Florida Keys, April 5th 1985
Life felt wonderful. Clear skies surrounded him and the watery carpet below sparkled its ocean blue. The weather was perfect and any lingering doubts about the flight soon dissolved. There was very little wind to speak of and he smiled to himself as he pulled back gently on the column in front of him, nosing the old plane even higher.
Carl Morgan was making the trip of his life, and he knew it. Flying itself wasn't the thrill this time. He’d been a qualified pilot for years and was very experienced. No, the reason for his delight was solely the aircraft itself, for she was no ordinary aeroplane. She was forty-five years old and boasted a wingspan that measured one hundred feet across. Rescued from a military scrap yard and lovingly restored over a three-year period, she was one of the very few airworthy Catalina flying boats still left in the world. And he was at her controls, which made him feel closer to his absent father in a very real way.
His father had flown Catalinas during the Second World War, mainly around the Philippines but occasionally in the Gibraltar Straits, each time hunting down U-boats or their Japanese equivalent. A young, hot-shot flyer, John Morgan had done his duty and relished every second of it. In later years, however, he would reflect on the other young men that his depth charges had killed; doomed to drown within the icy, terrifying blackness of their own stricken submarines. An awful way to go, he knew, and he pitied them their end. But war was war, he would tell his son countless times, and was always a messy, evil business.
In his mind’s eye, Carl pictured the frenzied activity of a war-time flight; the shouting, cursing and nervous banter of men on the edge; the imagined chaos ringing silently in his ears. Carl had lived and breathed his father’s war stories as a small boy and now, aloft in the same plane, he couldn't help but feel part of that unique history.
Dozens of old dials, gauges, heavy switches and partly rusted levers lent the large cockpit a character missing in modern aircraft. No wonder dad loved these, he mused.
Settling back into the cracked but surprisingly comfortable leather flying chair, Carl levelled the old plane out and glanced around the cockpit for the hundredth time.
His thoughts drifted back again to his father. A large man with laughing eyes and possibly the biggest hands that Carl had ever seen. Having survived the war unscathed he had started up a charter service covering the best of Florida's hidden coast. The initial four-seat seaplane was gradually joined by others until eventually there had been an impressive fleet of nine aircraft. Their main job was to ferry visitors and tourists alike out to hidden bays and small islands. Sheltered beaches away from prying eyes were the main attraction and it was not unusual for groups of bathers to completely strip off, much to the embarrassment of newly hired pilots.
For their part, the pilots would land on the water and taxi into the beach or cove. Visitors were given all day to do as they pleased and provided with a cold picnic lunch, together with as much wine or beer as they could drink. It had proved a dynamic and lucrative combination.
John Morgan was a great pilot and suddenly a surprising success as a businessman. The company took up nearly all of his time, especially in the years just after the war. Consequently he married late in life and did not have time to rush headlong into fatherhood. Consequently he was already forty years old when Carl was born.
But he doted on his son and often took him flying. By the age of sixteen Carl was already a competent pilot and eagerly looking forward to joining his father's company as a junior pilot when he was finally old enough.
That was when his father had disappeared without a trace. He was fifty-six years old. Still in great physical shape when it happened, he’d lost none of his flying skills, which made the disappearance more mysterious. A simple, routine test flight of a new seaplane was meant to have taken him out over the Keys, around in a wide circle and then back home again. He was never seen again. Lost; presumably at sea, in near perfect weather conditions. No radio message. No SOS call. No wreckage, just empty sky. The Bermuda Triangle, or just bad luck?
Anyway, that was a decade ago. Carl now ran the business with the help of his father's lawyer and some of the old pilots. He had his own house, two cars and even a small helicopter to his credit. With the business continuing to boom, his was a life that any 26-year old would have dreamed of.
To top off the success story, an amazing offer had come right out of the blue. A group of local enthusiasts had salvaged and completely rebuilt a WW2 Catalina flying boat. They needed it tested and certified before they could sell it to a prominent air museum as a working exhibit. Lacking cash, they approached Morgan Air for help.
Carl jumped at the chance to help but knew his own limitations as a pilot. A few phone calls tracked down a pilot called Arthur Peterson; who flew his own restored Catalina as a cargo carrier up in the Canadian badlands, supplying remote outposts with essential supplies. For a healthy sum, which Carl was happy to front, Peterson had agreed to fly down to Miami and teach Carl how to handle the antique aircraft.
