Runway 13 – an Eagle story

Eagle 9-3-63Given that, in one form or other, I have the complete Dan Dare, hunting old Eagle‘s is about collecting the other strips, stories and features published in its long and mostly glorious history.
Naturally, the collector’s thoughts turn to the classic series, PC 49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson etc. But Eagle is more still than these. Though it’s noted as a comic, like the comics of the era, it had prose stories as well.
Sometimes, these were serials/series in themselves. Peter Jay’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook was a long-running school series, and I’ve previously mentioned both Beau Fortune and Horizon Unlimited, products of the Longacre era, the latter of which being an excellent continuing adventure.
But between the end of one and the start of the other of these two series, there were three one-off serials. The third and last of these was High Quest, about which hangs a tale I’ve already told. The first, and longest of this trio, was Johnny Quick, a twelve-part boxing serial that has its merits but, being  about boxing, doesn’t grab me all that much.
Until a few months ago, I was completely unaware of Runway 13, a short serial of only seven episodes. I read it inside out, from the middle, until this week, when I secured the first and, crucially, last parts. I think it deserves a bit of attention.
The first thing I noticed about the story was a familiarity of style and subject. It’s uncredited, of course, but it’s instantly recognisable as by the same writer as Horizon Unlimited. It’s an aviation based story written by someone with a great working knowledge of planes and flying, and it has a near identical central pair, the middle-aged flying veteran and the youthful, eager lieutenant. Instead of Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, think Rudge and Keith Hazard.
Although the title implies some sort of supernatural element, the opening chapter starts with a very brief, wholly realistic report on a plane crash, and sticks to a resolutely rational world all the way to the cliffhanger. Able Fox, a Bactrian jet owned by British Charter Airlines has crashed at Abbaq Airport, in the Nile Valley. Two of its three-man crew are dead, the pilot is seriously injured. This report sees Rudge, the company’s Chief Accident Officer, sent to investigate with his assistant of seven weeks standing, Keith Hazard.
This report may be complicated by two factors: the Bactrians are a newly-acquired and expensive fleet and Manager Eric Bayliss doesn’t want any fault in the aircraft to be found. But the Pilot, Smithson, is Rudge’s best friend of thirty years and he doesn’t want any pilot error to be found.
This is not going to be the kind of cliché story we would have been fed any time in the last forty years: Bayliss makes his wishes known, but they are preferences. Rudge is to report the truth.
Abbaq airport is just a way-station, carved out of the desert, little more than a refuelling post with a nearby town. Rudge and Hazard fly out in a converted Mosquito, arriving in time to speak to Smithson. The pilot has been fatally wounded but, knowing Rudge would investigate, he’s kept himself alive to report. He’s clear, strong, lucid and sane, which makes all the more of an impact when, after absolving the plane, the airport, the weather and the pilot, Smithson’s final words set out coldly the cause of the crash: that another pair of hands, invisible, inhuman, tore the controls away from him and sent the plane into its final dive.
Despite their source, Rudge refuses to believe this explanation. At least, he does so outwardly: Hazard is our viewpoint character for this story, we see and hear his reactions and thoughts, but we only see and hear Rudge through Hazard. Nevertheless, Rudge can’t accept the explanation. It’s superstition, and he is a man of the Twentieth Century, the Age of Machines. The explanation, when it is found, will be rational: it can’t be anything else.
It’s not the plane though, because Rudge and Hazard go over it with a fine-toothed comb and find nothing. It’s not the airport: it might be way out in the arse-end of nowhere, but it has never had an accident before. Nothing in  the way of a solution is coming up. Except that Crosby, the Ground Controller, an experienced South African ex-pilot, without any knowledge of Smithson’s statement, describes the crash as looking like two pilots fighting over the controls.
And then there is the nickname: Runway 13. There aren’t thirteen runways at Abbaq. The prevailing winds are east-west, and the main runway is laid out accordingly. But maybe a dozen times a year, the wind shifts to the north, so a cross-runway was constructed. It got the nick-name of Runway 13 because of the number of accidents during its construction, vehicles going out of control, three workers killed. Smithson’s Bactrian was the first attempted landing on that runway.
Rudge is still fighting any notion of superstition being involved. But the wind’s in the north again, so he and Keith take up to Mosquito to repeat the landing, investigate the conditions. And fifty feet along the runway, another pair of hands tears the controls from Rudge and flies the Mossie towards the ground.
The effect is temporary: it only covers a short range, and because the Mosquito’s a lighter plane, Rudge can regain control and pull out of the dive. So now the cause of the crash is established. Still he resists: they know how now, but not why? What explains what just happened.
Quickly, the story piles on more and more ‘evidence’. Rudge and Keith investigate the trench caused by the Bactrian’s crash and Keith finds the entrance to a tunnel, cold, utterly black, completely creepy. It leads to a burial chamber, complete with Mummy. It is a Pharaoh’s tomb, that of Senruset (a fictional Pharaoh, from 2,600 BC, which would place him at the start of the Fourth Dynasty, in the era occupied by the real Pharaoh Sneferu), and it comes complete with Pharonic curse: upon all that disturb his eternal sleep, ‘I shall reach out my hand from my tomb to punish them’. Senruset’s tomb is directly below Runway 13.
I must be honest and admit that this is pure cliché, 100% through and through, yet I can’t deny its effect, and that’s down to our unknown writer. A similar theme underlay R. B. Maddocks’ Corrigan and the Purple Priest, which I spoke of here, but I find its use in this story considerably more effective.
