The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 52: This Officer Is Noted For His Ingenuity...

Riggers cutting the control car free with saws

"I say," asked Jenkins, "is the ship supposed to be making that crashing noise?"

"I suspect not," replied Captain Roland P. Everett, Royal Naval Airship Service. "We might do well to investigate."

They were lying in a heap, surrounded by overturned furniture and luggage, at one end of their tiny stateroom aboard the City of Brisbane, R-67 -- one of the sturdy Improved Armstrong-Whitworth Class airships that bound the Empire together. Outside, the howl of the storm was accompanied by the groan of tortured metal and a crack as some cable gave way. At last the vessel resumed an even keel and they clambered to their feet.

"If you’ll allow me, sir," said Jenkins, producing a brush to remove some imagined blemish from his captain’s attire. Everett waited for his aide to finish, then opened the door.

A few curious passengers had poked their heads into the corridor to see what was happening. At one end, a gentleman from one of the more excitable cultures -- Italian, perhaps -- was bellowing something about disaster, but the others seemed to be accepting the situation with calm British pluck. Excusing themselves, the two men made their way past the civilians.

Abercrombie met them at the entrance to the keel passage. Like his captain, the rigger had been traveling on the ship as a passenger. "D’ye ken they could use our help, sir?" he asked.

"Jenkins and I were on our way to the control car to find out."

The control car of the R-67 was an old-style design, suspended below the bow by two rows of struts. Outside its windows, the storm was a chaos of clouds, lit by flashes of lightning. Inside, the clamor of the Number Five diesel competed with the creaks and groans from the hull. The flight officers seemed unperturbed. The vessel might be in serious trouble, but they were not going to allow this to disturb them.

"Commodore Everett," said Captain Sanders, the ship’s commander -- offering Everett the traditional courtesy title since no vessel could have two ‘captains’ aboard at once. "How good of you to come. We appear to be caught in an updraft. We’ve vented as much hydrogen as we dare, but even with the nose down and engines at full power, we’re still climbing. I wonder if you might have any recommendations."

Not flying under a thunderstorm might have been a good way to start, thought Everett, but he kept this to himself. Commercial skippers had schedules to meet, and the temptation to cut a corner off their route must have been irresistible. "What’s our altitude?"

"10,000’, climbing at a thousand feet per minute," reported the elevatorman.

Everett raised an eyebrow. They’d risen well past the point where the ship’s hydrogen would expand to fill all the space in her gas cells. With every additional foot they climbed, precious lifting gas would be venting from the relief valves. He glanced up in annoyance as another cable snapped somewhere above them. "You might wish to reduce power before the ship breaks up under the strain."

"I had reached a similar conclusion," said Sanders. "All engines back to three-quarter power."

"Three-quarter power," replied the helmsman, reaching for the engine telegraphs. Bells chimed and the roar of the diesels lessened.

"Of course, with the engines throttled back, we’ll climb even faster," the skipper observed.

"I counsel patience," said Everett. "I imagine this updraft will peter out soon, after which ..."

The floor dropped beneath their feet. "Falling!" warned the elevatorman. "Two thousand feet per minute!"

"Drop 500 pounds on ballast tanks One, Five, and Seven!" snapped Sanders before Everett had a chance to speak. To their right, the ballast master reached for his toggles and pulled.

"Sir?" whispered Jenkins, noticing his captain’s expression.

"I believe that our host has overreacted," Everett replied. "He may come to regret his decision."

Indeed, their fall was brief. All too soon, the altimeter needle began to move clockwise again.

"Climbing through 12,000’" said the elevatorman.

"Oh dear," said Sanders.

"How much water is left in the tanks?" asked Everett calmly.

"I’m afraid that was the last of it."

Everett suppressed a frown. With no ballast remaining, the ship was at the mercy of the storm. "Then we’ll have to ride this one out."

"Climbing through 13,000’," said the elevatorman.

How high would this updraft carry them, wondered Everett? They watched as the altimeter wound past 14,000’... 15,000’... 16,000’... At last, three miles above the Australian desert, their climb slowed, the sky grew brighter, and the ship emerged from the clouds. The junior officers gave a polite cheer.

Sanders did not join in. "I believe," he observed, "that we may have a slight problem."

Everett reviewed figures that had been drilled into him during training. "At 16,000’, we’ll have bled away all but 56% of our hydrogen."

"And these Armstrong-Whitworths have a fixed weight of 62%," said Sanders glumly, "which leaves us eight tons too heavy to stay aloft, even if we jettison all our cargo and emergency fuel."

"Dropping through 15,500’ at 500’ per minute," reported the elevatorman.

"Well," said Everett brightly. "That gives us thirty-one minutes to find some way to address this situation. Jenkins?"

"I took the liberty of examining the cargo manifest," said the signalman, "and it appears that someone in Darwin felt a need for several high-powered electric saws."

"A fortunate coincidence," said Everett. "Abercrombie, your opinion?"

"It should be possible, sir. If we start work immediately."

"Captain Sanders, how much does this gondola weigh?"

"You aren’t seriously considering cutting away the control car!" exclaimed the skipper. For some reason he seemed taken aback.

"Why not?" asked Everett. "What’s in a control car anyway? Helm, telegraphs, elevator station, ballast controls, radio shack, one of the ship’s engines? These things are hardly essential."

Minutes later, the ship echoed to the whine of power saws. Their tough carbide-tipped blades sliced through duralumin with ease, but it would be a race to cut the car free in time. Sanders and Jenkins watched from the safety of the hull, but Everett stood outside with the riggers, directing their work, lending a hand when needed. Somehow, throughout all of this, his uniform remained immaculate.

"Where does he get these ideas?" asked Sanders.

"I had occasion to glance at one of his performance reviews," said Jenkins, "quite by accident, of course. It read ‘This officer is noted for his ingenuity at getting out of situations he never should have gotten into in the first place’."

Next week: We Hope You Enjoyed Flying With Us...

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