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CHAPTER  THREE

July –December 1913


The front elevator sliced the wispy clouds and dribbled them over the observer and pilot before they were churned into fog by the old-style Farman’s pusher propeller spinning busily behind them. The fragile biplane was floating along about two hundred feet off the ground. In the observer’s seat, Ross peered through the goggles Lieutenant Cooper had loaned him. The aircraft shuddered and twisted as it pushed its way through the sky at over fifty miles per hour. Ross heard the shriek of the wind though the struts and wires, and felt every bump in the air through his tail. He hung on to the rim of the ‘bathtub’ as the Lieutenant heeled the craft into a turn.

Ross couldn’t talk to the pilot sitting behind him, as the wind filled his throat every time he opened his mouth, so he sat there and wrote down on a knee-pad a description of what he was flying over. This was just for his personal use, but it was also what the real observers did as a basis for their reports.

The Lieutenant tapped him on the shoulder and as he turned around, signalled that they were going to land by a thumbs-down movement. Ross grinned and nodded.

The airfield was in sight, and the edge of the out-dated forward elevator was below the horizon, indicating that they were losing height. Just then the linen on the elevator started to rip, and Ross watched in dismay as the skin was peeled back off the ribs. The trailing edge flapped in his face, so he grabbed hold of it and hung onto it to stabilise the craft.

He could no longer see the ground ahead, and presumed that Cooper couldn’t either. But the wheels hit the grass and soon the now-familiar shuddering of the undercarriage running along the field assured him that they were down.

The aircraft stopped and Cooper cut the engine, although the noise in their heads continued for some time.

“Good show, Lorimer. Quick thinking there. Might have been a spot of bother if that had torn right off and got into the prop. Well done, lad. Good thing the new Farmans have done away with those damned elevators,” Lieutenant Cooper said as he swung himself down to the ground and walked off to the Officers’ Quarters. “Get someone onto fixing that will you. I want to go up again tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, Sir,” was all Ross could get out, shaking as he regained his breath.

***

“Dashed good man, that Lorimer. Cool head and a whiz at picking out things on the ground. Might suggest some observer training for him. What do you think, Chalmers?”

“Yes, seems like quite a good type, I think. Hmmm. No harm in suggesting it to Major Brooks I suppose. Some of these ordinary types make quite good flyers.”

“He was telling me his brother’s a pilot.”

“Oh, well, a sign of the times, I suppose. They’re letting anyone in at present.”

“Mmm, I think I’ll have a word in the Major’s ear right now...”

***

Ross tapped the shoulder of the new mechanic servicing the engine.

“Now Basil, remember it is most important to check that the castor oil tank is full every time you fill the fuel tank.”

“Why? I just check the oil in the staff car every week or so, Ross.”

“Yes, but these rotary engines don’t use the same type of oil. You see, if they used ordinary oil, the petrol would dilute it and it wouldn’t lubricate properly. So we use vegetable oil, which does not thin out with petrol. The petrol and oil are sprayed separately into the crank-case here, and then ejected out the top of the cylinder here, after ignition. So all the oil gets used up.

“You will see the spent oil all over the body of the planes. And all over the pilot’s jackets and goggles. Lieutenant Cooper has even started to wear a scarf to wipe the oil off his goggles! And for every gallon of petrol, this Gnome engine uses about two pints of oil sprayed into its cylinder.  That’s about twelve pints an hour if I remember a-right.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of oil. Yeah, you would have to keep the tank full, wouldn’t you.”

“Damn right. A plane that runs out of oil stops flying, Basil. They depend on us mechanics to keep them up there. And it’s only by concentrating on our job that we can do that.  It would be very easy for us to get careless, forget the oil or something, and then it’s us that would be the killers. Remember that.”

***

Old George was standing some six feet inside the cornfield. He grabbed a handful of corn and studied the kernels carefully. Satisfied that they were almost ready for harvest, he stuffed the heads into his smock pocket as he heard a buzzing sound approaching. Squinting into the sky, he saw an aircraft waggling its way towards him.

One of those infernal flying machines, he thought. Damn contraption seems to be coming down.

His anguish increased as the Bleriot waddled its way earthwards. His face screwed up in amazement as the wheels touched down on the other end of the crop, and it sped towards him, scything a great channel through the corn and spraying the heads in all directions. Lieutenant Cooper managed to stop the plane some yards short of Old George, who was too stunned to move.  Switching off the engine, Cooper climbed out of the cockpit and waved.

“Any idea where the RFC camp at Ford is, old chap?”

Old George mouthed something unintelligible from behind his bountiful whiskers. Dumbly, he held up an arm, pointing over the road towards Lord Wemyss’ country estate.

Lieutenant Cooper gave him a half salute, half wave and sauntered off towards the road, yelling back, “I’ll have someone take the kite up to the camp later.”

Old George watched him climb over the fence. Shaking his head, he realised he had wet himself. His knees were still trembling under his smock.

