FLIGHT TO DESTINY
Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
CHAPTER ONE ( PART 2)
The airport lay right next to the harbor.
Tom tapped her shoulder, his mouth next to her ear so she could hear him. “Who were they, Miss Gwynn? Why d’ya suppose he shot at us?”
“Japanese. Trying to kill us. Damn near succeeded.”
Cornelia? She hadn’t seen her friend’s plane since before she spotted the Japanese formation. Again, Annie scanned the sky for the other yellow airplane. The blue expanse above and around her appeared as empty of airplanes now as it had been full just moments earlier.
CUB VS. JAPANESE ZERO, NO THANKS!
Hopefully, Cornelia had landed safely. Besides, Annie had other worries right now. She had an airplane and a student she needed to get home safely. If that fighter came back looking for her, he might bring a couple of his buddies along. A 50-horsepower Cub against high-speed Japanese warplanes. No thank you! She didn’t like those odds one bit. That he had missed her the first time and not stayed around for the kill constituted a major miracle. He wouldn’t miss a second time.
Maybe she should fly to the other side of the island. But land where? Eventually, she would run out of fuel. No, she had to get back to Rodgers.
Blood still pounded in her ears, reminding Annie that she and her student had barely escaped that encounter with their lives. But hot on the heels of the fear, yet another emotion welled inside her. It was vaguely familiar, yet far more intense than she had ever felt before.
Too tall and awkward as a child, she discovered acting the part of daredevil blunted the teasing inflicted by the other children. At age eight, she rode her bike at breakneck speed off a crudely constructed ramp and jumped Overall Creek. The split second she hung suspended over the water electrified her inner core. “I’m flying,” raced through her mind.
SOMETHING SHE WAS GOOD AT
She crashed in a heap on the far side, but outdistanced even the most athletic boy in the forbidden competition. A broken collarbone and a new respect from the boys and girls she played with were her tangible rewards. Deep within came the realization that, finally, here was something she could be good at.
When the government-subsidized Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPT) opened to college women in 1939, nineteen-year-old Annie, a junior at the University of Tennessee, signed up immediately. She was the first girl admitted to the program that allowed one woman for every nine men enrolled in a class. When the bi-wing trainer lifted off the ground with her in the back seat — the pilot’s seat in the tandem cockpit — she knew she had forever left behind life as she knew it.
With danger distinctly absent from that tame, twenty-minute introductory flight — the instructor let her fly straight and level and handle the stick and rudders for two sweeping one-hundred-eighty degree turns, one in each direction. Annie still reveled at being thrust into a new dimension. Time stood still — ceased to exist, other than the time spent in the air when she was one with the airplane, the sky, the universe. That an error in her judgment could one day send her hurtling earthward never occurred to her. That engine failure or myriad other mechanical problems inherent in flying above the earth could send her into an uncontrollable flat spin — the death spin that resulted in inevitable oblivion — was worth the risk.
LIVING ON THE EDGE!
Now she would do anything to capture again — and again, and again — that rush that awaited the moment the wheels left the ground and the little airplane surged upward to become one with the sky. That moment when the craft no longer belonged to the earth, held back by such puny notions as human frailties, family allegiances, worldly pursuits like school and job. Flying meant living on the edge.
And Annie liked living on the edge, something hard to come by in her sheltered, Southern middle-class life.
Now, once again in the skies over Oahu, she came face to face with the knowledge that danger made her feel very much alive. No matter how bad, she had to see, wanted to see, what was happening beyond those mountains, back at Pearl.
“We’re going home,” she shouted over her shoulder to Tom, pleased at the measured composure she heard in her voice. Already the rapid heartbeat had slowed, her breathing returned to normal, the electric charge of danger replaced by an almost eerie calm. She checked the altimeter and her airspeed and pushed the throttle back to full. “Keep your eyes open for planes — any planes — tell me the minute you see one.”
MOLTEN METAL AND BURNING SHIPS
Annie flew lower than usual, dropping down just above the treetops as she made her way between two hills. When they came through the gap, she saw flames towering higher than a five-story building and leaping from listing ships in the middle of the harbor. Smoke billowed wherever she looked. Plumes of water from fire hoses shot skyward then fell as millions of droplets, only to be turned to steam when they contacted the molten metal of the burning ships that lay dying amidst what had been the United States’ Pacific fleet.
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