Story by Bruce Harris
Illustration by Bradley K. McDevitt
The Miller’s Field crowd swelled all morning. Cops erected barriers in a futile effort to control the throngs. Late arrivers swarmed remaining open areas forcing police to close all roads leading into and out of Miller’s Field. The weather cooperated. Marshmallow-like clouds dotted azure skies. A uniformed officer muttered, “Jeez, I think there’s more people here this morning than listen to FDR’s Fireside Chats.”
Everyone turned out for one reason, to see the final aerial performance of the BBB – Burgundy Bird Brigade. The three members, Rich Baumann, Terry Becker, and Kurt Byrne sat under a tent at Miller Field’s northern corner. Their airplanes poised, ready for takeoff. For the last decade, the three daredevil pilots had entertained and mesmerized audiences of all ages with their aerial theatrics. The trio, decked out in their signature head-to-toe burgundy colored uniforms, was known as “The Greatest Show Above Earth.” This was to be their last hurrah, the final performance. Kurt Byrne, the trio’s point person, and elder statesman was finally tying the knot. His wife-to-be said, “No more. From now on, your feet stay on the ground.” Byrne was fine with it. Ten years stunt flying is a long time. Sure, they were all highly insured, but why tempt fate? He planned to do some writing, chronicling his high-altitude adventures. The youngster of the group Rich Baumann had appeared on last December’s cover of “Ace Pilot” magazine. Baumann, the most talented of the threesome, yearned to fly in the Air Force. The six-page spread profiled a young man popular with the women. Baumann was described as a real-life Jack Armstrong fulfilling the American dream. The third team member Terry Becker poured coffee and doled out the cups.
“To us,” Becker said raising his mug, “Our last flight together. Tonight, we celebrate with real drinks.”
Rick Baumann shook his head. “Sorry, Terry. You know I don’t drink the hard stuff.”
Becker shrugged. “Your loss. Kurt and I will toast tonight without you.” Becker winked at Byrne.
There was no love lost between Becker and Baumann. They both denied it, but Kurt Byrne could read between the lines. Ever since the magazine cover with Baumann’s kisser on it appeared on the newsstands, a cool relationship morphed into an icy chill between the two pilots. Byrne figured this was their last flight together, so why not make the best of it. After today, they’d all go their separate ways. Kurt Byrne raised his coffee into the air, “To us, the Burgundy Bird Brigade. It’s been a great ride. Let’s go out there and give these people what they came here to see!”
“Let’s go!’ shouted Rich Baumann.
“I’m in,” said Terry Becker.
The trio was met by a standing ovation from the massive audience. Cheers, whistles, and screams could be heard over a three-piece band belting out, “Off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder.” Hundreds of burgundy colored balloons were released into the air. The three men smiled, bowed, and waved to the overflow minions. Kurt Byrne boarded the cockpit. His plane stood in front of the other two, forming a triangle. He made himself comfortable and stared at the dials. Could this be the final time? Byrne couldn’t afford to reminisce or become nostalgic. He gripped the stick and waited. With the precision of The Radio City Hall Rockettes, Baumann and Becker simultaneously took their positions behind their controls. All three men adjusted headgear and goggles. Byrne glanced over his right shoulder and saw the “thumbs up” sign from Becker. He turned left. Thumbs up and a toothy grin greeted him. Byrne nodded. In unison, the trio flipped ignition switches and with perfect choreography depressed their starters. Six propellers began spinning, slowly at first, and then each gained speed. Those who came to witness BBB’s historic final show and were close enough to the makeshift runway covered their ears, the engines’ roar fierce. The three planes crept forward with Byrne showing the way. Within seconds they were airborne.
The Burgundy Bird Brigade’s signature upside-down maneuver kicked off the festivities. The pilots could perform the dangerous antics in their sleep. Byrne yanked on his lever. The plane’s nose shot straight up. Rich Baumann and Becker followed suit. All three aircraft leveled off at 12,000 feet. Without thinking, Byrne spoke into his transmitter tube. “Ready?” he asked. “Roger,” said Becker. “Um…yes…roger,” said Baumann after a slight delay. Byrne shrugged it off and turned his flying bird upside-down. The two aircraft behind him mirrored his every move. The crowd, necks craned upward, applauded and whistled.
