Episode 309: Airman Fleming's Wild Ride
Fleming held the controls lightly, ready to react to the first sign of lift.
He was not as confident as he'd pretended aboard the Flying Cloud,
for this flight was considerably more ambitious than any he'd attempted in
competition. It was one thing to fly down some familiar valley in the Blue
Mountains, where thermals were easy to find and there were plenty of suitable
landing fields. It was quite another to push into the unknown, in weak
conditions, over hostile terrain.
Seconds crawled past while he did his best to ignore the steadily shrinking
number on his altimeter. This stretch of coast was a maze of estuaries
and swamps, with no safe places to land. If he was forced down here, he'd
be in serious trouble.
At last the variometer needle edged upwards. He counted to three, then
eased the stick left, pressed on the rudder bar, and began to circle. The
reading twitched back and forth as he adjusted his bank angle, searching for
the center of the thermal. Then he'd found the core and the ground was
The airman began to relax. The sea breeze was
filling in, as he'd predicted aboard ship, colliding with the stable air
mass over the land to create a corridor of lift that ran parallel to the
coast. Soon he was back in the familiar routine of soaring flight:
climbing to the top of each thermal, then leaving it in search of another
He searched the land below for settlements, but there were few to be seen.
Not many people lived in this part of Australia. The coast was noted for
its navigational hazards, and had little to offer except mud and low-grade
pearls. To the south, the land grew increasingly dry until it merged into
the great barren waste that filled most of continent.
Why would anyone build a resort here? he wondered. There's
no telling what those toffs will do.
As morning wore on, the thermals grew stronger, which translated into
faster progress. By noon, Fleming had covered more than a dozen miles, and
his earlier insecurity had given way to a certain confidence.
Unfortunately, the sea breeze front he was following seemed to be moving
inland. When he looked ahead, he could see a line of clouds forming to his
left. He adjusted course to intercept them. It was an annoying deviation
from his intended route, but there was no help for it -- soaring pilots had
little choice but to follow the lift.
Three hours later, Fleming was miles to the south, wondering if he could
possibly make it back to the coast. To the north, rain was slanting down
from the curtain of clouds that had moved in from the sea. As he watched,
the sky grew darker as the rainclouds merged and spread. Then he saw what
he'd dreaded: a great wall of dust spreading across the northern horizon.
The storm had spawned a gust front that was sweeping south to blast his
tiny glider from the sky.
Could he land before it reached him? Perhaps, but if it hit while he was
on his landing approach, the consequences could be disastrous. His best
chance was to try to outrun it. He banked away from the approaching
menace, gripped the control stick tightly, and braced himself for what
was to come.
the variometer needle slammed against its peg as some great fist of
air shoved his glider upwards. A second blow flipped the craft onto its
side. He jammed the stick to the left to bring the wings back level,
only to be thrown the other way.
For next several long minutes, land and sky whirled around Fleming in a
blur. He had no meaningful control over his course and speed. It was all
he could do to keep his glider from tumbling. He sensed that he was losing
altitude. What he'd do when this ran out he couldn't imagine. He couldn't
possibly land in turbulence like this. It would swat him to the ground like
Then, miraculously, the air was smooth again. Somehow he'd managed to
escape the monster. He turned south again, pushed the stick forward,
dove to pick up speed, and prayed he could stay clear. The ground below
grew closer. Soon he could make out individual gum trees, a dry stream
bed, a broad flat stretch of hardpan that seemed clear of obstructions.
He steered for the latter, flew a short base leg, turned into the wind,
and let the glider settle onto its landing skid -- this was no time for
refinements such as landing on his feet. It hit with a jolt, slid with
rattle, and came to rest against a stand of bushes.
As soon as his craft stopped moving, Fleming leapt from the cockpit and
seized the glider's nose to keep it from blowing away when the wind hit.
He needn't have bothered. When it arrived, it was little more than a
zephyr, its fury spent during the long trip from the coast. He watched it
stir the dust, then stood to take stock of his surroundings.
There was little to take stock of. He seemed to have arrived in the
absolute middle of nowhere. Outback, Back of Beyond, Back 'o Bourke,
Beyond the Black Stump: none of these names really did justice to the
desolation that covered most of the Australian continent. Dry brown dirt
stretched in every direction as far as he could see. A few
listless-looking gum trees dotted the plain as if wishing they were
somewhere else. Some wind-sculpted rocks completed this picture of an
What should he do now, he wondered? There was certainly no rush to
decide. One thing he'd learned during his years of competition flying was
that after you landed, you had plenty of time to think -- often more time
than you could possibly want. He shrugged, unfastened the nose cover and
began to break down his glider. He might have a long walk ahead, but
things were unlikely to get worse.
Fleming had just finished folding up his wing and was rummaging around
the cockpit for a canteen of water when he heard the unmistakable sound
of hoof beats. He looked around for the source, and spotted a buckboard
approaching from the east, drawn by a particularly stoic-looking horse.
The rig seemed entirely out of place in these surroundings -- a misplaced
touch of the domestic world in the middle of a desert.
That's odd, he thought, what could anyone be doing way out
As the vehicle drew closer, he saw that the driver was a slender blonde
woman, wearing a light summer dress that must have been quite demure when
she was younger and shorter. She looked familiar. His eyes
widened as he recognized Abigail, daughter of the ranchers he'd met near
Darwin the year before.
"Fleming," she cried in delight, "I thought that might be you in the
glider! What are you doing here?"
Next week: Banda Brothers...
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