Episode 405: I Suppose Things Can Only Get Better
Abercrombie seemed surprised by the news. As well he might. "The R-46?"
he said incredulously "Is that ship still in service?"
"So it would seem," said MacKiernan. "Captain Michaelson must have needed
some place to relegate airmen who couldn't pass muster for more demanding
tasks. Now we've inherited her."
"If the vessel is still flyable, she can't be in too bad shape," the
Scotsman suggested hopefully.
"We'll know soon enough," said MacKiernan. "I suppose we'd better have a
look at her."
Finding the R-46 wasn't as easy as they expected, for the handlers at Cairns
Royal Air Station seemed to have gone out of their way to hide the vessel. A
combination of patience, persistence, and pointed questions brought them to
Mast Number Eighteen -- an old-style tall mast in the northeast corner of the
field, as far from more respectable airships as possible.
There MacKiernan paused to take stock of his new command.
The R-46 was the last of the original Armstrong Whitworth class ships, and
the reason those had been replaced with the Improved Armstrong Whitworth
class. She was not a triumph of aeronautical engineering. Her hull and
cars were the work of someone who'd heard about the concept of streamlining
and wanted nothing to do with it. Her control surfaces were
awkwardly-placed, improperly-balanced, and barely adequate to overcome the
directional stability her fins failed to provide. Her engines combined poor
design and bad materials to achieve extra weight without extra durability.
Years had not treated the vessel kindly. Her envelope was marred by
numerous patches. It also had wrinkles where panels hadn't been fitted
properly. Her engine cars were battered and streaked with exhaust soot.
Finally, the aft section of the ship had a slight but noticeable droop.
"She seems hogged toward the stern," MacKiernan remarked.
Abercrombie grunted. "I'm not surprised. Those older designs with long
narrow hulls didn't have enough buoyancy to support the tail properly. The
Germans had a similar problem with the L-50 class."
"Can this be corrected?"
"If the girders haven't stretched too badly, we might be able to tighten the
diagonal cables. Otherwise we'll just have to live with it and hope no
MacKiernan glanced at his companion. Could the man be serious? Then he
noticed a hint of a smile on the Scotsman's dour face. "Right," he
chuckled. "Let's go aboard and meet our crew."
Mast Eighteen did not rate such conveniences as a lift, but MacKiernan and
Abercrombie didn't mind the climb to the handling platform. If this was the
least of the challenges they'd have to face, they'd consider themselves
fortunate. The marine sentry glanced up in surprise, put down the magazine
he'd been reading, and snapped to something that resembled attention.
"Sir?" he said.
"At ease," said MacKiernan. "I'm Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, here to
take command. Inform Lieutenant-Commander Noyes that we've arrived."
The sentry fiddled with a handset, then muttered something that almost
certainly wasn't an acknowledgement. "The intercom's out, sir. Again."
MacKiernan suppressed a sigh. "No matter, we'll surprise him."
The two men climbed the creaky accommodation ladder and started down the
keel passage. MacKiernan was relieved to note that the gas cells and rigging
they passed seemed in good shape. As Abercrombie had noted, the airship
must have met certain standards in order to pass survey. Her crew were
another matter. They eyed their new commander with a combination of
listlessness, apprehension, and resignation that didn't bode well for the
The control car was every bit as decrepit as MacKiernan had anticipated.
The deckplates were worn and scuffed by long use, the instruments were
antiques, and the controls seemed more suited for a ship of Nelson's day
than one of the present. Several bore placards like "Push lever hard",
"Make sure toggle is closed', and "Tap altimeter to make certain it isn't
sticking!" This too was food for thought.
A young lieutenant and a harassed-looking rigger were hammering on one of
the engine telegraphs. This appeared to be jammed in position.
Abercrombie glanced at this spectacle and shook his head. "Captain on
the bridge!" he announced.
The lieutenant jumped in surprise. "It's not my fault!" he said.
MacKiernan smiled. He'd been a lieutenant once. "No one said it was," he
replied gently . "I'm Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, here to relieve
Lieutenant-Commander Noyes. Where can I find him?"
"He's on medical leave, sir. I'm afraid he suffered something of a
breakdown. I'm Lieutenant Wilcox, senior officer aboard."
MacKiernan contemplated their surroundings. These were certainly enough to
explain his predecessor's indisposition. "Thank you Mister Wilcox. I'll
leave you to carry on. Where are your section chiefs?"
"Chief Engineer Avery should be in the aft engine car. We've been having
some trouble with those units. I imagine Chief Sharp will be in his
The aft engine car was an elongated compartment with two engines mounted in
tandem driving a single propeller -- one of those ideas that looked better
on paper than it actually worked in practice. MacKiernan and Abercrombie
saw no sign of anyone who might be the chief engineer, but in the back of
the car, a grey-haired man with an earring and bandanna was drilling out a
stuck bolt in an exhaust manifold. MacKiernan tapped the man's shoulder to
get his attention.
"Can you tell us where to find Chief Avery?" he asked.
The man cupped a hand to his ear. "WHAT WAS THAT?" he yelled. Hearing
loss was an occupational hazard for airship engineers.
"WHERE CAN WE FIND CHIEF AVERY?" MacKiernan yelled back.
"That's me, son!" the man announced in a slightly quieter voice. "You
must be our new captain. If you're wondering about the plant, it's all
in good shape. Except for the cooling system on Number One, the valves on
Number Two, and the injectors on Three and Four."
MacKiernan nodded. He'd expected worse. "Very good!" he yelled.
"That laddie is out of uniform," Abercrombie remarked as they climbed back
to the hull.
MacKiernan glanced down the ladder and shook his head. "For all we know,
that might have been the uniform back when he joined the Service."
Tradition placed the chief rigger's stateroom just forward of the cargo
hold. As MacKiernan and Abercrombie approached, they noticed loud snores
coming from inside. The two men exchanged glances, then MacKiernan knocked
on the door.
"Go away," grumbled a voice.
"This is Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan, your new captain," said MacKiernan.
"I suggest you reconsider your position."
There was a loud thump, as of something heavy striking the floor, followed
by a creak of deck plates. The door swung inward to reveal a man who
clearly enjoyed his meals. His attitude toward laundries seemed more
"Sorry, sir," he said. "Airman Sharp reporting for duty."
"Thank you, Sharp. I would like to introduce you to Abercrombie. He'll be
taking over your department for the duration of my command."
MacKiernan had expected the airman to upset by this demotion, but Sharp
showed no sign of dismay. If anything, he seemed relieved. "Thank you,
sir!" he exclaimed. "He'll have my complete cooperation!"
MacKiernan was thoughtful as they made their way back to the control car.
Was there any chance of salvaging this situation? He found it difficult to
contemplate the day's events without misgivings.
"What do you think of her?" he asked Abercrombie.
The rigger grinned. "I bet ye a shilling I can knock these lads into
MacKiernan laughed. The Scotsman's humor was infectious. "You're on!"
Next week: Crocodile Fenwick...
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