Together the two men spent three weeks strenuously putting the restored aircraft through its paces. Peterson came to quickly understood Carl's emotional interest in the plane and gave him a thorough education, carefully schooling him in the art of handling the huge aircraft. Gradually Carl’s his confidence grew until both he and Peterson were satisfied with his performance. So, here he was now, up in a crystal sky, alone on his first solo flight.
Sighing to himself contentedly he pulled the column towards him, putting the huge old aeroplane into a very gentle climb.
Down below the ocean still shone like a carpet of purest sapphire. Looking through the cockpit windows he could see for miles yet there was nothing to look at, save the sea and sky. A solitary plane amidst an expanse of blue that stretched to a distant horizon. The only cloud anywhere was the thought in his head that he would soon have to turn back. He knew that the fuel tanks were only half full when he set out but, even so, he was loathe to return.
Reluctantly he radioed in his current position and added his intention to start heading home. Just for a moment he resented the radio. It linked him back to the real world; back to the present. His thoughts were interrupted by the reply from base. It was Peterson on the other end, clearly after a brief chat about the Catalina's performance.
‘How’s the old girl doing?’ enquired the disembodied voice.
‘All fine up here,’ replied Carl. ‘Strange being up here without you in the co-pilot’s seat though.’
'I wish I was up there too,’ Peterson agreed, ‘but you were ready to do this on your own so it’s time for me to step back.’
‘Well, I’m still airborne and nothing’s broken off in my hands yet, so all the signs are good,’ Carl chuckled.
A light, friendly conversation then bantered back and forth for a couple of minutes more; weather conditions, wind direction, altitude, engine temperatures amongst others. Peterson then began to verify Carl's position. Halfway through verification the disembodied voice was suddenly drowned out by an explosion of static that hurt Carl's ears. The radio crackled twice more, smoked and then burned out with a brief flicker of flame.
'Base, this is Carl, over. Come in, Arthur.’ Nothing. He repeated the call a couple of times but the lights on the radio were out. Nobody could hear him.
Almost at once a completely alien sense of unease filled him. Everything in the plane had been checked and double-checked before the flight, especially the radio, which was brand new anyway and the best that money could buy.
‘Come on, it’s just the radio,’ Carl told himself lightly. And that was all it was, so why did he have such a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach? He didn’t need the radio, it was just a convenience.
Leaning down to fiddle with the set he caught a glimpse of the sea below. Instead of being the perfect vista of a moment before, it now seemed strangely distorted. As he watched, it seemed to mist over, as if subject to some kind of sudden heat haze. Fighting an irrational sense of foreboding, Carl powered the Catalina around in a 180 degree turn and headed back towards land.
As if caught up in the midst of some fantastical B-movie, the aerial visibility suddenly plunged to zero as the sea haze below leaped skyward and snared the old aeroplane, as if a giant hand had cast a blanket over the cockpit windows. All the dials spun crazily, even the compass, and the control column grew noticeably heavier in his trembling hands.
Carl began to feel sickeningly light-headed and his overriding instinct was to shed height as quickly as possible. Forcing the sluggish column forward he nosed the old seaplane down into a shallow dive. Suddenly unresponsive, the dive steepened dangerously and the young pilot found himself fighting desperately to regain control.
Sweating profusely, Carl needed all of his concentration to manhandle the control column. He managed to spare a lightning glance at the dials in front of him, which were all still dancing a mad jig. No damned use, he thought bitterly. With all his instruments going crazy he had no way to gauge his height. He wouldn’t know how close he was to the water until the old aircraft plunged into it!
Outside, the haze solidified to a thick, insidious fog that pressed in on the cockpit malevolently. Out of nowhere an evil wind sprang up and began to buffet the old airframe mercilessly. Struggling with the controls became useless and his aching fingers released their grip.
As if the Gods themselves were pitted against him, one of the engines died with a wretched choke and another began to splutter ominously. Something wanted the plane and there was nothing he could do to save himself. He didn’t know if he was diving, climbing or upside down for that matter. His vision grew blurred and an annoying buzzing grew louder inside his skull until it set off multiple detonations of vicious pain that made rational thought almost impossible.
‘No! Not like this!’ he cried out pitifully. ‘Help me!’ But nobody was listening.
Totally blind by now, Carl used every last ounce of strength to force the old throttle levers back, hoping to cut the flying boat’s airspeed. Vomiting and choking for breath, the pain behind his eyes grew unbearable as darkness closed in.