Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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 Chapter 20

Mock Combat

Viv was coming out of the women’s latrine, still groggy from a fitful night’s sleep, when she got the message that Ivan would be picking her up shortly. She was to bring her flying kit with her.

     This time, Ivan had a car and a driver. When Viv tumbled into the back seat with him, she asked Ivan, “Did you find a French fighter for me to fly?”

“Not exactly. The French, not having much confidence in their own fighters, are buying a large number of American ones. Curtiss Hawks, otherwise known as Curtiss 75s or p-36s. The British also have a few, and we have one about twenty miles from here.”

“Aren’t those the ships that Curtiss has been selling all over the world?”

“Pretty much. The Chinese Air Force has some that it’s been using against the Japanese. The Finns have some, and so on.”

“They don’t sound like world-beaters.”

“We’ll find out. You’re to mock dogfight against a hot young RAF pilot in a Spitfire.”

“Good. If I can’t win, I’ll at least make it interesting.”

     When they arrived, there was a considerable reception committee of RAF officers on the cold wet tarmac, some of them middle-aged. Viv picked out Mark Danbury, the pilot she was to fly against, immediately. He had the look. Farther back, the Curtiss Hawk, standing next to a Spitfire, did not have the look. Least of all, the Reginald Mitchell look. Viv didn’t know who had designed it, but it looked stubby, somewhat clumsy, and slow. When she approached it, Viv laughed. The others laughed with her. The beginnings of a tactical plan in her mind, she suggested, “Let’s get up and see what happens.”

      As usual, they started flying next to one another. Viv waved to Danbury, shoved the throttle all the way forward, and banked hard to the right. She had already discovered that the Hawk flew well in conventional terms, much steadier and more predictable than an I-16, and that it held its turns well. Danbury had turned the other way, and Viv was hardly surprised to see that he was turning inside her. She was also too sure that he’d be able to out-climb her to try that maneuver. There was, in fact, no way in which she could get on his tail and ‘shoot him down.’

     Viv immediately went into every crazy aerobatic maneuver she knew, and constantly changed speeds. Danbury didn’t make the mistake of over-shooting her, staying nearly on her tail, but never quite in shooting position. Viv found that she could always dodge him at the last moment. However, she was constantly losing altitude, something that always happened during dog-fights.

     Viv found herself in almost the state of desperation that she might have been in real combat. When they finally got down almost to ground level, she was determined to fly under bridges if that would be required to shake off her pursuer. Just before things reached that stage, she heard a voice in her earphones calling an end to the exercise.

     When Viv landed and climbed out of the cockpit, vapor was wafting out of the engine. She had the feeling that it would never be the same again. There were congratulations all around on her flying, and Danbury came over, shaking his head and saying that he had never gotten a clear shot. Viv responded, “You would eventually have gotten me at ground level.”

“No. I wasn’t prepared to do the things you were about to do.”

     It was agreed all around that there was no comparison between the planes, and that a Hawk would never shoot down a competently flown Spitfire. It was then that a group captain said, “We’ve decided that it’s only fair to give Miss Bolsky a chance to fly the Spit in a re-match.”

Viv was thrilled. The plane flew like no other she had ever flown, been in, or seen. When they reached altitude, it took her no more than fifteen seconds to get on the tail of the Hawk. She then stuck there, easily following Danbury’s twists and turns. When the exercise was ended and they landed, Ivan looked absolutely delighted.

     They repaired to a nearby building for tea, and, in the discussion, Viv said, “The Hawk just isn’t very quick. I could tell from the control surfaces what Mark was going to do before he did it.”

The group captain then said, “We have the impression that the French Moranes and Blochs might be a little quicker, but they have lower top speeds.”

“In that case, someone in a Spit or one oh nine could get up-sun, dive on them, and pick them off without having to maneuver at all.”

“What would you take to be the best tactic for the Hawk?”

“Stay at tree-top level, dodge between steeples and chimneys, and hope that the pursuer crashes into something.”

No one was sure whether it was a joke or not, but the consensus seemed to be that it was not.

After a brief pause, Ivan asked, “Does anyone know why the French seem to prefer the Hawk to their own fighters?”

An RAF squadron leader answered, “I did have a little chat with one of their non-flying people. The Hawk’s top speed of some three oh five, as opposed to two ninety five, seemed to make an undue impression. He also believed that the Hawk is sturdily built, and can absorb rather a lot of fire.”

Ivan replied, “Let’s hope so.”

That evening, Viv, having related the day’s events to Liz, said, “You know, I am good. This man, Mark, is supposed to be one of their best pilots, but I’m better.”

