Not that they were the Andes exactly, but high enough, con-sidering the Vega’s general condition, although the altimeter packed in at four thousand feet, so everything after that was guesswork.
The sensible way of doing things would have been to stay far enough from them to be out of harm’s way and then to gain the correct height to cross the range by flying round and round in upward spirals for as long as may be. But I didn’t have time enough for that, by which I mean fuel and simply eased back the stick and went in on the run.
I don’t suppose there was more than four or five hundred feet in it as I started across the first great shoulder that lifted in a hog’s back out of the dark green of the rain forest. Beyond, I faced a scattering of jagged peaks and not too much time for decisions.
I took a chance, aimed for the gap between the two largest and flew on over a landscape so barren that it might have been the moon. I dropped sickeningly in an air pocket, the Vega pro-testing with every fibre of its being and I eased back the stick again as the ground rose to meet me.
For a while it began to look as if I’d made a bad mistake for the pass through which I was flying narrowed considerably so that at one point, there seemed every chance of the wing-tips brushing the rock face. And then, quite suddenly, I lifted over a great, fissured ridge with no more than a hundred feet to spare and found myself flying across an enormous valley, mist rising to engulf me like steam from a boiling pot.
Suddenly, it was a lot colder and rain drifted across the windshield in a fine spray and then the horizon of things crackled with electricity as rain swept in from the east in a great cloud to engulf me.
Violent tropical storms of that type were one of the daily hazards of flying in the area. Frequent and usually short-lived, they could wreak an incredible amount of damage and the par-ticular danger was the lightning associated with them. It was usually best to climb over them, but the Vega was already as high as she was going to go considering the state she was in so I really had no other choice than to hang on and hope for the best
I didn’t think of dying, I was too involved in keeping the plane in the air to have time for anything else. The Vega was made of wood. Cantilevered wings and streamlined wooden skin fuselage, manufactured in two halves and glued together like a child’s toy and now, the toy was tearing itself to pieces.
Outside, it was almost completely dark and water cascaded in through every strained seam in the fuselage as we rocked in the turbulence. Rain streamed from the wings, lightning flicker-ing at their tips and pieces of fuselage started to flake away.
I felt a kind of exultation more than anything else at the sheer involvement of trying to control that dying plane and actually laughed out loud at one point when a section of the roof went and water cascaded in over my head.
I came out into bright sunlight of the late afternoon and saw the river on the horizon immediately. It had to be the Negro and I pushed the Vega towardsit, ignoring the stench of burning oil, the rattling of the wings.
Pieces were breaking away from the fuselage constantly now and the Vega was losing height steadily. God alone knows what was keeping the engine going. It was really quite extraordinary. Any minute now, and the damn thing might pack up altogether and a crash landing in that impenetrable rain forest below was not something I could reasonably hope to survive.
A voice crackled in my earphone. “Heh, Vega, your wings are flapping so much I thought you were a bird. What’s keeping you up?”
He came up from nowhere and levelled out off my port wing, aHayley monoplane in scarlet and silver trim, no more than four or five years old from the look of it. The voice was Ameri-can and with a distinctive harshness to it that gave it its own flavour in spite of the static that was trying to drown it