R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 31: Into the Back of Beyond

Airship being 'walked' to a mooring

"She's ready to lift, sir," said Abercrombie, handing over his report.

Everett glanced over the clipboard, scrawled his signature, and gave it back to his Chief Rigger. "You're limping," he observed.

"Wrenched my back."

"Perhaps you could ask Miss Helga for a massage," suggested Iverson. "Swedes are supposed to have some skill in these matters."

"Aye," said Abercrombie. He seemed strangely unenthusiastic about the prospect.

Everett watched the rigger go, then turned to face his bridge crew. "Lieutenant Iverson," he asked, "your status please?"

"Helm neutral, engines at idle," said the lieutenant.

"Airman Wallace?"

"Two degrees up elevator, sir. She wants to climb."

"Miss Sarah, ballast and hydrogen?"

"With superheat, we should be 800 lbs light."

Everett nodded to himself. By waiting until the sun had warmed the ship's gas cells above the temperature of the surrounding air, they could take advantage of the extra buoyancy to leave the mooring without dropping precious ballast. But this meant launching after the sea breeze had arrived to complicate matters. He glanced out the window, studying the cloud shadows as they swept across the field, then made his decision.

"Engines One and Three ahead one quarter."

"One and Three ahead one quarter," replied Iverson, reaching for the telegraphs.

Everett keyed the intercom. "All hands," he announced, "prepare to lift ship. Rashid, drop the mooring."

There was a distant clunk from the bow. Slowly, ponderously, the Flying Cloud began to drift back from the mooring mast. Beneath their feet, the deck tilted upward.

"Elevator neutral," ordered Everett.

"Elevator neutral," replied Wallace.


"Climbing through two hundred at one hundred feet per minute," said the airman.

"Very good. Mister Iverson ring all engines ahead one half."

On the field below, ground crews had ceased their labors and turned their faces skyward. In Darwin's harbor, a few short miles to the west, fishing boats were sounding their horns in salute.

"They seem excited," observed MacKiernan.

"Indeed they do," said Everett. It wasn't every day a Royal Navy airship came to visit this isolated port. "Let's give them a show. Engines ahead full and helm left to take us over town. Once we're there, make our signal."

Wheels spun, throttles rang, engines roared. Outside the windows, the horizon swung as the Flying Cloud turned to port, steadied on her new course, and began to pick up speed. Then she was thundering over the harbor, siren whooping as she headed out to sea.

"That should put Channel off the scent," Everett observed with satisfaction. "Now let's hope Fleming can do his part."

"Are you all right, Chief?" asked Fleming as Abercrombie limped into the hold.

"Wrenched my back," growled the Scotsman. Fleming wondered at his ill-humor. It seemed uncharacteristic, and quite different from Helga, who was smiling where she stood by the hoist controls.

"You ready to go?" she asked.

"Once I've finished my preflight," replied Fleming. He leaned back, tightened his harness, then moved the stick to check the control linkages. Like most modern Lilienthal gliders, his was controlled by a system of cables that warped the wings. This provided much greater performance than the simple weight-shift machines of old.

A bell rang as he was finishing his pre-flight check. "We're at the launch point," Abercrombie announced. "Yer sure ye can deal wi' the fellows at the cattle station? MacKiernan bet me a shilling they'll think yer after their women."

Fleming shrugged as best he could inside his harness straps. "We're all fellow Aussies. I shouldn't have any trouble."

"Then off ye go. Helga, raise the hoist and open the doors."

"Ja!" cried Helga cheerfully. "Hoist it up and open the drawers!"

What was that all about? wondered Fleming. Then the cargo bay doors were rattling open beneath his feet. Looking down, he could see waves rolling toward the shore three thousand feet below.

"Good luck, lad!" cried Abercrombie. "Lower away!"

The hoist whirred again, letting the glider down into the slipstream. Fleming allowed his craft hang there, bucking and pitching in the wind, while he studied the sky for signs of lift. That line of clouds to his left looked promising. He reached for the lever and pulled the release. There was a klunk, a whoosh, and he was flying!

The first miles were easy. The land below him, warmed by the tropical sun, was a good source of thermals, and the sea breeze was pushing him toward the south -- the direction he wanted to go. As he got a feel for the air, he settled into the familiar routine of a cross-country flight: watch the variometer until it showed that he was climbing, bank into the lift, circle in the thermal until he neared the top, then leave it to look for another.

As miles passed, the terrain grew rougher. Soft green jungle gave way to brush-covered hills and a tangled maze of ravines. The air grew rougher as well. Soon turbulence was slamming him against his harness straps. Wings creaked and flying wires twanged in response to each blow. The climbs were exhilarating, shoving him upward at more than a thousand feet per minute, but he had to struggle to keep his craft under control.

Did birds work so hard, wondered Fleming? Their flights seemed so easy when viewed from the ground, but surely they must face the same turbulence he did. Did they grunt with effort as they fought to stay in the lift? Did they curse when they hit sink? And did they gather around the nest at the end of the day to down a few brews and talk about their flights? Or chirp about their flights, as the case may be?

He smiled at the concept, then grabbed for the stick as a particularly violent jolt flipped his glider onto its side. It fell from the sky, wind whistling past as it picked up speed. Somehow he managed to bring the wings back to level, but it was several long minutes before his heart stopped pounding.

The air was smoother now. It seemed he'd flown out of the convection band to enter a vast region of sinking air. His surroundings had changed as well. The terrain was bleaker, for this was the beginning of the outback -- the 'back of beyond': the great barren emptiness that spanned most of the continent. If he went down here, they'd never even find his bones.

This was an intimidating thought. And from the mute testimony of his altimeter, it was clear that he was going down.

Next week: Lagers of the Deep...

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