The Pilot

He had released his bombs and was climbing back to altitude when he felt a shudder. He looked out and saw that his left wing had been damaged, but at first glance it didn't seem to be too severe. He looked up and could see cracks in the canopy. There were no signs of fire, and no indication of fuel escaping when he checked his instruments. He leveled the plane off, banked right and left, and felt the plane respond hesitantly. He was about 150 miles from Bagram Airbase and was confident that he could make it back, but he wasn't sure of the landing gear. His fuel gauge seemed be going down slowly; maybe he was losing fuel in a fine spray that he couldn't see. He watched the dial and calculated quickly that he would still have enough fuel to get home.
As he approached the base, he radioed the tower, told them he'd been hit and asked for a visual check on his landing gear. "Roger, Spider Four, I have you in sight."

He made a low pass over the field with his gear extended, and the control tower responded. "Spider Four, looks like your left gear is not fully extended. You might want to try again." He retracted and then re-lowered his gear, made another pass and got the same response. On the instructions of the tower, he circled once more and aligned himself up with the designated runway. He saw emergency vehicles heading out in the direction of the area where his plane would touch down and roll out.

His controls were still shaky, but the aircraft responded adequately. When he lowered the flaps, the one on the damaged wing didn't extend fully, and he prepared for a rough landing. To make sure his nose and right gears touched first he banked slightly. The moment he touched down he knew it was going to be trouble. The aircraft pitched quickly toward the side of the damaged wing and landing gear, and he struggled to keep it on the runway, but it was a losing battle. As the plane skidded and twisted along the surface it started spinning, and the right gear collapsed. The aircraft slowed rapidly and eventually came to rest just off the edge of the runway on the packed sand. He glanced out and saw a small fire but was relieved when the emergency vehicles approached, took out hoses with flame retardant foam and started spraying the left wing and fuselage. He took his helmet off and saw blood on it. He hadn't felt anything, but he reached up and realized that a sharp piece of something had grazed his temple. He looked down at his flight suit and saw that blood had dripped onto his left sleeve. He shook his head; he had been too busy to notice it. He reached up and touched his temple again, and his hand came away bloody.

He couldn't get the canopy open and banged on it with his fist. When the emergency crews were satisfied that there was no fire, one of the men, a master sergeant, climbed up onto the wing and helped him pry open the canopy.

"How you doin', Captain?" the sergeant asked.

"I've been better."

"Looks like you got dinged; let me give you a hand."

He didn't want to be put into the ambulance, but the ground crew insisted. What the hell, can't do any harm.

The flight surgeon at the base hospital checked him over thoroughly, asked questions, looked at his eyes, made him follow his finger, checked over the rest of his body for possible injuries that he hadn't felt or noticed. At last he said, "Okay, a dozen stitches, some pain pills and you'll be good to go. I'm going to give you a couple of shots to deaden the pain while I sew you up, but first I'm going to give you a haircut. This shouldn't take too long." As the doctor stitched the gash in the pilot's temple, he said, "You were lucky, Captain. If it had hit a major vessel, you might've been in serious trouble."

"I guess I should thank God for small favors."

"Yup." The pilot swung his feet around and started to get up, but the doctor put his hand on his shoulder. "You're going to have to take it easy for a while; you might have a slight concussion. I want to keep you here overnight to make sure you're ready to go back to flying." The pilot lay back down and put his feet up. "I'll have a medic keep an eye on you, and when you get ready, we'll get you something to eat."

"Thanks, Doc."

"Happy to help out, Captain. I'll check on you in about an hour."

The pilot reflected that he had indeed been lucky, especially when he remembered that weeks earlier, one of his best friends had crashed but had not survived—he never even made it back to the base. He went home in a body bag.


Kiera Roberts looked out as the plane dipped toward the airport. Streaks of rain began to lash the windows, the clouds darkened, and lightning bolts flashed through breaks in the overcast sky. The pilot's voice came over the speakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out the windows of the aircraft you can see that there's a storm building It's going to get worse, but fortunately we're a little bit ahead of it. If we don't land now, we may not be able to land for some time, or even at this airport. So, fasten your seatbelts, hold on, and we'll be down soon. It may be a little rough, but I'm confident that we can land safely."

