49,000 Feet above the Northwest Territories, Canada “Captain, fuel pressure’s dropping — number-two drop tank.”
The flight deck, illuminated only by the red instrument lamps, was full of the sound of the engines, a background noise too loud to ignore and too monotonous to notice. Not even the leather flight helmets with their padded intercom headsets could cancel it out. It was like sitting under an avalanche with cotton stuffed in one’s ears.
Luftwaffe Captain Ernst Grüber glanced at the altimeter" his aircraft was nearly fifteen kilometers above the dark and frozen earth. He was cold, his feet nearly numb despite the rabbit-fur-lined f light boots, his fingers thick and wooden within silk-lined, shearling-cuffed gloves. He switched on a red-lensed flashlight, checked the flow from his oxygen bottle, and turned it up. Almost immediately, his head became clearer and feeling crept into his limbs. He turned to the flight engineer.
“How long since we emptied number one?”
The engineer, a lieutenant, pushed up his jacket sleeve and glanced at his watch. “Five minutes, sir.”
Grüber nodded. The designers from Horten had said that the wing tanks would run dry within seven minutes of one another.
That prediction was turning out to be accurate, just as all of their predictions had turned out to be accurate, beginning with the outrageous pronouncement that an aircraft such as this — with no vertical stabilizer, no rudder, and no fuselage to speak of — would fly at all.
“Watch the fuel pressure,” Grüber said. “Tell me when it hits zero.”
He was tired. Dog-tired already and only six hours into what was scheduled to be a twenty-two-hour mission. Fatigue was edging the Dahlem accent back into his German, a guttural undertone that he tried to hide from the high-blooded Berliners on his aircrew. But if anyone noticed, they did not show it.
“Zero now, sir.”
“Very good.” Grüber put both hands on the control yoke. He’d logged a hundred hours in training on this aircraft, but it still felt strange to have no rudder pedals beneath his feet. “Eject on my mark . . . now.”
The engineer pulled a pair of levers. There was a distant, metallic thunk as the two huge, twenty-kiloliter, aluminum tanks dropped away into the night. The instruments registered the change — the airspeed rising, the altimeter creeping higher.
Grüber allowed the aircraft to climb and seek its own equilibrium. To give it the range required for this mission, the bomber had not been equipped with the belly guns, nose guns, or tailcannons that had been part of the original design. The ball turret behind the flight deck had been replaced with a simple Perspex dome from which the navigator, who was also the radio operator, could make star-sightings every fifteen minutes, guiding them on their journey with the same technology used for centuries by ships under sail.
With no guns, no armor to speak of, no weapons other than the single bomb in its bomb bay, the bomber’s sole means of defense was altitude. It could not outrun most Allied fighters, but it could outclimb them" its service ceiling and range were a full two kilometers higher and 10,000 kilometers farther than any other aircraft in the world. That was the beauty of it.
That was the horror of it, as well.
The Horten Ho-18 Amerikabomber was unlike any other aircraft. It was a true flying-wing design, powered by six BMW 109-003 jet engines, capable of reaching well in excess of five hundred miles per hour in level flight. Sixty meters wide from wingtip to wingtip, the airplane was beautiful, a design seemingly snatched from some future time. With no nose and no tail, it was a shallow, batlike chevron in the evening sky. There was nothing about it that did not seek the heavens.
But that was also its principal flaw: one that Ernst Grüber had spotted within moments of first seeing a scale model of the aircraft.
“It has no vertical stabilizer,” Grüber had told the Horten representative who’d first briefed him.
“The side-to-side motion of the airplane, the yaw" it is controlled by the thrust of the engines, yes?” The Horten man had smiled as if what he’d just said was supposed to be obvious.
The thrust of the engines. The jet engines. And Grüber knew about jet engines. They were more powerful than piston engines, and much more efficient at altitude, but they could also be amazingly fragile. He’d been standing on the flight line in Cologne a year earlier when one of the new Me-262 jet fighters was being run up. A line mechanic’s glove had been sucked into one of the intakes" that was all it had taken to disintegrate the engine in rather spectacular fashion.
Which was why Grüber had asked his next question:
“And what happens when the thrust falls out of balance?”
That had gotten Grüber a look. “Then you must rebalance it, of course. We used this design on a fighter prototype last year. If the thrust goes out of balance and is not corrected immediately? Then the aircraft will spin. Quite violently, in fact. You would not be able to recover.”
That had gotten the Horten engineer a look. “I’m flying this aircraft into combat,” Grüber had told him. “It sounds a bit delicate, does it not?”
The engineer had shrugged. “For a fighter, yes. But for a bomber?”
He’d shrugged again. “Just stay high, so they don’t shoot you.”
“Let us remember Dresden,” Hockheim, the bombardier, said from his ready seat.
Grüber did not answer. There were five Germans on the Amerika this late spring evening" none of them had been home for the better part of a year. They had shipped out on June first of 1944, five days prior to the Normandy invasion, leaving Norway on three U-boats loaded with aircraft components, plans, and machine tools, as well as a cadre of Horten Aircraft Company designers, engineers, and skilled tradesmen.
Since then, they had been living in Japan, initially in the port city of Nagasaki, and more recently in the tiny town of Okha, on the country’s northernmost island, the optimal takeoff point for a Great Circle route east over the Arctic.
They had been in the eighth month of their deployment when news had reached them of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Unprotected by antiaircraft batteries and swollen with refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army, Dresden had been attacked by the Allies with enough phosphorous bombs to turn the medieval city’s center into a veritable tornado of white-hot flame.
Newsreels flown in from Germany had shown the aircrew the carpet of ash and rubble that a single night’s bombing had produced. An SS intelligence officer had described to them how the intense heat had created winds so strong that pedestrians were physically swept off their feet and hurled, screaming, into the inferno.
Told once, the story would have been terrible news from home, another horrifying example of man’s inhumanity to man. But Grüber and his aircrew had been told it again and again.
Yet Dresden had been blanketed with more than 700,000 bombs, while the Amerika carried only a single weapon. That made Ernst Grüber’s blood run cold. After all, what manner of bomb was it that a single one could possibly make up for the destruction of Dresden, of Hamburg?