The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 352: We Thought We'd Drop By And See How You Were Doing

Mooring operations

Captain Everett studied the approaching cruiser with annoyance. The airship was less than ten miles away, sweeping toward the station like an oncoming storm. It had caught them entirely by surprise. There was no time to intercept it, even if they'd been ready.

"Diabahl!" swore MacKiernan. "How'd they get here without being spotted?"

"This question may have to wait," Everett observed. "We have some more immediate concerns. Come with me, gentlemen."

Captain Michaelson had already dashed outside to see to the defenses. Everett hurried after him, followed by his crew. On the field, gunners were rushing to their emplacements while loaders brought up carts of shells. It was a noble gesture, and entirely futile. Surprise, tonnage, and gravity were all on the side of the Japanese nationalists.

Abercrombie met them as they emerged from the administration building. "What's the status of the Flying Cloud?" Everett asked him.

The Scotsman gestured at one of the titanic hangers that lined the field. "We just finished rolling her into the shed," he said helplessly. "It will take at least a day to get her aloft."

Everett nodded ruefully. Airships might have significant advantages over other forms of aviation, but getting airborne quickly was not one of them. He glanced back at the gun crews. They might get off a few shots before the bombs began to fall, but that was all. This was a day that would live in infamy.

Then, to their astonishment, the siren sounded `All Clear'. As they glanced at each other in surprise, Michaelson's voice echoed from the loudspeakers.

"Hold your fire. Secure your guns and return to your regular assignments. Handling parties report to the field."

"What the devil?" muttered Abercrombie. "Is the man mad?"

"I think not," said Jenkins. He pointed to the side of the approaching ship, where they could now make out a red, white, and blue rondel along with the words 'U S Navy'. A signal lamp blinked from the vessel's control car.

"It's the American airship," marveled Iverson, "the one our enemies copied. Whatever is it doing here in Queensland?"

Everett suppressed a sigh. "I imagine we'll find out."

There was no time to bring out the mechanized handling equipment, so a ground party assembled to walk the vessel to the mast. Everett and his people watched with professional interest as the Americans began their approach. No airship could ever be described as `lively', but this one's maneuvers seemed unusually deliberate. MacKiernan remarked on this -- pundits had suggested that one reason Count Zeppelin invented rigid dirigibles was so that onlookers could stand around the field and criticize mooring operations.

"They were a bit slow on that last yaw correction," he chided.

"Aye," mused Abercrombie. "Their helmsman's being gentle wi' the rudders. I wonder if they might have some design issue there."

"Do we know who has the vessel?" asked Iverson.

"I believe this would be Rosendahl: one of Admiral Moffett's protégés," said Everett. "He may not be as imaginative as some, but he's a solid officer with a good reputation as a ship-handler."

This reputation seemed to be well-deserved, for the evolution went surprisingly smoothly given the circumstances. Half an hour after she'd dropped her handling lines, the vessel was riding from the mast and the lift was making its descent. The doors slid open with their usual aplomb and a man in an American naval uniform emerged.

Michaelson stepped forward to greet him. "Welcome to Cairns Royal Air Station," he told the newcomer. "I'm Captain Lawrence Michaelson, Commander in Chief."

"Charles Rosendahl, Captain of the Sunnyvale, ZR-87," said the American. "My compliments on the skill of your handling parties. It looks like you were in the middle of some sort of gunnery drill when we arrived."

"We need to work the elevation and train mechanisms on a regular basis," Michaelson said smoothly. "Otherwise these fall prey to our humid climate."

Rosendahl nodded. It seemed he wasn't entirely convinced by this answer, but couldn't imagine any plausible alternative. "I see," he said.

"What brings you to our station?" Michaelson asked him. "We had no word you were coming."

The American smiled. "We had some troubles with our wireless installation, but we were sure you folks would manage. We're in the South Pacific on an extended shakedown cruise. BuNavAir felt this would be a good opportunity to demonstrate our vessel's capabilities."

Michaelson seems unfazed by this alarming American tendency to invent what most certainly should not have been words. "She's quite impressive," he said, with evident sincerity.

"Thank you," said Rosendahl. "After we've arranged for resupply, I'd be happy to give some of your people a tour."

"Captain Everett?" said Michaelson.

Everett nodded to Rosendahl. "We'd welcome the opportunity."

The Sunnyvale was a remarkable piece of engineering. Her streamlined envelope, 785' long and 133' in diameter, enclosed twelve gas cells with a capacity of 6.85 million cubic feet and maximum gross lift of almost 200 tones. Eight Packard diesels, copies of a German design, generated 4400 horsepower. Her full complement of 60 airmen was three times larger than the Flying Cloud's

"She's fast, too," Rosendahl told them. "We worked her up to 74 knots during trials, and I'm sure we'll do even better after we've adjusted the machinery. There's nothing else like her in the Pacific!"

"I daresay," Everett replied, not entirely truthfully.

"This seems like a colorful part of the world," the American continued. "Captain Richards of the Wilmington told us some wild-sounding stories about volcanic explosions, marauding submarines, and airship pirates."

"Those tales may have been somewhat exaggerated," said Everett. "By some standards, the South Pacific is quite an ordinary place."

If their host recognized the evasion, he gave no sign. "I suspected as much," he replied. "Some of those older ships... well... ...the force was growing in a hurry back then and we had to take whatever officers we could find."

"This phenomenon is not entirely unknown in the Royal Navy," Everett admitted.

The Sunnyvale incorporated several noteworthy innovations. In place of the usual single keel, she had three spaced equally around the hull -- one on top and one running along each side. A large cargo hold nestled between the latter. At one time, this had included equipment to launch and retrieve scouting aeroplanes, but it seemed this experiment had not been an unqualified success.

"The launches went fairly well," said Rosendahl. "Recoveries were more difficult. Still, most of the pilots survived, and we were even able to repair some of the aircraft."

"Do you have any plans to resume these tests?" asked MacKiernan.

"The Navy Office is still studying our report."

One final innovation involved the design of the tail section. Where most airships carried the fin spars through the hull to form a cruciform structure, the Sunnyvale's fins were anchored to the ring girders. Abercrombie studied this arrangement with a frown.

"It's an annasach way of doing things," he observed.

"It's lighter than the traditional configuration," said Rosendahl.

"Aye, but is it strong enough?"

"We noted some minor structural issues during trials," their host admitted, "but these will be corrected."

"What do you think, sir?" asked Jenkins, after the tour was over.

"The situation is food for thought," he observed. "We now have two identical vessels operating in this part of the Pacific -- one belonging to an ally, the other to our adversaries. This would seem to offer some scope for confusion."

Next week: Several Different Lairs...

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