Distant Thunders: Destroyermen | Chapter 21 of 37 - Part: 1 of 3

Author: Taylor Anderson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3002 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER 10

Contact!” Ben Mallory shouted, warning Tikker that things were about to happen. Fast. They’d just completed the exhaustive, perhaps even mildly paranoid checklist he’d devised in the naive hope he’d somehow managed to foresee every glitch and imponderable characteristic his “creation” might throw at them. In spite of his excitement, Ben was more than a little nervous. He knew airplanes—particularly the high-performance pursuit planes he’d trained in—but in spite of the workmanlike proficiency he’d gained in the old PBY Catalina, he’d known it had a lot of idiosyncrasies he’d never figured out. Most of them probably had to do with its being a seaplane. His takeoffs and landings had never been all that hot, and that still bothered him. Now he was about to try to fly a seaplane that, essentially, he’d designed, without the benefit of any of the cumulative wisdom that had gone into the Catalina. Maybe “nervous” wasn’t really the right word.

The water of the bay was a little restless, with a light, uneven chop, but the wind was right and the sky seemed docile enough. The X-PB-1, as he referred to the plane, or “Nancy,” as everyone else had taken to calling it, after his first, ill-considered description, floated in the middle of the bay where it had been towed by Mahan’s launch, and all the area for a good distance in every direction had been cleared of harbor shipping. Other boats bobbed at regular intervals, ready to race to their aid if something . . . unpleasant happened. Ben hoped it wouldn’t. Experiments had shown that if they crashed into the water, even in the bay, they had a life expectancy of between four and six minutes before the “flashies” arrived and tore them to shreds. Of course, they had to survive the crash itself before that little tidbit of information would be relevant.

Ben was unhappy about the seemingly universally accepted moniker. The plane hadn’t ultimately wound up looking anything like a Nancy—one of the NC, or Navy-Curtiss, flying boats. It still looked more like a miniature PBY to him, although a comparison to a Super-marine Walrus was probably even closer. He was damned if he’d even mention that.

“Contact,” Tikker confirmed, while Ben stood precariously and turned toward the propeller. He felt as if he were attempting the feat in a canoe. He almost fell when an errant wave bounced the port wing float and slapped the starboard float against the sea.

“Jeez!” he chirped, trying to brace himself. He reached back and grasped one of the blades. At least he felt confident about the propeller. They’d “tracked” it while the engine was on the stand, and run it at different RPMs to check for resonant vibration and balance. The first one flew apart and nearly killed “Mikey” Monk, but they quickly improved the design. Bernie and Campeti finally came up with a scheme for a machine like a Springfield stock carver that they could use to make perfect props every time, as well as musket stocks. He pushed the blade up as high as he could reach, then brought it down with all his might. Much to his gratification, his prototype engine coughed instantly to life, and with a burbling, liquid fart, the propeller blades blurred before him. His back screamed in agony as he pulled something important trying to keep from falling into the prop. Improvement number one—he winced—some kind of rail behind the cockpit for the pilot to hang onto so the engine doesn’t eat him!

Painfully, he turned and tried to get in the seat, but tripped on the stick and sprawled forward, across the windscreen. The stick poked him savagely in the crotch. He had no idea what kind of sound he made over the suddenly coughing engine, but doubted it was very manly. Aft, behind the motor, Tikker sprang up like . . . well, a cat, and hosed fuel at the carburetor with one of Mahan’s bug sprayers. The engine farted again, ran up, then started to cough. Somehow, Ben managed to form an objective thought: Okay. Have to figure out a whole new start-up procedure. He slid down into his wicker seat and for a moment just sat there, gasping sympathetically with the motor while trying to remember where the throttle was through the waves of pain. His vision cleared as the tears evaporated and he pushed the suddenly visible throttle knob forward. Tikker had been keeping the engine alive with the bug sprayer, but now it caught and settled into a healthy-sounding rumble.

Before he could grab it, Ben’s six-page checklist flew past his face, into the prop, and showered Tikker with confetti. Oh, well, he thought. Saves me the effort of tearing it up. He settled in his seat, getting a feel for things, and put the control surfaces through their paces once more. So far, so good. The engine had settled down and sounded swell. He felt the plane begin to accelerate slightly beneath him and glanced up. That’s funny. What’s the launch doing there? The boat was racing straightaway, almost directly in front of him. Oh. Damn. There’s the city, too! The plane must have bobbed around in a circle while he was concentrating on getting it started and staying alive. He pushed the right rudder pedal to the floorboard, and the plane began turning south again, completing the circle it had begun on its own. Enough, he thought. The vaudeville show’s over. Time to get this crate in the air! He yelled for Tikker to hang on, but doubted the ’Cat heard him. He realized improvement number three was some kind of voice tube so he could communicate with his air crew.

