Excerpt: Lazar’s Mission by Kevin Sterling @ksterlingwriter

ONE

Egypt

June 28, 1942

“C’mon, girl… I know you can do it… Yes, that’s the stuff.”

Royal Air Force Flight Sergeant Daniel Walker was relieved to have managed a textbook takeoff from Landing Ground 115 in the injured P-40 Kittyhawk, and soon he was on his way to Kibrit Air Base, east of Cairo, for repairs.

It was necessary to force the stick right as the aircraft left the ground, but that was a common practice with the P-40s to compensate for engine torque, so it didn’t worry him much. The thing he was most concerned about was the faulty oil pump, and he hoped it would hold on long enough to carry him to his destination.

Truth be known, Daniel was relieved to get away from the chaos for a couple of days. The German Panzer Army with their huge legion of tanks persisted to drive British forces eastward into Egypt after they foiled Lieutenant-General Ritchie’s assault and decimated the Eighth Army’s forces. In no time, the Germans had punched through the Gazala line, circumvented the Cauldron and took Tobruk in Northeast Libya, rousing Daniel and the rest of RAF Squadron 260 from Baheira Airfield and driving them to Landing Ground 76 near Bir El Malla. But that only lasted a few days before the Germans advanced again, denying the Eighth Army a chance to regroup, and the men of Squadron 260 found themselves traipsing eastward from one landing ground to another across Northern Egypt as they endeavored to provide support from the air.

In the meantime, the squadron’s role was transitioning from aerial combat and ground attack runs to bomber escort missions, giving rise to a new nickname for their American-made P-40s that was really catching on—namely, the “Kittybomber”. Of course, they still had to ward off marauding Luftwaffe Messerschmitt pilots, who were cleverly picking off P-40s while they flew low and slow during air support, so that meant aerial combat wasn’t going away any time soon.

The Curtis Kittyhawks proved to be nimble and effective in the North African theater, despite their competitive disadvantages in aerial combat at higher altitudes in Europe, but the English were still outnumbered in the sky and outgunned from the ground, so it was wreaking havoc on the squadron’s aircraft. And with the addition of this new bomber support role, they were starting to drop like flies.

Thank God the P-40s could take a beating, and this little lady was no exception, her body full of holes from bullets and flak, rendering the fuselage fuel tank unusable. But at least it shifted the plane’s center of gravity forward to help with maneuverability, and Daniel felt confident the wing tanks alone would provide plenty of fuel for the trip.

Then there was the issue with her cowl flaps, which were stuck closed, causing the coolant temperature warning light to incessantly pop on, but Daniel kept richening the fuel mixture to compensate, hoping the cooler air at higher altitudes would eventually take care of the problem. Add all of that to the oil pressure issue and a radio that no longer functioned, and he had a fine mess on his hands. But she was airborne now, and the gents at Kibrit would coax her back into shape in a jiffy.

It was hot as holy hell in Egypt that day, so the bustling wind from the open canopy was a welcome treat, and Daniel was just about to celebrate his good fortune when he realized the directional gyro heading was wrong. It had to be. If he was flying 45 degrees due east as the thing suggested, the Mediterranean Sea would be visible to his left. But there was nothing but sand around him as far as the eye could see, and he chastised himself for not paying closer attention.

He glanced down to the compass, even though he had already confirmed in preflight that it had blown out weeks ago, and he wasn’t surprised to find it void of fluid and lifeless. He banked the plane right, keeping his eye on the directional gyro as he completed a sweeping test turn—at least one hundred and eighty degrees—but the instrument hardly moved. Not good.

Daniel had plotted his course in the tent before heading out, as usual, but without a way to determine his heading, it was for naught.

Why didn’t the blithering oaf of a pilot who last flew this contraption report the issue with the damned directional gyro?

What about using the sun? A great idea if it were not straight up in the sky without a hint of which way it intended to go next. If he had only departed first thing in the morning as he had originally planned, he could have turned toward the sunrise, found the Nile, and followed it north toward Cairo. But not at this point.

Daniel’s thoughts turned to last night when he revisited his favorite P. G. Wodehouse novel for the tenth time, and he was now strangely able to relate to a line from Bertie Wooster, who said, “I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

Stifling an anxious chuckle, Daniel pondered the issue at hand and concluded he had been traveling southward. North would have plopped him over the Mediterranean, west would have thrown him into direct fire from the Afrika Corps, and east would have set him on course. But hopefully his test turn had pointed him back in the general direction whence he came, so it made the most sense to keep the aircraft straight and level to the best of his ability and hope he found the sea again…that is, before he ran into a Messerschmitt.

Yes, the P-40s gun magazines were fully loaded, but his damaged plane wouldn’t stand a chance against a German fighter in her current condition.

A red light blinked on the instrument panel.

Bloody hell! Now what?

It was the coolant temperature warning light again, but Daniel quickly discovered it had nothing to do with the cowl flaps this time as the engine began to bog down, and black smoke puffed out of the exhaust stacks. His RPMs and manifold pressure were dropping despite his moving the throttle to full, and he knew there was only one explanation. The oil pump had finally failed, and he was in a heap of trouble.

Dash it all!

