R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 17: Coastal Patrol

The bridge of the Flying Cloud

Cups rattled as Abercrombie slammed his fist down on the mess table. The chief rigger’s face was dark: the very picture of an angry Scotsman.

"Coastal patrol!" he exclaimed. "Off Darwin?"

"I take it this is not a plum posting," said Lieutenant Iverson.

"It’s the bleedin’..."

"Language, airman," warned Jenkins -- as signalman, he felt it his duty to maintain certain standards of propriety..

"...posterior end of nowhere! Why are they sendin’ us there?"

"It’s that Michaelson fella," said MacKiernan. "He’s upset because we capsized his yacht. And he never did like the Captain."

"Well, there are times when I don’t like the Captain either," growled Abercrombie, "but I’d never send him tae Darwin."

"What’s so bad about Darwin?" asked Iverson.

"It’s a cluster of hovels on a barren stretch of coast. Their only exports are pearls and fish, and they’ve nae got many of either. We’ll waste fuel and hydrogen patrollin’ the place, crawl back wi’ nothin’ tae report, then that black-hearted Michaelson devil ‘ll use this as an excuse tae take our ship away from us."

The others muttered in assent. They’d assembled in the mess hall -- the only compartment aboard His Majesty’s Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, large enough to hoold a meeting. At the head of the table, Captain Everett set down the sheet of orders he’d just read to his men and considered its contents. Abercrombie was almost certainly right. Lawrence Bates-Shelby Michaelson, captain of the Cairns Naval Air Station and acting commodore of the Coral Sea detachment of the Royal Naval Airship Service, was a greedy man with a reputation for vindictiveness. He was also a vindictive man with a reputation for greed. These were both bad combinations.

Still, this was no reason to give up hope. "Gentlemen," he announced. "We shall make the best of this situation."

"May I ask how, sir?" asked Jenkins. The signalman’s voice sounded strained.

"We’re Englishmen," Everett replied, "we’ll find a way. And Darwin might not turn out to be the isolated backwater Captain Michaelson imagines. There’s something strange going on in this part of the world."

His men nodded. They still had no idea who owned the mysterious cruiser that had destroyed their previous vessel, His Majesty’s Airship R-212, only a few days earlier. Their current ship was even more of an enigma. The French and German governments continued to deny any knowledge of her existence, and a careful search of the vessel from bow to stern had failed to turn up any clues regarding her origin. The maintenance manuals provided no names. There were no builders marks or identifying plates on her engines or frames. Minor equipment, such as flight instruments, was of the sort that could have been purchased anywhere. And the Japanese engineer they’d found with the ship was singularly uninformative.

"Mister Iwamoto?" asked Everett, "your opinion?"

"No opinion. Opinion not my job. I come with engines."

"So I understand," said Everett dryly. He turned to his executive officer. "Mister MacKiernan, plot us a course along the coast at low altitude and of most economical cruising speed. We’ll do some patrolling along the way, but I see no reason to spend extra fuel and ballast until we know the supply situation in Darwin. Mister Iwamoto, I’m assigning you Cameron and Crowley as mechanics. I’ll leave administration of the engineering section up to you. Abercrombie, draw up a set of watches that leaves one man on the upper lookout station at all times. Jenkins and Mister Iverson, you’ll take turns with Wallace, Mister MacKiernan, and Miss Sarah on the bridge."

Everett noticed Lieutenant Iverson’s face brighten at the mention of the girl’s name. He sighed inwardly. Life would have been much simpler he’d been able to gather a crew of regular naval personnel, but Michaelson had forced him to some unusual expedients. This might lead to complications.

"To work then, gentlemen!" he announced, giving no hint of his apprehensions. "We have a job to do!"


The following afternoon found Everett sitting in his quarters, gazing out the window. Outside, the western shore of the Cape York Peninsula slid past while the ship's engines droned in the background. It was an unpromising scene -- a succession of empty beaches backed by tangles of brush. There were no signs of settlement. The soil here was notably unfertile, even by Australian standards, and few attempts had been made to colonize this stretch of coast. Were they wasting time with this detour, he wondered? Perhaps, but it would be good training for the men. So thinking, he flipped open the ship’s log to make an entry.

July 6, 1926, 1200 hrs. Lat, 22 36’ Long 168 57’. His Majesty’s Airship Flying Cloud, R-505, Captain Roland P Everett cmdr. We are proceeding along shoreline of the Gulf of Carpenteria, en route to Darwin. Since our orders did not specify a time for our arrival, it is my intention to proceed at a due pace, examining this coast for anything out of the ordinary. The crew continue to perform well, and there have been no complaints of cannibalism or vegetarianism.

He was capping his pen when a call came over the intercom. "Captain, report from the upper lookout station. Davies has spotted something on the coast ahead."

The control car was some distance from the crew section, but reaching the bridge quickly without appearing disheveled was one of the skills officers were taught in Command College. Signalmen received similar training, and Jenkins was waiting with a pair of binoculars when he arrived.

"Where away?" Everett asked, accepting the glasses.

"A steamship, sir, bearing 130. And I do believe it’s time to have this jacket laundered."

Everett raised the binoculars and adjusted the focus until he was able to make out the vessel a few miles ahead. It was a small coastal freighter, with a raised forecastle and single stack and deckhouse aft. The ship was down by the stern and her bow seemed to have run up on the beach.

"They appear to be aground," he noted. "Have there been any distress signals?"

"No, Captain," said MacKiernan. "As far as we can tell, the vessel's abandoned."

"Have there been any reports of a recent shipwreck on this stretch of coast?"

"No, sir," said Jenkins, "nothing that corresponds to this ship."

"Then I suppose we should investigate," said Everett. "Mister MacKiernan, what’s the surface wind?"

The Exec bent over the drift meter for a moment, then consulted the compass and airspeed indicator. "Southeast at three knots with no significant gust factor," he reported.

"Very good," said Everett. He stepped to the intercom, picked up the microphone, and thumbed the switch. "All hands," he announced, "this is your captain speaking. We’ll be sending down a landing party. Mister Iverson and Airman Loris, meet me in the Transporter Room."

Next week: Landing Party...

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