Airborne, Louis Pigeon-Owen, Fiction & Naf Leri, Illustration, 2019.

gan

the sound of the powerlines is a forest thrashing in storm weather. it makes her marrow quiver. a steady crackle-rush like jet noise fills her head. leaks into her thoughts. hanging there, she notices the aluminium insulators in triplicate. the cables probably have a capacity of 250,000 volts. not that it matters. if she’s earthed, she’s toast. the harness cuts sharply into her left armpit. when she ejected, a thermal caught her chute and she banked, listed, tangling with the cables. now, she watches her feet dangle between her and the earth. 120 feet up and each boot is the size of a cottage. there’s a severance between her upper and lower body, the circulation in her legs having been cut off. I’m fine, she tells Gen Maj Bridgeman, shouting down the radio phone, problem with the engine. attempted re-start. no CRT or comms team to guide her now. sit tight. she watches the police officers spread below like an oil spill. every so often, she discerns the glitter of cameras flashing amongst the crowd. to one side, two news vans parked nose to nose. she is over-heating in her Nomex one-piece. the G-suit clenches about her lower ribcage and her already sore breasts are being crushed by the torsion straps. she wants to be sick but doesn’t think she can aim it away from her audience. fields of rapeseed rush in blinding yellow waves, dressing the countryside in abstract patches. each gridded with tractor ruts. she is on the edge of her stretch zone, not quite in panic mode. she needs this. she can learn from this. once, she had hated her mum’s guts for tearing up her art and home ec. O-Levels. for forcing her to take double maths, physics and electrical engineering. for buying her Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. learning to take that anxiety, that knot of worry in her stomach pit and use it. flying is an elitist world, make no bones about it, but you’re cut from the right stuff. dad said you can’t be a fighter pilot, look at women drivers. her GP said the G-force will make your womb pop out. beneath her, the Panavia Tornado is ablaze in a wooded clearing. an unripe corn field is in flames. the roof of a squat farmhouse gutted by a wing. men designed airplanes around their own bodies, then argued not to let women fly on the grounds that they didn’t fit. she had been the eighth woman on the FTS. the first to pass, despite her drinking woman’s 2:2. officer training at Cranwell. marching, bulling shoes, cleaning toilets with toothbrushes. crash courses in meteorology, aerodynamics, survival training. the first time she was airborne. the feeling up there. no one in control but her. she was hooked. trip 12 and she failed her critical point. two hours before they chopped her, she attempted first solo. and passed. later, in charge of 25 tonnes of screaming metal ripping through the sky. hang tight till thirteen hundred hours, says Bridgeman, they have to turn off the current at Newton Flotman. firefighters on the way. the pylon to her right towers in sharp angles of black steel. she’s suspended in a vault of blue, swaying gently. her fingers are pinpricked with sweat. she rolls back her sleeves, peels off her gloves and lets them drift down towards the yellow fields.

gan