Byrne made a hard right, a quick left, and then nosedived toward Miller’s Field. Baumann and Becker followed. “Look out!” screamed one of the spectators, “They’re heading right toward us!” Screams and shrieks followed. Even those who had seen the BBB’s perform this stunt countless times feared the worst. At the 100-yard level, Byrne gave a violent pull on the stick and his plane made a sweeping “U.” Skyward again, he zigzagged with Becker’s Burgundy Bird, in and out, back and forth. Baumann lagged waiting for Becker to veer off so that he could replace Becker and play cat and mouse with Byrne. Becker left a plume of smoke in his wake as he soloed an assortment of spinning moves, at one point flying with the plane’s wings perpendicular to the ground. Kurt Byrne, ready for a sharp right, hesitated. He didn’t see Rich Baumann. Byrne pulled back, but by the time the plane had a chance to react, Baumann’s flying bird was in sight performing the prescribed maneuvers. Byrne didn’t lose a beat. The two were flying within inches of each other. The transmitter tube in hand, Byrne barked, “Rich, what happened? You okay? Over.”
“Um…sure. Why? Over.”
“Never mind. Over and out.”
It was time for Byrne and Baumann to join Terry Becker. To the crowd’s delight and amazement, they flew side-by-side, wing tips within inches of each other. From the ground, it appeared as though the three airplanes were connected. They moved as one.
Their next activity, shifting from side-by-side to one on top of the other was perhaps the riskiest action of their performance. Byrne, in the middle position, stayed the course. Rich Baumann, flying on Byrne’s right, dropped back before speeding up and settling inches above Byrne. Terry Becker lowered his flying machine and then positioned himself directly under Byrne, and then he sped up to keep pace. The illusion from the spectators’ views was that a single plane, not three aircraft flew above them. Despite the needed precision and risk, all three pilots could perform the trick with their eyes closed. They flew in formation for several hundred feet before Rich Baumann, in rogue fashion, peeled away and flew off on his own. From the corner of his eye, Kurt Byrne caught sight of the runaway aircraft. He jumped on his transmitter tube. “Byrne to Baumann. Byrne to Baumann. Come in Rich Baumann. Over.” Silence followed. Kurt Byrne repeated the request but again, no response.
“I’ll check on him.” Becker’s voice cut in. Before Byrne responded, Terry Becker guided his burgundy bird toward Baumann’s. He flew circles around Baumann and then chirped into his communication tube, “A OK, skipper. You know Rich. Last flight and all, he’s having himself a good time.”
Kurt Byrne looked out his cockpit window. He ripped off his goggles to get an unimpeded view. Baumann’s metal bird appeared to gain speed. He was about to ask Becker for confirmation but then noticed Baumann spin wildly before beginning a descent toward Miller’s Field. “Baumann come in!” he screamed into his tube. “Byrne to Baumann. Come in!”
“He’s fine,” said Terry Becker. “Just having fun.”
Byrne didn’t like it. “Confirm that Baumann. Over.”
Kurt Byrne had had enough. Baumann’s plane was streaking toward the ground. He yanked on the stick and beelined for Baumann. “Baumann come in. This is Byrne. Come in. Are you okay? Over.” Byrne didn’t expect an answer and received none. He found himself in a race toward earth. Rich Baumann was falling. There didn’t seem to be an explanation, but it was clear to Kurt Byrne that Baumann was in danger. Byrne noticed Terry Becker angling his plane toward Baumann’s. Byrne didn’t like the look in his eyes.
“I said he’s okay,” screamed Becker into his tube.
His training and experience took over. Kurt Byrne ignored Becker’s words. He’d deal with him later. Right now, Byrne’s only concern was Rich Baumann’s safety. Byrne estimated Baumann had roughly nine thousand feet between him and an unforgiving ground. The spectators below continued whooping it up and having a grand old time. They had no idea things were amiss. For their part, the crowd simply thought this was all part of the act.
Eight thousand feet, Baumann’s airplane deadheaded lower, Byrne in pursuit. Becker kept his distance. Byrne tried again in vain to contact Rich Baumann. “Baumann come in. This is Byrne. Are you okay? Come in? Over.” The roar of Baumann’s engines substituted for the pilot’s voice. Byrne yanked hard on the lever. His speed increased so that he was now inches from Baumann. He clearly saw Baumann in the cockpit. Rich Baumann had passed out! His upper body slumped forward, Rich was unconscious and heading for certain demise. The plane flew itself, seven thousand feet from the ground, then six, and nothing to slow him down. Byrne had to act quickly. He swung his flying machine hard right and then pointed her nose straight down. He needed to position his Wright Brothers’ ancestor underneath that of the nose-diving Baumann.
