Calm Before the Storm
“Hey, young Lorimer! Fancy helping me with this?”
Lieutenant Hartley was cradling a Hotchkiss Machine Gun in his arms. Ross left his bench and ran to assist him with the heavy air-cooled gun.
“What are you going to do with this, Sir,” he queried.
“Going to bolt it onto the front of that new Farman over there. Just want to see if I can rig up some way of firing the blighter from my cockpit. My observer has been popping at rabbits and hares with a Lee-Enfield rifle, and missing because of the vibration. But it got me thinking. How much better for the sport a machine gun would be. Pull the trigger and you can steer the plane at the hares, and the pock-marks would guide you. Only thirty rounds in the ammo strip, but that should bag a bunny or two.”
They had reached the Farman and Ross was quite happy to lay his end of the heavy gun down. Lieutenant Hartley clambered up into the bathtub shaped body, and wedged himself into the observer’s seat. He probed under the rim in front of him, then commented, “Needs some beefing-up here to take the tripod mounts, but it should do.”
Some half an hour later, Ross was helping to bolt into place the first machine-gun ever to be used in the Royal Flying Corps, even though it was only to shoot food for the mess.
He was to whimsically remember this day later in his career, as Hartley, on completion of the task, called his observer over to climb aboard.
“Tally Ho, Yoiks!” he called as Ross spun the rearward facing propeller and the little 50 hp. pusher engine spluttered into life.
Two hours later, over a dinner of rabbit and hare, the officers’ mess was celebrating the new form of hunting. The private who had the job of cycling after the Farman and picking up the booty had little to celebrate in his mess that night.
“I say, old chap! Almost as satisfying as riding to hounds, what?” Major Fortescue called out. “What a spiffing idea. Too bad we have only the one gun. I’d love to have a go.”
“By all means, take it up tomorrow morning, Sir. We’ve had our bit of fun. But be careful, the extra weight makes the old kite very slow. We only just got off the ground.”
“Jolly good. I’ll do just that, and Smithers can be my observer. Shoot, Smithers, eh? Can you shoot?”
“Yes, Sir, I can try. But you may have to show me where the trigger is on the blessed thing.”
“Jolly good. Fine fellow.”
Hartley turned to the pilot beside him and said in a low voice, “I’d better be up there with them, just in case. The old man talks better than he flies, you know. I’ll take a Bleriot up and that young mechanic Lorimer. He deserves it. Worked hard on bolting that monstrosity on properly. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. Take a Bleriot up and fly behind ‘em.”
“Good idea. Don’t fly in front of them. They might take you for a large sized hare and jug you!”
A sickly sun peeked out from behind low clouds as Ross scraped carbon off yet another engine piston. He made sure the inlet valve in the piston-head was clear of carbon residue and was a nice shiny silver-grey all round. He had been told that these valves were prone to sticking and if they were not scrupulously cleaned, could result in that cylinder failing, resulting in a crash.
His mind drifted to that morning’s flight with Lieutenant Hartley. He could still see the Farman up ahead, like a stick-and-paper box-kite, weaving and swooping as Major Fortescue tried to notch up a kill. But try as he might, the hares and rabbits always seemed to escape him. Ross marvelled at how Hartley was able to skim over hedges and rooftops, scaring the occasional farmer in his fields. Ross knew the engine of this plane very well. Hadn’t he spent half a day scraping the carbon off the piston tops and valves? Hadn’t he himself attached the fuel pipes and checked the magnetos? The engine was purring like a kitten and Ross suddenly realised... he was the cause of it. The engine had been limping badly when it was brought in, and now it was running sweetly, delivering all 50 h.p. to the prop. His chest swelled with pride as he settled back into his seat to enjoy the ride.
Back in the hangar, after an uneventful landing, he was scraping carbon again with a vengeance. Sandy Paul sauntered over and waved a folded sheet under his nose.
“Got a message for ye, laddie,” he remarked as he waved it under Ross’s nose. “Love letter from yer girlie, eh?”
Ross looked at him blankly, then took the message. He broke the seal and unfolded the letter. A smile creased the corners of his mouth as he read what the Station Master at Farnborough had written.
“You have left your motor cycle contraption here for too long. If you do not remove it immediately, I will be obliged to sell it to pay your outstanding rent for its space, amounting to Two Pounds Thirteen Shillings and Sixpence.”
“No, chum. It’s not from a girlfriend. Haven’t got one anyway,” and he grinned as he thought about the heap of motorised junk which he had bought for three pounds before enlisting, and which had never worked properly. Seeing he was not getting a nibble, Sandy sauntered off again.
