by Kenna White
Kit Anderson is determined to make a difference. All around her the Battle for Britain is raging, and ferrying factory-fresh airplanes to combat bases makes excellent use of her skills as flight lieutenant for the British Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary. An American in southern England, she is undaunted by war. It’s safer than love.
The talented aviatrix could fly a crippled craft through a thunderstorm without a compass and find her way home, so it is singularly disconcerting to find herself flying in circles around Emily Mills, a too young, too attractive and too abrasive British literature teacher. Even though Emily’s grandmother is Lady Marble, it’s a time of war and scarcity and Emily needs work. Kit offers to help her find a job on the air base—and as is often true, no good deed goes unpunished.
There’s no compass on earth to help when the irascible Emily gets past all Kit’s defenses. She knows the sparks could turn to flame,and their hearts are in the line of fire.
Kenna White (Braggin’ Rights) turns her storytelling talents to this unforgettable tale of women who found love, courage, and the courage to love in the midst of a world at war.
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Kit checked her fuel gauge then rubbed a gloved hand over the condensation on the side window of the single-engine Hawker Hurricane, the workhorse of the RAF fighter command.
“Five minutes more, sweetheart,” she said through clenched teeth. “Just five minutes more. Don’t give up on me now.”
Kit considered climbing to two thousand feet, giving her more time to find an emergency landing spot if the battle-scarred plane lost power before she reached Alderbrook airfield, but she doubted the Hurricane could climb above five hundred feet without dropping damaged parts and the loose rudder all over the English countryside. The stick was heavy, pulling against her grip. It took both hands and all her strength to hold the nose up and keep the airplane from heading into a steep dive.
“Come on, you pretty thing, you. Show them what you’re made of. Stay with me.”
She braced her feet and squeezed the stick between her knees for support. The jarring and bouncing rattled her cheeks and shook her body until it ached. As she roared over the S-curve of a river and the gray stone bridge marking the edge of the township, the engine belched smoke and coughed several times. The fumes rolled through the cockpit and teared Kit’s eyes. The burned out shell of a house in the clearing below, the most beautiful clearing Kit had ever seen, brought a relieved smile to her face. It was just two more miles to the aerodrome.
“Oh, you lovely airfield,” she said as she began cranking the undercarriage into place. The wheels were sluggish and slow at first, but she could feel them lowering. Kit roared over the airfield, dipping her wings and waiting for the steel cables holding the barrage balloons to be lowered. As soon as the airstrip was clear, she eased the stick forward, throttled back and dropped in for a perfect landing. A last plume of smoke belched out the side of the engine as she rolled to a stop. Though harrowing for some pilots, returning another combat-damaged aircraft for repairs was just another day at the office for Flight Lieutenant Katherine “Kit” Anderson.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” she said, kissing the dashboard. Kit treated every airplane she flew like a lover, giving it her full devotion and respect for those moments they were together, and expecting the same in return. She slid the canopy open and climbed out as several members of the ground crew raced across the field toward her.
“Nice landing, Lieutenant Anderson,” one of the men called as he examined the bullet-riddled tail section.
“Thanks, Willie. She handled like a dream.” Kit unbuckled her parachute harness, leaving it hanging over one shoulder. She grinned confidently in spite of the hair-raising flight. It was a standard joke that any landing you could walk away from was a good one. Kit knew the British mechanics would love to hear a woman pilot, especially an American woman pilot, complain about a rough go, as they called it. Her fingers could be frozen to the controls and her legs cramped into a ball, but they would never hear a word about it from her or any of the women in her squadron.
“Not bad, considering you’re a Yank.” Willie wiggled the damaged rudder, and it came off in his hands. A group of men lined up along each wing and began pushing the plane toward the hangar for repairs.
Willie Thorn was a feisty little man with a cocky curl to his lip and more hair over his beady eyes than on his head. He wore a dirty cap with the bill turned slightly to the side as if he couldn’t find the front. Before the war he had been a welder and mechanic for the London underground. In his eagerness to help the RAF and do his part in the war, he accepted the job as mechanic at Alderbrook. He was good at his job and rapidly advanced to foreman, but when he realized he would have to answer to women officers as well as men, he made it clear he wasn’t happy about it.
“Have Officers Loveland and Peacock landed yet?” Kit asked, pulling her goggles to the top of the her head and unzipping her leather flight jacket.