Baumann was unaware. Now five thousand feet from death, he’d be taking innocent spectators with him. Those on the ground weren’t moving. They pointed toward the sky, smiled, and continued to eat popcorn and celebrate the entertainment.
Four thousand feet separated a runaway aircraft from tragedy, a good pilot from a fiery finale. “This is it,” thought Byrne. He needed a way to soften Baumann’s landing. He couldn’t understand Terry Becker’s behavior and he didn’t understand it, but now was not the time to focus on Becker. Byrne had lives to save.
Three thousand feet from catastrophe at Miller’s Field, Byrne positioned his aircraft a few hundred feet underneath that of Baumann’s. With a sharp tug at the stick, he pointed the nose of his plane upward and pushed hard into the front end of Baumann’s machine. Sparks flew off burgundy paint. The crowd below “Oohed and Ahhed.” Byrne’s plan worked. He stopped the downward motion of the aircraft as they both leveled off but continued at a high rate of speed. Kurt Byrne then raised his altitude slightly. The top of this plane now formed a bond with the bottom of Baumann’s plane. Cockpit glass shattered over Byrne’s head and face. He thought for a moment sweat poured down his cheeks, but the crimson stains revealed otherwise.
Two thousand feet and the two planes flew as Siamese twins connected along Baumann’s underbelly and the top of Byrne’s plane. Kurt Byrne controlled both aircraft’s speed and altitude. With blood dripping from his face, Byrne steered the dual aircraft out and around the Miller’s Field perimeter and angled back toward the runway, and away from the amused spectators. Easing up on the speed, Byrne proceeded with caution and precision. The propellers of both planes were inches apart. If they touched for even a second, the two pilots would be finished.
A mere thousand feet from earth and Byrne prepared for a landing. Not of his plane, but for the unconscious Baumann. Nine hundred feet and Byrne said a prayer. As if things weren’t bad enough, they became more complicated at eight hundred feet. Hemoglobin flowed into Kurt Byrne’s eyes. He couldn’t see! For the first time in his life, the leader of the Burgundy Bird Brigade and a role model to kids of all ages, cursed. Blinded, he proceeded with guile and experience. He blinked rapidly but saw nothing except red cloudiness. Seven hundred feet from a landing that could very well be a double crash or one of the most remarkable safe landings in aviation history. Rear rudders changed positions and plane speed continued decreasing. At six hundred feet Byrne tightened his grip on the stick. He took a deep breath and counted out loud, figuring at their current speed, the two planes were losing altitude at approximately one hundred feet per second. Five hundred feet and Byrne could almost feel the ground below him. He counted off another second.
Four hundred feet came and went. At three hundred feet from a landing, it was time for Byrne to make his move. With one smooth motion, he lowered his airplane about fifty feet below that of Baumann’s, pulled hard on the stick and sped away from Baumann. Once he cleared Baumann, Byrne pointed his glassless cockpit upward and away. He held his breath. He couldn’t see what was about to take place below him, but he knew if his plan failed, he’d hear a horrible crashing sound. That horrible noise never materialized. Rich Baumann’s plane continued its descent, two hundred feet, then one hundred, and a second later, the wheels of Baumann’s plane touched down on the rough-end of Miller’s Field runway, slowing and eventually safely stopping what had been a runaway aircraft. Kurt Byrne had done it!
His work only half done; Byrne had a score to settle with the third pilot, Terry Becker. Byrne needed answers. The shattered cockpit glass turned out to be a blessing. The strong winds striking against Byrne’s face dried the blood in his eyes restoring his eyesight. He repeatedly blinked. But before he located Terry Becker, he heard his voice.
“Captain Byrne, nicely done. Kudos. I watched, albeit from a different vantage point just like all of those fools on the ground. I didn’t think you’d save Baumann. Too bad captain, you may have postponed Baumann’s demise for a few moments, but now you’re going to join him. You don’t mind me calling you Captain, do you? You’ve always been our captain. Over.”
