloved fiancee, Lucy, bent forward and kissed his cheek.
Later that morning. As the sombre family left the hospital, they passed by the reception area. The nurses television was spewing out the daily news. Lucy heard the news reader proclaiming the death of her love, in clipped and dispassionate tones:
"David Allen Carter, who was involved in a tragic accident last Wednesday when his Hawker Woodcock aircraft was hit by a bird during the Biggin Hill Air Show, died this morning after briefly recovering from his coma.
"His family were reported to be with him at the end. According to sources at the hospital, he regained consciousness just before he died and called out for Lucy, his fiancee, and then peacefully passed away.
"Ronald Carter, David's father, was unavailable for comment this morning. Ronald's bother, Allen Carter, was a Spitfire pilot who died on this day in June 1940 and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the battle of Britain."
Outside in the car park Ronald Carter paused and looked up at the clear blue sky above Biggin Hill General Hospital.
"Look after my son, Allen." He said, softly. Then turned and walked slowly towards the family car.
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