When we lost the starboard engine I knew we were in trouble, but then the whole trip was bad news from the start.
My wife had been staying with me for a few days at our house in Jersey in the Channel Islands when a phone message indicated a strong interest from a major Hollywood producer in filming one of my books. It meant getting over to England fast to our house at Chichester, a staging post to London. I phoned the air taxi firm I usually used, but they had no plane available. However, they'd see what they could do. What they came up with was a Cessna 310 from Granville on the coast of Brittany and a rather ageing pilot named Dupont. Beggars not being choosers, I booked the flight without hesitation because the weather forecast wasn't good and we wanted to get on with it. I sat in the rear, but the 310 had dual controls, and my wife, a highly experienced pilot, chose to occupy the right-hand seat in front. Thank God she did.
THE CHANNEL ISLANDS and the English Channel are subject to fogs that appear in an incredibly short time and close down everything fast, and that's exactly what happened that morning. Taking off from Jersey was fine, but within ten minutes, the island was fogged out, and not only the French coast but Guernsey as well.
We started for the south coast of England, Southampton. Dupont was close to sixty from the look of him, gray-haired, a little overweight. Watching him as he worked the plane, I noticed a film of sweat on his face.
Denise was wearing headphones and passed me a spare pair, which I plugged in. At one stage she was piloting the plane as Dupont engaged in conversation with air traffic control, then he took over, and she turned to me.
"We're at five thousand. Bad fog down there. Southampton's out, including everything to the east. We're trying for Bournemouth, but it doesn't look good."
Having avoided death as a child from IRA bombs in the Shankill in Belfast, and various minor spectaculars in the Army years later, I've learned to take life as it comes. I smiled above the roar of the engine, confident in my wife's abilities, found the half-bottle of Moet and Chandon champagne they'd thoughtfully provided in the bar box, and poured some into a plastic glass. Everything, I've always thought, worked out for the best. In this case, it was for the worst.
It was exactly at that moment that the starboard engine died on us. For a heart-stopping moment, there was a plume of black smoke, and then it faded away.
Dupont seemed to get into a state, wrestling with the controls, frantically making adjustments, but to no avail. We started to go down. In a panic, he started to shout in French to the air traffic control at Bournemouth, but my wife waved a hand at him and took over, calmly, sweetly reasonable.
"We have fuel for perhaps an hour," she reported. "Have you a suggestion?"
The air traffic controller happened to be a woman and her voice was just as calm.
"I can't guarantee it, but Cornwall is your best bet. It's not closed in as fully there. Cold Harbour, a small fishing port on the coast near Lizard Point. There's an old RAF landing strip there from the Second World War. Abandoned for years but usable. I'll put out your details to all rescue services. Good luck."
WE WERE AT three thousand for the next twenty minutes, and the traffic on the radio was confusing, often blanked out by some kind of static. The fog swirled around us, and then it started to rain very hard. Dupont seemed more agitated than ever, the sweat on his face very obvious now. Occasionally, he spoke, but again in French, and once more, Denise took over. There were various voices, lots of static, and the plane started to rock as a thunderstorm exploded around us.
Denise spoke, very controlled, giving our details. "Possible Mayday. Attempting a landing at airstrip at Cold Harbour."
Copyright © 1998 by Higgins Associates Ltd. All rights reserved. This excerpt reproduced with the permission of G P Putnam & Sons. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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