The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 53: We Hope You Enjoyed Flying With Us

Auxiliary bridge on the R-67

"Watch out, lads!" cried Abercrombie. "She’s going!"

The crewmen dropped their saws and scrambled to get clear. Instants later, the control car broke free with a screech of tearing metal. Everett watched it plummet toward the desert, tumbling end over end as it dwindled into the distance below. The impact, when it came, was lost in the immensity.

"I feel a certain sense of déjà vu," remarked Jenkins.

Everett nodded, remembering the wreck of the R-212, months ago. "At least we have an entire ship this time and not just the bow section. We’d best get to work if we’re going to save her."

Their immediate peril was over. Relieved of the control car’s weight, the City of Brisbane had ceased her plunge. But now the vessel’s nose was rising, for that weight had been near the bow. Ordinarily, they might have dropped ballast aft to compensate, but this had all gone during the storm. And if they didn’t bring the ship under control, she would continue to pitch up until she was standing on her tail -- a maneuver civilian craft were not designed to withstand.

"Captain Sanders," Everett observed. "Our expedient has left this vessel somewhat out of trim. You might wish to order your spare crew and passengers to the bow."

"An excellent suggestion," replied the skipper. "Everyone forward! Lively now!"

The four men stepped aside to make room. In front of them, figures hurried past -- riggers, stewards, and passengers -- scrambling up the keel passage toward the front of the ship. Everett noticed the Italian, still complaining. Behind him came a substantial matron in slippers and dressing gown. That should bring the nose back down, he thought.

Gradually, imperceptibly, the ship’s motion began to slow. "I believe that’s done the trick," said Sanders.

"Aye, " said Abercrombie, who was watching the clinometer he’d improvised from a pocketknife and a length of string. "She’s coming back to an even keel."

"This might be a good time to have a look at your emergency control station," Everett said to Sanders. "You do have an emergency control station, I trust?"

"It’s in the usual location, inside the lower vertical stabilizer," said the skipper. "If you’ll come this way."

They followed him aft along the catwalk that ran down the interior of the hull. The vast space was a shambles, draped with broken cables and dangling pieces of equipment. Above them, the row of nineteen gas cells pressed upward against their netting. The cells were half-empty now, for much of their hydrogen had bled off during the ship’s unplanned climb. What remained was barely enough to hold the ship aloft. They’d have their work cut out trying to keep the vessel in the air.

Toward the stern, the passageway began to climb, curving upward to match the shape of the hull. From here, ladders led up and down to provide access to the four great fins that extended from the vessel’s tail. Sanders swung off the catwalk -- a certain amount of agility was an occupational requirement for airship officers -- and started down one of the ladders.

"Here it is," he said when they reached the bottom.

They stood inside the ship’s lower vertical fin -- a narrow space, taller than it was wide, that served as the vessel’s auxiliary bridge. The compartment was dark, criss-crossed with wires and supports, with a row of small windows that gave an entirely inadequate view of the outside. It was obvious that the station had not been used for some time, for its floor was cluttered with discarded work clothes while what looked like a pair of woman’s stockings was draped over the elevator wheel. Everett made no comment as he glanced at the latter. Civilian ships could not always be expected to follow Royal Navy practice.

"Abercrombie," he said to his rigger, "if you could have a look at the equipment."

The Scotsman was already examining the controls, peering at the levers, giving each of the wheels an experimental tug. "Engine telegraphs are oot," he said after a moment.

"Can they be repaired?"

"No telling how many breaks there are in the circuit, an’ most of our spare wire went over the side to lighten ship. Ye might do better to station a runner to carry orders to the engine cars."

"How about the helm and elevator stations?"

"Cables are loose. Ye’ll have tae take care an’ they don’t slip the drum or jump the sheaves. But I believe the vessel can be managed."

"You’re sure?" asked Sanders. He seemed strangely unenthusiastic about the prospect of using unreliable controls to fly a damaged ship to safety.

"I’ve learned to trust Abercrombie’s judgment," Everett replied smoothly. "But if you’d send your ballast master down to assist us, we’d be happy to handle matters here while you attend to the business of command."

"If you would be so kind," said the skipper, with visible signs of relief. "I’ll go to organize the damage control parties."

It took some time to get the engines running again -- for obvious reasons, they’d shut these down before cutting the control car free. Number One refused to start, and Number Five was gone with the control car, which left them with only three, but this may have been just as well, for Everett was unwilling to apply much power until he knew how the injured vessel was going to behave. The hull flexed alarmingly as they put on way.

"What do you think, Abercrombie?" he asked.

"I ken she’ll hold together," said the rigger. "Captain Sanders and his men know what they’re aboot. But we’ll have to keep her below thirty knots."

"Jenkins?"

"I’ve gone over our fuel figures. We'll need to maintain a speed of at least thirty knots to reach Darwin before the bunkers are empty."

It was a familiar dilemma, thought Everett. Too fast, and the damaged ship might break up under the strain. Too slow, and they’d run out of fuel before they reached their destination. And if they went down in this emptiness, no one would even find their bones. At times like this, it was important to have good hands at the controls. Men you could count on. Men you could trust.

"Abercrombie," said Jenkins. "I cannot help but notice that you seem unwontedly cheerful. Might I ask why?"

"It’s that MacKiernan fellow," gloated the Scotsman. "He bet me a shilling we wouldnae have any trouble on this flight!"

Next week: The Darwin Award...

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