Frederick Forsyth: The Shepherd

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Frederick Forsyth The Shepherd
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The Shepherd: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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On Christmas Eve 1957, alone in the cockpit of his Vampire, an RAF pilot is returning from Germany to Lakenheath on leave—66 minutes of trouble-free, routine flying. Then, out over the North Sea, the fog begins to close in, radio contact ceases, and the compass goes haywire.

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Frederick Forsyth


For a brief moment, while waiting for the control tower to clear me for take-off, I glanced out through the perspex cockpit canopy at the surrounding German countryside. It lay white and crisp beneath the crackling December moon.

Behind me lay the boundary fence of the Royal Air Force base, and beyond the fence, as I had seen while swinging my little fighter into line with the take-off runway, the sheet of snow covering the flat farmland stretched away to the line of the pine trees, two miles distant in the night yet so clear I could almost see the shapes of the trees themselves.

Ahead of me as I waited for the voice of the controller to come through the headphones was the runway itself, a slick black ribbon of tarmac, flanked by twin rows of bright-burning lights, illuminating the solid path cut earlier by the snow-plows. Behind the lights were the humped banks of the morning’s snow, frozen hard once again where the snow-plow blades had pushed them. Far away to my right the airfield tower stood up like a single glowing candle amid the hangars where the muffled aircraft men were even now closing down the station for the night.

Inside the control tower, I knew, all was warmth and merriment, the staff waiting only for my departure to close down also, jump into the waiting cars and head back to the parties in the mess. Within minutes of my going, the lights would die out, leaving only the huddled hangars, seeming hunched against the bitter night, the shrouded fighter planes, the sleeping fuel bowser trucks, and above them all the single flickering station light, brilliant red above the black and white airfield, beating Out in Morse code the name of the station CELLE to an unheeding sky. For tonight there would be no wandering aviators to look down and check their bearings; tonight was Christmas Eve, in the year of grace 1957, and I was a young pilot trying to get home to Blighty for his Christmas leave.

I was in a hurry and my watch said ten-fifteen by the dim blue glow of the control panel where the rows of dials quivered and danced. It was warm and snug inside the cockpit, the heating turned up full to prevent the perspex icing up. It was like a cocoon, small and warm and safe, shielding me from the bitter cold outside, from the freezing night that can kill a man inside a minute if he is exposed to it at 600 miles an hour.

“Charlie Delta…”

The controller’s voice woke me from my reverie, sounding in my headphones as if he was with me in the tiny cockpit, shouting in my ear. He’s had a jar or two already, I thought. Strictly against orders, but what the hell? It’s Christmas.

“Charlie Delta… Control,” I responded.

“Charlie Delta, clear take-off,” he said.

I saw no point in responding. I simply eased the throttle forward slowly with the left hand, holding the Vampire steady down the central line with the right hand. Behind me the low whine of the Goblin engine rose and rose, passing through a cry and into a scream. The snub-nosed fighter rolled, the lights each side of the runway passed in ever quicker succession, till they were flashing in a continuous blur. She became light, the nose rose fractionally, freeing the nose-wheel from contact with the runway, and the rumble vanished instantly. Seconds later the main wheels came away and their soft drumming also stopped. I held her low above the deck, letting the speed build up till a glance at the airspeed indicator told me we were through 120 knots and heading for 140. As the end of the runway whizzed beneath my feet I pulled the Vampire into a gently climbing turn to the left, easing up the undercarriage lever as I did so.

From beneath and behind me I heard the dull clunk of the main wheels entering their bays, the lunge forward of the jet as the drag of the undercarriage vanished. In front of me the three red lights representing three wheels extinguished themselves. I held her into the climbing turn, pressing the radio button with the left thumb.

“Charlie Delta, clear airfield, wheels up and locked,” I said into my oxygen mask.

“Charlie Delta, roger, over to Channel D,” said the controller, and then, before I could change radio channels added, “Happy Christmas.”

Strictly against the rules of radio procedure, of course. I was very young then, and very conscientious. But I replied, “Thank you, Tower, and same to you.” Then I switched channels to tune in to the R.A.F’s North-Germany Air Control frequency.

Down on my right thigh was strapped the map with my course charted on it in blue ink, but I did not need it. I knew the details by heart, worked out earlier with the Navigation Officer in the Nav hut. Turn overhead Celle airfield on to course 265 degrees, continue climbing to 27,000 feet. On reaching height, maintain course and keep speed to 485 knots. Check in with Channel D to let them know you’re in their airspace, then a straight run over the Dutch coast south of Beveland into the North Sea. After forty-four minutes flying time, change to Channel F and call Lakenheath Control to give you a steers. Fourteen minutes later you’ll be overhead Lakenheath. After that, follow instructions, and they’ll bring you down on a radio-controlled descent. No problem all routine procedures. Sixty-six minutes flying time, with the descent and landing, and the Vampire had enough fuel for over eighty minutes in the air.

Swinging over Celle airfield at 1,000 feet, I straightened up and watched the needle on my electric compass settle happily down on a course of 260 degrees. The nose was pointing towards the black freezing vault of the night sky, studded with stars so brilliant they flickered their white fire against the eyeballs. Below, the black-white map of north Germany was growing smaller, the dark masses of the pine forests blending into the white expanses of the fields. Here and there a village or small town glittered with lights. Down there amid the gaily lit streets the carol singers would be out, knocking on the holly-studded doors to sing Silent Night and collect pfennigs for charity. The Westphalian housewives would be preparing hams and geese.

Four hundred miles ahead of me the story would be the same, the carols in my own language but many of the tunes the same, and it would be turkey instead of goose. But whether you call it Weihnachten or Christmas, it’s the same all over the Christian world, and it was good to be going home.

From Lakenheath I knew I could get a lift down to London in the liberty bus, leaving just after midnight; from London I was confident I could hitch a lift to my parents home in Kent. By breakfast time I’d be celebrating with my own family. The altimeter said 27,000 feet. I eased the nose forward, reduced throttle setting to give me an airspeed of 485 knots, and held her steady on 260 degrees. Somewhere beneath me in the gloom the Dutch border would be slipping away, and I had been airborne for twenty-one minutes. No problem.

The problem started ten minutes out over the North Sea, and it started so quietly that it was several minutes before I realized I had one at all. For some time I had been unaware that the low hum coming through my headphones into my ears had ceased, to be replaced by the strange nothingness of total silence. I must have been failing to concentrate, my thoughts being of home and my waiting family. The first thing I knew was when I flicked a glance downwards to check my course on the compass. Instead of being rock steady on 260 degrees, the needle was drifting lazily round the clock, passing through east, west, south and north with total impartiality.

I swore a most unseasonal sentiment against the compass and the instrument fitter who should have checked it for 100 per cent reliability. Compass failure at night, even a brilliant moonlit night such as the one beyond the cockpit perspex, was no fun. Still, it was not too serious; I could call up Lakenheath in a few minutes, and they would give me a GCA Ground Controlled Approach the second-by-second instructions that a well-equipped airfield can give a pilot to bring him home in the worst of weathers, following his progress on ultra-precise radar screens, watching him descend all the way to the tarmac, tracing his position in the sky yard by yard and second by second. I glanced at my watch: thirty-four minutes airborne. I could try to raise Lakenheath now, at the outside limit of my radio range.

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