IT IS CLOSE to sunrisenot far from Irelandwhen they hit a cloud they can't escape. No line of sight. No horizon. A fierce gray. Almost four thousand feet above the Atlantic. Darkness still, no moon, no sight of sea. They descend. The snow has relented but they enter a huge bank of white. Look at this one, Jackie. Look at her coming. Immense. Unavoidable. Above and below.
They are swallowed.
Alcock taps the glass of the airspeed meter. It doesn't budge. He adjusts the throttle and the front end of the plane lifts. Still the airspeed meter remains the same. He throttles again. Too sudden, that. Darn it.
Good God, Jackie, put her in a spin. We 'll take our chances now.
The cloud grows tighter around them. They both know full well that if they don't break it now they will spiral-dive. The plane will gain speed and shatter in an immensity of pieces. The only way out is to maintain speed in a spin. To have control and lose it, too.
Do it, Jackie.
The engines throw out a taunt of red flame and then the Vimy hangs motionless a second, grows heavy, keels over as if it has taken a punch. The slowest form of falling at first. A certain amount of sigh in it. Take this weary effort at flight, let me drop.
One wing stalled, the other still lifting.
Three thousand feet above the sea. In the cloud their balance is shot to hell. No sense of up. No down. Two thousand five hundred. Two thousand. The slap of rain and wind in their faces. The machine shudders. The compass needle jumps. The Vimy swings. Their bodies are thrown back against the seats. What they need is a line of sky or sea. A visual. But there is nothing but thick gray cloud. Brown jerks his head in every direction. No horizon, no center, no edge. Good God. Somewhere. Anywhere. Keep her steady, Jackie boy.
One thousand feet still falling nine hundred eight hundred seven fifty. The pressure of their shoulder blades against the seats. The whirl of blood to the head. The heaviness of the neck. Are we up? Are we down? Still spinning. They might not see the water before they smash. Undo the belts. This is it. This is it, Teddy. Their bodies are still pinned to their seats. Brown reaches downwards. He tucks the log journal inside his flight jacket. Alcock catches him out of the corner of his eye. Such glorious idiocy. A pilot's last gesture. Save all the details. The sweet release of knowing how it happened.
The dial turns steadily still. Six hundred, five hundred, four. No whimpering. No moaning. The scream of cloud. The loss of body. Alcock maintains the spin in the endless white and gray.
A glimpse of new light. A different wall of color. It takes a split second for it to register. A slap of blue. A hundred feet. Strange blue, spinning blue, are we out? Blue here. Black there. We 're out, Jack, we're out! Catch her. Catch her for godsake. Christ, we 're out. Are we out? Another line of black looms. The sea stands soldier-straight and dark. Light where the water should be. Sea where the light should crest. Ninety feet. Eighty-five. That's the sun. Christ, it's the sun, Teddy, the sun! There. Eighty now. The sun! Alcock gives the machine a mouthful of throttle. Over there. Open her. Open her. The engines catch. He fights the jolt. The sea turns. The plane levels. Fifty feet to spare, forty feet, thirty, no more. Alcock glances down at the Atlantic, the waves galloping white-edged beneath them. The sea sprays upwards onto the windscreen. Not a sound from either of the men until the plane is leveled again and they begin to rise once more.
They sit, silent, rigid with terror.
Oh go 'way man
you just hold your breath a minit
for there's not a stunt that's in it
with the Maple Leaf Rag
LATER THEY WILL joke about the spin, the fall, the rollout over the waterif your life doesn't flash in front of your eyes, old boy, does that mean you've had no life at all?but climbing upwards they say nothing. Brown leans out and slaps the flank of the fuselage. Old horse. Old Blackfoot.
Excerpted from TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. Copyright © 2013 by Colum McCann. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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