This seeming degree of ‘proof’ is a facer for Rudge, but the story is quickly, and cannily diverted. The Tomb is filled with an unearthly shriek that sets the Mummy into motion, and which sends Rudge, Keith and the on hand archaeologist Kendrick running in blind panic but, in a foreshadowing of the ending, the noise is an acoustic distortion of the noise of a plane coming in to land. On Runway 13.
This becomes another crash, and three more dead despite Rudge and Keith’s attempts at a rescue. Strangely, however, this latest disaster puts fresh heart into the practical Rudge, by offering an alternate, rational explanation in the face of the mounting superstition.
Also present at Abbaq are two foreigners, a Syrian named Sulim and his shabby Greek clerk. There is a degree of period racism here, automatic rather than directed, as both are, at best, slimeballs. Sulim in particular is full of whining implications. He owns Trans-Mesop Airlines, a rival charter company that is struggling against the likes of British Charter, with its rich resources, its modern jets. If British Charter’s reputation is ruined by this, Sulim stands to profit.
And the second crash? A local sheikh, testing out using his own planes to avoid to exploitive charges of local operators. When Sulim’s Greek is found laughing at the latest crash, Rudge adds two and two together and comes to the kind of four he likes. Sabotage: it’s obvious. None of this superstitious claptrap. Especially as Sulim’s managed to bribe his way in to where the Bactrian’s cargo is being stored and destroy a large part of it.
There’s just one problem with that friendly, comfortable, rational theory (apart from, how did he do it?). Sulim runs, intent on reaching his plane, flying out. Rudge and Hazard pursue. Sulim crashes onto the airport, drives across the runway. Runway 13. It wasn’t sabotage, not any kind of sabotage we recognise in the Twentieth Century. Another pair of hands rips the wheel out of Sulim’s as he drives over Senruset’s tomb. The car crashes. Sulim dies.
Everything points one direction, the one direction Rudge is still resisting facing. Keith Hazard’s convinced, he’s scared down to his spine of what’s below Runway 13. Rudge still won’t bend, won’t report back, won’t commit to paper what they’ve found out. And suddenly there’s another plane coming to Abbaq. It’s from British Charter Airlines. It’s carrying a team, including an Air Ministry expert, and Eric Bayliss.
They’re going to do a flight over Runway 13, to see for themselves. They won’t listen to Rudge when he warns them not to. And Rudge breaks. His determination not to accept the by-now-horribly-obvious but still unbelievable shatters. He sets off for the tomb of Senruset, with a stick of dynamite, racing the aircraft…
Hazard chases him all the way to the tomb, is there when Rudge throws in the stick of dynamite, but the atmosphere traps them, keeps them from running. Bayliss’s plane swoops, the scream begins, they start to run. Then the explosive goes off and the Mummy flies towards them. They are buried in the collapsed tunnel, but only for a few minutes before both are dug out.
There’s an unusual double-ending. This one is the first, but the episode leaps head three months, to the official report, signed off by Rudge and counter-signed by Keith Hazard. Dryly, technically, plausibly, it places responsibility for Smithson’s crash on unusual and excessive wind turbulence caused by an unsuspected cavity under the Runway, that ceased when the cavity was filled in. It’s a good, scientific solution, Twentieth Century rationality superseding supernatural claptrap. There was no curse. The Mummy was a red herring, a coincidence. This is 1963. The Air Expert signed off on it.
And then we roll back, to the aftermath of the explosion. In the sky, the controls of the Bactrian were torn from the pilot’s grasp. But only for two seconds, until the explosion, and then the controls went free. Everybody landed safely, on Runway 13.
Rudge tells the whole story, just as we’ve learned it, and everyone believes it. The Man from the Ministry does put forward the air turbulence theory, agrees to work it into a scientifically established rationalistic explanation. And it could be so, could be the real cause of everything, it’s been a fact all along, just misinterpreted. But even the expert believes in the curse.
The last paragraph belongs to Keith Hazard. When he leaves Abbaq, he takes with him a gift, an ivory talisman, a good luck charm taken from the entrance to the tomb of Senruset itself. Because Keith Hazard, man of the Twentieth Century, former RAF pilot, knows that the world contains things of which to be afraid. And that you can never have enough good luck talismans.
At seven episodes, Runway 13 barrelled along without stopping. It stayed strictly within its linear story, except for that curious double-ending, and as a result, it felt substantially shorter than its immediate successor, High Quest, which was only one episode longer. That serial, though comparatively tautly written, was nevertheless by another writer, but the guy behind this was given a broader canvas to paint on with Horizon Unlimited, and brought to it his love and knowledge of airplanes and flying, and good, two-fisted adventure.
Overall, Runway 13 doesn’t stack up against High Quest, and that’s not just the nostalgia of reading High Quest in 1963 talking. In a way, that makes it more impressive, that a story written over fifty years ago for 7 – 10 year olds should, of its own making, entertain and interest a 60 year old.
But this is Eagle we’re talking about. Even in the beginning of decline, it still produced stuff like this, from an anonymous staff or freelance writer, working to commission, no doubt. Some of Eagle‘s serials were by professional book writers, named authors. At least two of Eric Leyland’s Flame series of boys thriller novels were first serialised in Eagle, as was a Biggles adventure, and Mr Anonymous was certainly a better writer than either of them: and yes, I do include the semi-legendary Captain W. E. Johns.
To read it for yourself, as with High Quest, you will have to haunt eBay for the right copies of Eagle, volume 14, issues 3 – 9 inclusive (for High Quest you will need issues 10 – 17, and for Horizon Unlimited practically the next year). It’s not a major work. It’s half a century out of date. You’ll need a mind attuned to that era. But if you have that, it’s half an hour well spent.


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