Air Bridge (11)

By: Hammond Innes
May 9, 2015

innes air bridge

HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Hammond Innes’s 1951 espionage thriller/Robinsonade Air Bridge. Set in England during the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 (during which time the British RAF and other aircrews frustrated the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain practical control of that city), the novel’s protagonist is a mercenary pilot… but is he a traitor? Hammond Innes wrote over 30 adventures, many of them set in hostile natural environments. Enjoy!




There was no problem of navigation to distract my mind on the homeward run. The earth lay like a white map below me. I found the North Sea at Flushing, crossed the southern extremity of it, flying automatically, and just as automatically picked up the Thames estuary, following the curves of the river till it met the Kennet. And all the time I was remembering every detail of what had happened. It seemed such waste that he should die like that. And all because he’d called me a crook. My face, ghostly in the windshield, seemed to reflect the bitterness of my thoughts.

I had three hours in which to sort the thing out and face it. But I didn’t face it. I know that now. I began that flight hating myself. I ended it by hating Saeton. It was he who had forced me into it. It was he, not I, who was responsible for Tubby’s death. By the time I was over the Kennet I had almost convinced myself of that.

I dropped to a thousand feet in a mood of cold fury, picked up Ramsbury and swung north-east. The trees of Baydon Hill were a dark line and there, suddenly, were the hangars of Membury and, as I swept low over the field, I caught a glimpse of the quarters nestled snugly in their clearing in the woods. All just as I had left it. Nothing changed. Only a man dead and the moon bathing everything in a white unreal light.

I had no need of any flares. I skidded in a tight, vicious turn, dropped flaps and undercarriage, and slammed the machine down on to the runway not caring whether I smashed it up in the violence of my anger.

Saeton was at the hangar and came running out to meet me as I cut the engines. He was waiting for me as I stepped out on to the concrete, his face alive with excitement. “Well done, Neil! Magnificent!” He seized my hand and wrung it.

I flung him off. I couldn’t say anything. The words choked in my throat. He was gazing at the plane, caressing it with his eyes, like a father who has been presented with another son to replace one that has died. My hands clenched with the desire to hit out, to smash the eagerness of his face.

Then he turned and met my gaze. “What’s the trouble?” His hand reached out and caught my arm in a hard, unyielding grip. His voice was urgent, his mood tuned to mine.

I faced him then, my guts screwed up in a tight little knot in my belly and my teeth clenched. “Tubby’s dead,” I said.

“Dead?” His fingers dug into the muscles of my arm and he stared at me hard. Then his grip relaxed. “What happened?” he asked, in a flat tone.


I told him what had happened — how Tubby’s body had slumped unconscious through the fuselage door, how I’d searched the area and found no sign of a parachute. When I had finished he turned and stared at the plane. Then he shook hiimself. “All right. Let’s get the plane into the hangar.”

“The plane!” I heard myself laugh. “I tell you, Tubby’s dead.”

“All right,” he said angrily. “So he’s dead. There’s nothing you or I can do about it.”

“Diana was at Gatow,” I told him. “She’s working at the Malcolm Club there. I saw her yesterday.” I was remembering the sudden radiance of her face as she turned and found Tubby standing beside me.

“What’s Diana got to do with it?” he asked angrily. “She’ll get over it. Now give me a hand with the hangar doors. We’ve got to get this plane under cover right away.”

Artger burst like a torrent inside me. “My God! You callous bastard! You don’t care who’s killed so long as you get your bloody engines into the air. Nothing else matters to you. Can’t you understand what’s happened? He was unconscious when he fell through the door. And now he’s lying out there beside a disused airfield in the Russian Zone. He’s dead, and you killed him,” I screamed. “And all you can think about is the plane. You haven’t the decency even to say you’re sorry. He was straight and honest and decent, and you wipe his memory off your mind as though he were no more than —”

He hit me then, across the face with the flat of his hand. “Shut your mouth!” His voice trembled, but it was without anger or violence. “It doesn’t occur to you, I suppose, that I was fond of Tubby? He was the nearest I ever had to a friend in my life.” He said that slowly as though he were explaining something to himself. Then he turned away, his shoulders hunched, his hands thrust into his trouser pockets as though he didn’t trust them in the open. “Now come and help me get the hangar doors opened.”

I followed him dully, tears stinging the back of my eyeballs, blurring the white naked brilliance of the scene. He opened the wicket door, undid the bolts of the main doors and between us we slid them back. Moonlight flooded into the hangar, showing it strangely empty. The crashed Tudor was gone. All that remained of it was a jumbled heap of broken metal piled along each side of the hangar walls. And at the far end the bench with its lathes and machine tools stood deserted and silent. The whole place reeked of Tubby. I could see him beside me at that bench, whistling his flat, unending tunes, a grin crinkling his cheerful, sweaty face.

