Night Garden, Corsair – Descending Over Water
One summer night in my teens, a couple of us were travelling in a car driven by a man named Rollie Hall. It was a very opaque night and I commented on the emptiness of the starless sky, and how alone we seemed. He smiled and said, “You haven’t been alone until you’re out over the North Sea in the black of night, trying to find your aircraft carrier…”. He paused, “…there are no lights, and they can’t call you because enemy ships might zero in on the radio signal and give your ship’s location away.”
In the glow of the car’s dashboard lights I could see his jaw muscles setting as he took us back to the early months of 1945 and the cramped loneliness of his Corsair’s dark cockpit. He was a New Zealander, trained in Canada and flying with a Commonwealth squadron from a Royal Navy carrier.
Rollie explained that taking off at dusk, the pilot would patrol his given route and from a clipboard strapped to his leg, also plot the projected course of the carrier. But if, due to unplanned evasive manoeuvers, the ship changed course, they could not inform the pilot(s) and would not be at the rendezvous point in the darkness below.
The only locator the ship had was a cone of radio signal sent straight up from its tower. With the radio set for the carrier’s frequency, the pilot flew to the anticipated co-ordinates. The higher the altitude of the plane, the wider the cone and the greater likelihood of picking it up.
“Suppose you were at fifteen thousand feet,” he went on, “and the signal suddenly began, you hit your stopwatch and fly straight and level at a set speed, and when the signal stops you hit the watch again. If on your chart it indicated that crossing the centre of the cone should take eighteen seconds at that height, and your watch said eleven seconds, then you’re off center, on side of another. You then fly back and forth till the signal lasts eighteen seconds. You’ve found the centre and the ship, and you begin to spiral down over the signal.”
He stared straight ahead as he drove… out over the darkened night sea. “Sometimes, no matter how you searched, the cone was nowhere to be found. Getting low on fuel now. There was one last resort, a desparation call… you radio, ” Darky, darky, where are you?” The carrier would then give a very brief burst on its omnidirectional signal, maybe ten seconds. You had to dial it in quickly or they’d be gone again. They would give two bursts, and that was your last hope.”
We drove on silently through the prairie night.
“Twice… I had to use it.”
I could not imagine the blackness, the emptiness.
Rollie continued, “once you’d located the carrier by signal you still couldn’t see it, but you levelled off a few hundred feet over the water and flew in an arc around where you thought it was. Remember, you can’t put on your own lights… you were looking for a tiny set of hooded blue lights, set at a angle at the stern of the landing deck… the angle matched the glide path. Going round and round, finally you’d spot one light and you would turn toward it, then you’d yaw from side to side looking for the second one and when you had it you were nearly home. If the sea was heavy and there were swells you had to watch the rising and falling of the lights as you got close or you’d come in too low and smash into the stern. You kept your eyes glued to the blue lights and as you passed over them you shut everything off and let the plane drop like a rock and prayed like hell that the hook caught the line.”
We all let out our breath.
We were home.
In Night Garden, Corsair – Descending Over Water the bottom profile of the form echoes the distinctive gullwing shape of the Corsair. Rising from the apex is a faint triangulation emulating the signal cone from the carrier. At the top edges of the triangle two faint blue lights are embedded in the image. Unlike the three other wall pieces which reach to the floor, Night Garden is raised, like a normal painting, giving the viewer the illusion of being suspended over a darkened garden pond.