The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 150: The Third Flying Cloud Christmas Special

Sea Scout Class blimp and lighthouse

Except for the warm tropical sun, the complete lack of snow, and the fashionable grass penis-sheaths worn by members of the orchestra, Christmas Eve at Rabaul's Government House could have been any Yuletide celebration in Bavaria. The walls were decorated with angels, stars, and paper snowflakes -- Captain Everett thought some of the former looked rather like winged frogs. Tables groaned beneath heaping platters of rinderschmorbraten, pflaumenkuchen, and blaukraut, trays of freshly-baked lebkuchen and zimtsterne, and voluminous bowls of punch. Outside, some children were singing a traditional Papuan carol.

Eingesunken R'lyeh, eingesunken R'lyeh,
wie treu sind deine shoggoths!

Everett listened for a moment, trying to puzzle out the local interpretation of German, then gave up and turned his attention back to the party. He'd been concerned the affair might prove awkward, involving as it did representatives of two nations that had recently been at war, but Helga's men had broken the ice with an impromptu display involving roller skates and cymbals, and now the party was in full swing. The Administrator presided over the festivities, resplendent in his dress uniform. Captain Michaelson circulated among the guests, dressed smartly in his Number Ones. Even Wallace and Rashid looked presentable, though the Persian seemed to have mixed feelings about attending what to him must have been a pagan celebration.

The only exceptions to the general good humor were MacKiernan and Miss Perkins. The Irishman nursed a stein of ale, looking everywhere but at her. The secretary stood by a wall, looking like she wished she was somewhere else. Both seemed to regret the considerations of protocol that demanded they attend. Everett wasn't sure what had passed between them during the weeks they were off the ship -- one of the duties of command was knowing when to look the other way -- but he could sense their discomfort.

Another one of the duties of command is making sure one's men feel at ease. He was pondering the best way to achieve this when Helga stepped up and gave MacKiernan a hearty slap on the shoulder.

"How you liking the party?" she asked as the Irishman struggled to avoid choking on his drink.

"It's... ah... not like the home country."

"Ya! The boys dress much better here! But you must have plenty tales from old days."

"Uh... err..."

"You tell us one! Tell us about your first Christmas in the Service!" She smiled, eyes glittering with some purpose Everett couldn't quite decipher. MacKiernan eyed her warily, then seemed to decide that story-telling was the better part of valor.

"First Christmas in the service? That was back in the winter of '17. I was fresh out of training, and I'd just been posted to the Royal Navy's blimp station at Dover."

"That would have been under Bostridge?" said Everett.

"Yes, he took over from Cobden shortly after the Peace."

"I don't envy you. That man had a reputation for sending his ships out in all weather."

"Aye," said MacKiernan, "and he did his best to live up to it that Christmas Eve. The off-duty watches had gathered in the mess hall to celebrate the season, and we were just about to drink the first toast of the evening, when he burst in and announced he needed volunteers to carry a message to the Royal Air Station in Suffolk."

"Carry a message?" asked Iverson. "Why didn't he just send it by cable or wireless?"

The Irishman shrugged. "There was talk that the lines were down and something was wrong with the w/t, but knowing the Old Man, I suspect he just wanted to show what his ships could do. And before I knew it, my captain had stepped up to the mark. That was Lieutenant-Commander Ponsonby."

"Ponsonby?" Everett shook his head. "I knew the fellow. He was a stickler for schedules and timetables. Not necessarily the best attribute for an airman. I understand he finally left the Service to work for a railway company. Were there any other volunteers?"

"Unfortunately for us, there were. Sandbrook and Griffith, in Third Flotilla, offered to make the flight in one of the new Coastal Class ships. After that, nothing would do but there must be a race. It was hardly an even match -- they had five knots over our obsolete Sea Scout -- but that was old Bossy for you. The next thing I knew, we were bundling on our flying gear and dashing out to the field without even waiting for the hourly weather forecast. Ponsonby figured that would give us a forty-five minute head start, which might be enough to even the odds. A moment to check trim and warm up the engine, then we were climbing away into the dark."

It was a beautiful night when we left Dover. The wind was light out of the east -- little more than a zephyr -- and air was clear as crystal. The villages below us glittered with light. I imagine they were all out celebrating, but up in the cockpit, we were freezing.

We had radio direction finding gear in those days, but it wasn't at all trustworthy, so we navigated by eye, following the chain of lighthouses up the coast. Ponsonby took the helm, leaving me with little to do but record fuel consumption and try not to think how cold I was. We passed Ramsgate Light a bit less than an hour out of Dover, then headed out over the Thames estuary on a long leg to the Essex shore. I was hunched over the logbook, trying to remember what it felt like to be warm, when he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out a beacon to port.

