Episode 114: The Espiritu Santo Air Races
MacKiernan led the way as the four men dashed through the village. In the
excitement of their flight, he barely noticed the weight of the secretary
he’d slung over his shoulder. Behind them, shouts rang out as the Hapuna
clashed with the Yora. Could he and his companions reach the blimp before
the tribesmen noticed their absence? And would it be guarded?
It was, but Rashid’s sling and Alaka’s club made short work of the two
hapless lumberjacks who stood watch. Then MacKiernan was holding the
control car steady as the others clambered aboard. Belatedly, he
remembered that he was still carrying Miss Perkins. With a brief mental
shrug, he heaved her in after them.
"Are you quite finished?" she asked as he climbed aboard himself.
"We still have some matters to attend to," he observed. "Father Harland, if
you could drop the mooring while Rashid takes the elevatorman’s station and
I get the engine started, this might facilitate our departure."
The missionary stared at the maze of control lines that led up to the hull
envelope, then reached out at random. "Is this the right one?" he asked.
"No!" bellowed MacKiernan, intercepting the man before he could pull the
toggle for the maneuvering valve. "Why don’t you start the engine while I
take care of the mooring."
A stout heave on the proper cable released the bow fitting. Then they were
drifting backwards as the ground fell away. Below them, cries of indignation
sounded from the village, followed by several pistol shots as someone made a
futile attempt to bring them down. MacKiernan shook his head.
"Some fellows are poor sports. Father Harland, how are you doing with that
"Something seems to be wrong with the crank," said the missionary. "All it
does is make a whining noise."
The Irishman sighed in exasperation. "Take the helm. I’ll deal with this."
As the other man stepped back, he opened the fuel valve, adjusted the mixture
and timing, and switched on the ignition. Then, bracing one hand on the
engine block, he gripped the handle for the inertial starter, cranked it up
to speed, and engaged the flywheel. With a descending whine of gears and a
great clatter of machinery, and the engine sputtered to life.
"What are you doing now!" MacKiernan asked Father Harland, who by now had
managed to put the vessel into a tight turn to port. The missionary spread
his hands in embarrassment.
"I’ve never been aboard an airship before."
"So you don’t know how to steer."
"And you don’t know how to operate the engine."
"And you can't handle the control lines."
"Do you have any useful skills whatsoever?"
"I know a good recipe for chicken."
"Then perhaps you should go back to America and start a restaurant!"
"I can manage the helm," Miss Perkins announced curtly. Without waiting
for a reply, she elbowed Father Harland aside and took the wheel.
MacKiernan nodded in approval.
"Very good. The course we want is 160."
Soon they were plodding south with the Cumberland Range to starboard.
Blimps were not noteworthy for their speed, so the travelers had
ample opportunity to take stock of the vessel. It was remarkably primitive,
with an open control car suspended beneath the hull by a web of cables.
Its single engine -- a grease-covered relic of indeterminate age -- was
mounted in front of the car where it all but blocked the view ahead. Rich
black smoke poured from the exhaust, and oil dripped from a profusion of
leaky gaskets, suggesting that the machinery might not have been maintained
according to Royal Navy standards. MacKiernan hoped it wouldn’t throw a
connecting rod before they got back to civilization.
At least they had plenty of hydrogen. Like all blimps, this one had a
ballonet located inside the envelope to keep the hull pressurized as its
lifting gas expanded and contracted with changes in altitude. According to
the gauges, the ballonet was almost empty, which meant the envelope was
filled nearly to capacity.
"Thank you for rescuing me," Miss Perkins said graciously.
"It was a pleasure," replied MacKiernan, with an honest smile. For an
instant, he thought he saw her smile in return.
"How long will it take us to reach Luganville?" she asked.
The Irishman did a quick mental calculation. The southeast trade wind was
almost directly on their nose, reducing their progress to a crawl. "A
certain amount of patience may be in order."
"Do you think we’ll arrive today?" she asked.
"Perhaps. If nothing goes wrong."
"Look," said Alaka, "a vessel approaches from the south."
MacKiernan peered over the top of the engine to see another blimp ahead of
them. Even from this distance, he could recognize the characteristic
tri-lobed hull of an Astra-Torres -- a French design of a similar vintage to
their own craft. He could also spot the rifles in the hands of its crew.
"It looks like they mean to attack!" said Father Harland.
"First they’ll have to catch us," said MacKiernan. "Miss Perkins, bring us
left to a course of 0 degrees. We'll see if these fellows have a taste for
The secretary cranked the wheel to port. Slowly, awkwardly, their ungainly
vessel swung until it was heading in the opposite direction. MacKiernan
advanced the throttle to what passed for maximum power, the propeller
churned the air, and the race was on!
"They seem to be gaining on us," Miss Perkins observed sometime later.
"I believe you're right," said MacKiernen. "They could overtake us in a
matter of days."
"Do you have a plan for this eventuality?"
"Not yet. They have the bad manners to be between us and our destination.
This limits our options."
"Could we turn west and lose them in the mountains?" asked Father Harland.
Miss Perkins gave him an incredulous stare. "They have an aircraft.
They’ll just climb above the range."
"Oh," said the missionary. "Then I will pray for our deliverance."
"Wait," said MacKiernan. "Miss Perkins has given me a better idea."
Holding up his hand for silence, he reviewed what he knew of the French
design. It was somewhat larger than their own vessel. It was also somewhat
faster -- to the extent that the word 'fast' was meaningful for a blimp --
for its designers had reduced the number of bracing wires, accepting some
loss of rigidity in an effort to reduce drag. This suggested a possibility.
"Rashid," he ordered, "take us up at 200 feet per minute."
The Persian eased the elevator wheel back and the ship began to climb.
"Suppose they do not follow?" he asked, guessing what the Irishman had in
"They must," said MacKiernan. "Now that we're heading north, the wind’s
behind us, and it will grow stronger as we gain altitude. If they let us
get above them, we’ll leave them behind."
The altimeter wound upward as the ground dropped away. On the elevatorman's
station, the ballonet inflation gauge was creeping downward as their
hydrogen expanded to fill the hull envelope.
"The ballonet is empty," Rashid announced after several minutes had passed.
"Shall I level off?"
"No," said MacKiernan. "Keep climbing."
Now, with every foot they climbed, precious lifting gas would be venting
from the pressure relief valves. Behind them, the Astra-Torres would be in
a similar state. MacKiernan watched the altimeter, trying to judge how much
gas they dared lose. At last he nodded.
"That should do it. Take us back down at 200 feet per minute."
Rashid eased the elevator forward. Pulleys creaked as the blimp pitched
down and started its descent. Inside the envelope, the ballonet began to
inflate, filling the space left vacant as their lifting gas compressed.
"I assume there was some purpose to this maneuver," said Miss Perkins.
"We shall see," MacKiernan replied cryptically. The secretary glared at
him. For several long moments no one spoke.
"What are those Frenchmen doing?" asked Father Harland.
They looked back to see that the French blimp had developed a deep crease
across the middle. With fewer suspension lines, it was less able to
tolerate the loss of internal pressure as its hydrogen volume shrank. As
they watched, it folded in half like a squashed banana, slowed to a stop,
and began sinking toward the trees.
"Well," said MacKiernan, to no one in particular, "that should put a crimp
in their plans."
Next week: Meanwhile, Back in Civilization...
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