R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 4: Borne on Wings of Steel, but Without all of that Tedious Steel

Fleming's Lilienthal hang glider

Fleming sprinted forward, straight toward the edge of the cliff. As he approached it, he leaned forward, holding the nose of his glider down so its wings angled into the wind that blew up the limestone face. The abyss yawned before him. The ground dropped away beneath his feet. Then he was climbing in the updraft. Behind him, as his crewmates gave a hurrah.

"Bravo!" cried Davies.

"Go get ‘em, Peter-me-boy!" yelled MacKiernan.

"No way he can make it," said Abercrombie.

"Ye wanna put some money on that?" asked MacKiernan.

They’re at it again, thought Fleming. Smiling, he eased the stick right to bank his craft into a turn. Like most modern gliders, it had true three-axis flight controls in place of the awkward weight-shift system Otto Lilienthal had used in his original wings. The aircraft responded crisply, and soon he was heading parallel to the cliff, gaining altitude as he flew west. To his left, the Coral Sea was a rich tropical blue. To his right, the jungle rose in waves of green toward the line of mountains that crowned the center of the island.

When he felt he’d flown far enough, he banked left to head back the way he’d come. By the time he reached his launch point, he was a hundred feet higher, looking down at the wreckage of their airship where it rose above the trees. Below him, Captain Everett was gazing upward, studying the glider with a calculating eye. Fleming gave his commander a cheerful wave. The captain waved back in return.

Fleming spent the next several minutes soaring above the cliff, getting a feel for his aircraft, remembering the skills that had served him so well competition. If he wished, he stay aloft here indefinitely. But this so-called ‘ridge lift’, where the trade winds turned to blow up the face of the cliff, was restricted to a narrow band above the shore. It would not carry him inland where he wished to go. For that, he needed to find thermals. Ahead he could see a frigate bird -- perhaps the same one his captain had spotted earlier -- circling as it climbed. He turned in its direction.

Moments later, his glider nosed up and rolled left in a movement that, left unchecked, would have sent it wheeling back into the ground. But Fleming had been waiting for this, and pushed the stick right to turn into the lift. Struts creaked and harness straps dug into his armpits as the wing surged upwards. In front of him, his crude rate-of-climb instrument -- two pith balls in a pair of tapered glass tubes -- flickered to show he was going up.

"Hurrah!" he yelled -- a pure unbridled burst of emotion that echoed from the hills. The frigate bird glanced in his direction, wondering at this awkward creature that had come to share its thermal. Then, annoyed by the young man’s exuberance, it flapped off down the ridge.


As a child, Fleming had watched hawks circle above the hills near Sydney, envying the way they soared. Their flight had seemed so effortless. He’d since learned otherwise, for working a thermal was anything but easy. This one was particularly demanding, changing in strength and direction with every foot he climbed, forcing him to make continual corrections to stay in the invisible column of rising air.

The lift band grew broader and smoother as he climbed. At last, as he neared the base of the clouds, the youth was able to relax and look around. From here, three thousand feet up, he could see for miles, but there was little to see. The ocean was empty -- as unmarked by shipping as it had been during their drift to the island. The jungle was a patchwork of green and dark, mottled by cloud shadows, with no trace of fields or cultivation. This was hardly surprising, for the southern coast of the island was an unbroken line of cliffs, with no beaches, inlets, or other places to put ashore. Any settlements would be to the north, on the other side of the mountains, where there were more likely to be harbors.

Could he make it far? By competition standards the distance was modest. Indeed, he’d flown significantly farther in an attempt to impress a sheila in Tawonga. The enterprise had not been an unqualified success, for the girl had seemed strangely uninterested in a scruffy young man, covered with dust, with sunburnt skin and wind-tussled hair, but the flight had been something to remember. There was only one way to find out. Turning inland, left the thermal and set a course for the mountains.

What would he find on the other side, he wondered? The French had used this place as a penal colony for a generation, dumping their worst convicts here to rot in the jungle. Before that, these islands had been inhabited by cannibals. Neither alternative seemed palatable. Though he worried that he might seem palatable to the latter.


An hour later, Fleming was still fighting his way north. The flight had proved harder than he anticipated, for the thermals were capricious, and tended to disappear at inconvenient moments, leaving him low over the jungle with no place to land. More than once, he’d felt the sickening realization that he’d taken one chance too many chance and was going down in the trees, where he’d be trapped, injured and unable to move, a convenient feast for those hypothetical cannibals. And what about those convicts? His pastor had warned him about the French and their unsavory habits. Though Father Smead had been unable to provide any specifics except for a vague comment about snails.

By now, the crash site was a barely visible dot on the coast to the south. In front of him the line of mountains loomed like a wall. One more climb up to cloudbase should get him high enough to see beyond them. He studied the terrain ahead, trying to predict where the next thermal would be.

When it came, the thing was a monster -- an invisible giant that swatted him aside like a fly. He jammed the stick over, fighting his way into the lift. The thermal, unimpressed by his efforts, tossed him back out. So yer looking for a blue, mate? Fleming thought. I'm ready!

Wings rocked, struts creaked, and seconds ticked past unnoticed as the young Aussie wrestled with a force that was unpredictable, unforgiving, and far stronger than he was. It was, he reflected, much like that sheila in Tawonga. With every circle he flew, the ground fell farther away. At last, after an endless timeless struggle, the clouds were spreading above him and the mountains were far below.

"Strewth!" he exclaimed, when he saw what lay on the other side.

He took a long careful look, committing the scene to memory before he banked away for the long flight home. The Captain would want to know about this!

Next week: Still No Island Maidens...

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