In appearance, apart from the overall tall and willowy build, he was noticeably good-looking, with pale blue intelligent eyes, wiry blond stick-out hair that refused help from barbers, a strong blond mustache, and, on screen particularly, a sort of half-grin that dared you not to believe his every word. He kept his flying pride and joy on White Waltham airfield and to its upkeep devoted the bulk of his income, gleefully informing anyone who would listen that it left aerobic exercises out of sight as a keep-fit heart-stresser. He greeted me at White Waltham with what I knew from experience to be supercharged happiness. His Cherokee, parked by the petrol pumps, was taking aboard fuel that was no more stable than himself, each wing tank being filled to overflowing to expel any water formed there by hot saturated air condensing as the aircraft cooled after last time out.
Kris, never one of the old goggles-and-white-silk-scarf variety of pilots, was wearing a plaid heavy wool shirt with a Norwegian-knit sweater on top. He eyed my dark pants, white shirt and navy jacket and nodded approval: in some way he considered my all-too-conventional appearance to be a license for his own eccentricity to flourish.
He finished the refueling, checked that the two wing tank caps were screwed on tight and then, having with my help pushed the little white airplane a short distance from the pumps (a small courtesy to other refuelers), he methodically walked round the whole machine, intoning his checklist to himself as he touched each vital part. As usual, he finished by unclipping and opening backwards each half of the engine cowling, checking that the mechanic hadn't left a rag in the works (as if he would!) and also wiping the dipstick clean before re-inserting it down into the sump, to make sure there was a satisfactorily deep lake of oil there to lubricate the engine. Kris had never been one to take foolish chances when it came to flying.
Once aboard and sitting in the left-hand (captain's) seat he equally seriously completed his pre-starting checks-all switches in good order, and things like that-and finally started the engine, gazing concentratedly at its gauges.
Used to his meticulous ways, I sat placidly waiting for satisfaction to relax the tension in his backbone and hands, until at last he grunted, switched on his radio, and informed the Sunday controller up in his glass tower that Ironside in his Cherokee required takeoff clearance for a simple flight to Newmarket, return expected at about seventeen hundred hours local time. Kris and the controller knew each other well; the exchange of information was a courtesy, more than an obligation. Cleared to taxi, allowed the tower. "Thanks, kiddo," the pilot said. Kris was right, it was a lovely day for flying. The Cherokee lifted off lightheartedly with its easy load and swung round towards the north as it climbed away from base. The noise of the engine in a cross between a growl and clatter made casual conversation difficult, but talking anyway was ever superfluous up there higher than eagles. Pleasure as always sat like a balloon in my mind, and I checked our progress against the map on my knees with unalloyed contentment. Maybe one of these days . . . why didn't I . . . learn to fly?
Kris had drawn two straight lines on the wipe-clean surface of the air map, a dog-leg route to lunch. It was he who steered by the direction indicator, allowing for magnetic variation and a crosswind, and I with small triumphs who checked our passage over the roads and rivers two thousand feet below and pointed them out to him, earning grins and nods.
From White Waltham we flew north to avoid crossing straight over London, turning northeast where the north-heading multi-lane M1 highway reached the outskirts of the sprawling town of Luton, with its busy airport to the east. Kris yearned for some of the expensive avionic packages that would give him access to all the latest equipment that made air navigation easier. It cost him every spare cent, however, just to keep flying, so he navigated by dead reckoning and sharp-eyed passengers, and only once, he said, had he been disastrously lost.
From Second Wind by Dick Francis. Uused by permission of the publisher - Putnam.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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