Kiera heard the snapping of seatbelts that were not yet fastened, and people looked around at each other nervously. She could see the runway far off to the left, and the pilot banked the nose in that direction and began to descend slowly. Buffered by the wind gusts, the wings tilted up and down sharply, and the plane lifted and fell with not-so-gentle jolts. She gripped the hand rests tight and continued to gaze out the window, finally low enough that she could see treetops flapping in the wind. Near the runway the plane lifted suddenly, settled back, hit the runway heavily, bounced and hit again. Following one more light bounce the plane began to decelerate as the pilot reversed the thrust. A collective sigh of relief ran up and down the cabin, and some of the passengers applauded the safe landing. Kiera's seatmate said, "Man, that was a close one!"

"Amen," she whispered.

Moments later the captain came on again. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are safely down, but things are a little dicey as departures have been delayed, and we're going to have to wait a few minutes until our gate is open. Shouldn't be too long."

By the time they got to the gate, the rain was heavier, and suddenly the flash of a nearby lightning bolt was visible, and an ominous roll of thunder could be heard as the attendants opened the cabin door. Kiera unfastened her seatbelt, stood, pulled her carry-on bag down from the bin and made her way to the exit along with other passengers. As she walked up the ramp, she could hear rain and hail stones pelting against the sides, and another bolt of lightning struck nearby followed by another loud clap of thunder that rattled the walls of the ramp.

In the terminal, she found the departure board and located her connecting flight. She checked her watch and saw that she had well over an hour before the departure of her connecting flight. But DELAYED appeared next to several flights, and she feared hers would also be late. The gate was not far away, so she had plenty of time to get a cup of coffee at a shop on the main concourse. She found a table next to a window, sat down and looked out. The rain was whipping sideways across the tarmac, and on a distant building a flag flapped furiously. Lightning flashed again, followed by thunder. She sighed and shook her head; even if the storm passed, flights ahead of hers would be delayed, and she knew she would have longer to wait. She sipped her coffee, took a paperback book from carry-on bag and opened it.

Because of the delays, the coffee shop filled rapidly, and she felt mildly embarrassed at having a table all to herself. She pretended to be engrossed in her book.

"Do you mind if I join you?" He was holding a cup of coffee with what looked like a scone on a paper plate balanced on top and had a briefcase in his other hand. He was about her age, nice looking, with dark brown hair and a pleasing smile. He was wearing a summer Air Force uniform, blue trousers, tie and jacket with silver wings and ribbons over the breast pocket and captain's bars on the shoulder straps. "It seems to be the last seat available."

She smiled. "Of course."

He set his briefcase on the floor, put his scone and coffee on the table and sat down. Kiera found it hard to concentrate on her book. She looked out the window again. "Pretty rough out there," he said. "It's going to be around a while." She looked at him curiously; how did he know? As if he had heard her thought, he said, "I'm a pilot. I know a lot about weather."

She looked at him as he took a bite of his scone. After a moment she said, "I gather you're an Air Force pilot. What do you fly, a bomber?"

He smiled. "No. I recently got out of the Air Force. I think I'm done flying for a while." She smiled, nodded and went back to her reading. "I really liked that book you're reading. The best part was when …"

She held up her hand and smiled. "Don't spoil it for me! I'm only on page thirty-two."

He laughed. "Sorry. I should've known better."

She folded down the corners of the page and set the book on the table. "I'm not really into it yet, so that's okay."

"I've read some of his other stuff, too. He has a way of pulling you into the story."

"I guess that's why he's always on the bestseller list."

"Yeah. He's probably made a ton of money." There was no envy in his voice, and he smiled. It was a nice smile. The loudspeakers kept announcing more flight delays, and he said, "Are you just leaving, or did you come from somewhere?"

"I just came in from Pittsburgh. I'm on my way to San Diego."

He nodded. "Me too. I started in Philly. My last duty station was overseas, and I was traveling around Europe for a while. My tour of duty is up, but I had some leave left on the books, so technically, I'm still in. This is the first time I'll be home in a couple of years."

"Do you live in San Diego?"

He smiled. "I don't live anywhere right now, but my mom is there—going home for a visit." He paused for a moment. "As I said, I've been stationed overseas for the last two years, but I resigned and got released from active duty about a month ago and am using up my leave."

"Ah. What kind of plane did you fly?"

"I flew the A-10, an aircraft used in multiple roles that was designed for air-ground support. It can carry different kinds of armament—missiles, bombs, guns, and so on."

"So, I guess you were in combat."

"Yes." His answer was blunt.

She sensed that her question made him uncomfortable. Why, she wondered? Did he do something wrong? Maybe he lost a fellow pilot. "How long were you in the Air Force?"