“Not yet,” Willie replied, dragging the broken rudder panel. “They probably got lost. Most of your girls couldn’t find the ground without a map.”
“I hope you don’t get lost on your way to the hangar, Willie,” Kit said as she started for the commander’s office. “It’s that big building with the open door. You can’t miss it.”
When Kit arrived fifteen months ago from the United States she, like most women in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, or ATA, was received with much less than an enthusiastic welcome. But it didn’t take long for her skill and experience to earn her the rank of Flight Lieutenant. Britain was at war, a war for its very survival. German Luftwaffe had been bombing British airfields, industrial centers and major cities in nearly nonstop attacks for months. The assaults were brutal. Every British pilot and aircraft had to be used as efficiently as possible to combat wave after wave of German bombers. When British high command decided women, though not allowed to fly combat missions, could be used to ferry airplanes and cargo from factories to airfields and repair centers, women with pilot experience jumped at the chance. Kit heard about the British need for women pilots and left her small but profitable flying service based in Kansas City to join up. Flying VIPs and special delivery cargo across the Midwest couldn’t compare with the exhilaration of flying military aircraft. Where else could she fly a Spitfire, a Mustang and a Lancaster bomber all in the same day? It was her flying skills that brought her to England. It was her tenacity and experience that kept her there. Not only did she fly ferry service missions, but she was also an instructor. This was Kit’s domain, and she walked it with confidence.
The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary shared the airfield with the RAF’s number twelve group fighter command. A mechanic’s unit, or MAC, also shared the field and runways. Damaged airplanes that couldn’t be repaired at forward airfields were brought to one of the MAC units. Bringing a damaged fighter or bomber back to a MAC unit was one of the more harrowing jobs for the ferry pilots. Sometimes the blood from wounded combat pilots still stained the cockpit. Flying test flights for the repaired aircraft was another of the women’s duties.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Lieutenant,” Willie called as she walked away. “We’ve got a Spitfire that needs to go back north straight away.”
“Where to?” she said over her shoulder. She loved the way the British said Lieutenant, making it sound like lefttenant.
“Okay. I’ll check with Commander Griggs.” Kit hung her flight bag over one shoulder and her parachute over the other as she crossed the field. Her shoulders squared and the green scarf around her neck flagging behind her, she was the picture of selfassured determination. That’s what the women in her squadron saw and that’s what they got. There was no doubt Kit could do her job and expected the same from each and every pilot who wore the ATA emblem on her sleeve. Kit had a pair of wings on her collar and wore them proudly.
Alderbrook was an unassuming air base but a vital one in the scheme of things. Even though it had only grass-covered runways, unlike the smooth pavement at larger airfields, it had a nearly constant buzz of incoming and outgoing aircraft from the RAF and the ATA. The buildings were scattered along the edge of the two runways. The three-story fighter squadron command building was at the center. The top floor had a balcony where the officers could watch the takeoffs and landings. There were three hangars, all of them constantly full of damaged aircraft awaiting repair. Mechanics by the dozens swarmed over the Spitfires, Hurricanes and other aircraft in an attempt to keep them ready for the next day’s missions. Several single-story buildings dotted the perimeter of the field, including a dining hall, living quarters for the male pilots, motor pool and supply depot.
The ATA command office was a wood building divided into two sections. The front two-thirds of the building was an open room lined by mismatched wood chairs and two uncomfortable benches. Two crates pushed together and covered with a canvas tarp were the closest thing to a table. A coal-fed stove with its monstrous chimney pipe served dual purposes. It attempted to take the chilly dampness out of the air, usually with only marginal success, and it also supported a copper kettle. With its broken porcelain handle and dented lid, the kettle steadfastly held the sustenance that carried England through even the grizzliest task, namely tea, strong, reheated, nearly undrinkable and foul smelling. The teakettle was never allowed to fall empty. As if by some magical hand or wandering gnome, the kettle always seemed to have water in it and enough bits of tea leaves to make a toxin savored by the faithful. This gathering room, or ready room as the pilots called it, was where the ferry pilots congregated while waiting their next assignment. The women’s toilet was a small, hastily constructed and drafty shed behind the ATA building. It wasn’t much, but at least it was off-limits to the men.
The back third of the ATA building was Commander Mary Griggs’s office. All business having anything to do with the auxiliary’s ferry service, from ferry pilot training to passenger and cargo transfers, fell across her desk. And because she put a great deal of trust in Kit’s ability, much of that trickled down to her as well. Kit’s office was little more than a second-hand desk in the corner of the ready room. But she didn’t want more. More office would mean more paperwork, and she would much rather be flying than writing.