The engines of the plane roared. The vague outline of Saeton’s head showed behind the glass of the windshield as he turned it and taxied into the hangar. Between us we got the doors closed again. “We’ll go back to the quarters now,” he said. “You need a drink.” His hand gripped my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Neil. I should have let you blow off steam. You’ve had a hell of a night.”

“I can’t get the memory of Tubby out of my mind,” I said, more to myself than to him.

We walked through the woods in silence and went into the mess room. Nothing had changed — the same trestle table, the four chairs and the cupboard in the corner. But there were just the two of us now. I stood there, feeling cold and numb. “Sit down,” he said, “and I’ll get you a drink.” He returned in a few minutes with two tumblers of whisky and a bundle of maps. “Knock that back,” he said gently. “You’ll feel better then.”

As I drank he shuffled through the maps, picked out one and spread it flat on the table, “Now then, where exactly did it happen?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” I said dully.

He nodded. “I understand how you feel. But I must get it pin-pointed while it’s still vivid in your mind. Now. Here’s Restorf at the entrance to the corridor. How soon did you cut out the engines?”

“About three minutes after Field had reported that we’d passed the entrance beacon,” I answered.

“Field was your navigator?”



“About one-sixty knots.” I put down my tumbler, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Tubby’s dead,” I said bitterly. “He was unconscious when he went through the door. I searched the whole area. There wasn’t any sign of a parachute. There’s nothing we can do.” I looked at him, the beginnings of a decision forming in my mind. “I must give myself up.”

“What good do you think that will do?” he demanded harshly.

I shook my head. “None.” My voice was bitter. “But I
 can’t go on like this. Do you know what he called me? He 
called me a dirty little crook. That’s what started it all.” I
 stared down at my drink. “He was right, too. That’s what
 hurt. First the ‘Callahan’ business. Now, this. Saeton, I
 can’t go on with it. It’d drive me crazy. All the time I’d be
thinking —”

“Stop thinking about yourself,” he snapped. The vein on the side of his forehead was beginning to throb.

“We killed him,” I said dully. “Between us, we killed him.”

“We did nothing of the sort,” he replied angrily. “It was an accident.”

“He tried to stop me taking the plane. In the eyes of the law it would be —”

“Damn the law! So you told him what you were doing?”

“I had to. He came back after the others had jumped.” 
I wiped my hand across my eyes. “I’ve made up my
mind,” I said. “I can’t go on —”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” he cried. And then he leaned towards me, his eyes fixed on mine. “You think I’m callous about Tubby’s death, don’t you?” His gaze dropped slowly to the map and he shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it’s happened too often before — men going out and not coming back. I had nearly a year in command of a bomber station out in France. I lost fifty-five in that year — just boys I knew who passed through my life and were gone. Maybe I got hardened to it.” His eyes lifted 
and fastened on me again. “But Tubby wasn’t just a boy I
 knew. Damn it, we worked together for two years, side-
by-side on the same project with the same end in view.
 When you told me he was dead, I could have killed you.
 You’ve bungled it, and through your bungling you’ve
killed the one man I was really fond of. And now you
 have the bloody nerve to say you won’t go through with 
the rest of the plan. Get this into your head, Neil. If you 
don’t go through with it, you make Tubby’s death utterly 
pointless. If it was necessary for him to die that a British
company should get a world lead in air-freight transport,
 well and good. But if you’re now going to —”

“I must tell the police the whole thing,” I repeated obstinately.

“Why? Telling the police won’t help. You say Tubby is dead. All right then. He’s dead. But for the love of God let’s see to it that his death was to some purpose.” He slewed the map round towards me. “Now then. You dropped Field and the other fellow about there — correct? What happened then?”

“I banked away out of the traffic stream,” I answered,
my voice trembling. “Then Tubby came back to the cock
pit. He knew I was scared of jumps. He came back to 
make sure I got out. We were at about a thousand
feet —”

“And then?”

“Christ!” I said. “Don’t you see? It was because he was so bloody decent. That was why he died. Because he was so bloody decent. He was afraid I wouldn’t jump. He was going to take the controls…” I was almost sobbing.

Saeton pushed the tumbler into my hand. “Drink up,” he said. The drink produced a little oasis of warmth in the cold pit of my stomach. “You’re at a thousand feet. What happened then?”

I swallowed another mouthful. “I was on two motors then. I cut one. I nearly convinced him. He was just going aft again when he saw the clips. He took control then and turned the machine back into the corridor.”

“I see. And you tried to persuade him to make for Membury. That’s when you told him our plan?”