"A little over ten years." He paused for a few moments. "I probably would've stayed in longer, but my dad died about a year ago. He'd have been disappointed that I didn't make a career of it." She looked at him curiously. "He was in the Navy for almost thirty years. Retired as a captain." He smiled. "That's why he retired to San Diego—it was his last duty station. Actually, it was also his first—I was born there." He paused for a moment and then went on. "My grandfather flew for the Army Air Corps. He was a bomber pilot who flew over Germany during the Big Two. Made it through his twenty-five missions and got out alive. A lot of his friends didn't." He shook his head, looked out the window and smiled. "My dad felt that I should be a lifer, as they say, just like he and his father did."

"That's a lot of history to live with, I guess."

She watched the expressions on his face, guessing that he was scrolling back through memories. Then he looked up at her and smiled. "I started with the Air Force ROTC at Cornell and planned on a career, but I guess I changed my mind."

"What made you do that?"

He shook his head. "I guess I'm not really ready to talk about that yet."

"I'm sorry."

He shook his head. "Hey, no problem." After a moment he said, "Can we talk about you? We're going to be here a while."

She tried to keep her voice light. "Now you've hit on something I don't want to talk about."

"Huh." He thought for a few moments and then said, "You're right, we just met, and we don't know each other very well." He looked out the window where the rain was still slashing down in the wind. "By the time this is over, we may know each other little better." He smiled, and she returned it. Neither of them spoke for a few moments, and then he said, "What's your flight number to San Diego?"

"American four fifty-nine."

"That's what I thought. Me too. Do you know your seat number?" She opened her bag, pulled out her ticket and showed it to him. "Looks like first class."

She smiled and blushed. "I couldn't really afford it, but I sort of felt like spoiling myself."

"Good for you." After a few moments he said, "Since we're going to be here for a while, maybe we should get something to eat?"

She glanced up toward the serving area, where there several people were standing in line. "Looks like it's getting crowded. Maybe you're right."

"By the way, I don't even know your name."

He held out his hand and she took it. "Kiera"

"Hmm, interesting. Never met a Kiera before."

"I like it. It's comes from the Irish."

"I'm Ben. No idea where it comes from."

"Old Testament, I think, short for Benjamin."

"Yes, that's my full name." He stood up. "I guess all they have is sandwiches and stuff like that. What would you like? Tuna? Ham and cheese?" She took her wallet it out of her bag, but he said, "Don't worry about that, we can settle it later."

"Tuna, if they have it."

"I'll get refills, too." He picked up their coffee cups and headed for the serving line.

She watched him as he picked up a tray and got in line. She let her thoughts wander, feeling comfortable with this grounded flyer who was suddenly incredibly good company, especially for the mood she had been in recently. She had dreaded the thought of two or three hours waiting for her plane during the storm, but now it seemed like a tiny blessing. She wondered why he had stopped flying. Maybe if we do get to know each other better, I could ask him again. I wonder what he's going to do now that he's out of the Air Force. She shook her head and smiled at herself. I'm already turning this into something; maybe we're not there yet, but who knows?

A few minutes later he came back with two sandwiches wrapped in cellophane, what looked like two salads with dressings, and two more coffees. "Thought you might like a salad," he said. He grinned at her. "You look like a salad type."

She laughed. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He shook his head and smiled. "I have no idea, except that you look very fit." He unloaded the tray, shrugged and sat down.

"Thanks. How much do I owe you?"

"Don't worry about it."

"I insist."

"Okay, but let's eat first."

They started in on the sandwiches. "This tuna isn't so bad, considering," she said. He looked at her. "You know, airport food."

"I've been in some airports where it's not so bad—Dublin, Frankfurt, Rome, London."

"You've been in all those airports?"

"Being stationed overseas and traveling back and forth, you get to see a lot of them." They ate for a few minutes without talking, and then he asked, "Okay, tell me about you. Do you live in San Diego, or are you just visiting?"

"Actually, I'm on my way to San Francisco, but I'm going to spend a few days in San Diego with a friend I haven't seen for more than a year." He looked at her intently, and she went on. "I need someone to talk to—things haven't been going so well for me for a while."

"Can I ask why?"

"Sure, but I don't necessarily have to answer."

"Look, I know we just met, but so far I've enjoyed talking to you. Now you've got me curious; I notice that you're not wearing a wedding ring. So maybe whatever is bothering you was a marriage that didn't work … or not, in which case it must have something to do with your job, right?"

