The Heartwing Story
Billie Hardwicke, privileged and rudderless, is growing into womanhood right before America enters the Second World War. When a chance meeting with an Army pilot shakes things up a bit, Billie is sure she has found her life’s calling. She will fly.
Fast forward to the present: Ex-journalist Jim Blackburn, divorced, a recovering alcoholic and also without direction, has a chance meeting with an elderly Billie Hardwicke at an airport overlook. When he hears the old woman begin to tell her amazing life story, Jim knows he will need to tell the world about her accomplishments before time runs out on them both.
Flashing back and forth in time we learn how young Billie strives to earn her wings flying for the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the WASPs. She navigates the confusing world of love and her own sexuality. There is danger in the air, but even more on the ground; between male-dominated Army rules, secret romantic trysts which threaten her career and a malevolent drug lord who holds her life captive, Billie will have to lie, cheat and steal. Even to kill.
Billie looked down to the end of Runway Four Five and observed the long line of white painted dashes. Standing in the middle of the freshly rolled asphalt she felt like a slice of bacon in a cast iron skillet. The heat that radiated from the runway’s surface seared Billie’s skin like flames from a farrier’s forge. Yet she smiled, knowing she was witnessing the birth of something big. The spanking new Hardwicke Regional Airport was ready for business.
Mr. Allret, the new superintendent, had ordered Billie to make a final sweep for debris on the runway. “We don’t want Eastern Air Lines to pop a tar on their first landing, now do we, Miss Billie?” But the only debris she could find was a lone box turtle. It had withdrawn inside its shell, having rereated from the deadly rays and the unmerciful black fire beneath its feet. The unfortunate creature had misjudged the distance to cross the burning desert and was simply awaiting its inevitable, painful demise.
“Now that was a fool thing to do,” Billie said. She gently picked up the turtle and lowered it onto the grass apron. “Now go home and cool off.”
She started back for the new terminal. It was really just a one-story cinder block building with a red roof, but the large white metal letters on top that spelled HARDWICKE made it look very official. To be able to see her name so large it could be read over two miles away made Billie feel special, and just a bit odd. But no one treated her special at Hardwicke Regional Airport. Henry had made sure of that. Here she was just Miss Billie, hired hand.
By the early afternoon the crowd had assembled for the grand ribbon cutting. There were scores of important guests, including the governor and state senators, several congressmen, and a high school marching band, of which several wool-clad members had already fainted dead out from the heat. There was a good local crowd on hand and most everyone agreed it was the greatest thing to happen since Littlejohn Lake was dammed. Even those who at first had pooh-poohed the fool idea of an airport now thought the new facility was splendid.
Finally, twenty-seven minutes late, Eastern Air Lines Flight 92 from Richmond could be heard making its approach. It was a fine new, silver-skinned DC-3, and it made a perfect landing. The posters had promised a surprise celebrity passenger and the crowd wasn’t disappointed. After several moments of passengers making their way out of the airplane, drab-looking who’s thats and oh it’s nobodies, finally appearing at the door was the most beautiful woman Billie had ever seen. The crowd strained to make out her identity. In whispers, then finally in shouts, the crowd chanted her name, “That’s Olivia DeHavilland!” The star of Gone With the Wind slowly descended the short steps and was handed a large bunch of roses.
“How did you manage to get her, Pop?” asked Billie.
“You just have to know the right strings to pull,” he answered with no small amount of pride.
There were long speeches by congressmen and still longer speeches by local businessmen and county commissioners. The heat built to a crescendo. The band’s sousaphonist fell out, his instrument’s brass bell clanking on the tarmac. Finally, blessedly, came the ribbon cutting. Katharine was given the honor of sharing the oversized pair of gold-painted scissors with Miss DeHavilland. Of course the dull, wooden shears wouldn’t cut butter, so the ribbon had to be severed with a pocketknife quickly produced by Billie.
But the best part of the show came without announcement. With a deafening roar a lone biplane streaked over the main hangar, narrowly missing the windsock staff, and zoomed straight up into the sky over the field, trailing a thick plume of white smoke. For the next few moments the crowd witnessed an amazing display of aerobatics, incredible, impossible spins, inside and outside loops and death-defying plunges perilously close to the ground. Billie held her breath. How does he do all those impossible things?
