R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 3: No Island Maidens

The Crash Site

The bow section of the Flying Lady, His Majesty's Airship R-212, rose above the cliff like the dome of some strange pagan temple. Below it, waves crashed against the rocks that had so nearly claimed the lives of her nine surviving officers and crew. Now they stood at the edge of the bluff, gazing down at the Pacific and congratulating themselves on their good fortune. Before their feet, a rain-carved wall of limestone plunged down to the surf. Behind them, the jungle rose to a range of hills.

Nowhere was there any sign of man.

"What should we do now, sir?" asked Jenkins. "Do you have any idea where we are?" The signalman had retrieved Everett's cap from the wreckage and was doing his best to make it presentable, straightening the brim and using a rag to blot away the ballast water that had drenched it during their flight to the island.

"I believe this is part of the New Caledonia chain," said Everett. "MacKiernan?"

"That cruiser attacked us before I could finish taking a sight, but I believe you're right."

"It looks tae be a desert isle," said Abercrombie.

"No one would live here on the windward side," said MacKiernan. "The settlements would all be to leeward, where there'll be beaches and landing sites."

"Not a chance, ye ninny," said Abercrombie.

"Ye wanna bet on it?"

"I'd be happy to take more of your money."

"What kind of people would live here," asked Jenkins quickly, seeking to head off another argument.

"The French used this place as a penal colony until 1922," said Fleming, a young airman from Australia. "Before that it was mostly inhabited by cannibals."

"Convicts and cannibals?" said Jenkins. "That doesn't sound very promising. I was hoping for some island maidens."

"Don't cannibals have maidens?" asked Lieutenant Iverson.

"I imagine they do," said Everett, "but I'd prefer to conduct a reconnaissance before we find out. What are our resources?"

An inventory of the wreck turned up a canister of Waltham Patent Emergency Rations (`Guaranteed to sustain airmen in distress'), a tin of tobacco (`Guaranteed to lift the spirits of airmen who've grown tired of emergency rations'), a set of hand tools that Wallace had held onto when Fleming was about to throw them into the sea. In addition, they had a hand axe, Everett's service revolver, and the Lewis gun and ammunition Davies had rescued from the upper lookout station.

"Hope we don't need that lot," remarked Iverson.

"I hope so too," said Davies, who had served in the War, and knew whereof he spoke. While the others talked, he spread out an oilcloth and began to field-strip the weapon.

"What we really need now is an aircraft," said Iverson. "There's still some hydrogen in Cells Eighteen and Nineteen. Do you think we could work one free and use it as a balloon?"

"I think we've had our fill of ballooning," said Everett. The others nodded. It was only by merest chance that they'd made it to land before their fragment of the ship lost all lift and plunged into the sea. No one was in the mood for a repeat of that experience. "Besides," he added, "this trade wind blows from the southeast. It might carry us over those hills, but if we wanted to turn around, we'd never be able to get back. What we need is an aeroplane. Even a glider would do."

Davies and Fleming exchanged glances. "Uh, Captain," said the gunner. "Fleming has a Lilienthal glider that he... um... brought aboard in Cardiff."

Everett turned to glare at the young Australian. "Peter Fleming."

"Uh, yes, Captain."

"Am I correct in understanding that you smuggled a piece of sporting equipment, and a substantial one at that, on board one of His Majesty's airships?"

"Uh, yes sir."

"I trust you have an explanation for this."

"I was hoping to fly it at a competition near Sydney."

"Good man! Where is it and how do we set the thing up?"

An hour later, Fleming and Davies were lowering a long canvas-covered package from a hiding place alongside one of the longitudinal frames next to the machine gun nest, where it had been concealed ever since the ship's departure from England. Everett marveled at the two men's ingenuity. He also took note of the hiding place. A wise captain remembered such things to foster that all-important aura of omniscience.

"How does this craft work?" asked Iverson, as the young Australian unzipped the cover bag and began to set his glider up.

"It's simple enough," said Fleming. "This is the control frame and harness where the pilot hangs. He steers with this control stick mounted on the side. The tail is supported by these frames here, and these poles are the wing spars. When I give this cable a yank, they open up and lock into place."

While he'd been speaking, the youth had been unfolding frames, lacing up the tail fabric, and attaching the harness. Now he sat, braced his feet against the front of his craft, gripped a cable, and pulled. With a rattle of cloth, a pair of wings spread open like the wings of a bat.

"Remarkable," observed Iverson. "and you're sure you know how to fly this contrivance?"

"I was New South Wales Regional Champion back in '24."

"How will you take off?" asked the lieutenant. "We don't have a balloon or airship for you to drop from. And how will you gain enough altitude to cross those hills?"

"Launch won't be a problem," said Fleming. "I can run off this cliff and soar the updrafts that blow up its face. But to get any higher I'll need to find some thermals."

"Thermals?" asked Iverson.

"Rising columns of warm air, like hawks and eagles use to stay aloft."

"I believe I see some frigate birds, circling above the cliff to our left," said Everett.

The Australian looked where his captain indicated. "Thanks, sir. That's exactly the sort of thing I'll be looking for."

Little remained in the way of preparation. Fleming did a careful preflight expression, then strapped into his harness so the wing hung from his shoulders with the control frame running below his arms. Everett thought this looked rather comic, like a boy playing at being a bird. It also looked excruciatingly uncomfortable. What would it be like, he wondered, to hang from one's armpits for several hours while being jostled by turbulence? Still, when he reflected on his own youth, it occurred to him that discomfort was the essence of sport. Those long hours at the oars and brutal games of rugby back at Dulwich had hardly been pleasant. Though those late-night celebrations in the more questionable parts of town had been another matter.

"Could two of you be ready to grab the leading edge?" said Fleming. "I'm ready to carry it up to launch."

Everett and Iverson held the wing steady while the youth inched forward, step by step,pausing whenever a gust blew through. Soon he was standing on the edge of the cliff, wings stretched out to the side like the pinions of some ungainly bird. By now, Everett was having second thoughts about the operation. This was one of his men, for whom he bore a certain responsibility. Certainly he couldn't be party to what was so obviously an attempt at suicide.

"Let go for a moment, so I can see if it's balanced, and be ready to duck when I yell `clear'," said the youth.

Everett released his grip. The youth stood for a moment, testing the wind, then leaned forward to run.

"Clear!" he yelled.

Forewarned, Everett and Iverson dove to the ground as the wing passed over their heads and Fleming launched himself into space. Everett turned, expecting to see to youth plummet to his doom, but instead, the glider rose in the wind and began to climb.

"I hope the fellow knows what he's doing," said Iverson, coming up to stand beside him. Behind them, the others were calling out hurrahs,

"I imagine he does," said Everett. "New South Wales Champion does sound rather promising. Now let's get the others to work before MacKiernan and Abercrombie start betting on him."

Next week: Borne On Wings Of Steel, But Without All Of That Tedious Steel...

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