Cape Air

If you don't have an airplane, imagine one.

Avro Lancaster
A Lancaster's four Merlins at "full chat" could make a grown man cry.iStock

April may have been the cruelest month in T. S. Eliot’s London, but here in Los Angeles, it’s September. On the 3rd, consequently, my wife, Nancy, and I decamped for Cape Cod.

Not in my airplane. For one thing, Nancy has pretty much turned against flying. I suppose that if the “Big One” — the long-awaited catastrophic temblor on the San Andreas fault — destroyed the city and all the highways leading out of it she would be willing to get into the airplane to escape, but short of that she prefers to drive or take an airliner. Besides, my airplane had had a gear problem that ended up with my revising and rebuilding part of the retraction system, a project that lasted seven flightless weeks. I finished and made one test flight the day before we left; but the new parts were not sufficiently well shaken down for a transcontinental trip, even if Nancy had been willing to make one.

We stay with a friend at Truro, which is near the outer end of the Cape. A few years ago, I felt a yen to walk among some airplanes and went up to the Provincetown Municipal Airport at the very tip, mistakenly visualizing it as one of those country fields of yore where you could just stroll in on a sunny afternoon and lollygag among the airplanes. But this is the 21st century; I was met with a locked gate.

Now and then from the beach I’d see a round-engine biplane, maybe a Waco, rumble past. There were some single-engine Cessnas, a Cirrus and an ultralight or two. I imagined how the shoreline looked to them, having flown it myself in 2008. It would not be the same now; a spate of severe winter storms had pushed the beach back several yards and, having broken through the dune that separates the source of the Pamet River from the Atlantic, threatened to turn the river into a strait and make the outer Cape an island.

One day, someone told me that a small airplane was cruising the National Seashore beaches scouting for sharks while a boat below it scanned suspect shadows more closely with a drone — a rare instance of airplane and multicopter cooperation. This seemed like quite a lot of firepower, until you considered that a 14-foot, 2,000-pound great white had washed up alive on a Wellfleet beach a few days earlier. The local drive-in, alert to the trend, was showing Jaws.

No sooner had we arrived than our hostess handed me a novel called A God in Ruins. She thought I would like it, she said; it was well-written, and part of it was about airplanes. The author, she said, had done a great deal of research.

I am at once in awe of the self-​assurance of authors who wade into highly technical areas and skeptical of their chances of pulling it off. We have all noticed what a hard time Hollywood has with the simplest aspects of aviation. I usually avoid movies that involve airborne crises, but I cringed at the Toyota vs. 747 race in Argo and at the multiple absurdities of Flight. Only United 93, as far as I know, ever managed to get the tone of communications between pilots and controllers right; maybe directors just think it's not cinematic to sound unexcited.

A God in Ruins recounts the life of an Englishman who comes of age just in time to fly bombers over Germany in World War II. It's packed with references to and snippets of English poetry, which I liked, having majored in that stuff in college. It has a beautifully written but essentially frivolous twist at the end; but sorry, no spoiler here.

The author, Kate Atkinson, did do her research well. Not that I know anything about flying bombers in the 1940s, but as a pilot I could not help being particularly sensitive to the kinds of subtle errors of emphasis or omission that a studious author is not even aware of. In one account of a bomber spiraling downward to evade an attacking fighter, she describes the pilot pushing the yoke forward, rolling into the turn and neutralizing the ailerons — so far, so good — but then alludes to the downward G-force without mentioning that the yoke has to have come back to produce it. This is a small matter, but within a certain prose rhythm it grates to go from forward stick to positive G without any mention of what had to happen in between.

At one point she describes a bomber ablaze “from aft to stern” — an error so egregious that I read it several times to be sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. How did that escape an editor, let alone the normally scrupulous author?

But those are exceptions; on the whole, there was nothing to cringe at.

Her hero flies a Handley Page Halifax. Second in prestige to the Avro Lancaster, the Halifax was almost identical to it in shape and size. Both were four-engine “heavy bombers” — though not very heavy by today’s standards — and had cigar-shape fuselages with gun turrets front, amidships and rear, and twin vertical tails on the ends of their horizontal stabilizers. Like the B-17, both were taildraggers. The B-24 Liberator, designed a little later, was the first heavy bomber with tricycle gear.

The planforms of its midmounted wings were nearly indistinguishable, with straight center sections extending to just outboard of the inner engines and identically tapered outer panels ending in rounded tips. The Lancaster’s wing area was slightly larger, but its wing loading was higher, its gross weight of 68,000 pounds exceeding that of the Halifax by almost 14,000 pounds. Initially, both airplanes had Rolls-Royce Merlins, an engine most famous, at least to Americans, for its use in the P-51. In the Mustang, the Merlin was rated at 1,650 hp; in the Halifax, with a different supercharger, it put out only 1,300 hp and was eventually replaced by Bristol Hercules sleeve-valve radials of 1,650 hp. Concern about a possible shortage of Merlins caused the Hercules to be fitted to the Lancaster as well, but the arrival of plentiful Packard-built Merlins from the United States caused only 300 of that variant to be built.

These were airplanes designed to fly long distances — 2,000 miles or more — at moderate speeds and altitudes. Hundreds flew in dense formations and, until the arrival of long-range Mustangs, they went without fighter escort, relying instead on their own guns for self-defense. Losses were huge, and the chance of a crew making it through a tour of duty — typically 30 missions — without being shot down by fighters or flak was small. I suppose the men must have given themselves up for dead and then taken each new day as an unexpected gift.

Atkinson describes how aircrews were formed, somewhat like teams at a pickup basketball game. Pilots, navigators, wireless operators (“sparks”) and gunners gathered in a hall and were told to make up their own groups. The look on a face, a prior chance encounter in a pub, or a bit of scuttlebutt heard in a barracks linked these random groups of men. You can imagine the crestfallen feeling of the leftovers — the unprepossessing, the ill reputed, the unlucky, the unknown — who became teammates in the deadly game not by choosing but by not having been chosen.

A British wit once described a sea voyage as tantamount to being in jail with the chance of drowning thrown in. Flying bombers over Germany involved an even more dire combination: confinement in a refrigerator under an artillery barrage with the added chance of a long fall. I can’t even imagine it. And yet ...

A few years ago, British police investigated a car pulled over beside a motorway. Inside they found an old man weeping, overcome by emotion. One of the last remaining Lancasters had just flown overhead, its four Merlins growling in harmony.

Did I miss out on something?