“That’s right. But he wouldn’t. His Methodist upbringing. You told me about that. You warned me…” My mind was confused now. I felt damnably tired.

He shook my shoulder. “Then you had a fight. That’s what you told me.”

“Yes. He called me a dirty little crook. That made me mad. I cut the engine out then. I told him either we crashed or he let me take over. That’s when he came at me with a spanner. The rest you know.” My eyelids felt heavy. I couldn’t keep them open. “What are you going to do?” I mumbled.

“How long between his returning to the cockpit and the fight?”

“Five minutes — ten minutes. I don’t know.”

“What height were you when Tubby went out through the fuselage door?”

“I don’t know. Yes. Wait a minute. About seven hundred. I climbed to over two thousand and then went down to five hundred again to search for him.”

“You mentioned a disused airfield.”

“Yes.” My head nodded forward uncontrollably and I felt him shaking me. “There was a small town. There was a river, too, and a road ran north, quite straight, past the edge of the airfield.” I stared at him dully. He was peering at the map, marking off distances with a rule. “Can you find it?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yes. Hollmind. No doubt of it.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked again.

“Nothing much we can do,” he said. “But an old friend of mine is at Lubeck, flying Daks. I’ll cable him and have him search the area as he flies over in daylight.”

I nodded vaguely. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

“You’re dead beat, Neil. Better get some sleep.” His voice sounded miles away. I felt his hands under my arm. “Come on, old chap.”

I think Saeton must have put something in my drink, for I don’t remember anything more until I woke to sunlight streaming into the familiar, comfortless little room. It had never done that before and when I glanced at my watch I found it was past two. I was still in my clothes and I had slept for nearly twelve hours. I fumbled for a cigarette, lit it and lay back.

The events of the night before came back to me then, like some nightmare half forgotten in waking. Tubby’s death was no longer vivid in my memory. The whole thing had an unreal quality, until I went across to the hangar and saw the plane with Saeton already at work on the inboard engines.

“Feeling better,” he asked. “I left some food out for you. Did you find it?”

“No.” I walked round to the front of the machine and saw that he had already got the starboard engine out. The single-purposed drive of the man was incredible.

“I’m having difficulty with the securing nuts of this engine,” he said. “Can you come up and give me a hand?”

I didn’t move. I stood there, staring at the shining sweep of the wings — hating the plane, hating Saeton, and hating myself worst of all. Slowly my eyes traveled from the plane to the litter of the hangar. God, how the man must have worked while I’d been at Wunstorf! He’d cut the old machine to pieces with an oxy-acetylene cutter; wings, tail, fuselage were a jumble of unrecognizable fragments piled along the walls. Only the engines were left intact.

He climbed down from the wheeled gantry. “Snap out of it, Neil!” His voice was hard, almost violent. “Put your overalls on and get to work on that engine.” His face, close to, looked gray and haggard, his eyes shadowed with sleeplessness. He looked old. “I’m going to get some sleep.” He cleared a space for himself on the bench and lay down. He kept his eyes open until I’d climbed the gantry and started work. After that he didn’t stir until I switched the light plant on.

He brought some food over then and we worked on together until we had the port engine lowered on to the concrete floor. It was then eight forty-five. “Nearly news time,” I said and lit a cigarette, my hands trembling.

We got the news on the plane’s radio. There was nothing in the summary. With the earphones clamped to my ears the announcer’s voice seemed to be there in my head, telling me of political wrangles, strikes, a depression over Iceland, anything but what I wanted to hear. Right at the end, however, he paused. There was a rustle of paper and then his voice was back in my ears and I gripped the edge of the seat.

News has just come in that the Tudor aircraft, missing on the airlift since last night, has crashed in the Russian Zone of Germany. Two members of the crew, who bailed out, crossed the frontier into the British Zone this morning. They are R.E. Field, navigator, and H.L. Westrop, radio operator. According to their report, the plane’s engines failed shortly after it had turned into the northern approach corridor to Berlin and the captain ordered the crew to bail out. Still missing are N.L. Fraser, pilot, and R.C. Carter, flight engineer. The pilot of one of the planes following the missing Tudor has reported seeing a single parachute open at about a thousand feet. It was clearly visible in brilliant moonlight. As Field and Westrop came down together, it is thought that this parachute may belong to one of the other two members of the crew. So far the Russians have denied that any plane crashed in their territory or that they hold any of our aircrews. The plane was a Tudor tanker belonging to the Harcourt Charter Company. Squadron Leader Neil Fraser escaped from Germany during the war by flying out a Messerschmitt after —

I switched it off and removed my headphones. A single parachute! “Do you think he’s alive?” The sudden relief of hope made my voice unsteady. Saeton made no answer. He was staring down the fuselage at nothing in particular. “A single parachute! That must be Tubby. The others went out together. They came down together. The news said so.”

