R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 21: The Squall

The control car of the Flying Cloud during the storm

"Still climbing!" cried Iverson. "I can't hold her!"

Arpound him, the Flying Cloud rocked in the grip of the updraft. The elevator wheel jerked in his hands like a living thing. Outside, night turned black as the ship was engulfed by the storm.

"Steady there, lieutenant," came Captain Everett's voice, calm and reassuring. "Keep the nose down fifteen degrees. Miss Sarah, open the maneuvering valves for three minutes and give me a call every thirty seconds. We want to nip this sort of behavior in the bud."

How can the Captain be so nonchalant? wondered Iverson. This was how an airship died: sucked up into a thunderhead, gas cells expanding as she climbed, until her hydrogen bled away through the relief valves and she fell. The Americans had lost a ship in just this way a few short years ago.

"Thirty seconds," said Sarah. She sounded every bit as calm as Everett. Glancing at her face, Iverson caught a glimpse of a smile. Well, he thought indignantly, if that's how it's going to be, I'll show them!

"Still climbing, a thousand feet per minute, passing through 2500'" he said, doing his best to sound unconcerned.

"Very good," said Everett.

"One minute," said Sarah.

Good? thought Iverson. How could this be good? Surely they were going to die. "Climbing at fifteen hundred feet per minute, passing through 3000'," he reported. Above them, gas would be venting from the maneuvering valves. Would this be enough to stop their fatal climb?

"We should top out soon," announced Everett. "Be ready to catch her when she starts to drop. Jenkins, how's the helm?"

"Easy, sir," said the signalman, adjusting his collar to smooth away some imagined imperfection.

"One minute thirty seconds..." said Sarah. "Two minutes..."

"Climb rate's slowing," said Iverson. "Topping out at 3700'. She's starting to come down."

"Bring the nose up now, fifteen degrees," said the Captain, reaching for the intercom and keying the mike. "Abercrombie," he warned, "be ready to jettison the emergency fuel tanks."

"Aye, sir," came the chief rigger's voice.

Jettison the emergency tanks? thought Iverson. This was a desperate measure, reserved for moments when nothing else could save a vessel.

"I always like to keep some ballast in reserve," the captain explained. "This is a useful practice, which you would do well to keep in mind should you find yourself in a similar situation. Altitude and descent rate please?"

"2500', dropping at... fifteen hundred!"

"Abercrombie, jettison them now."

Somewhere aft, riggers slashed lines holding the tanks to the airframe. The ship lurched as a ton of fuel dropped away into the night. Free of the weight, her descent rate slowed.

"Leveling out at 2000'," said Iverson, with a sigh of relief. Perhaps they would survive.

"Now the fun begins," said Everett.

Fun? thought Iverson. This is not fun at all! The ship was pitching heavily and it took all his effort to strike a balance between over-controlling and letting her get away from him. He remembered the legend of Icarus, threading his narrow path through the sky. They'd joked about it back in public school, wondering if the hero had really fallen into the ocean. He'd been a young man, flying over islands noted for the beauty of their women; perhaps he'd had a different agenda from his father. This didn't seem so funny now.

"Here it comes..." said someone. Then the ship heaved as an arm of the storm reached down to drag them into the sky. There was a bang like a pistol shot as some cable parted above them.

"I didn't like the sound of that," remarked Jenkins.

"It did not sound encouraging," observed Everett.

"Captain!" came Abercrombie's voice over the intercom. "We got tae reduce power!"

"That weak-livered Scottsman," growled MacKiernan, grabbing the microphone. "We need speed to maneuver!"

"The rigging cannae take it! Cables are breaking!"

"A shilling says ye can't fix 'em, the ship breaks up, and we fall to our doom!"

"Yer on, ye daft Irishman!"

Over the noise of the storm, Iverson distinctly heard his captain sigh. Then the deck fell away beneath his feet. "Dropping," he managed to gasp. "Two thousand feet per minute."

"You see why I wished to conserve ballast," Everett remarked, sounding for all the world like a lecturer back in school. "Miss Sarah, release ten seconds on all tanks."

On the other side of the control car, the girl pulled the toggles and counted off the seconds.

"Still falling, dropping through 2000'" said Iverson, staring at the instruments in horror. They were little more than a minute away from death.

"Thank you, lieutenant," said Everett. "Miss Sarah, release another ten seconds and be ready to drop more if I give the command.

Somehow -- Iverson wasn't sure how -- they managed to halt the dive, little more than a hundred feet above the waves. They might even have been lower; if atmospheric pressure had dropped during the storm, their altimeter would be reading too high. Gingerly, he eased back the wheel to gain some height.

"It looks like it's getting brighter on your side, Captain," said MacKiernan.

"I believe you may be right," said Everett. "Jenkins, bring us left to 260."

"Left to 260," acknowledged the signalman. He seemed unruffled as ever.

Iverson looked up. Outside the windows, black was giving way to grey. As he watched, the clouds fell away astern. On both sides of the ship, curtains of rain trailed off to the east. Ahead, the Timor Sea glimmered in the new light of dawn.

He had never seen anything so beautiful.

"Good work gentlemen, Miss Sarah," said Everett. "I believe you deserve some rest. I'll send the other watch down to relieve you."

Iverson and Sarah walked back down the keel passage together. Around them, riggers were checking for damage, inspecting cables, and making repairs, but the two scarcely noticed this activity, relieved as they were by their deliverance.

"You were very brave," Iverson said to Sarah when they reached the crew section.

"Brave?" The girl gave a nervous giggle. "I was terrified."

"I'll let you in on a secret," said Iverson. "I was terrified too. I never could have made it without the Captain. How does he manage?

The girl looked up at him, eyes bright in the dim light of the passage. For a moment, she seemed to be waiting for something. Then she smiled, leaned forward, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

"You're braver than you think, John. You just need a bit more self-confidence."

He stood there, wondering, as she walked away down the corridor.

Next week: Darwin, Australia...

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