Title: Reach for the Sky
Author: James Scott
Genre: Historical Fiction
Southern California, 1929. It is the Golden Age of American Aviation, when dashing young men pilot flying machines and women are told they don’t belong in the cockpit.
That means nothing to fifteen-year-old Shannon Donnelly. Orphaned and on the run from her parents’ killers, she stumbles into the world of aviation. Inspired by a chance encounter with Amelia Earhart, she pursues a dream to fly, becomes part of 1930s Hollywood, and is shadowed by a man determined to see her dead. Along the way, she wins the hearts of two men—one she will marry; one she cannot forget—and falls into a love triangle culminating in a daring rescue mission into Nazi-occupied France.
Take flight into a slice of 1930s Southern California life—air races, Hollywood, movie stars, dangerous flying machines, the Great Depression, and more in an adventure set in the same period as The Rocketeer and Chinatown.
Brendan went methodically through the checklist at a steady pace.
“Time check,” Shannon said.
Brendan looked at his watch. “Fifteen minutes left.”
“Open and locked left and right.”
Behind them they could hear bangings and scrapings as the men were loaded via the rear hatch. Getting the men on makeshift stretchers up into the airplane required some twisting and turning.
More items on the checklist fell, faster than Shannon was comfortable with, but it couldn’t be helped. They passed through the high-rpm switches, de-icers and anti-icers, cabin heat, generators, and more.
Finally, Brendan looked up and said, “That’s the last item. Did we skip anything?”
“No, but it was faster than advisable. Goes against everything I was taught. Perfection is a habit. Ever heard of flying on a wing and a prayer? That’s us tonight. Now, let’s switch to headsets. It’ll be easier to communicate; it may get noisy.”
Sergeant O’Brian bounded forward. “All aboard. Hatch secured.”
Shannon turned to him. “The guards?”
He looked at her with an expression that made her shiver. “Payback’s a bitch.”
He looked down at his wristwatch. “Thirty minutes. We’re out of time.”
“Sergeant, you’ll find a headset amidships near the waist gun stations. Put it on please.”
“Roger.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Good luck.” Then he disappeared aft.
She turned back to Brendan. “I’ll take it from here. Master and ignition switches on. Batteries and inverters, check. Voltmeter, 26 volts, check. Throttles to creep stop point, then closed, check. Advance throttles for 1,000 RPM on start, check.” She took a deep breath. “Engine start, Number One.” She held the starter switch on and pressed the mesh switch down. “Pump the Number One hand primer, there,” she said, pointing quickly. “Unlocking mixer control.”
Engine Number One’s big propeller began moving in an agonizingly slow motion. The engine coughed twice.
“Come on, baby, light up for Mama,” Shannon said. “Do it!”
The engine coughed again, caught, and in a cloud of smoke came roaring to life.
Brendan gave her a thumbs-up gesture.
“Watch the oil pressure,” she said. “If the oil pressure doesn’t start to rise in thirty seconds, we’ve got trouble.” She glanced down at the gauges. “Mixer control back, check. Fuel pressure good at sixteen pounds. Fuel supply at half, all tanks. Starting Number Two.” She and Brendan went through the same routine. Number Two came up fast, belching the customary cloud of smoke as it caught hold.
“Oil pressure on Number One good,” Brendan said.
“Starting Number Three,” she said. Number Three lagged, spitting and coughing nearly enough to give her a heart attack before erupting into life and settling into steady rhythm.
“Oil pressure good on Two,” Brendan said loudly over the roar of the engines.
“Starting Number Four.” But before she could move, O’Brian’s voice shouted in her headset.
“We got company!”
Shannon opened the pilot’s window and thrust her head out. She could see two bouncing sets of lights coming fast through the trees behind the aircraft.
“Looks like two small military vehicles,” O’Brian said.
“You have anybody back there who can operate the tail gun?” Shannon said. She heard O’Brian shout the question.
“Meeks jumped up and headed back,” he said. “Think we got it.”
“We need another thirty seconds and then we’re rolling. Can he give it to us?”
