“Travelling by Air” by Ian Sales

Ian Sales has been published in Postscripts, Jupiter, M-Brane SF and the Catastrophia anthology from PS Publishing. He reviews books for Interzone and for Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and DVDs for VideoVista. He is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency. His blog can be found at http://iansales.com.

Ian’s story is the inspiration for this issue’s striking front cover image, an you can read the first part of his story for free below. If you would like to read the rest please order the first issue of Alt Hist.

Travelling by Air

by Ian Sales

Muroc Dry Lake Bed, Nevada: a vast expanse of salt flats, featureless, empty. An irregular line of Quonset huts crowds against one edge. Beside them is a pair of corrugated tin hangars and a control tower on wooden stilts. A group of men, some in uniform, has gathered on the shore of the dry lake. Although there is little to see, they still stare up into the cloudless desert sky. Somewhere above them, and several miles away, Chuck Yeager is preparing to break the Sound Barrier.

It is a curiously vicarious experience, witnessing an historic event that cannot be seen.

However, the watchers will hear. If the theory is correct, then a sonic boom will echo across Muroc Lake — the first ever caused by a manned object. The sound will signify that the Bell X-1, ‘Glamorous Glennis’, has exceeded Mach 1.

Speaker-horns atop a van relay the radio conversations between the control tower and the B-29 mothership, giving a breathless running commentary as the X-1 disengages from the aircraft which has carried it up into the sky. The observer in the B-29 describes what the watchers cannot see: the orange bullet-shape dropping away from the mothership, the rockets igniting with a crackle and a roar, the X-1 rising into a steep climb …

The watchers hold their breath.

That Yeager will fail is unthinkable. On earlier flights, he had mentioned the severe buffeting that occurred as the X-1 neared the Sound Barrier, but passed it off as inconsequential in his slow drawl. The watchers know Yeager will fly through it. Few know he has a broken rib, the result of a fall from a horse the night before. After too many beers, he and his wife, Glennis, had borrowed a pair of horses from Pancho’s and gone riding. In a fit of drunken bravado, Yeager had tried to jump a fence… and fallen from the saddle.

“He’s diving!” cries the man on the B-29.

This is it. Powered by its XLR-11 rocket engine, the orange bullet of the Bell X-1 will surely hit Mach 1. And pass through it. Yeager will hold it together. Yeager will …

“He’s in a flat spin!” cries the commentator.

The watchers turn to stare at one another. Chuck Yeager augers in.

Before their eyes an orange streak hurtles from the sky and, just over the horizon, smashes itself into a thousand pieces. Clouds of thick black smoke roil across the salt pan. A fire truck splutters into life, but there is nothing that can be done.

Chuck Yeager has augered in.


The windows of the overseas departure lounge offered an excellent view across Heathrow Aerodrome’s apron. Geraldine Marsh could see her reflection in the glass, faint and ghostly, hovering above the de Havilland SuperComet in which she would be flying. The aircraft was a blue, white and silver crucifix in the centre of the tarmacadam. Geraldine knew little about aeroplanes, only that to travel by air was a matter of hours, rather than the days it took by sea. It was also a great deal more expensive. But she was not paying for this eight-hour flight to New York. Her father, Harold Marsh, had bought the ticket.

Geraldine pulled her fur coat in tighter about herself. She felt frightened at the prospect of speeding through the stratosphere in a metal tube. Her fear was nonsensical, of course. Air travel was perfectly safe. There had been aeroplane crashes, true — but no more than one or two each year. The SuperComet had an excellent safety record. The British Overseas Airways Corporation had been operating them for nearly twenty years, and fewer than a dozen had been lost.

A bell sounded politely behind her and she turned to see two stewardesses in BOAC uniforms: one blonde and one brunette, both very pretty. Geraldine glanced about the room at her fellow passengers. She was the only woman. All the rest appeared to be business men, clutching gleaming leather briefcases in their hands.

The blonde stewardess said brightly: “If I may have your attention, please. We will begin boarding the aeroplane in just a moment.”

Geraldine glanced at her wristwatch. If the schedule were accurate, she would be airborne in another thirty minutes. She crossed to one of the deep leather armchairs, sank into it and crossed one leg over the other with a whisper of stockings. From her handbag, she fished out her cigarette case, clicked it open, and picked out a filter-tip. Before she had even placed the cigarette between her lips, one of her fellow passengers had shot to his feet and hurried across. He stood before her, bent at the waist and held out a gold lighter, thumb poised to strike.