"You see that," he announced, "flashing red, with a period of 30 seconds? That's Gunfleet Light, six miles offshore of Frinton-on-Sea. Walker of Trinity House built it back in 1850. I'll let you take over now. The course you want is 025, parallel to the coast. We should pick up the beacon at Lowestoft around 0120.

With those words, he nipped back to the captain's cuddy, leaving me alone at the controls. And I must say, I felt the weight of the responsibility settle on my shoulders. There I was, a new lieutenant, flying one of His Majesty's Airships through the midwinter night. To make matters worse, clouds were moving in. The moon went first, hidden behind a layer of altostratus. Then a bank of fog rose to obscure my view of the coast.

I kept close watch on the compasses. We had two -- a magnetic compass and one of the new gyroscopic units from Sperry that had replaced the old Anschütz equipment. The clock ticked away on the panel beside it and our faithful 75 hp Renault pounded out the revolutions behind me. But as the appointed hour approached with no sign of the light, I began to feel nervous.

At precisely 0120, the hatch slid back and the skipper re-emerged. He stared into the darkness for a moment, then pointed out a faint red beacon, barely visible through the clouds. I was watching it, trying to count the flashes, when he gave a snort of disgust, "That's Gunfleet again! You've flown us in a circle, Lieutenant!"

I couldn't believe it -- if there was one thing I thought I knew how to do back then, it was steer a course. But the evidence of the light was unmistakable. Somehow, we were back where we'd started when I took over the helm. Ponsonby was not amused. I expected him to relieve me, but instead, he stood at my shoulder and ordered me to fly the leg again.

The next hour moved by at a crawl. And I must say, time does crawl when you know you're in for a caning. My heart sank when the clouds opened to reveal a beacon, for I was not looking forward to our arrival at Felixstowe. It sank still further when Ponsonby compared the light with his copy of the North Sea Pilot.

"Five red and white flashes every twenty seconds? That's Ramsgate! What are you doing, MacKiernan? We've been flying in the wrong direction!"

I protested, pointing at the compasses, but that didn't get me off the hook. As executive officer, I was responsible for the condition of the navigational equipment. I wracked my brain trying to guess how the instruments could be at fault. Had someone left a steel tool near the magnetic compass? Could the gyroscopic unit have drifted due to steaming errors? But try as I might, I couldn't imagine how they could both give the same false reading. And hadn't they both pointed north while we could still see the shoreline?

The clouds had closed in again, so all we could do was hold our course, trust our equipment, and wait. When the third light appeared, I wasn't surprised to count three white flashes every twenty seconds. This one I recognized. It was the South Foreland light near Dover, just a few miles from our station.

By now Ponsonby had lost every last shred of patience. He gave me a good round lecture about my inadequacies as an airman, and officer, and a human being. As for me, I was at my wit's end. I couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. All I could do was shiver, wait, and wonder what this would mean for my career.

I was still shivering two hours later when the sun rose to find us over the coast of France."

"France?" said Miss Perkins, who'd come over to discover what everyone else was listening to. "Isn't that some distance south of England?"

"Yes, but it seems the wind came up shortly after we reached the Essex coast -- a stiff breeze out of the north blowing at twice our cruising speed. For the past six hours, we'd been traveling backwards."

"Backwards!" said the secretary, startled.

"It's the sort of thing that happens to non-rigid dirigibles."

"So what did you do?"

"I'll say one thing for Ponsonby: he had a sense of humor. You needed that in blimps. He apologized for all the things he'd called me, took full responsibility for what had happened, and promised to buy me a beer. Then we held station as best we could until the wind dropped and we could make our way to Calais."

"What about Sandbrook and Griffith in their Coastal Class?" asked Miss Perkins. "Did they get caught in the storm too?"

The Irishman laughed. "No, you will remember that they waited to hear the weather forecast. When they found out about the predicted winds, they left their blimp in the shed and took the train to Felixstowe."

By now the others were laughing too. Even Miss Perkins was stifling a giggle. Everett wondered what instinct had prompted MacKiernan to tell a tale of errors and forgiveness. Then he noticed Helga smiling. She caught his eye, indicated the two, and gave him a victory sign.

"You like Helga's little trick?" she asked. "We have to be helping our friends sometimes. That is the bestest gift. Merry Christmas!"

Sea Scotu blimp over France

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of the R-505! We wish you the best of the season and the very best of fortune in the coming year! The Flying Cloud will be on vacation for two weeks while our crew in the Royal Naval Airship Service do their 'joy of the season' bit. Season Four will begin on 9-Jan-2012. We look forward to seeing you...

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