“I heard the Hurricane gave you a bit of bother bringing it down,” Commander Griggs said, following Kit into the ATA office. Mary Griggs was a demure woman in her forties with a neatly pressed military uniform and her hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. Her skirt hung past her knees, and she wore black military heels. There was a stoic and deliberate set to her jaw and a placid reserve in her eyes. Many thought her lack of emotion was ambivalence to the war and her duties. She had quickly risen to the post as Wing Commander in the ATA, giving orders to both women and men under her command with crisp efficiency. Before the war, she had been a pilot for British Airways, flying cargo across Great Britain and onto the continent. On her first day as Wing Commander, she heard the rumors circulating around the airfield that she wasn’t qualified and had only acquired the post by sleeping with someone from the Admiral’s office. Instead of facing the accusations head on, she stepped into a flight suit, pulled on a flight cap and goggles and climbed into a Hawker Hurricane. She took off and buzzed the airfield in a daring inverted pass, saluting the men on the ground as they watched with their mouths open. When she landed, she stepped out of the flight suit, took off the goggles and cap and returned to her desk. It was two days before anyone dared enter her office.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Kit said, dropping her parachute and flight bag in the corner of the ready room. “I got her down. That’s all that matters.”
“Come in my office, Lieutenant,” Griggs said, leading the way through the door. “We’ve got a new girl coming in today. Second Officer Andrea Paisley. Not much experience, but I’m told she’s a quick study. Take her under your wing, Lieutenant. We can use the extra pilot.” She took her seat behind the desk, her posture military rigid.
“How old is she?”
“Does that matter?” Griggs looked over the report on the new pilot.
Kit looked at her expectantly.
“She’s twenty,” Griggs finally said.
“What is her rating? Class Two, Class Three?” Kit asked hopefully, already planning how the extra help could ease the flight load in moving the fighters and medium bombers.
“One? I don’t need another pilot to fly light trainers. I need help with the bombers. We’ve got Class Ones coming out our ears. Class Twos, Threes and Fours are what we need, Commander. How am I supposed to train another amateur if I don’t have help delivering the big bombers?” Kit scowled down at Commander Griggs. “We’ve only got two other pilots on this airfield who can fly Class Three planes. Two,” she repeated, holding up two fingers. “You’ve got to get me someone in here to fly the heavy bombers, or we’ll have them stacked on top of one another. Unless of course you want to use the combat pilots to ferry aircraft back and forth. I’ve got three bombers out there now, and they won’t deliver themselves.”
Commander Griggs didn’t argue with her. Instead she folded her hands across her paperwork and stared up at Kit.
“Lieutenant Anderson, when you return from delivering the Spitfire to Ringway, I’d appreciate your using a few minutes to map out directions to the tree where we might harvest the Class Three pilots. I’m sure the Commodore will be most interested in having that location. What with the war and all, I’m sure they have overlooked that bit of information. I will let Commodore Gower know Flight Lieutenant Anderson from the United States will be providing an endless supply of highly trained and experienced pilots for the Air Transport Auxiliary straight away. It will be a great relief to the Admiralty to know all our worries are over.” She gave Kit a cold, hard stare.
Kit knew she had been reprimanded in the most polite manner Commander Griggs could use. Any further remarks by Kit ran the risk of bringing on a much harsher tirade, something she knew good and well was within Griggs’s ability to deliver. Kit straightened her posture and snapped a salute.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, Commander Griggs.”
“I believe that’s Loveland and Peacock coming in now,” Griggs said, turning her attention out the window as the faint sounds of engines grew in the distance. “Have you talked with Officer Loveland about her landings?”
“Yes, ma’am. I think she is getting better.”
Commander Griggs rolled her eyes up to Kit’s.
“I’ll mention it to her again, Commander. Is there anything else, ma’am?”
“Second Officer Brown has been given a leave of absence.”
“Helen Brown? Why? She has three flights scheduled for tomorrow.”
“She had an accident yesterday during a landing in Dublin.”
“Is she all right?”
“Broken arm and collar bone. The doctor said she would be out at least two months, maybe three. Nasty break.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. But there goes one of my Class Threes.”
“Is anyone ready to be promoted?” Griggs asked.
“Not yet. Close, but no one I’m ready to sign off on.”