Pointing roughly toward the mouth of the bay, he advanced the throttle. The propeller became invisible and the awkward-looking craft picked up speed. Okay, fairly responsive. Let’s give it some more! He pushed the throttle to the stop. His creation had no flaps. The PBY hadn’t had any and he’d hoped they wouldn’t be needed. It was a seaplane, after all, and runway length shouldn’t be an issue. He’d hoped. “C’mon,” he muttered. The engine roared behind him, a little quieter now, and the prop was spinning—disconcertingly close—as fast as it could. The plane increased speed until it began to skip across the top of the water, but he couldn’t seem to get it up. “C’mon!” he yelled, pulling back a little on the stick. The nose came off the water, but he felt it catch the wind! “Whoa!” he yelped, pushing back on the stick just a bit. His heart raced and he wondered how close he’d come to flipping the plane on its back. CG—center of gravity—is too far aft. I was afraid of that, he thought. Too much ass in her britches, like a P-39. He wondered why he’d done that. Was he trying to make a pursuit ship out of a floatplane? Chances were she’d be pretty nimble, but he was growing more concerned about the plane’s stability. He concentrated on holding the stick where it was, still building speed. Might need flaps after all, he thought.

Suddenly, amazingly, the hull left the water and the contraption was in the air! He risked a glance back at Tikker, but the ’Cat was whirling madly on the crank that retracted the wing floats. He looked to the side. Sure enough, the floats were coming up—slowly. Damn. Need a little more mechanical advantage there. The floats had seemed to come up fast enough when they tested them, but that was on dry land, with no drag. Number five.

Once the plane was off the water, it practically rocketed into the sky. Again, he wondered if there was some seaplane mystery he was unaware of. He eased back on the stick and knew they had enough thrust at last to keep the nose from trying to flip them. He’d actually foreseen that to a degree, and intended that the high-mounted engine should counteract just such a tendency. He hadn’t had any real formula to base his calculations on, but it seemed to be working . . . sort of. That might have been what kept them down so long too, though. Oh, well, that’s what test flights are for!

He wiped his goggles and realized he was soaked. There’d been enough spray to wet him down pretty good. He’d never gone blind, per se, but a larger windscreen was in order. He’d also have hated to get this wet anywhere but in the tropics. Cold still might be an issue, depending on the ceiling. Number six. He started climbing and banking slightly left, intending to ease back toward the city. Slowly, his tension began to ebb. He’d done it! He’d designed and helped build the first airplane ever constructed on this world! A euphoric feeling began to take hold. He’d done it, and he was flying! When the old PBY folded up and fell into the bay during the battle, he’d never dreamed he would survive, much less fly again! He let out a whoop.

He didn’t have an altimeter, but thought he was probably about two thousand feet up when he steadied the plane and aimed it at Baalkpan. With any luck, they’d have altimeters soon. There wasn’t that much to them, and right then, anything seemed possible. He glanced at his instrument panel. They’d salvaged a few instruments from the Catalina and put them on the prototype whether they had realistic expectations of re-creating them or not. They had to know what the plane could do. All the new planes would have a few easy instruments: a compass, an artificial horizon—or clinometer, as the Navy types liked to call it. An airspeed indicator was easy to do. Several temperature gauges would be supplied: one for the crankcase and others for each cylinder head. An oil-pressure gauge had already been successfully tested and was in production. The fuel gauge, at present, was the time-honored floating stick bobbing up and down through a hole in the gas cap. The fuel tank was in the wing above and behind him and he could keep an eye on the “gauge” with a little mirror. They’d need more eventually. They already had more than most pilots relied on in the Great War. Ben fiddled with the stick. A little tight, he decided, and he’d like some trim tabs, but overall, the only real problem was a tendency to pitch. CG, again. He already hated the propeller so close behind his head. Maybe they needed to turn the engine around. Make it a pusher . . .

