Thiswas flying – how flying was meant to be and I went down to a couple of hundred feet, remembering that at that height it was possible to get maximum speed out of her. One hundred and twenty-five miles an hour. I sat back, hands steady on the stick and concentrated on getting to Landro before Hannah.
I almost made it, banking across the army post of Forte Franco at the mouth of die Rio das Mortes an hour and a quarter after leaving Manaus.
I was ten miles upstream, pushing her hard at two hundred feet when a thunderbolt descended. I didn’t even know the Hayley was there until he dived on my tail, pulled up in a half-loop, rolled out on top in a perfect Immelmann Turn and roared, towards me head-on. I held the Bristol on course and he pulled up above my head.
“Bang, you’re dead.” His voice crackled in my earphones. “I was doing Immelmanns for real when you were still breast-feeding, kid. See you in Landro.”
He banked away across the jungle where he had told me not to go and roared into the distance. For a wild moment, I won-dered if he might be challenging me to follow, but resisted the impulse. He’d lost two pilots already on the Mortes. No sense in making it three unless I had to.
I throttled back and continued up-river at a leisurely hundred miles an hour, whistling softly between my teeth.
I came to Landro, dark clouds chasing after me, the horizon closing in – another of those sudden tropical rainstorms in the offing.
It was exactly as I had expected – a clearing in the jungle at the edge of the river. A crumbling jetty,pirogues drawn up on the beach beside it, a church surrounded by a scattering of wooden houses and not much else. In other words, a typical up-river settlement.
The landing strip was at the north end of the place, a stretch ofcampo at least three hundred yards long by a hundred across. There was a windsock on a crude pole, lifting to one side in a slight breeze and a hangar roofed with corrugated iron. Hannah was down there now with three other men, push-ing the Hayley into the hangar. He turned as I came in low across the field and waved.
The Bristol had one characteristic which made a good land-ing difficult for the novice. The undercarriage included rubber bungees which had a catapulting effect if you landed too fast or too hard, bouncing you back into the air like a rubber ball.
I was damned if I was going to make that kind of mistake in front of Hannah. I turned down-wind for my approach. A left-hand turn, I throttled back and adjusted the tail trimmer. I glided down steadily at just on sixty, selected my landing path and turned into the wind at five hundred feet, crossing the end of the field at a hundred and fifty.
Landing speed for a Bristol is forty-five miles an hour and can be made without power if you want to. I closed the throttle, eased back the stick to flatten my glide and floated in, the only sound the wind whispering through the struts.
I moved the stick back gradually to prevent her sinking and stalled into a perfect three-point landing, touching the ground so gently that I hardly felt a thing.
I rolled to a halt close to the hangar and sat there for a while, savouring the silence after the roar of the engine, then I pushed up my goggles and unstrapped myself. Hannah came round on the port side followed by a small, wiry man in overalls that had once been white and were now black with oil and grease.
“I told you he was good, Mannie,” Hannah said.
“You did indeed, Sam.” His companion smiled up at me.
The liking between us was immediate and mutually recog-nised. One of those odd occasions when you feel that you’ve known someone a hell of a long time.
Except for a very slight accent, his English was perfect. As I discovered later, he was fifty at that time and looked ten years?lder which was hardly surprising for the Nazis had imprisoned him for just over a year. He certainly didn’t look like a professor. As I’ve said, he was small and rather insigni-ficant, untidy, iron-grey hair falling across his forehead, the face brown and wizened. But then there were the eyes, clear grey and incredibly calm, the eyes of a man who had seen the worst life had to offer and still had faith.