“We need pilots with good skills, Lieutenant, but don’t hold them back on technicalities,” Griggs said, cocking an eyebrow as if to say good pilots were sufficient when great ones couldn’t be found.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll remember that.”
“By the way,” Griggs said, changing the subject. “While you’re in Ringway, could you see if they could spare a bit of tea? Even a small tin would be lovely.”
“Tea. Anything else?” Kit wasn’t surprised at Commander Griggs’s request. Ringway airfield was outside Manchester, a large city with lots of shops and hopefully lots of places to buy what Alderbrook shops didn’t have. Ringway was also a larger aerodrome where the supply depot could sometimes provide a few procurements when backs were turned.
“Sugar perhaps. A tin of milk, even powdered milk, would be nice.”
“Yes, ma’am. Tea, sugar and milk.”
“Carry on.” She nodded then went back to her paperwork. “One more thing, Lieutenant. I noticed you haven’t responded to the letter regarding your re-enlistment yet.” She opened a folder and sifted through a stack of papers. “Can I expect your signature before the end of the week?”
“I’ve got three months.”
“Your experience is very valuable, Lieutenant. You’ve been trained and given a great deal of responsibility. It would be a shame to waste that training.”
“You never know. I might just want to go home to civilian life. The food is better. The pay is better. The planes don’t have bullet holes in them, not to mention the Luftwaffe can’t reach Kansas City.”
“The United States will be in this war eventually. I don’t see how they can avoid it. We’ll need all the ferry pilots we can get to keep up with the added missions. Are you planning on flying for the American women’s ferry service? Is that why you haven’t signed the renewal? They can’t possibly need pilots as badly as we do.” There was a pleading in Commander Griggs’s voice even her stoic British façade couldn’t hide.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do, Commander. For now all I plan on doing is finishing my eighteen months.” Kit opened the office door and stood ready to be excused.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Griggs said as if realizing it wasn’t the right time for this discussion.
Kit collected her gear and went out to the runway to wait for the two biplanes to land. They were trainers being brought to Alderbrook to help convert wide-eyed young men into experienced flying aces. Kit watched as the first aircraft crossed the row of trees at the end of the field and settled onto the runway, touching down softly and rolling to the end of the grassy airstrip. The second aircraft followed, clearing the treetops by only a few feet. Kit sucked air through her teeth at how close the wheels were to the branches.
“I bet that’s you, Lovie,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “No one gets that close to the trees but you.”
The airplane floated down, the engine throttling back as the landing gear touched down. But the wheels didn’t stay down. The airplane bounced across the field, hopping up and nearly taking flight twice before settling onto the runway and rolling to a stop. Kit shook her head and heaved a sigh. “Yep, that’s my Lovie.”
The two pilots waved at Kit as she crossed the field to greet them.
“Nice landing, Red,” Kit said to the first pilot as she climbed out of the cockpit.
“Nothing to this flying thing. I may have to get a license.” Red laughed loudly, removing her leather flight cap and shaking out her long red hair. Even the flight dust of the open cockpit couldn’t hide her mass of freckles.
“How about me?” Lovie said, sliding down the wing and removing her cap. She waved at Kit and came to give her a hug.
“Nose up, wheels down,” Kit said, ruffling her hair. “And no bouncing the landing, Lovie.”
Darlene Loveland, or Lovie, as her friends called her, was Canadian. She was twenty-three, vibrant, enthusiastic and had a perpetual smile on her face. She had arrived a year ago as an innocent, naïve pilot. She was now an experienced veteran, having flown her fair share of nail-biting missions. Lovie had bouncy blonde hair and a peaches and cream complexion usually dotted with rouge and red lipstick. There was nothing deep or complicated about Lovie. She was just as her nickname implied. She loved everyone and everything. Kit worried she might be a little too naïve for her own good.
“Did I bounce?” Lovie asked, smiling demurely.
“Yes, you bounced,” Red said in her thick Aussie accent. “I could hear the thud all the way over there.” She gave Kit a hug as well.
Mildred “Red” Peacock was a saucy Australian with a hot temper, flaming red hair and more balls than many of the men in the RAF. Red took nothing from anyone. She had been a crop duster with her father back in Queensland since she was fifteen. At twenty-six, she was experienced and could fly any of the RAF’s single-engine aircraft. She could take off in less than half the distance any other pilot required and could stretch her fuel better than even the most seasoned veteran. What Red couldn’t do was keep from saying whatever was on her mind. She had been promoted and demoted more times than Commander Griggs could count, seesawing back and forth between Second Officer and First Officer. Her stripes were usually attached with safety pins to make them easier to change.
