Episode 103: The Mystery of Her Design
"Feast your eyes!" exclaimed Abercrombie. "Isn't she the most beautiful
thing you've ever seen in yer life?"
"Yes," said Iverson. "Ouch," he added as Sarah kicked him in the shin.
They were standing with the rest of the crew of His Majesty's Airship R-505,
the Flying Cloud, watching the ground party back the vessel from
her shed. This was a lengthy operation, even with automated handling
equipment, but it gave onlookers time to appreciate the spectacle. By now
most of the stern was visible -- the slender point of the tail cone, the
graceful fins, the elegant swell of her hull. As they watched, the Number
Two engine car came into view, with its big four-bladed paddle propeller
parked at a precise 45-degree angle. A rigger followed, walking below and
to one side to keep an eye on ground clearance. Abercrombie nodded
"I dinnae think much of Michaelson hisself," he observed, "but his men do
ken their jabs."
"That they do," agreed Iverson, risking a cautious glance at the island
girl. Whatever had that been about?
Foot by foot, the vessel emerged from the long white building where she'd
undergone her overhaul. Behind her, the aft handling dolly grumbled and
clanked along its tracks like some awkward hybrid of locomotive and
derrick. A team of engineers manned its controls, exchanging signals with
the mobile mooring mast still hidden inside the shed.
"It's a pity Miss Blaine and Miss Wilcox couldn't have stayed in town to
watch," remarked MacKiernan. "It's a sight worth seeing."
"True," said Jenkins regretfully. "But I imagine their families in Darwin
would have raised a scandal if we'd kept them away much longer. Those
aunts of theirs seemed quite formidable."
"Tá sé fíor," muttered the Irishman, in the
same tone of respect one reserves for wild elephants, estuarine crocodiles,
and other large dangerous animals.
"What keeps both handling dollies moving at the same speed?" asked Sarah.
"Isn't there some risk that the ship could get... stretched?"
Iverson hesitated for a moment, but relaxed when he saw her smile.
"There's a measuring system built into the trackage," he explained. "The
operators use this to maintain a constant separation. They also have
strain gauges attached to the mooring fittings to be sure they don't put an
excessive load on the hull. The Americans developed this system around the
time I joined the Service. They're clever chaps."
"Aye," agreed Abercrombie. "Before that, we had to round up a couple
hundred men and walk the ships in and out of the sheds by hauling on the
handling lines. Ye wouldnae believe all the things that could go wrong!
Worst was the time some foolish lad decided tae use his automobile to
"What was wrong with that?" asked Sarah, puzzled. "It sounds like a fine
"An' so it might hae been," admitted the rigger, "if he'd remembered tae
unhitch that handling line from his bumper before the vessel launched."
"Oh dear!" The island girl's eyes widened as she contemplated the
Iverson was still wondering if this story could possibly be true when the
airship's bow swept into view, prompting a cheer from the onlookers.
Unnoticed, unremarked, the mobile mooring mast rumbled after it. As it
cleared the shed, a horn sounded, bells rang, and the big clamshell doors
began to close. Another horn sounded and the procession came to a halt.
In the stillness that followed, Captain Everett smiled.
"That will be our cue," he announced. "Gentlemen, Lady, shall we take the
An hour later, the airship was making its way east at 40 knots above the
bright blue waters of the Coral Sea. Captain Everett gazed out the window
of the control car while the others awaited his verdict. At last he
"I'd say the first act was satisfactory," he observed. "Miss Sarah, we
could have done slightly better with the trim before launch, and Airman
Wallace, you might have wanted a lighter touch on that second pitch
correction, but all things considered, I think we can be happy with the
evolution. What's our altitude?"
"Climbing through 2000' at 200 feet per minute," said the elevatorman.
"Very good. Level off when we reach 2500'. Mister Iverson, bring us left
to 015 and ring for three-quarter power on all three engines. We'll visit
the Practice Area and see what kind of job they did on our overhaul. Mister
MacKiernan, do you have the results of the survey?"
The Exec produced a folder and handed it to his captain. As part of the
overhaul, the mechanics at Cairns had made detailed measurements of the
Flying Cloud in an effort to learn more about her as-yet-unknown
"It raised more questions that it answered," he replied. "According to
Michaelson's people, the design is an exact copy of a Junior Vickers, with
the same number of longitudinals, the same frame spacing, the same rigging,
and the same arrangement for the control and engine cars. This suggests
someone had access to the plans from Howden. But her fittings were unlike
anything they'd seen before."
"Can you give us an example?"
MacKiernan glanced around the bridge until he spotted a place where part
of the control car and hull framing came together. "Here," he said. "Look
at the way they used two different sizes of rivets. And these corner
brackets are machined instead of cast. It might save a few ounces, but it
would add a fair bit to the cost."
"What did they conclude about the engines?"
"These remain a mystery. They look like copies of one of the new lightweight
V-12s Daimler developed for patrol vessels, but the bearing webs are
thicker and the heads have a different design. The bores are longer, the
compression ratio is lower, and they make up for this by getting more boost
out of the supercharger. Davies thinks it's a better design."
"What does Mister Iwamoto say?"
The Irishman shook his head. "'I come with engines.'"
"Yes," sighed Everett. "I imagine he would."
In the radio shack, Jenkins adjusted his headset, then scribbled down a
message. "Signal from Cairns," he announced. "They've asked about our
progress and want to know when we'll be back at the Station."
"A progress report and ETA for a simple acceptance flight?" grumbled
MacKiernan. "Michaelson must really have it in for us today!"
"I wonder," mused Everett. "He tends to be more subtle when he wants to
make life difficult for his subordinates. There may be something else on
his agenda. Send `All proceeding according schedule stop expect
return 1630' and see what he has to say."
"He does not sound happy," said Jenkins, a few minutes later, "The reply
was `Unsatisfactory stop expect complete report on return'."
Everett nodded. "Clever. I believe he wants to call us back early without
seeming to do so. Mister Iverson, bring us left to 220 and steer a course
for Cairns. Let's see what the good Captain has on his mind."
The Air Station looked the same as ever -- a sleepy tropical backwater in a
forgotten corner of the Empire. The ground crew seemed to have anticipated
their arrival, for signals began to wink from the Number Two Mast as they
"Why'd they give us that one?" complained Iverson. "It's at the far corner
of the field. No one ever uses it."
"I rather suspect that's the point," mused Everett. "Keep your eyes open
for anything out of the ordinary."
"I say," said MacKiernan, as they drew closer, "is that
Miss Perkins waiting on top of the mast?"
Everett lifted a pair of binoculars, adjusted the focus, and nodded to
himself. Somehow he was not surprised. "You're right," he announced. "I
believe our lives are about to become more complicated."
Next week: Who Was Agnes?...
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