The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Two

Episode 88: Live and Let Fly, Part II

Otto Lillienthal's 'North by Northwest'

Fleming approached the mess hall with some misgivings. Captain Everett's summons seemed likely to involve aviation. This was cause for excitement. But the captain's missions tended to have unexpected outcomes. This was cause for alarm. He found Everett waiting with Jenkins, Abercrombie, Sarah, and three Truk islanders -- one a woman of extraordinary beauty and equally extraordinary attire.

"Greetings," said the captain. "I trust that you and Davies have smuggled your Lilienthal glider aboard."

"Yes, sir," said Fleming. There seemed no point in denying something that had become part of the ship's tradition.

"Can it carry a passenger?"

Fleming's mind raced. Like many young pilots at Stanwell Park, he'd taken the occasional sheila up for a flight. It was a question of balance and stability -- the passenger would be strapped in behind him, which would move their center of gravity aft.

"Yes," he replied, "though they'd have to be fairly light." He eyed the women hopefully, but Everett didn't take the hint.

"If we launched you over the ocean at 4000'," asked the captain, "how far could you glide with a 15 knot tailwind?"

Over the ocean? thought Fleming. This raised the stakes. Misjudge the distance, go down at sea, and they'd most surely drown. "A dozen miles or so," he replied, trying to sound casual.

"That should be sufficient," said Everett. He produced a chart of the Truk archipelago and indicated a small triangular atoll. "Do you think you could land on Totiw, here?"

Fleming examined the chart with some dismay. According to the cryptic Admiralty notation, the entire island was covered with jungle. This was getting worse by the moment. "Perhaps one of the beaches," he said reluctantly. "The south and west sides look crock, but I might be able to squeeze into this one on the north."

"Excellent! Miss Hupai here has informed us that the nationalists have secreted Mister Notariello upon this island. We can't approach with the Flying Cloud, for they'd spot us in time to flee, so we'll send you and Pierre ahead to disable their motor launch. Once this has been accomplished, we can collect the fellows at our leisure."

"What's to keep them from spotting my wing?" asked Fleming, afraid that he already knew the answer.

"We'll launch you at night."

The plan was simplicity itself. The Flying Cloud would head towards Fefan, well to the east of Totiw, with her running lights showing, taking care to remain visible to any coast-watchers. At the right moment, they'd release the glider. Fleming would steer a course north by northwest, timed to reach the island before dawn. After they'd landed, Pierre would use his knowledge of the jungle to find their adversaries' hideout. They'd sneak aboard the nationalist's escape craft and sabotage the engine. Then, at a prearranged time, the airship would arrive with a squad of marines.

There's still time to back out of this, Fleming told himself as he tightened his harness. Flying a Lillienthal wing at night was an appalling risk. Like most heavier-than-air vehicles, the glider was somewhat unstable in roll, and with nothing to tell him which way was up, it would be easy to lose control and plummet into the sea.

"Are ye ready, lad?" asked Abercrombie from his post on the catwalk.

"Dinky di," said Fleming, trying to sound calm.

The rigger touched a control and the cargo hold door rolled open. The hoist whined, lowering the glider into the night. Around them, the darkness seemed absolute..

"Sacre bleu!" exclaimed Pierre. "How will you see?"

"No worries, mate," said Fleming, "she'll be apples. Shall we give it a go?"

"Oui," said the Frenchman.

Like most Aussies, Fleming's knowledge of foreign languages was limited, but he recognized the word for yes. Why don't these fellows learn to speak English? he wondered. He shrugged, pulled the release, and they dropped like a stone.

"Merde!" cried Pierre.

I wonder what that means? wondered Fleming. But there was no time to ask, for he had his hands full flying the glider. At least the horizon was visible. With this as a reference, he was able to stay right-side up. But it was too dark to read his craft's primitive instruments, so he'd have to steer by the stars and trust to instinct to maintain the right airspeed.

For several long minutes they glided through the night. The air was cool, calm, and smooth as glass. Overhead, the stars were bright. Miles passed as they sank toward the unseen waves below. But there was no sign of their destination.

"Where is Totiw?" asked Pierre. "Shouldn't we see it by now?"

Fleming had been wondering that himself. Had he steered the wrong course or failed to account for some cross-wind that would sweep them out to sea? "No worries, mate," he announced. "She'll turn up."

"How much altitude do we have left?" asked the Frenchman, a trace of concern in his voice.

Fleming didn't have the slightest idea, but he wasn't about to admit that they might have a problem. "Don't get your knickers in a knot," he replied. "I'm sure we've still got plenty of... Bewdy! There she is!"

The dark shadow of an island had appeared ahead. As they drew closer, they could make a glimmer of surf. But where was their beach? Fleming strained his eyes until he spotted a stretch of shoreline that seemed slightly less dark than its surroundings. The wind was behind them, so he'd pass it to the right and fly a left-hand pattern.

"Hang on, mate," he announced.

Distances, angles, and speeds were difficult to judge at night. One left turn, another, then they were skimming above the sand, much too fast to stop. To their right, trees flashed past like freight cars. To their left, surf waited to drown them. And they were running out of beach.

A startled figure rose in front of them. Three voices cried out in surprise. "What the?" "Merde!" "Scheisse!"

There was meaty thump, the glider slammed to a halt, and the figure went sprawling. Fleming fumbled with the buckles of his straps, but Pierre had already leapt to the sand and dashed to where the man lay unconscious.

"It is a guard," he whispered. "He'll be out for some time." He examined the ancient Dreyse needle gun the man had been carrying, gave a shrug of regret, and tossed it into the brush. "It might have been of some value to a collector, but for us it would only be a burden," he explained. Shall we see where this man came from?"

The guard's trail led through the jungle to a beach on the other side of the atoll. A sleek motor launch was moored with its stern toward the shore. Low, dark, and ominous, it bore a strong resemblance to one of the new Schnellboots the Kreigsmarine was considering for service. Several sentries stood on its deck. More guarded the narrow gangplank that lead to the beach.

"There's no way we're getting past those blokes," whispered Fleming. "What should we do now?"

"I wonder," said Pierre. "These people cannot have an unlimited number of guards. Let us find their encampment."

A short time later, the two men were studying a small native settlement. Snores rose from several of the huts, but there was no sign of a watchman.

Pierre nodded. "It is as I suspected," he observed. "They have stationed all their guards at the launch and the beaches. With those covered, they have no need for sentries here. If we can rescue the Italian and escape into the woods, they'll be forced to flee without him when the Captain arrives.

"How will we find the bloke?" whispered Fleming.

They heard a door open. A slender figure emerged from one of the huts clutching a scrap of clothing, gave a distinctly feminine giggle, and slipped away into the night.

"I believe," said Pierre, "that I know where to look."

They crept to the window and peered inside to see Notariello lounging in a hammock, smoking a cigarette. The Italian glanced up when he noticed them. Fleming feared the man might cry out, but he needn't have worried. Melodramatic rescues were a staple feature of opera.

"You are here?" said the tenor in his golden voice. "This is good! Shall we go?"

Next week: The Island Trade...

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