Winging his way upward, cold air smacked his face. Byrne had to scream into his transmitter tube. “What’s this all about Becker? Have you lost your mind? Over.”
Laughter followed by, “I’ve lost my mind, captain?” asked Becker. “Which one of us is throwing away a profitable career just because a woman thinks it’s too dangerous? No, I’m not the crazy one. Over.”
Kurt Byrne had Terry Becker in sight and began zeroing in on him. “Why didn’t you help Baumann? He could have been killed. As it is, I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. Over.”
As Byrne’s aircraft approached Becker’s, the later cut a sharp right-hand turn and sped up. “He should have been killed, captain. That was my plan you fool. That spoiled little teetotaler. What’s so great about him? Nothing, yet he gets all the publicity and I get nothing. The newspapers and fans all love Mr. Baumann, Mr. Perfect. Hah! I’m ten-times the stunt pilot he is…”
“What are you saying? Are you behind Baumann’s condition today? Over,” asked Byrne.
“That’s right captain!” shouted back Becker. “I added a little something to his morning coffee just before we took off. I guess he must have fallen asleep up there.” Byrne’s blood sizzled as Becker’s laughter increased. “I figured since you were putting an end to the Burgundy Bird Brigade, I’d put an end to Baumann. I figured he’d crash and burn so that there’d be nothing left of him. No physical body to test for anything. That way, you and me, we’d split the insurance money and I wouldn’t have to worry about my future. For a while, I figured you’d both go down in flames. That would have been nice, no one to split the insurance dough with. But you’ve ruined my plans captain, in more ways than one. So, now you have to go…”
Kurt Byrne didn’t wait to hear the rest. He steered his partially damaged metal bird into the direct path of Becker’s. Terry Becker saw Byrne’s maneuver, so he began a sudden dive. Byrne anticipated Becker’s response and changed course for a lower altitude. The two aircraft flew side-by-side downward at great speeds, both pilots staring into the eyes of the other. Who would blink first? The engines’ roars became louder and louder to the enthralled crowd. As the two approached two thousand feet from the ground, Kurt Byrne shifted slight left, locking wings with Terry Becker. Becker tried to cut his plane loose, but he couldn’t budge it away.
“You’re not going anywhere Becker!” screamed Byrne.
The two planes were less than one thousand feet from Miller’s Field when Terry Becker lifted the glass and jettisoned himself from the cockpit. Seeing this, Byrne followed suit. The two hit the ground hard but managed to pull themselves up and run from the scene, Byrne pursuing Becker. The two aircraft exploded on impact causing a great fireball that singed everything within a quarter-mile radius. The crowd applauded and yelped.
“Best show ever!” screamed one.
“Never saw anything like this!” shouted another.
“One for the ages! Bravo to the BBB’s!!!”
Kurt Byrne caught up with Becker and tackled him to the ground. “You’re going to pay for this Terry.” With that, Byrne had the younger man’s arm in a hammerlock hold and yanked. Crack!
“Ouch!” screamed Terry Becker. “Damn! You broke my arm!”
Byrne showed teeth. “That’s the idea,” he said. “Now, try anything else and I’ll break the other one. Let’s go tend to Rich Baumann. And if there is anything wrong with him, I’ll see to it you don’t leave Miller’s Field alive. Do I make myself clear Becker?”
Becker didn’t respond. He lowered his head and the two men approached Rich Baumann’s airplane. A smile creased Byrne’s face. Baumann moved. Byrne tapped on the cockpit glass. Rich Baumann opened it. “Kurt? Terry? What happened?”
Byrne patted Baumann’s shoulder. “You okay? How you feeling?” he asked.
The stuntman rubbed his face. “I’m not sure. A little woozy is all. What happened?” he asked again. “I remember taking off, but not much else. Are you guys okay? What’s the matter with Becker? He looks a little worse for wear.”
Byrne assisted as Baumann climbed out of the cockpit. “I’ll explain everything. Later,” said Byrne. The three men, feet firmly on the ground stood before the lone remaining burgundy bird, bowed, and waved to the appreciative crowd.
— ♦♦♦ —
Detective Mike Lasky is back on the job. Lasky has been hired to try and track down a mythical killer, who has targeted an Eastern European Princes. As the killer – Jordi Montanes evades all attempts to catch him, the question on everyone’s lips is “Who Will the Princess ask to join her for the last dance…?”