She could have watched the stunt pilot all day, but all too soon it was over. The plane finished its thrill show and landed at the far end of the runway. The band music resumed as DeHavilland signed autographs. But Billie had her eyes on the yellow barnstormer taxiing toward the fueling station. She left her father’s side and ran to attend to the stunt plane.
The pilot cut the engine and pointed to the upper wing tank port. As Billie tugged the gas hose toward the plane, she couldn’t help but notice the brightly painted nose art, a diving yellow bird with a vicious, toothy grin. The insignia read, Scary Canary.
The pilot stepped off the wing and removed the goggles, then the flying helmet. Out dropped a long plume of wavy blonde hair. Billie swallowed her gum.
“You’re a girl!” said Billie, realizing it was stupid and obvious as it left her mouth.
The pilot smiled and took off her droopy parachute sack. “I like to think of myself as an aviatrix.”
“That’s okay, sugar. Everybody reacts that way when they see me. I’m used to it. How’d you like the show?”
Billie stood up in the cockpit, listening carefully for the filling sound from the gas tank ports. She was getting pretty good at stopping the gas before it spewed out. “It was fantastic! How did you learn all those moves?”
“It wasn’t easy at first. But just like anything, it gets better with lots of practice.”
“I’d give anything to be able to fly like that.”
“You’re a pilot?”
“Sure am. Well, not quite an aviatrix yet, but I’m this close to getting my pilot’s license.”
“Well, how’d you like to go up for spin right now? I can show you one or two easy tricks before I have to head on to Oklahoma.”
“Heck yes!” A small gusher of fuel spewed out onto the wing. Billie cursed herself. “Ah shoot!”
“Honey, if you’re going to be a pilot you’ll have to learn to swear like one. That’s half the job.”
Billie thought for a moment and then let fly with a more appropriate invective. “Ah shit!”
“That’s more like it. Hop in the front and strap yourself in real tight. We’ll be doing some outside loops.”
The Eastern DC-3 and the Hollywood starlet at last lifted off and the crowd began to scatter. Henry pumped a few remaining hands, thanked his constituents and started for the car. Katharine, sweltering and fanning herself madly, sat in the back seat of the Chrysler, while Reggie the chauffeur languished in the front. Hank leaned against the door, smoking. Adelaide stood in the shade of a hangar, flirting with a young military officer. But Henry noticed one of his chicks was unaccounted for.
“Where’s Billie?” he asked.
Hank shrugged. Then a sound overhead drew Henry’s eyes to the yellow biplane darting back and forth across the afternoon sky. He knew where his daughter was now.
“Come on, everybody. Let’s go home.”
“What about Billie?” Katharine asked.
Henry shook his head. “She’ll be along directly. I hope.”
Albert L. Dulin, Author
Albert Dulin is a Charlotte, North Carolina native. He is a musician, artist, photographer and playwright. From an early age, Albert made films, which led him into a career in television and video production, which led him to writing. His current play is based on the life and death of Wernher von Braun, “Doctor Rocket’s Last Night On Earth.” He is the father of two gifted and very grown children and is grandfather to three young ‘uns.
Contact Albert at firstname.lastname@example.org
News & Events
In my acknowledgments page I mention the inspiration that kickstarted the idea for the book. Many years ago, when I was just a wisp of a child my Aunt Betty (Betty Baxter Hayes) told me of an event that occurred in 1944 at Charlotte’s Douglas Airport. She and her friend Peggy Parsley, both Eastern Air Lines employees, were on duty when a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber overshot the runway and settled onto the Southern Railway tracks. Just then . . . Well, I’ll skip ahead: Peggy took matters in her own hands and saved the day. Eddie Rickenbacker, CEO of Eastern Air Lines, came out to give her an award for heroism. There was even a comic strip depicting the event. Where was this famous comic, I wondered. No one seemed to know. I figured Aunt Betty would have one, since she was there and saw it all happen. Nope. Fast forward again: After I finished the book and was writing the acknowledgments I made one more stab at tracking down news clippings and the elusive comic. I found it on eBay. Of course. The illustrated event ran in an old comic book series called Real Heroes. So here are the pages from a 1946 issue. No, the event doesn’t figure into Billie Heartwing, but this is what sparked my imagination. Enjoy!