There was only one choice—put the aircraft on the ground before the engine seized up and left him piloting the equivalent of a bloody anvil with wings. He nosed the P-40 downward toward the endless sea of sand below, the hands on the altimeter spinning counter-clockwise as the plane pushed under 2,000 feet and plummeted fast.

A pit seized Daniel’s stomach as the RPMs persisted to drop and even more smoke billowed out of the exhaust stacks. It was becoming clear that he may not have enough thrust for a proper landing, assuming the engine managed to stay alive that long at all. The anvil scenario was starting to look more likely than not.

But wait. What if he utilized the momentum of the dive, pulled up a few hundred feet above the ground, glided until his speed dropped below 175, extended the flaps, and set her down on the desert floor? That way, he wouldn’t be so dependent on the engine alone, and whatever thrust he had left would just help things along.

Yes. That was good. His wheels were already down since the main hydraulic system for the landing gear was shot, and he had decided after takeoff not to go through the trouble of using the hand pump to crank it up and down, especially since the flight wouldn’t involve any combat. So he didn’t have to mess with that and could just concentrate on extending the flaps. And fast.

Then it occurred to him that the gear might rip off the underside of the plane when he touched down. Or even worse, would it dig into the sand, cause a sudden stop, and catapult him end over end?

A pang of terror hit his midsection as the image of a fiery, tumbling crash raced through his mind, foretelling his imminent demise.

But what other options were there?

The parachute? Maybe. But who knew when it was last checked or which of the brilliant blokes on the ground had packed it. Several times now, he had seen pilots eject during combat, only to fall to their deaths after their chutes didn’t open, so he wasn’t about to stake his life on that.

No. He would somehow get this injured bird on the ground without killing himself, no matter how scary the prospect seemed, and it was critical he put everything else out of his mind now.

The ground came at him like a speeding train, and he heaved back on the stick as he reached 800 feet. The plane felt like it weighed a ton, but he continued pulling as she finally leveled off around 300. The airspeed dropped quickly after that, hitting 175 MPH in just a few seconds, and he started losing altitude again as he frantically yanked back and forth on the hydraulic hand pump to extend the flaps. The propeller was still turning as the engine spat and popped, but it probably wasn’t doing much good anymore, so it was all up to his ingenuity to get her safely on the desert floor.

Daniel felt like everything was happening in slow motion as the P-40 briefly leveled off and skimmed over the surface before slamming into the Sahara, skating across the sand and rocks until the landing gear buckled and collapsed.

Another sudden drop, an even harsher impact, and he pitched forward into the seat harness before snapping back, the noise deafening as the ground tore the underside of the aircraft to shreds. The control stick shuddered in Daniel’s grasp as he watched the propeller rip off the nose and cartwheel over the right wing before disappearing behind him. A menagerie of chaos and destruction swallowed him, taunted him, and it seemed inevitable that his death would be the finality of it all.

But in a heartbeat, the plane stopped, leaving him alive but gasping for air as a cloud of sand settled around him, only to be replaced by wafts of black smoke. Somehow, but for the grace of God, he was alive.

And like flipping a switch, the blazing heat of the desert returned, the intense sun baking his face and promptly turning the cockpit into an oven. He could smell burning oil and hear the hiss of the overheated engine as it finally seized, and he couldn’t think of anything better than getting the hell out of that damn cockpit, hopefully never to find himself in an airplane again.

He uncoupled the seat harness, which had done its job nicely, and he tossed the straps to either side. The blessed thing had held strong, most likely saved his life, and prevented him from receiving any serious bumps or bruises from the crash landing. If he actually managed to get home alive, he vowed to send a letter of thanks to the boys at Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in the US.

He emerged from the cockpit and jumped to the ground as he scanned the area around him. The terrain was mostly sand, of course, but he was surprised by how much solid rock there was. That explained the frightfully loud landing and why, after the gear collapsed, the propeller ripped off.

Judging from the skid marks, the plane hadn’t traveled all that far on the ground, but at least it stayed upright and didn’t burst into flames. The propeller sat just a few yards behind and to the right of the rear stabilizer, each of the three blades curled at the tip as a result of impacting the rock. Black smoke continued to trail into the air from the engine compartment, but it was finally starting to wane.

Daniel could hardly envision what his next step would be, but one thing was for sure. He needed shelter from the sun.

He peeled off the backpack, drew out the parachute, and draped it over the aircraft’s rear stabilizer, anchoring it to the ground with anything he could find to fashion a crude tent. It was awfully sheer and still allowed heat to radiate through, but it was better than nothing.

Then he pulled the radio from the plane along with some batteries and closed the canopy to protect the cockpit from sand and sun. Logically, he knew the plane or any components inside it would never be used again, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Huddling under his makeshift shelter, Daniel tinkered with the radio for a while, hoping for just a few seconds of functionality to make a distress call, but it was a fruitless endeavor. The blasted thing didn’t even eke out a spark of static.

He let out a deep sigh.

There he was, in the middle of the Sahara with no mode of communication, God only knows how far from the nearest settlement. It was the sort of predicament he had read in many stories, and his recollection was that they never ended well.

Kevin Sterling

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Genre – Action, Mystery, Suspense

Rating – R

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