“We’ll see what the papers say tomorrow.” Saeton got to his feet.

I caught hold of his arm as he passed me. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you glad?”

He looked down at me, his eyes gray like slate. “Of course, I’m glad.” There was no enthusiasm in his voice.

His reaction left me with a sense of depression. The report was third or fourth hand. The pilot might have been seeing two parachutes as one. It might mean nothing — or everything. I got out on to the floor of the hangar and stood, staring at the plane. If only Saeton hadn’t taken the inboard engines out. If the machine had been left as I had brought it in, we could have gone over, landed on that disused airfield and searched the area. It was a crazy idea, but it stuck in my mind.

And as though Saeton had also thought of that, he pressed straight on with the installation of the first of our own engines. We finished it at three in the morning. But even then I couldn’t sleep. My mind kept on seeing that single parachute, a white mushroom of silk in the moonlight, picturing Tubby forced to consciousness by the rush of cold air, tugging at the release. Pray God the papers carried more detail.

I was up at eight. The quarters were silent. There was no sign of Saeton. I thought he must be over at the hangar until I found a note on the mess table to say he’d gone into Baydon for the papers. By the time I’d cooked the bacon he was back. I saw at once he had some news. There was a gleam of excitement in his eyes and his face looked younger as though all the sleeplessness had been wiped away. “What is it?” I asked breathlessly. “Have they found him?”


“What then?”

“Take a look at that.” He handed me a teleprint.

Your plane urgently required Wunstorf to replace Tudor tanker missing stop Ministry Civil Aviation agree rush C of A stop Report Wunstorf soonest possible notifying your E.T.A. Signed Aylmer B.E.A.

I handed it back to him. “I suppose you didn’t bother to see what the papers say about the crew of the plane?”

“Can’t you get your mind off what’s happened?” he demanded irritably.

“No,” I said. “I can’t. Have you got the papers?” Here you are.” He handed me a whole bundle of newspapers. “They tell us nothing that we didn’t know last night.”

I glanced quickly through them as he went past me to get his breakfast. All the reports were the same. It was obviously a hand-out. The only difference was that in two cases the position at which the pilot had seen that single parachute was given. The position was two miles north of Hollmind.

When I entered the mess room again Saeton was already there, the teleprint beside his plane. He was making notes while he ate. I thrust the paper in front of him. “Have you seen that?” I asked.

He nodded, looking up at me, his mouth full.

“It means Tubby is alive,” I cried. “He must have come to and pulled the release.”

“I hope you’re right,” was all he said.

“What else could it mean?” I demanded.

“You remember I said I’d cable a friend of mine at Lubeck? I phoned it through that morning. This morning I got his reply. I’ll read it to you.” He pulled a second teleprint out of his pocket and read it out to me. “Regret no trace of Carter or Fraser stop All aircraft ordered from dawn third to keep sharp lookout Hollmind area stop Routes staggered to cover limits of Corridor stop Visibility perfect stop Two parachutes reported near frontier belonging Westrop Field stop No wreckage, parachute 
or signal reported target area stop Sorry signed Manning.”
 He pushed it into my hand. “Read it yourself.”

“It doesn’t prove anything,” I said. “He may have been hurt.”

“If he were he would have made some signal — smoke or something.” He turned back to his breakfast.

“He may not have been able to. He may have been unconscious.”

“Then his parachute would have been seen.”

“Not necessarily. Hollmind airfield is surrounded by a belt of pine woods. His parachute could easily have been invisible from the air if he’d come down in the woods.”

“If he’d landed in the woods his parachute would have been caught in the trees. It would be clearly visible.”

“Then maybe he was seen coming down and picked up by a Russian patrol or some Germans.” I felt suddenly desperate. Tubby had to be alive. My mind clung desperately to the slender hope of this report of a parachute near Hollmind.

Saeton looked up at me again then. “What time did Tubby drop?”

“I don’t know. It must have been just near eleven-thirty.”

“On the evening of the second?”

I nodded.

“Within a few hours all pilots had been ordered to keep a sharp lookout. That means that from dawn onwards there was a constant stream of aircrews overhead searching the area. Do you seriously suggest that in the intervening seven hours of darkness Tubby would have been picked up?”

“There was a moon,” I said desperately.

“All right — five hours of moonlight. If Tubby pulled his 
parachute release, then he would still have been there on 
the ground at dawn. If he were hurt, then he wouldn’t
have been able to do anything about his parachute and it 
would have been clearly visible from above. And if he
 wasn’t injured, then he’d have been able to signal.” He
 hesitated. “On the other hand, if he never regained con
sciousness —”

“My God!” I said. “I believe you want him dead.”



RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.

ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”


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