“You’re most kind,” Geraldine murmured.

The man’s thumb descended. Geraldine leant forward, and inhaled. Her cigarette crackled and lit.

“My pleasure,” the man replied.

After slipping his lighter back into his pocket, he dropped into the armchair beside Geraldine. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said. He smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes. “You’re travelling to New York?”

What an asinine question, thought Geraldine. She would not be here in the departure lounge if she were not. But it was best to be polite, so she replied, “Yes. To visit my cousins.”

“I see you’re not married.” He looked pointedly at her left hand.

Wishing she had not removed her gloves, Geraldine slowly slid her hand from the chair’s arm into her lap, and made a fist. “No,” she replied as calmly as she could. “No, I’m not.” She gave a brittle smile.

“Perhaps I should introduce myself.”

Geraldine did not like the man’s expression. She turned to stare out at the apron, and took another drag from her cigarette.

“Cunningham, John Cunningham.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Geraldine replied automatically, not shifting her gaze.

“I’m flying to New York,” Cunningham continued, “on business.”


Why would the man not leave her alone? She was doing her best to show him that his attentions were not welcome, but the message did not seem to be sinking in. If only her father had not insisted she travel by air. Sea was so much more civilised. At least aboard a ship Geraldine could have found some suitable travelling companions…

The bell rang again. Geraldine glanced up to see the stewardesses had reappeared.

“We may now board,” declared the blonde stewardess. She set off across the lounge at a quick trot, stride restricted by her pencil skirt, high heels loud on the parquet floor.

The other stewardess approached Geraldine and, with a quick glance at Cunningham, asked, “Miss Marsh? Perhaps you should like to be the first to board?”

Geraldine twisted in her seat and stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray at her side. “Yes, of course,” she replied gratefully. Rising to her feet, she gave Cunningham a polite nod, and followed the stewardess towards the door that led down wide stairs and onto the apron. The steps were steep, not designed for women in constricting skirts and high heels, and both Geraldine and the stewardess were forced to take them slowly and carefully.

Waiting for them at the foot of the stairs was a large white vehicle, with the BOAC “speedbird” prominent on its side. It was a shooting-brake of some sort, a six-wheeled car with seats for some dozen passengers.

The stewardess saw her seated, and then gently closed the door. The shooting-brake pulled smoothly away from the terminal and headed across the tarmac towards the SuperComet.

Geraldine alighted from the car and climbed the red-carpeted stairs to the aeroplane’s entrance. These too were uncomfortably steep. At the top, yet more stewardesses in BOAC livery greeted her as she stepped into the aircraft. “May I take your coat?” asked one, reaching out. Geraldine slipped it off her shoulders.

“Oh, it’s quite lovely,” said the stewardess. “Fox, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” replied Geraldine, glancing about her. This was the first time she had seen the interior of an aeroplane. Oh, she had seen the BOAC brochures, and those stuffy documentary programmes on air travel the BBC would insist on broadcasting, but this was her first real view of the inside of an aeroplane.

It was really quite luxurious. Lines of wide leather seats, three abreast, stretched the length of the cabin, two to the left of the aisle and a single seat to the right. The windows — or did one call them portholes? — had dainty little curtains. The carpet underfoot was deep and soft. Most noticeable was the smell: of rich leather, rich food, and pleasantly-scented cleaning materials. Geraldine breathed in through her nose. She could just detect a faintly disturbing tang, as of burnt metal.

“If you would like to follow me?” asked one of the stewardesses. She stretched out an arm to point, palm uppermost, down the aeroplane’s wide aisle. “Your seat is this way.”

Geraldine followed her to a seat halfway along the fuselage. The stewardess indicated the single seat to Geraldine’s right. “This is your seat,” she said. “It’s just in front of the wing, so one shouldn’t be able to hear the engines.”

“You’re very kind,” responded Geraldine, carefully lowering herself into the chair. She was grateful the seat was not one of a pair. She didn’t think she could have borne being seated next to that man for eight hours. Again, she rued her lack of a travelling companion. Perhaps she should have asked Father to provide a chaperone. But it was too late now.

The other passengers were beginning to filter onto the aircraft. Geraldine watched them as they were directed to their seats by the stewardesses. It was rather like sea travel, the way one was treated, the implacable politeness of the aircraft’s crew.

Geraldine saw Cunningham take his place several rows in front of her. Her relief was short-lived. Every other passenger glanced her way before settling into his seat.

For eight hours, Geraldine would be trapped in this metal tube, with no escape from their attentions.

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