“I’ve always known that, Viv. But, where are you heading?”

“All right, I know.”

“Von Richtofen was a great pilot, but he was burned to death in his plane.”

“Billy Bishop and David’s father survived.”

“They entered the war in the last year when they had superiority in numbers.”

“What about Hermann Goering and Ernst Udet?”

“I’ve seen pictures of Goering just after the war. He was a broken man. Udet may be the exception.”

“Well, anyway, no one there said anything about signing me up. For them, I’m just a curiosity, like a talking monkey.”

“Yes, Viv. I’m almost the same in mathematics. A monkey who can count.”

With that, they went to sleep.

 The next morning, Ivan came around, saying, “I was up late last night with the RAF, talking air strategy.”

Viv asked, “Did you all get drunk?”

“I didn’t, but they do drink. Dowding is a teetotalling vegetarian, but they think he’s weird.”

“Anything new?”

“We’re going to talk with the French, and this is where you come in, Liz.”

“As what?”

“As our official interpreter. The English speak horrible French at best, and most of the French disdain the English language.”

“Some interpreters modify what they interpret to censor out tactless remarks and make the participants seem more charming than they really are.”

“That’s the kind of interpreter we want.”

“I rather thought so.”

Viv asked Liz, “When you do me, are you going to substitute whole sentences?”

“Perhaps. You’ll come out more like Madame Bovary, and less like Joan of Arc.”

“I guess anything’s better than Mata Hari.”

Ivan then said, “The other interpreter will be Barbara.”

It then struck Viv. Of course, Barbara would be fluent in French. Virginian ladies always would be. Among other things, they would be demon flirters in French with gestures, little touches to a man’s arm, perfume, and the whole bit. It was easy to imagine Barbara doing those things, but fighter planes? As if to answer her question, Ivan continued, “Barbara will handle the social occasions, but we need Liz when we get down to Gnome-Rhome and Hispano Suiza engines.”

“Will Barbara be able to suggest to the gallant Frenchmen that they’d better get the fuck out of the way when the one-oh-nines come around?”

“Well, no. At least, I don’t think so. We really want them to concentrate on shooting up the supply columns that follow the German army, but I’m not sure that even Barbara could make that sound romantic.”

“How about tanks?”

“Too much armor for their guns to penetrate.”

“A pity.”

“The whole thing’s a pity. But we’ve got to do our best.”

 They still had two weeks to work with their charges before setting out for France. Viv had a talk with Henry, who said, “Things are looking up a bit. My idea is to set up a teaching-learning community which isn’t sharply divided between teachers and learners. In this case, the young people are teaching us to fly and play soccer, while we’re teaching the academic material.”

“I know you’ve always held that people learn best when they teach.”

“Yes. I’m now carrying things a bit further. In particular, I’m appointing student teachers who are exciting, and who can communicate their excitement to others, even if they only half-know what they’re teaching and make mistakes.”  


“Not as regards flying, of course, but in history.”

“But, why, Henry?”

“Because they get people interested, get them learning, and get them to branch out. The mistakes are eventually corrected, but the students are much better off in the end than the ones who sit bored without taking much in.”

“Wow! There does seem to be more intellectual ferment around here than I would have expected.”

“In this connection, I have Sheila and her brother, among others, teaching history.”

“Along with Olivia and Rick?”

“Olivia and Rick start from somewhat different perspectives. And, of course, they know much more. But Sheila makes herself felt.”

It turned out that Sheila and Mickey, having become communists, were teaching history from that point of view. Henry said, “The students have also found out, mostly by accident, that some of the older refugees are communists. So, some of the hostility that existed is being replaced by dialogue.”

“It’s probably a good thing that these people will never get to America. The English are more tolerant of communism.”

“Certainly. Of course, we don’t want an orthodoxy of any kind to take root. I have the same students, and I do bring to their attention such things as Stalin’s purges.”

Viv was herself amused at the whole thing, and asked if Laura and Rick were happy in the environment.

“They’re having a great time. Rick’s combined athletic and intellectual ability is widely admired, and he’s got people following him around. Laura’s quieter, but effective. The girls come to her with problems, and she and Olivia counsel moderation in all things.”

“Is anyone likely to get pregnant?”

“These young people seem quite inhibited in that direction. I don’t know why.”

“It may have something to do with being refugees.”

“We have noticed that the girls form quite close friendships with one another, perhaps excluding the boys in some ways.”

“With the exception of Sheila, the girls are probably more cautious. They may be afraid that wild boys will draw too much attention, the dangerous kind of attention.”

“Yes. That may have happened on the Continent.”

Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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