Mitch Rawson’s pal, young Pete Tracey, had crashed to his death during the first flight of the prototype of the Skystreak rocket plane. Why? What had gone wrong? Pete hadn’t lived to tell.
Crouched in the tiny cockpit of the Skystreak rocket plane, test pilot Mitch Rawson licked his lips, hesitated, and then flicked the firing stud of Number One Engine. Instantly, as the rocket booster caught with a shattering blast of power, the giant thrust of acceleration crammed him back in his seat. He fired the second engine, then the third, and fourth. Already, the Skystreak was through the sound barrier, slashing forward on a mighty pillar of flame.
Mitch glanced at the spinning dials. He looked ahead through the windscreen, at the long, lance-like nose probe, slicing through infinity. Soon, as he entered the heat barrier, the probe’s heat resistant skin would turn cherry-red before his eyes. If his refrigeration system failed, Mitch knew that he would be roasted alive in seconds. He shivered, feeling suddenly afraid of the incredible forces that he must tame and control.
His headset crackled. A dry voice said ‘Z.1 from Ground Control. Can you give me some readings, please?’
That was Henry Norton, head of Norton Airframes Ltd., designer of Skystreak. Mitch pictured his lean, hard-faced chief, standing in the great, glass control tower, almost fifteen miles below. He glanced at the instruments again, spoke with difficulty through the rising thrust of gravity.
‘Speed, twelve hundred height, eighty thousand. All engines firing perfectly. Diving in two minutes.’
The dive. Rawson shuddered. Perspiration rivered his chunky face beneath the big, domed helmet.
‘Will she take it?’ he asked himself for the hundredth time. This was the second and most vital test had established the efficiency of the rocket booster, the stabilization of the aircraft at a speed of fifteen hundred miles per hour.
That had been risky enough. But now the Skystreak was to be pushed to the limit of its endurance. With his speed approaching forty miles a minute, the rocket fuel would burn out. Then Mitch would point the nose of the aircraft earthwards. As his speed increased, the nose probe would glow with heat. The slightest tremor could develop into an uncontrollable yaw. Then would come the worst moment of all the pull-out, at thirty thousand feet, the tremendous pressure on the airframe.
What happened then was anyone’s guess. The Skystreak might stand the stress. Or it might crumple and fall, like a broken box-kite.
Rawson’s mind reeled from the thought. He looked down at the cloud layer that was nearly always there, at thirty thousand feet, shielding his view of the earth. He would be coming up the airfield now. He switched his microphone to ‘send’, forced himself to speak calmly. ‘twenty seconds to burn out. Stand-by.’
He sat there, watching the quivering Mach needle, counting the seconds in his throbbing brain. Suddenly, as the rocket-motor indicator slipped to Zero, the crushing force lifted his body. In the sudden, whistling silence, Mitch reached for the two grips of the control column, spoke tautly into the microphone.
‘Ground Control from Z.1. Burn-out. Diving now!’
Slowly, Mitch pushed the control column forward, watched the tip of the probe move against the sky. Norton’s voice stabbed in his ears. “Good luck, Z.1. Call your speed and altitudes. Out!”
A mild vibration built up in the airframe. Now the Skystreak was pointing straight down, aimed earthwards like a ballistic missile.
‘Height, sixty thousand speed, two thousand two hundred. Pulling two G’s.’
Rawson’s heart was pounding. His eyes ached from the effort of concentration. Every bone in his body ached. ‘I’m too old for this!’ he thought wildly. ‘I should have left it to Maitland!’
For the first time, with the cloud layer rushing at his eyes, Mitch felt the raw clutch of fear. It wouldn’t be long now. The pull-out the big question mark.