“Try my best!” came a shouted voice, whom she assumed was Meeks.
“Starting Number Four.” Below on the tarmac the two vehicles came into view and whirled around the B-17 in confusion.
“They don’t know what’s going on yet,” Brendan said.
“They will when they find the guards,” O’Brian said. They did, seconds later, when both vehicles came to a stop and the occupants got out. They gathered around one of the bodies. After a moment, all faces turned and looked up at the B-17 with the chilling gaze of uniformed zombies.
At that instant Number Four caught and came to life with a deep-throated roar. Shannon raced through the post-start checks, unlocked the tail wheel, and put the big aircraft in motion. At the same time she heard the tail gun growl, spitting twin streams of .50 caliber bullets toward the soldiers gathered below, who scattered like roaches from a sudden light. Meeks targeted one of the Nazi vehicles and it exploded in flames.
“Tail wheel unlocked, rolling toward takeoff,” Shannon said. “Advancing throttles to 1200 RPM for warm-up. O’Brian, get everyone who can walk up into the radio room or as close as you can, now.”
“Roger,” O’Brian’s voice sounded in her ear.
At that moment, a hail of gunfire shattered the pilot’s side window where Shannon’s head had been moments before. She could hear other bullets slamming into the fuselage behind her. She advanced the throttle on the Number Four engine—the outboard engine on the right side—to swing the big bomber through a tight left turn to line up for takeoff. Shannon brought the B-17 around square with the runway. “Tail wheel locked,” she said as a storm of bullets tore the air below on the tarmac where Meeks and the tail gun battled with the Germans. She looked through the front windscreen and saw a Nazi officer standing in front of the plane, arms raised. Then he drew his service revolver and pointed it at her. “I think he wants us to stop,” she said. “What are the chances?”
“About zero,” Brendan said, aiming his weapon out his side window. He pulled the trigger twice and the man flew backward, falling flat onto the runway.
“O’Brian, brace for takeoff!” Shannon shouted above the gunfire below, then muttered to herself, “If there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s take off in the dark on an unlit runway where I can’t see the end.” She peered into the darkness ahead, a thin strip of runway dimly visible in the first hint of dawn light. “What’s our oil pressures and temperatures? We should have forty pounds on the oil.”
“Good on One, Two, and Three; Number Four is getting there slowly.”
“Can’t be helped. Brakes off. Advancing throttles.” The B-17 throttles were arranged in a two-tier structure, with throttles for engines one and four above and a pair for engines two and three directly below. Shannon put her right hand on the upper pair of throttles and stretched her long fingers downward to encompass the lower pair. “This is it,” she said. She pushed forward. The big bomber began to move.
Brendan sensed motion outside his window and looked to see one of the Nazi vehicles racing alongside them. “They’re going to try to block us!” he shouted. “Gonna have to take ’em out.”
Shannon gave the throttles another nudge, and Brendan followed suit. The B-17 surged forward. “We need 100 miles an hour for takeoff,” she shouted. “Nothing less. Let’s hope they can’t keep up.”
For a brief moment, the race was in doubt. Brendan aimed his pistol out the window and emptied it toward the car. The car jerked suddenly and veered off to the right. “Think I got the driver,” he shouted.
Shannon stared intently at the runway ahead. Nearly seventeen tons of Flying Fortress bumped along the uneven runway at a frightening speed toward the darkness. “Takeoff speed reached,” she said, pulling the control column smoothly back toward her chest. The B-17 responded instantly, as if eager to be away. There was a blessed smoothness as the wheels left the ground and it rose into the sky.
What’s your favorite thing about the fall season:
What inspired you to write this story:
Learning about the WWII WASP program to train women to fly Army planes from the factory to stateside destinations to free up male pilots to fly in combat.
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James Scott (also previously writing as B J Scott) is the multiple-award-winning author of seven novels, including the Will Rogers Medallion Awards Bronze Medallion for Western Romance. Scott’s specialty is strong female protagonists. They are adventurous, fearless, sometimes foolish risk-takers who fear no one, male or female.
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