She took the plastic fork out of the wrapper and started in on her salad. "Actually, it was my marriage that went bad."

"I'm sorry." He shook his head. "Surely it wasn't your fault."

"You don't know that."

"No, but I think it's probably a fairly good guess. You seem to be a very pleasant person, so it doesn't make any sense to me that whatever went wrong was your fault."

"I tell you what. You tell me why you didn't stay in the Air Force, and I'll tell you what went wrong with my marriage." She was starting to enjoy this conversation.

"Fair enough." He took another bite of sandwich and thought for a few moments. "As I said, my father and grandfather were both career military guys. My grandfather was really dedicated—he flew B-17's during World War Two. Casualties among those bomber pilots were horrendous. Do you know that the Eighth Air Force had more combat deaths than the Marines during World War Two?"

"Wow, I had no idea. I don't know much about World War Two. I had a great uncle who was in the Army, but that's it."

"Anyway, my dad died about a year ago. He was sick for quite a while, which is why I was traveling back and forth. If he were still alive, I would've stayed in most likely. But once he was gone, I didn't feel I needed to continue. My mom never questioned my dad's commitment, but being a career Navy wife was tough on her, and I don't think she's disappointed at all that I decided to get out."
"Did you get tired of flying?"

"No, I love to fly, and I'm planning to keep doing it, one way or another."

"Will you try to get a job with an airline?"

He smiled and shook his head. "Commercial flying is so automated now that it must be really boring. We always referred to commercial pilots as truck drivers, but I do respect them. Besides, it takes about two years to get fully qualified."

"The guy who just landed us in that wind was fairly good. It was kind of scary as we came down."

"Yeah, although I've landed in worse conditions. But you're right, it was a little hairy."

"So, if you love to fly, then why did you decide to leave the Air Force?"

"I did love flying my A-10, but I didn't like what I was doing with it. With all that very sophisticated weaponry we have now, you're so detached from what happens after you launch a missile that sometimes you hardly realize that when it hits somewhere, a lot of people are going to get killed." He paused and she nodded. "I know stories of guys who feel like that, especially the ones that launch drone attacks. They might be sitting in a bunker in Colorado and dropping bombs on people halfway around the world. Sometimes that gets to people."

"I can imagine. So, if you're not going to fly for an airline, what will you do?"

"I got my private pilot's license when I was still in high school, and I was in the aeroclub at Cornell. It's still good, so I have a number of options. I'd like to own my own airplane someday, maybe start my own charter service or something. But I have a friend in the charter business who may have something for me."

She thought for a few moments. "From what you said so far, I guess it was the damage that your plane could do was what bothered you."

He didn't speak for a couple of minutes, and she could see that he was wondering how to answer. "One of my targets was a building that was supposed to be a headquarters for some bad guys. As I was zeroing in on it, just after I launched my weapon, I saw people scattering out of the building. It was hard to tell, but some of them looked like women and children. The camera that tracked the bomb later confirmed that. I'm not sure how many got hurt, but there were probably more people inside the building who didn't get out." He shook his head and shrugged. "They call that stuff collateral damage."

"I can see why it bothered you."

He nodded. "It was more than just that, though. We've been fighting over there for a long time, and I'm just not sure that we're doing any good."

They both looked out the window as the storm seemed to be abating. He pulled out his phone and clicked on a weather app. "This system stretches for miles—it's not done yet."

"So, what do you think? A couple of hours?"

"Yeah, it's moving fast, but it's big." He thought for a moment and then said, "Listen, would you mind keeping an eye on my briefcase for a few minutes? There's something I need to do."

She smiled. "Well, I'm sure not going anywhere, so no problem."

He took something out of his briefcase, set it down and headed off. She wondered what he was doing—probably something more than a bathroom break. She shrugged and opened her book.

After a while she looked at her watch; he had been gone for about fifteen minutes. Perhaps he needed to make a phone call and didn't want her to overhear. At last she saw him coming, and he had a smile on his face. "So, did you get everything taken care of?"

"Yup, I called my mother to tell her I'd be late, not that she'd care. Then I got lucky." She looked at him curiously. "There was an empty seat in first class on our flight, so I upgraded my ticket. We'll be sitting together."

"Oh, my gosh! Did you really?"

"Yeah. I enjoy talking to you, and what the heck? Why not?"

"That'll be a pretty expensive conversation."

"Actually, it wasn't so bad. When they have an empty seat, they're happy to sell it cheap."

She just smiled and shook her head. So, whatever it was, it was going somewhere.