Please enjoy this scene, which was cut from Among the Red Stars due to length. Like many other scenes in the book, it is based on a real incident.
The night had grown so dark that I could barely tell when I emerged from the clouds. The moon had vanished. I kept an eye on the soft phosphorescent faces of the instruments.
As I drew near our home airfield, I scanned the ground for the familiar yellow specks of light. Nothing. It’s always farther than you think, I told myself, but this time it seemed to be even farther than usual. I tried to keep the anxiety out of my voice as I asked, “Iskra? Where’s our airfield?”
“Don’t you dare tell me we’re lost!” The anxiety bubbled up into outright fear. I tried to smother it in annoyance. “We were having such a good night!”
“…We aren’t lost. I know exactly where we are. And, well, we’re right on top of the airfield.”
“Where are the lights?”
A green signal flare broke the darkness, the sign that we were cleared to land.
“Without lights?” I snapped. “What do they expect from us?”
“Settle down, baby cousin.” Iskra’s voice was cool and easy. “We can land her. Our altitude is 900 meters. The airfield is at 126 meters. You’ve just got to take her down 774 meters. Give or take the error from weather changes, of course.”
“Simple,” I grumbled. I brought the U-2 down as slowly as I could. My nerves tensed more with every revolution of the altimeter. The gauge with its short hand and its long hand, black against a radium-green background, measured our altitude using air pressure. As the night grew colder and the pressure changed, its reading deviated too low. And if a sudden warm front moved in, it could tell us that we were level with the airfield while we ran head-on into a cliff face.
“I could correct for this if I knew the temperature,” Iskra muttered to herself. And then, “We’re almost on the ground!”
The altimeter read 10 meters, but we were probably higher. I asked, “How do you know?”
“I can smell the dirt.”
“Oh good, we’re navigating by smell now.” I slowed the plane down to near its stall speed, squinting into the darkness for any sign of the ground. I braced myself for the sudden jolt of the airstrip. Then the rhythmic tick of our engine changed. It sped up, then turned into an irregular throb. As I reached to adjust the throttle, I frowned. The rumble I could feel through the seat was as steady as ever. The engine was running fine. So what was I hearing?
A half-remembered fragment of a lesson drifted into my mind, something from our training in Engels. Interference patterns. The irregular noise made by two propellers close to each other.
“There’s another plane!” I screamed, hitting the throttle and pulling up. I felt the wind off another set of wings not a meter starboard.
“Tanya and Vera must have tried to land at the same time as us,” I said when we were back in the open sky. They hadn’t crashed; I would have heard it. Had they landed or pulled out? Were they still circling in the darkness nearby?
“We’re all right. Just take us in again,” Iskra said, her gasping breath betraying that she was as shaken up as I was. “That was…that was close.”
I had no choice but to try again, even though my heart was drumming out its own interference pattern. I glanced at the fuel gauge. In a few minutes we’d be forced to land in any case.
Salvation came in two cones of light. They were dimmer than the usual lanterns and they overlapped slightly, illuminating the airfield at a sharp angle that made every pebble cast a long black shadow. The runway was clear.
“Are those car headlights?” asked an incredulous Iskra.
I wasn’t about to wait to find out. I brought Number 18 down by the makeshift illumination and made a landing hard enough that my teeth rattled in my head. When we had our feet on solid earth, we hugged and looked at each other. Iskra burst out laughing. “Your face is covered in soot!”
“So is yours!”
We wiped the soot off as well as we could on the sleeves of our flight suits, but mostly succeeded in smearing it around.
“Is that the last one?” came Major Bershanskaya’s voice from the cab of the truck.
“For the moment,” replied our chief of staff. The headlights went out.
A couple of flashlight beams danced yellow circles on the surface of Number 18 as the mechanics wheeled it off to a hardstand. I hesitantly asked them, “Did Tanya and Vera land okay?”
A lanky arm settled around my shoulders and Tanya’s voice, cool and sardonic as ever, said, “We were about to ask the same thing about you. Nice job on the bombing run, you lucky freaks, but then you nearly knocked off our port wings!”
“You put her down safely in total darkness?” asked Iskra. “How did you know where the ground was?”
The click of a striker and a lighter flame illuminated Vera’s round face. She said, “I don’t trust altimeters. I always carry a thermometer.”
Iskra’s voice was tinged with awe. “I think I’m in love with you.”
“You’re sweet. But I’m taken.” Vera pulled Tanya over to her and kissed her.
Iskra and I stumbled off through the dark to report. I found Bershanskaya in the cab of the truck with our chief of staff, using a map light to look at the flight plan.
Temporarily forgetting myself, I demanded, “What was that about?”
Bershanskaya said, “Sorry about that, Korolyova. The Luftwaffe was out in force tonight. If we’d set out the lights, every fighter on the peninsula would have been on top of us.”
“Tanya was nearly on top of us!”
She leaned her head on her hand. “Are you here to report or complain?”
“Right.” I straightened up. “The target has been eliminated, ma’am.”
“I’d say more than eliminated,” Iskra elaborated. “It was a fuel train. We hit it dead on. The fireball must have been a kilometer high. They’ll have quite a job putting those tracks back together after the crater we put in them.”
“You did?” Bershanskaya scrambled out of the cab and grabbed her binoculars. Her face split into that big, honest grin. “You did! Well done, my eaglets!”
At dawn, we danced on the airfield.