All night the bluish ray of a floodlight illuminated the steppe. It stretched along the ground like a road banked by black walls of darkness. Overhead hung the starry cupola of the winter sky. This is the roof under which airplanes are being assembled.
The planes are brought here — the assembly site of a reserve aircraft regiment — in huge cases on long flat railway cars. A branch rail line has been laid across plowed fields. Five months ago they were covered by dense rows of wheat.
Tractors drag the cases up ramps to platforms. “Platform” is a fine sounding word, but actually it is nothing but a patch of frozen ground, plentifully soaked with oil and scattered with scraps of paper. Derricks tower up like huge black storks.
Long range bombers are complex machines. They arrive at the platform unassembled. In a factory beneath a roof it is not difficult to put them together. But how can it be done in the open on a snow-covered steppe, when a bitter wind howls and one’s fingers are too numb to hold a tool?
In winter the steppe pierces you through and through, even though you wear a sheepskin coat, felt boots and a fur cap. It chills your very heart, breezes your body and fetters your movements.
Protecting my face with my hand, I crossed the field, looking for platform No. 2. Airplanes stood to the right and left. Some were without tails, others without wings. In the brilliant glare of the floodlight they looked like moths gathered here for warmth and protection from a wind which had torn off their wings. The wind whistled and made the struts hum like piano wires.
I caught sight of a small figure in a short, black fur coat, felt boots and Red Army helmet, hopping from foot to foot before a large, twin-engined plane. This was Rоnin, the engineer in charge of the platform. He had a large face and small, tired-looking eyes — it might have been fatigue that lent the a slight squint. His weather-beaten, frostbitten face was covered with dark stains of carbon and oil.
Ronin hopped about, kicking one foot against another and blowing on his red, swollen fingers. Beside the bomber he looked so tiny and feeble that it was hard to believe this frost-numbed little creature could have assembled the vast, powerful machine, that those swollen red hands had felt and tested every one of the plane’s countless and complex parts.
When war broke out Ronin was preparing for a scientific career. On his writing table back home in Moscow there still lies an unfinished treatise which he had been writing under the direction of the aeronautical expert, Maslenikov. The gifted young engineer had been working on the problem of using low grade fuels for plane engines.
“Weren’t you sorry to give up your scientific work?” I asked, trying to make my voice heard above the noise of an engine which suddenly began to roar nearby.
“That’s why I came here so that some day I’ll have a chance to finish my book,” he said. “I have two sisters and a brother, an engineer, and all three are at the front. Our whole family is fighting.”
Ronin abruptly dashed off into the darkness. Soon he returned with an oil lamp and handed it to a young army mechanic, Tupotin, who was standing on the wing of the bomber. “We will be starting the engine soon, after we have heated it up a little,” Ronin said.
The heating torch began to roar near the left motor. Its bent metallic tubes made it look like a man who had flung his arms around the engine, trying to warm its heart which had frozen in the cruel wind.
At last this mass of metal was ready to spring to life and become a plane. The 15 men who had assembled it under Ronin’s supervision were filled with excitement. The mechanic Tupotin, a merry, dark-skinned youth who had recently been a steel smelter in a Nizhnednieprovsky iron mill, was as happy as when the molten, glowing steel used to pour from his crucible. He had helped assemble a machine that would drop a death dealing load of bombs on the enemy who had laid hands on Tupotin’s native town, and on his family.
A rigger named Yablokov was completing the assemblage of the bomber’s tail. A weaver from Vichuga, he had quit his textile mill to learn to adjust elevator fins. Today his country needed bombers more than gay fabrics.
Ronin and Yablokov seized the propeller by the blades and swung it. “Don’t force her,” Ronin cried to the mechanic Baranov, sitting in the pilot’s cockpit. “The engine is frozen — don’t get it jammed.”
The engine roared and the exhaust pipe coughed blue flames. The huge plane trembled as if preparing to take flight. Scraps of turf whirled up from the ground and flew off into the steppe like frightened birds. The wind became fiercer than ever, its force multiplied by the propeller blast.
Ronin was hopping up and down before the roaring machine, not from cold but from happy excitement. The engine was working smoothly. He was shouting something and waving his red hands, and he himself looked like a bird ready to take to the air.
The engine idled down. “The fuel pressure isn’t what it should be,” said Baranov, climbing out of the cockpit.
“Give the reduction valve a turn and a half,” Ronin said, and' he set about feeling every part of the machine, as though he were trying to locate a pain in his own body.
Later I saw Ronin eating soup in a dugout. He lifted the spoon to his mouth with difficulty, as though it were made of stone. He could scarcely keep his eyes open — he hadn’t slept for 48 hours, and the warmth had made him conscious of his fatigue. He had taken a tumbler of vodka before his soup to warm up quicker.
“Tomorrow morning Hero of the Soviet Union Fedorov leaves for the front in our bomber,” he inf from his hand and clattered on the table.
Ronin opened his eyes in surprise and stared around him. “Tomorrow morning,” he repeated.
“You mean today,” the field superintendent corrected him. “It’s morning already, Ronin.”
A tractor had dragged the last plane from the flying field. There were nine in all. They stood with broad wings tip to tip, greeting the rising orange sun with a concerted roar.
One by one they rose into the air, made a circuit over the field, retracted their landing gear and sped toward the west, where the USSR was stemming the enemy onslaught. Ronin waved goodbye with a hand red and swollen by the angry wind of the steppe.