He screwed up the message.
“Blow the stupid thing. It’s taken too much of my life already. I spent most of my time pedalling the damn crate anyway. He can have the blasted thing, and good riddance!”
A ‘crump’ from the station’s new inflatable airship which was hovering some 2000 feet up above the field caught his attention. As he watched, his eyes opened wide. The gas bag buckled in the centre, as if it was hinged, and started to flutter earthwards. He yelled as he watched it sideslip, right itself, then sideslip the other way as it descended. He could see that the crew was trying to keep the passenger basket stable by blipping the small engine on and off. Finally the basket crashed heavily to the ground and tipped onto its side, to be enveloped by the partially full balloon. Ross started running hard, following other mechanics, fire crew and soldiers as they all raced over to the other side of the field to help. Expecting an explosion at any moment, they cautiously made their way to the crumpled machine, its engines still sizzling hot. A naval officer was dragging himself shakily out of the wreckage, and Ross quickly found himself helping the other crew men out through the torn fabric which covered the cane basket.
“Geez, aren’t they lucky?” a voice behind him remarked. “A fall like that an’ no serious injuries! Strewth, talk about good fortune!”
Ross had to agree. The crew were shaken and bruised, one with a broken arm, the other with a long gash to his leg. They had been extremely fortunate. Ross saw the name “ASTRA TORRES” painted on the side of the stricken airship. A wooden spar had pierced the ‘O’ of Torres like an arrow in a target.
Ross was proud of his new transfer to No 3 Squadron as a 2nd Class Aircraft Mechanic, especially as his pay had risen to two shillings a day. To celebrate his promotion, he was taken into the village by his mates, Sandy Paul, O’Brien, and Baker. They invaded the village Open Arms pub and Ross tried a whisky for the first time. Spluttering, he wiped his eyes and ordered a round of ales on the strength of his new found wealth.
As the pub closed, four slightly-the-worse-for-wear figures staggered and sang their way back to the base in the crisp moonlight.
Ross had been selected to be engine-mechanic on a 50 hp Bleriot monoplane flown by Lieutenant Cooper who was quite pleased to tell him that the Bleriot had been donated to the RFC by the International Correspondence School. He admonished Ross to take extra good care of it for that reason. Ross took this to heart, and lavished all his affection on the craft, swinging the prop at all hours, just to make sure it would fire first time, every time.
Sunday afternoon came, and Ross spent his free time on tweaking the engine of the Bleriot again, swinging the prop and letting it run for a couple of minutes, then switching off to adjust something else.
“Bloody idiot,” growled the Cockney, Baker. He was rewarded by several grunts of agreement from the other mechanics, who were trying to get some kip in their tents.
“It’s about time we done sumfink about it, is what.” Again, grunts of agreement as they pulled the pillows over their heads.
“Flamin’ Sunday. Day of rest. Ain’t ‘e got no respect for the Bible?” queried Baker.
“Reckon it might be up to us to put a stop to it, yer know,” ventured the ex-navy O’Brien. “Maybe we should heave ‘im overboard.”
“Not much water round ‘ere, matey. Nah, but we gotta do something. Mmmm. How’s about we scotch his motor tonight. Nothin’ serious like. Just a bit o’ fun.”
That night two shadowy figures stole up to the Bleriot and dissolved into the darkness. An occasional “clink” told of work in progress, then the moonlight caught them again as they made their way back to the tents by way of the latrines.
“Well, I’ll be...” fell from Ross’s lips the next morning as he stared at his beloved engine. “Where the Hell are the sparking plugs?” He scratched his head and stared at the seven cylinders of the engine, each with its tell-tale hole gaping at him.
“Bastards!” He rounded on his mates, and saw them trying to keep straight faces.
“What have you done with my sparking plugs? Where have you hidden them?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean!” Sandy replied with a grin. “Do ye mean those little plug things that make an engine go all noisy when good honest fellers like us are trying to get some kip?”
“You know damn well what I mean. Where are they? Lieutenant Cooper could be here any minute. He’ll be furious if his kite isn’t ready to fly.”
“Should’ve thought of that before you disturbed our beauty sleep,” O’Brien chipped in.
“Look. I’m sorry if I made a bit too much noise, but this is serious. Lieutenant Cooper wants to go up this morning and his plane has got to be ready.”
“Why not get some new ones from the quartermaster’s store?”
“That would take too long. And I’d have to check the gap in them. And... oh Hell, here he comes.”
Suddenly, Sandy Paul was beside him with a bucket. All seven sparking plugs lay there on a pad of rags.
