R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 16: Speed Trials

Airship buzzing an island in the Great Barrier Reef

Captain Roland P. Everett was every inch an officer of the Royal Navy. Trim and proper, he'd been raised as a gentleman and trained to maintain a rigorous standard of behavior under any and all circumstances. Men of his station -- standard-bearers of English civilization in a coarse and unruly world -- were supposed to be above juvenile enthusiasms and petty lapses of behavior.

At least that was the theory.

"All right, gentlemen," he said, "let's see what this ship can do."

"Sir?" asked Lieutenant Iverson.

They were on the bridge of the Flying Cloud, His Majesty's Airship R-505. On the left, Airman Wallace was adjusting the elevator wheel with gentle touches of his fingers. On the right, their erstwhile passenger Sarah was serving her first official watch at the ballast station. Iverson stood at the helm, looking even younger than usual in the face of this responsibility. He should have been gazing ahead, but instead he was staring at his captain.

Everett met the youth's gaze. "The Royal Navy expects a certain degree of refinement from its officers," he observed brightly. "I feel it is our duty to disappoint them. Ring for flank speed."

Iverson smiled as understanding dawned. Reaching for the three engine telegraph levers to the right of the helm, he shoved them forward as far as they would go. Bells chimed. Behind them, the drone of the engines grew and deepened.

"Jenkins," said Everett, "are you recording this?"

"Of course, sir," replied the signalman. As usual, he'd been standing at his captain's side, ready to take orders or see to the state of his attire as the situation might require. Now he was holding a stopwatch, clipboard, and pen.

"50 knots," said Iverson after a moment.

"Time?" asked Everett.

Jenkins's eyes widened as he glanced at the stopwatch. Wordlessly, he made a note, then turned the clipboard so his captain could see.

"Interesting," observed Everett.

"Coming through 60 knots sir," said Iverson a moment later.

Jenkins made another note and shook his head. "Are we sure that airspeed indicator is accurate? We possibly can't be accelerating so quickly." He sounded offended, as if the vessel's performance represented some personal affront.

"It's a Jaeger," said Lieutenant-Commander MacKiernan from his position at the plotting table. "About the only thing on this mystery ship with any kind 'o trademark. They've a fine reputation."

"70," Iverson announced gleefully.

"Of course, there may be a problem with this one," said the Irishman. He stalked forward to glare at the offending instrument, which had settled on a reading of 72 knots -- slightly more than 82 miles per hour.

"There's no way a ship this size can be this fast," protested Jenkins. "The Admiralty will never believe it."

"Then we'll just keep this among ourselves, so as not to upset them," Everett replied. "Log that we achieved a maximum speed of 65 knots. I believe that was the specification for the Junior Vickers class."

"Sir?" said the signalman.

"I am concerned for Commander Michaelson's spiritual welfare," said Everett. "If he knew how fast this ship was, he'd want it for his cronies. And I believe there's a commandment to the effect that `thou shalt not cover thy neighbor's ox, thy neighbor's wife, or thy neighbor's airship'."

"I believe you're correct, sir," said Jenkins, "and I can appreciate the relevance to our situation." The base commander's hostility had been evident from the moment they arrived, even before his unsuccessful attempt to prosecute them for piracy. They would be wise to avoid the man's attention until he found some other target for his ire.

Everett turned to his lieutenant. "I believe that will do for the speed trials, Mister Iverson," he observed. "Now let us practice some evolutions."

They spent the next hour putting the vessel through a succession of maneuvers -- turns, reversals, climbs, and dives -- at different altitudes and speeds. The control car remained quiet, except for the occasional low-voiced command, but soon the crew were sweating from the effort of living up to their captain's demands. Only Wallace seemed unaffected. A veteran of long service, the elevatorman had faced much worse.

At last, satisfied with the results, Everett set a course toward one of the small islands that dotted the stretch of the Great Barrier Reef the Royal Navy had set aside as a practice area. "How's the pitch response?" he asked Wallace. "Do you think she's steady enough?"

The airman gave a wolfish grin. "Aye, sir."

"Very good. Take her down to two hundred feet."

The nose dipped slightly, then came back up to the horizon. Everett waited until they'd leveled off, then turned to his helmsman.

"Mister Iverson, ring for full speed."

"Sir?" asked the lieutenant. His instructors had been unanimous about the dangers of flying at high speed close to the ground.

"This is something I learned when I was stationed in Palestine," said Everett. "If you come in fast, from behind some terrain feature like that island, you can take a target by surprise. They might hear you coming, but they won't actually see you until it's too late."

"Sir," said the lieutenant, swallowing. He steeled himself and pushed the telegraph levers forward. Behind them, the sound from the engines deepened. Soon they were hurtling north, less than half their length above the waves.

"Take her down to one hundred feet," said Everett

"One hundred feet," said Wallace.

The airman made an imperceptible adjustment to the elevator wheel. Beside him, the altimeter edged downward a tick, then stopped.

"Ring for flank speed."

"Flank speed," said Iverson, cringing as he shoved the engine telegraph levers against their stops.

"Now," Everett said to Wallace, "ease her down a bit lower."

"Sir, might I ask how we can be sure we'll clear the island?" asked Iverson, his young voice threatening to crack.

"Keep an eye on the crest, lieutenant," Everett said calmly. "As long as it seems to be dropping with respect to the horizon, we'll pass over it without any difficulty."

"What if there's something on the other..." Iverson began. Then the island was flashing past below them as the masts of a large motor yacht rose ahead.

"Watch out!" cried MacKiernan.

Gently, Wallace eased the elevator wheel back, lifting the nose as the tail swung down to just above the waves. Slowly -- all too slowly -- the airship began to climb. At the last instant, as collision seemed inevitable, he eased the wheel back forward, clearing the other vessel by what seemed like inches.

"Good work, airman," said Everett. "I'll see that this goes on your record."

"Wasn't that Michaelson's yacht?" asked MacKiernan.

"I believe it was," said Jenkins. "Whatever was he doing here in the practice area?"

"Is it supposed to be upside down like that?" asked Sarah.

"I rather doubt it," said the signalman

"Will this lead to trouble?" asked the girl.

Everett sighed. "I imagine that it might."

Next week: Coastal Patrol...

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