He read the gauges instead of just staring proudly at them. Airspeed was better than he’d expected. About ninety. The temps looked good. A little warmer in the rear cylinders, but he’d expected that. Oil pressure was steady, maybe dropping a little, but that was normal as the oil heated up. He looked back at Tikker and caught a huge grin splitting the sable face. A few particles of the checklist still clung in his fur. Ben returned the thumbs-up offered by the only other “experienced” aviator in the Alliance. That thought hit him again. It had been stupid to bring Tikker on this flight. Granted, the ’Cat wasn’t really experienced, but he had guts and he had flown. He’d also done very well in the simulators they’d put together. Shouldn’t have done it, Ben decided, but the little guy deserved it.

Tikker caught his attention again, made a swooping gesture with his hand, and pointed down. Ben saw they were coming up on where Ajax was moored. Oh, no. Why did he have to do that? Had he known Ben’s pursuit instincts would kick in, like a dog seeing a rabbit take off? Can’t do it, Ben decided. Talk about stupid! No way should I do this! I really probably ought not to. . . . With a wicked grin, he nodded exaggeratedly.

Pushing the stick forward, he pretended he had a gunsight in front of him and began a shallow dive toward the Imperial frigate. He knew Adar would get hot, and so would the captain when he found out, but what were they going to do? Ground him? The plane started gaining speed. One hundred, a hundred and ten, a hundred and twenty . . . The stick got even tighter, but he waggled his wings just a little and knew he had plenty of control. Closer they sped, and he could see figures running on the deck. He knew just seeing the airplane was probably giving them fits, but there’d been no way to fly it without them knowing, so no one had actually ordered him not to buzz the ship. Besides, they still had stuff to test. A hundred and thirty at this dive angle seemed about max, and Ben was really wishing for trim tabs now, but as the mast tops approached, he was pleased to note that when he pulled back on the stick, the strange little plane almost leaped back up into the sky.

Maybe just a little impulsively, he displayed a hopefully universal gesture and yanked the stick to the right, forcing the plane into a slightly tighter climbing barrel roll than he’d perhaps intended.

“Seat belts!” he shouted, as he went inverted. “Number seven!”

There was no danger he and Tikker would fall out—they were sucked into their seats—but they were slammed against the left side of their respective cockpits. The tight roll and sharp climb forced Ben’s head back—where there was no rest—and he found himself staring right at the blurred propeller just inches away.

“Shit!”

Instinctively, Ben pushed the stick forward—maybe a little too much. The aft CG practically pitched the nose out from under them, causing a momentary—but terrifying—negative-G condition. This immediately levitated the fuel in the carburetor and closed the float, starving the engine—not to mention leaving Tikker to clutch the diagonal stringers in the fuselage for dear life. Recognizing that improvement number seven was of extreme importance, Ben somehow managed to ease back on the stick, finish the roll, and right the craft before he and Tikker were thrown from the plane.

Airspeed had kept the prop windmilling behind him, and within seconds, as the fuel in the carburetor remembered where to go, the engine coughed and sputtered back to life. Holding the stick in a vise-like grip, Ben looked around. Everything was back to normal and the Nancy seemed to have survived the stupid, stupid, stupid gyrations with no apparent damage. He sighed, loosening his grip a little, and took a deep, shaky breath. He almost gagged. Gas! There was gas everywhere! He looked at Tikker and saw that the ’Cat was soaked. He was shouting something and pointing up. Ben spun to stare at the little mirror and saw the fuel gauge stick was gone. Worse, so was the gas cap it floated in. What the hell?! The pressure of the gas or the air in the tank slapping against it must have blown the cap off, he deduced. Judging by the amount of fuel all over everything, they must have dumped a lot—since most of it wouldn’t have landed on them!

He looked down. They were over the city now, and he banked back toward the bay. I wonder how much fuel we have left? The engine coughed, gurgled, then roared back to life. Shit! Not much!

He turned back to Tikker and made a winding motion over his head. Get the floats down! Tikker was already spinning the crank. With a pounding heart, Ben Mallory concluded he was liable to have to attempt yet another stunt he’d absolutely never intended for this very first flight: a dead-stick landing on Baalkpan Bay.

Pointing the nose down to build some airspeed, he found he had to keep even more back pressure on the stick to keep the ship level as the engine burped and died completely. The sudden lack of any sound but the wind whooshing through the support struts and control cables was chilling.

“Slow down!” he heard Tikker shriek for the first time.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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