“Here ye go lad, just tell him it was a last minute check and we’ll help you to screw them in. Come on, mates.”
And while Ross stalled the pilot, his three mates screwed the plugs into place, and swung the prop. The Gnome engine popped into life and burbled sweetly.
“By Jove, Lorimer, that motor does sound smooth today. Good job, man. Help me roll it out for take-off, there’s a good chap,” Cooper yelled over the noise as he blipped the engine to keep it from stalling.
“Don’t you fret, Sir,” called Sandy. “You just hop into the cockpit and we’ll all see you on your way.”
With that, they took the wings and tail section and steered the monoplane out of the tented hangar and onto the grass runway. Sandy put his arm around Ross’s shoulder and they watched the Bleriot roll across the grass and sweep into the sky.
“Come on, Ross, there’s a mate I want you to meet dahn the pub. He’s got the answer to yer prayers,” he promised.
Ross sat on the grass, a tin dish of parts at his side. The Moto-Reve motorcycle was hardly the answer to his dreams. It was like a normal bicycle, except that it had a small engine as well, with its own belt drive to the back wheel. Ross had to pedal it hard until the engine fired, allowing him to cruise along comfortably under power.
Usually it ran on one cylinder... which is not so good for a twin cylinder bike. Ross found all his spare time and money completely taken up with trying to get both cylinders working at the same time. He was poking in the innards of it with a screwdriver when a voice at his shoulder startled him.
“Try changing the cylinders around. That might make a difference.”
The speaker was a slim lad whom Ross had recently seen around the camp.
“I’m Cuth Barton,” he added.
“Ross Lorimer. Mmmm. It’s worth a try I suppose, although I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel now. This bloody thing’s got me fair flummoxed.”
They hunkered down each side of the carcass and took the cylinders off, reversed them, slid them carefully over the pistons and bolted them on again. Wiping their hands on some rags, they stood up and Ross climbed aboard the bike. Cuth gave him a push-start, and the Moto-Reve wobbled off with its rider pushing hard on the pedals. A flick of his finger, and Ross felt the engine come to life and chug along. The belt took hold and Ross was free to stop pedalling as the motorbike picked up its revs. Soon he was circling the area at an incredible speed, faster than Cuth could run! But such euphoria couldn’t last long. The engine cut out and he cruised to a halt Cuth caught up and, laughing breathlessly, slapped him on the back.
From that day on, they were the best of mates.
The wind was in Ross’s face, and he was flying! Or imagining he was, as he screwed the throttle control to full on his Motor-Reve. Dirt and small stones skittered out from under the rubber tyres as he put-putted his way along the narrow hedge-lined road to Salisbury. He knew he must be doing an average of over six miles an hour! Faster downhill, but sometimes uphill the bike slowed down so much he had to help it by pedalling. Some two and a quarter hours after leaving the camp, he arrived in the main street of the town. Two hours and fifteen minutes! And the bike had not stopped once!
Turning around after buying a paper twist of sweets at the little stone-fronted general shop, he headed back uphill to the camp. It took him a little longer to get home, but he still smashed the existing record of three hours and five minutes, which Sergeant-Major Ramsden had set on his machine some two weeks before.
That evening he and Cuth shared the twist of sweets as they chatted about his achievement.
Success was sweet!
The word around camp was that war was possible soon. Germany and Britain had for years been standing up to each other with their navies, and it seemed unthinkable that “Britannia Rules The Waves” could ever change. But lately there had been stories of a build-up of arms in Germany, and of a plan by the Gemans to invade France through Belgium. World War One was looming.
“The scuttlebutt from the ships is that we could be at war with Germany soon!” O’Brien announced as they were working on their planes one day. “Our big friggin’ battleships’ll grind ‘em into pulp, o’ course. But we might be sendin’ our planes up as scouts for the navy, too.”
“Oh, hell! That will be all right when we find out how to keep them flying for more than an hour at a time,” Sandy pointed out. The Gnome engines were still very prone to oiling up and developing problems in flight. Bad enough over land, but catastrophic over the sea.
Ross ignored the pessimism. “Wouldn’t that be something!” he remarked. “Maybe I should ask Lieutenant Cooper if he would train me as an observer, eh?”
“All you want is the extra florin a day flight pay!” Sandy quipped.
“Not true, and you know it. I love it up there. Seeing all the farms and roads from on top is such a great feeling. You ought to try it.”
“Blow that for a joke,” replied Sandy, “I’m all for keepin’ my feet firmly planted on the ground, where God meant them to be.”
