Today I welcome back Gabriele Wills with an excerpt from her latest book, Lighting the Stars. It’s the fourth installment in the Muskoka Novels. Be sure to read my review and follow the tour for more reviews and excerpts.
Excerpt from Lighting the Stars:
[Elyse is one of the 168 women pilots transferring warplanes from factories to airfields
for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in Britain.]
Oh hell! Elyse thought, as the clouds ahead seemed to coalesce with malicious intent.
True to the Met report, the weather on her outward journey to deliver a brand-new Spitfire
to a maintenance unit in the Midlands had been manageable, but no major front was
forecast for this flight to an RAF squadron on the south coast.
She had been cruising along, delighting in the multi-hued and layered autumn clouds
that tangoed with shafts of sunlight, enjoying the power and grace of another Spit, this one
outfitted with guns and a radio, almost ready for battle. And she was already anticipating
seeing Theo in only a few hours. He was coming to spend his two days off with her. It
wasn’t always easy to coordinate their leaves.
She dove down to skim under the thickening grey canopy and was pleased that she was
able to level off at 800 feet, their minimum ceiling for flying. But the heavy pall of
impending rain pressed down on her… 600 feet… 500.
Needing to fly contact, being able to see the ground, and follow the rivers, roads, and
railroad tracks for her planned route was crucial, but flying any lower was too bloody risky
as she was passing over the Chiltern Hills. She checked her map for altitudes and dangerous
When she looked up, she was shocked to find herself completely engulfed, as if
swallowed by a dirty snowbank. Instinctively she pulled up. Watch it, you’re banking.
Straighten up. For God’s sake, don’t go into a spin.
Flying blind at 250 miles an hour was terrifying, so she slowed the plane.
Elyse knew she should turn around. She had recently passed Oxford and was familiar
with the RAF aerodrome there. But it was possible that the unexpected cloudbank had
already enveloped it as well. And if she did manage to get down, she might be stuck there
for days until the weather cleared, pilots being in charge of their aircraft until safely
delivered. She would hate to miss her time with Theo.
Surely these clouds will thin soon. Concentrate on your instruments. You know the drill. She
had some basic instrument training, but Theo had made sure she knew how to blind-fly
onto a reciprocal course, a shallow 180 degree turn, which could be a lifesaver. Hills had
already claimed a few of her male colleagues.
Instead, she decided to break the cardinal ATA rule and go “over the top”. It was what
Amy Johnson had done and had lost the gamble of trying to crack through the smothering
Making sure she was still on her original compass heading, Elyse opened the throttles
and climbed ever higher. At 8000 feet, she burst into dazzling sunshine, but was appalled to
find herself above a boundless sea of clouds. Surely this didn’t cover all of southern
She glanced with futile anger at the newly fitted radio. Since she had no helmet
attachment, it would remain tauntingly silent for her. There was no way to know which
aerodromes were still open, or to get a homing signal from one of them.
She had checked her watch, and would try to fly by dead reckoning to at least get close to
Up here she was safe, and able to breathe more easily. The clouds might break apart by
the time she neared Tangmere. But if she overshot, she would be above the Channel. A few
minutes more and she could be over occupied France. If she was shot down there, it would
be her own fault. “Pilot error” would be her epitaph.
Of course, she could choose to jump, hoping to land on solid ground, unlike Amy. The
ATA mantra was “if in doubt, bail out”. Pilots were too valuable. But it would still be a black
mark on her record. She should never have gone over the cloud base.
She spared a thought for Roz, who was in charge of one of the Anson taxis today,
dropping off and picking up pilots from their various destinations. She was to fetch Elyse at
Tangmere, but Roz would already have aborted that pickup, and was surely either back at
home base or had put down somewhere. A planeload of eight or ten pilots was a precious
At her current speed, it was now only minutes before Elyse should be nearing the fighter
base – if her calculations were correct. It was where Charlie commanded a Wing, and she’d
been looking forward to surprising him. But not by crashing.
Damn! There was no hole in the clouds. She would have to start her descent and hope
that her navigation had been spot-on. But the Downs undulated to over 900 feet, and
Tangmere lay just below them. Too close. She needed to overshoot and then head back in
from the sea. There wasn’t enough petrol to return to Oxford.
Don’t panic! Focus! Calculate when to turn. Another part of her said, Bail out.
She spent a few more grateful minutes in the sunshine, hoping these wouldn’t be her
Now trust yourself. As she re-entered the clouds she felt as if they were condensing on
her face, but realized it was perspiration. It was frightening to watch the altimeter falling
and yet see nothing. At 950 feet she thought of breaking off, and going back up to jump.
With any luck, the Spitfire would crash harmlessly into an empty field.
But she was surely past the highest points.
At a nerve-wracking 300 feet, she saw something glimmering through the gloom.
Thank you Ms. Wills for this exciting excerpt from Lighting the Stars!
About the Author:
Gabriele Wills is the author of 6 highly acclaimed historical novels, including 4 in The Muskoka Novels saga set in North America, Britain, and Europe through the two cataclysmic World Wars and the seductive Jazz Age.
Her passion is to weave compelling stories around meticulously researched and often quirky or arcane facts in order to bring the past to life, especially with regard to women’s often forgotten contributions.
The first novel in her ‘Muskoka Novels’, ‘The Summer Before the Storm’ was the “Muskoka Chautauqua Reading List Winner”
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