“Officer Loveland,” Willie said as he and the ground crew swarmed toward the airplanes, ready to push them to the edge of the field. “What was that? Surely you can’t call that a landing.”
“The landing gear was a bit soft,” Lovie said. “You better take a look at it.”
“A bit soft? If you land like that, it’ll be broken, not soft.”
“Are you on your way in or out?” Red asked Kit.
“Out.” She pointed to the Spitfire waiting for her at the edge of the field.
“A Spit?” Lovie asked, her eyes wide with envy. “How did you rate a Spit? We’ve been flying these old trainers all week.”
“Lieutenant Anderson rated a Spit because she can land without smashing the undercarriage,” Willie said.
“Where to, Kit?” Red asked.
“Do you think you’ll be back by this evening?” Lovie asked. “I thought we’d finish our game of cribbage.”
“I’ll try, but I don’t know if they have anything for me to bring back,” Kit said, pulling her flight cap over her head and tucking her hair under the earflaps.
“Did you hear? We’ve got a new girl coming in,” Red said, unbuckling her parachute harness.
“Yes, I heard. Andrea Paisley. Class One.”
“One?” Lovie asked. “Has she ever flown before?”
“Probably not,” Red scoffed. “I bet she doesn’t know a Spitfire from a spittoon.”
“If she arrives before I get back, please don’t scare her off,” Kit said, patting Red’s cheek. “We need all the help we can get.”
“I promise I won’t let Lovie teach her how to land.”
“You’d better deliver that Spitfire to Ringway before the bloody thing rots on the runway,” Willie said smugly.
“Yeah, I better.”
“Fly safe,” Lovie said, giving her a goodbye hug.
“I will.” Kit slipped into her parachute and buckled the crotch strap.
“Kit,” Lovie whispered, touching her arm and leaning in to her. “If you happen to see any face cream, would you be a dream and pick me up some? I can’t find it anywhere in Alderbrook. The shops have been out for ages.”
“Okay,” Kit winked at her.
“And soap flakes.”
“I had that on my list too. I’ll see what I can find. How about you, Red? Anything you need?”
“A good bottle of Scotch,” Red said instantly.
“I’m not fussy. I’d take any bottle. It doesn’t have to be good,” Red added.
“I could use a bit of that myself,” Kit said then headed toward the waiting airplane.
“A new pair of goggles would be nice, but those are harder to find than the crown jewels,” Red called, looking at her scratched pair.
“New goggles? What are those?” Lovie laughed.
“Don’t forget to sign in,” Kit called over her shoulder. “You both forgot your log entries yesterday.”
“That was on purpose,” Red teased then waved goodbye.
Kit climbed into the cockpit and waited for the crewmen to help with her seat harness. She tossed a wave then slid the bubble canopy closed and headed down the runway, the engine roaring loudly as she eased back on the yoke and soared into the midday skies. She tipped her wings to Red’s and Lovie’s waves then banked to the north. In a little over an hour she would be circling Ringway airfield, waiting for the barrage balloons to be lowered so she could land.
Kit swooped in and touched down on the tarmac, the smooth landing surface a welcome change from the grassy runway at Alderbrook. Ringway was a large airfield with rows of Spitfires, Hurricanes and American P-51 Mustangs poised for takeoff if the signal to scramble was sounded. She taxied to the end of the runway and rolled to a stop where a group of mechanics awaited her arrival. They swarmed over the Spitfire like locusts, ready to add a radio, armaments and other instruments before its first mission. Kit checked in at the command office. Occasionally she delivered an airplane but was on her own to get back to Alderbrook if no other aircraft was in need of her services. She was relieved to learn she would have a twin-engine transport to fly back later that afternoon.
“You have time for a spot of tea and a bite to eat, Lieutenant,” the flight commander informed her. “The crew is loading the plane.”
“What am I taking back?”
“Scrap parts to the MAC unit and empty petrol cans.”
“Oh, swell,” she said, not pleased with the potentially lethal cargo. She knew an emergency landing with the flumes from even empty gas cans could be a bomb just waiting for a spark to ignite a huge fireball.
“Don’t worry, Lieutenant. You won’t have to bring them back once they’re full.” He chuckled.
“I need strong coffee,” she groaned and went in search of lunch.
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