The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 103: The Mystery of Her Design

R-505 being moved from her shed

"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 this 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 appreciatively.

"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, abut 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 help pull."

"What was wrong with that?" asked Sarah, puzzled. "It sounds like a fine idea."

"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 implications.

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 stage?"


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 smiled.

"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 builders.

"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?" grunbled 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 approached.

"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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