It was not even 7:30 am, and she already felt the warmth of the sun on her face. That’s what you get out here, even in early December, thought Amelia, as she swung the jeep out onto the flight line, past a long line of olive green P-40s, parked wingtip - to – wingtip. Stupid really: those planes were sitting ducks that could be blown to bits by a monkey throwing dynamite from a balloon.
She drove up to her plane, a brand-new Curtiss P-40E, with more engine power and a heavier armament, a damn improvement over the P-40Bs and Cs stationed here at Hickham Field and elsewhere around Pearl Harbor. Amelia drove the jeep around to the side of the plane and stopped it where the ground crew was finishing pumping fuel from the back of a tanker into the ship’s fuselage fuel tank. “Did you arm her?” she called, walking over. She slung her parachute over her shoulder.
The crew chief nodded. “The Colonel’d kill me if he found out I was doing this, Miz Earhart.” The tanker crew reeled the hose back to the truck.
“Can’t demonstrate the plane without a full combat load, sergeant,” she said, climbing onto the fighter’s wing. “And that includes both fuel and ammunition. At least that’s what the good people at Curtiss-Wright are paying me to do.”
The crew chief handed Amelia her goggles and helmet. “How many more of these demonstration flights they paying you to do, anyhow?”
“One more; that’s on Monday, when I’ll be showing the pilots just what this new plane of theirs can do. You can call this my check ride,” she said, taking her goggles and fitting them over her short curly hair. She settled into the cockpit and looked around her. “Clear!” Amelia touched the starter switch and the big Allison in-line rumbled to life on the first try.
The crew chief smiled. He’d almost forgotten today was Sunday. Nothing happened around here on Sundays.
Amelia kept the canopy open as she climbed over Pearl Harbor in the humid morning air. Between the engine pounding in her lap, and the wind blowing in her face, the feeling was almost… sexual. Below her, the slumbering dreadnoughts along Battleship Row, then Ford Island and Luke Field, where she and Fred Noonan had taken off, back in ’37 to start the Pacific leg of their west-to-east round-the-world flight. Almost ground-looped the Lockheed, there and then. She shuddered. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if we’d crashed and had to postpone the flight? There was some thought at the time of making the flight from the opposite direction, east-to-west. Sure glad we never faced the prospect of going down because we’d gotten lost or ran out of fuel if we’d made the last leg over the Pacific…
Over the harbor, she turned northwest and pointed the plane’s nose west and began to fly along the southern coast, the rich green hills merging with the brown sand below her. And then blinked. There was something on the horizon. She blinked again. It seemed to be a swarm of black dots. Planes. And lots of them. She keyed her radio. “Hickham Tower, this is Curtiss Test. I’ve got a large formation of unidentified aircraft approaching Pearl from the west. Over.”
For a second, nothing. Then a burst of static in her ear. “Ah, those are probably that flight of B-17s coming in from the mainland, Curtiss. Over.”
“Roger, Hickham. But those should be coming in from the east. I say again: these are coming in from the west. And there looks to be a lot more than just a flight of ‘em.” Amelia felt a rising sense of dread in her gut.
Silence, then: “Curtiss, this is Hickham. Can you try for a visual intercept? Over.”
“Can do. Roger.” Amelia opened up the throttle and pulled back on the stick. The P-40 began to climb, its engine revving louder. She flipped a switch and charged the fighter’s six wing-mounted .50 machine guns and slid the canopy shut with a clunk. The plane climbed to 10,000, and then, through a layer of light cloud, to 15,000 feet, where she leveled off.
Her earphones crackled. “Curtiss, this is Hickham. Can you see anything, over?”
Amelia looked though the canopy and through the plane’s nose-mounted ring gunsight. “I count multiple single-engined aircraft inbound, Hickham. These are not, repeat -are not –B-17s. Over.”
“Hickham, if I were you, I’d call an alert and fast! Those planes’ll be on top of you in minutes, over… Hickham?” But she couldn’t wait for a reply. The black dots were quickly resolving into full-fledged aircraft. Even as she imagined sailors manning battle stations and pilots dashing to their planes below her, more out of faint hope than anything else, she could see several of the closer aircraft peel off towards her. They’ve seen me. She pushed back on her stick and poured on the power, her fighter clawing for more height. Have to get above them. She banked the plane, even as the first radial-engined fighter slid by her, close enough for her to see the round red circle of the rising sun glinting on the wings.
She reeled as if she was slapped in face. Japanese. Gripping her stick, Amelia rolled away, even as she saw flashes of light over the nose and on the wings of the second Japanese fighter, coming head on. They’re firing, dammit Amelia could imagine the bullets buzzing by her canopy, like a swarm of angry bees. Lining the enemy up the ring-sight, she gripped the trigger button on top of her stick for all she was worth.
The acrid smell of fresh cordite filled the cockpit.
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