Beast One: The Flight

Chapter 1 from Beast by Jade Gurss
post by
Jade Gurss
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BEAST: CHAPTER ONE Things Needed To Be Done

Paul Morgan left the small British village of Brixworth on a six-mile drive to the Sywell Aerodrome. The winding and bucolic route was perfect for a leisurely drive, but this was Paul Morgan: a man obsessed with speed. He accelerated quickly on the tree-lined roads, past farmhouses and roundabouts. He was carrying critical cargo produced overnight by the company he cofounded. For Morgan, the clock was always ticking.

Morgan’s mission was a small part of a larger top-secret project known to only a handful of the good folks of Brixworth. The few who knew were doing extraordinary work, putting in the hours at their “normal” jobs then working through the night on the new undertaking. They had been urged not to tell anyone, including their spouses.

This morning, Morgan’s fourteen-year-old son Patrick was pressed into action, bicycling from home to the nearby airfield, arriving long before his father. Patrick was in charge of preparing and warming up the V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in the P-51D Mustang, one of the greatest warplanes ever built. Patrick started the engine, a not-so-easy task for a teenager with only two hands, as he simultaneously regulated the RPM, fuel mix, primer, and starter. Soon, the Mustang was ready for its sortie from Sywell, an airfield dotted with sparse hangars and a squat but sturdy control tower. Built in 1928, it was typical of the era, with three runways arranged in a triangular pattern to allow takeoffs and landings even if two of the runways were damaged.

The P-51D Mustang is a perfect example of engineering and design driven entirely by function. Nothing superfluous, nothing built for comfort. Its sleek and sexy shape was augmented by a bulletproof windshield, a clear bubble canopy over the pilot, and an aerodynamic bullet of a nose housing a four-blade propeller. Commissioned by Britain’s Royal Air Force in 1940, the Mustang’s prototype had been built in an amazing 102 days by North American Aviation in California. The plane was svelte and compact, yet featured a large fuel capacity, allowing it to escort massive bombers farther than any previous fighter. Originally built using a less-powerful Allison V-1710 engine, the plane didn’t reach full potential until it was fitted with the British-designed Rolls-Royce power-plant. The new engine elevated the Mustang to the ideal intersection of raw, guttural power, aerodynamic efficiency, and high-altitude, long-range capability—each essential to a successful fighter.

This morning was typical of English winters: damp, cold, and a hint of fog. The kind of day where the dank chill cuts right through, no matter how thick your coat. The flight’s Go/No Go weather test was simple. As he drove to the airfield, Morgan looked to his right, across the Pitsford reservoir. If he could see the far end of the water, the flight was on. If not, well . . . it usually didn’t deter Morgan, who was known to take risks when it suited him.

Pulling through the main gate, Morgan could see hangars nine and ten just ahead. He hopped out and headed for the Mustang (this one built in 1944), climbing into the cockpit while his son loaded the cargo. The empty ammunition compartments in each wing were available to carry the payload safely inside. The flight plan called for takeoff on runway 21, the longest of the three strips. (If taken in the other direction, the same runway was number three.) Even so, it was a short and bumpy grass runway, only 671 meters in length.

Considered one of the world’s best mechanical engineers, Morgan had followed in the footsteps of his father, Brian Morgan, who restored vintage cars in his well-equipped but small workshop behind their home in Handsworth Wood, Birmingham. Restoring vehicles was a rare pastime in those days, and Brian Morgan was the first to write a book about the process. The younger Morgan grew up in the workshop, learning and absorbing everything he could from his father and on his own. At the age of fifteen, his father presented him a marvelous birthday gift: a 1904 De Dion-Bouton automobile. There was one small catch: It didn’t run. Morgan had to restore and rebuild the eight-horsepower French car on his own, which he did in a short time. Morgan brought the car with him while he studied mechanical engineering (and engaged in an array of elaborate pranks and mischief) at Aston University in Birmingham.

An experienced pilot, Morgan was proficient with an array of warplanes. He was at ease in the Mustang and knew its mechanical workings inside and out. He taxied across the grass before giving the throttle lever a hefty push with his left hand, unleashing the supercharged engine’s 1,650 horsepower. The acceleration was enough to knock him back, g-forces pushing him deep into his seat. The sensation was an immense joy as the landing gear left the ground. The noise was glorious but deafening for the pilot sitting immediately behind the V12 behemoth. It all added up to Paul Morgan’s favorite thing: raw speed.

His task was to deliver his payload to a location in southwest London, using the map resting on his lap to make the 80-mile flight. At a cruising speed of 325 miles per hour, the flight would last seventeen minutes. If he really pushed it, which he loved to do, Morgan could make it in fourteen. (If the same route was taken by car or truck, it would take two hours or more.) Much of the air traffic was flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet, so Morgan dropped to 1,800, avoiding anything that might slow him down. 

It wasn’t a straight shot, as he had to skirt restricted airspace. When possible, Morgan avoided talking with air-traffic controllers as he flew south-southwest toward Westcott, where he angled farther south to Woodley. From there, he turned again to the south-southeast toward Bagshot, then east before landing at Fairoaks, an airfield on the outskirts of London that had been active since 1931. A courier unloaded the cargo and rushed the goods on the next leg of the critical journey.

With the drop complete, Morgan had only to return to Brixworth and begin another day of business. Soon after takeoff from Fairoaks, he realized the English fog had asserted itself, blanketing the Northamptonshire region. With almost no visible landmarks, his map was useless as he estimated the route the best he could. Because of the closed canopy and coolant pipes that ran inches below his bum, sweat began to pool above his brow as the heat increased inside the noisy cockpit. Diverting the flight wasn’t an option—he was urgently needed at the office where he was juggling two other massive projects in addition to the hush-hush one. Every minute was precious.

Circling toward what he hoped was Sywell, the fraught flight stretched beyond the expected seventeen minutes. He glanced at two gauges recessed in the floor outside of either foot. Illuminated for the pilot to read easily in darkness or heavy fog, they were clearly showing red. He was low on fuel. Now it was getting interesting.

Finally within range, Morgan calmly radioed to his friend Frank Bird in the Sywell tower. No lights lined the runway, so it was up to Bird to guide him with only the warbird’s landing lights faintly visible in the murk. Even in the best conditions, the Mustang was tough to land on a short runway. Forward visibility was limited, so the pilot had to crab the plane back and forth, looking out both sides of the canopy to get a visual of the runway before dramatically straightening the plane at touchdown. Another of the wartime innovations on the Mustang was its laminar flow wings, which were thinner than traditional wings and a big reason why the plane was efficient at high altitude, cutting a smoother path through the air. However, the wing design also made the Mustang tough to handle and likely to stall at slow speeds, requiring high air speed “over the hedge” (as veteran British pilots would say) coming into a landing.

Belying the suspense and danger, Bird’s radio chatter was direct. “No, Paul, to my left, not yours. Ease it to the right . . . now left a bit, Paul. Okay, you’re a bit too high now. . . .”

After some treacherous trial and error, the landing gear slammed into the damp grass, bouncing and skittering as Morgan wrestled the plane. Somehow, someway, he slid to a stop to the great delight of his anxious son.

It was a close call, but as he climbed from the plane, Morgan’s attention was already focused on the rest of his day. Things needed to be done.

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