“And it’s no use askin’ me neither,” O’Brien added. “The closest I want to get to heaven is the deckhouse of a battleship. And then only when we are steamin’ into a friendly harbour!”
Peter Baker just nodded his agreement.
Ross suddenly realised that they were content to stay as they were, doing their job well, but not aspiring to much change in the future. He, on the other hand, had felt the freedom of the skies, and couldn’t wait to master it.
“Orders are in! We’re to pack all the gear straight away. We’re off to Netheravon.”
Suddenly, all was hurry and confusion as the whole camp packed up for the move to their new site. They crammed their tools and supplies into wooden boxes, the contents hurriedly scrawled on cards nailed to the outsides. Spare parts were stacked ready for the trucks. Pilots badgered them to have their kites ready for take-off, and when all that was done, they packed their personal belongings and dismantled their beds.
Exhausted, they tumbled into waiting trucks just on sunset, and bumped their way north-west, grumbling all the time.
“S’pose we’ll have to unpack all this when we get there.”
“How’s a man supposed to sleep around here?”
“Watch it, yer nearly knocked me pipe overboard!”
“Geez, I’m hungry. Wonder when’s grub?”
“You’re hungry? My stomach thinks me throat’s been cut.”
“Shit. I should’ve gone to the latrines before we left. Anyone know how far it is?”
“Dunno. Don’t care. I want ter get some kip, so shaddup! Wake me when we’re there.”
“Sheeet! What the Hell’s he doin’?” The truck was picking up speed as it travelled down a steep hill. Suddenly they all were thrown to one side as it heeled over on two wheels when it took a bend. As the Daimler truck thumped down again, the mechanics in the back just had time to right themselves when it happened again, this time throwing them against the slats on the other side.
Mindless of the screams and obscenities from the back, the driver rushed on, sparks flaring out from the rudimentary brakes as he finessed the shuddering transport down the middle of the road. At the bottom, he resumed his normal slow speed, leaned out the window and bellowed back, “How d’ye like them onions? Now that’s what I call excitin’!”
“Enjoy it while ye can, Hinch, ‘cause I for one am goin’ to teach you a lesson when we get off this flamin’ contraption,” Barton yelled, still grabbing hard at the rails.
“Bloody sod,” agreed the others. “Leave a bit of him for us!”
Ross picked up a newspaper from the battered leather sofa in the ready-room, having spotted a headline about the Frenchman, Adolphe Pegoud and his daring exploits. Ross had heard that Pegoud was going to give a demonstration of daredevilry, and here was the proof. He decided then and there as he read it, that he would see first-hand just how good this Frenchy was. The motorbike was going through a good patch, and clattered along just fine as he rode up the dusty country lanes to the exhibition at Brooklands Motor Racing Circuit.
He swung his motorbike onto the field and pulled up near a collection of automobiles. Ahead of him stood a magnificent Bleriot aircraft, wheels chocked, with a man in a long grey coat hanging onto the tail. The plane was surrounded by a merry throng of ladies and gentlemen splendidly attired for the outing. Sauntering over towards the crowd, Ross was just in time to see Pegoud climb into the cockpit and wave the crowd away. A swing of the prop, and the motor fired, settling down to a well tuned burble. Ross nodded in satisfaction.
The man at the tail swung the craft into the breeze, and held on tight as Pegoud blipped the throttle. A shout from the aviator, and the man at the rear let go. Engine revving, the small plane surged across the smooth field and took off into the sky.
Some five minutes later, Ross stood, mouth agape, as Pegoud pulled the stick right back and the plane started a loop. A momentary hesitation in the engine buzz as the fuel line sucked air from the tank, then she was over and humming down towards the ground again. The crowd roared their appreciation as he swooped low over their heads. Then he repeated the feat, just so there could be no doubt. And the crowd applauded again.
He set the aircraft into a climb then, gaining altitude while all heads craned upwards to keep him in sight. Ross smiled with satisfaction. He had heard of this “loop-the-loop” but had never seen one performed. Then he squinted his eyes as the noise of the motor changed and the plane fell into a shallow dive.
No, the dive was steepening, was now vertical, and Ross felt his mouth dry up as the Bleriot turned upside-down, flying back the way it had come. Then his eyes widened in surprise as the craft kept turning, creating an outside loop.
“Amazing!” he whispered. “The force on those wings... How is it they didn’t rip off? And why didn’t he fall out? He must have roped himself to the seat, surely.”
That evening, after an uneventful ride back to base, he couldn’t stop talking about this fantastic feat to the others around the table. This day was seared forever in his memory.
Go on to Chapter Three