Sagittarius Rising


Single combat, a duel with another machine, was, performance apart, a question of good flying. Two machines so engaged would circle, each trying to turn inside the other and so bring his guns into play Ability to sustain such tight vertical turns is the crucial test of a fighting pilot. Once the balance of the controls is lost, the machine will slip, lose height, and the enemy will rush in. Then, by all the rules of the game, you are a dead man.

But when a number of machines had closed and were engaged in a dogfight, it was more a question of catch as catch can. A pilot would go down on the tail of a Hun, hoping to get him in the first burst; but he would not be wise to stay there, for another Hun would almost certainly be on his tail hoping to get him in the same way. Such fights were really a series of rushes, with momentary pauses to select the next opportunity—to catch the enemy at a disadvantage, or separated from his friends.

But, apart from fighting, when twenty or thirty scouts were engaged, there was always a grave risk of collision. Machines would hurtle by, intent on their private battles, missing each other by feet. So such fighting demanded iron nerves, lightning reactions, snap decisions, a cool head, and eyes like a bluebottle, for it all took place at high speed and was three dimensional.

At this sort of sharpshooting some pilots excelled others; but in all air fighting (and indeed in every branch of aerial warfare) there is an essential in which it differs from the war on the ground: its absolute cold-bloodedness. You cannot lose your temper with an aeroplane. You cannot 'see red', as a man in a bayonet fight. You certainly cannot resort to 'Dutch' courage. Any of these may fog your judgement—and that spells death. — p117.

The night was clear, but the low-lying country threatened ground mist. The rising moon did not shed enough light to give much confidence. It all looked very black indeed, and I had the impression that to take off into this would be the same as flying into a cloud, a topless black cloud out of which I could never climb into clear skies above, and out of which I should only stumble back to earth by luck. I paused for a moment before opening up, tested my controls and, with that feeling of fatalism which so many pilots must know, pushed open the throttle. If I was going to be killed, I was going to be killed, why worry? If I was going to get away with it, why worry either? Avanti! The machine gathered way and lifted serenely from the ground.

A second later I was reassured. This was no dark cloud, no impalpable void of blackness; but a lovely dim landscape lit only by the rising moon, with a shining ribbon of water, the Thames estuary, on the southern horizon. I was surprised at the amount of detail visible by night. Every roof made a soft mirror for the moon. Railway lines glistened, and even roads were lighter lines among the dark network of hedges dividing the fields.

Expecting to be keyed up to the highest degree of nervous tension, I relaxed at once. I had entered anew enchanted world. As I climbed higher the detail of the ground grew less distinct, the horizons wider, and the long drifts of cloud out of which the moon had risen, stately and calm, gave an exquisite aspect to the August sky. The earth seemed soft, luxuriant, taking the moonlight like a cloak of moleskin. Below, the golden flares on the aerodrome shone like a brooch.

Soon I could see the flares of other aerodromes marking the ring of the squadrons which guarded the city. London itself was a dark, crouching monster within. The sky signs which threw a dome of glowing copper above her were no more. Two solitary searchlights, one to the north and one to the south, raised thin silver pencils, wheeling and pausing, uncertain seekers in the depths of emptiness, and again a feeling of amazement gripped me, that I, alone, in a frail contrivance, should have been given such keys to the paths of heaven, should have found my way to this undreamed-of paradise of night: more marvellous, more serene, than any earthly landscape under the garish blatancy of day.

I could have sailed on for ever towards the moon which seemed within the compass of the nearer clouds. And indeed I did wander vaguely towards it, until I found the broad reaches of the river below me. Here and there a tiny pin-point of light marked the existence of human beings upon an earth which seemed otherwise reserved to trees and waters and the moon. A passing train, like a golden snake with a long white ostrich feather plume, wound sinuously into the smoke-shrouded obscurity of London. — p142, 143

Life is more savoured in its after-taste. That distant day has a significance I could not give it then, and all those days now fall into a shape, this shape I have endeavoured to set down; some things with pleasure, some reluctantly, some ill; for words straining to catch emotion have a bursting-point, they crack into heroics, platitudes.

Only the rarely gifted mould them to the thought's shape, docile, so that the reader scanning the cold print feels something stir within him and take fire, and gazes stupidly upon the page, seeing the ink blurred, uplifted by the music, hardly knowing why.

So we wheeled and came back south towards the city. There were the lakes, the palaces, the spirit ways mounting between the steps, so that the unseen world might have its own way up and down unhindered by the feet of mortal men; there were the dyers' scaffolds where blue lengths of cotton cloth hung drying in the wind; there was my little house; there was the shop where I had bought an amber drop my unborn son would break.

There it all was, the teeming world spread out four-square to see, and I should always be as then, apart, mostly alone, the self aside, however close the press.

The Temple of Heaven slipped by underneath, that perfect pattern in its ample park: the groves of yews, the long descending way to where the altar, marble, white and triple-tiered, lay in the circle of its blue-tiled wall. Then the wide plain ruled to the far horizon. Soon the aerodrome. Now shut the engines off. Come down and flatten out, feel the long float, and at the given moment pull the stick right home.

She's down. Now taxi in. Switch off. It's over -- but not quite, for the port engine, just as if reluctant at the last to let me go, kicked, kicked and kicked again, as overheated engines will, then backfired with an angry snorting: Fool! The best is over...
But I did not hear. — p229

Sagittarius Rising | Excerpt 1 | Excerpt 2 | Contents
Sagittarius Rising: illustration of fighter planes in dogfight in World War I