***

Ross was feeling at peace with the world.

In the last three months he had gained an understanding of the various types of aircraft engines and had grown to love the machines they powered.

In the mess, he stood by the new piano and joined in the Festive spirit.

“The First Noel, the angels did say,

Was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.”

Ross sang lustily, competing with Barton and the new mechanic, Webber, to see who could belt out the old faithful the loudest. Outside it was bitterly cold with a light frosting of snow. Each of the revellers had a pot of mild ale in hand, except for Barton who had opted for Scrumpy, that apple cider with a kick like a mule.

The Other Ranks mess door flew open and Lieutenant Cooper strode in, peeling off his gloves, his leather flying helmet and goggles still perched on his head.

“A pot for the Lieutenant,” called Ross and the barman scurried away.

“No, Ross, I don’t need any of that. I’m going up again in a bit, as soon as I can get my Bleriot out of some chap’s field and refuelled. Care to come along as observer?”

“You bet. I’ll just get my coat,” and he banged his pot on the table, slopping some over the edge.

“Lucky blighter,” chorused the others, knowing that the other three pilots were away on leave over the Christmas period.

“Right-ho then, let’s get cracking. And bring some empty bottles with you. We might have some practice at dropping ‘bombs’ eh?”

“Yes, sir!”

Some time later, coated and gloved, half a dozen empties in his arms, Ross ran over to the Bleriot biplane where Cooper was already in the pilot’s seat. He threw the bottles on board and ran to the front of the plane.  He swung the prop and scrambled around the wing to climb into the observer’s seat in front of the Lieutenant. This seat was just over the wings to give a good view of the terrain ahead. Lieutenant Cooper was blipping the engine to get it into position. Head down, Ross snuggled in to evade the sharp winds blown back by the propeller. He could feel on his face, the fine spray of castor oil from the exhaust.

“Goggles on the floor,” yelled Cooper, wrapping a white scarf around his neck.

Ross scrabbled around beneath him, fingering the empties and finally finding the goggles which had got wedged between the seat and the frame. By the time he had them on and adjusted, the aircraft was taking off into the frosty headwind.  Cooper hauled back on the stick and their cumbersome craft rose into the sky, clearing the trees at the end of the field by a few feet.

Good thing the engine is already warm, Ross thought. With this weather, in a Farman with the engine behind us, we might well be freezing!

Buffets of frigid air were ripping at his hair and he couldn’t feel his ears, but he heard the incessant drumming of the wind in the open timber spars between their cockpits and the tailplane. The cockpit structure in front of him was vibrating violently, but he knew that was normal.  Looking over the side, he realised they were only a few feet above the treetops. As their craft banked into a turn, he saw a duck-pond below. Lieutenant Cooper tapped his shoulder, held his arm over the side and made downwards motions, and Ross realised that he was to ‘bomb’ the ducks with the empty bottles.

This should be fun. Let’s see, now. If I drop it when we are over the pond, it will hit the far bank because of the time it takes to drop, so I need to let it go before we are over the water. But how soon before?

Lieutenant Cooper straightened the craft and flew on for a minute, before turning back and retracing his steps, the engine stuttering in its familiar way. Ross stuck his head out over the cockpit edge so that he could see forward under the wing. Bottle in hand, he waited for the first glimpse of the water’s edge.

 Ah, there it is, and he let go of the bottle which plummeted down and disappeared behind the tail. He looked back to see the bottle hit the muddy bank and stick upright in its gluey clutches.  Cooper gave a thumbs-up and circled for another run. This time Ross held off his release for a second and was rewarded with a solid splash as the ‘bomb’ hit the centre of the pond.

After a few more approaches, and with all the bottles expended, Lieutenant Cooper wiped the oil off his goggles with his scarf, waved his hand over his helmet and set off at low level, or “contour chasing” as it was known. There was nothing like it. Wind in the face, trees whipping past, a blur of grass or dirt roads whizzing past at almost fifty miles per hour as he looked over the coaming.

Between the wings he could just see up ahead a large country house and he waited for the pilot to pull back on the stick, but Cooper flew dead level, his wheels missing the roof of the house, seemingly by inches. On the other side of the building, a driveway led to the open large iron gates. A car was heading towards the gates and Cooper put the nose down to buzz it.  Ross saw the gravel driveway coming up at him, could almost see the individual stones, as the Caudron thundered just over the heads of the car’s chauffeur and passengers. Top hats and scarves whirled away in the blast as the plane skimmed overhead, and the curses of the passengers were lost in the howl of the engine as he pulled the stick back to gain height.

All too soon the engine started to cough, and Ross knew the sparking plugs were starting to foul up. In a wonderful mood, huge grins on their faces, the two aviators turned their steed for home and a warm cuppa.

***

The blustery wind blew the door shut behind them as they strode into the ready-room, chatting about how their flight had gone. The room was almost empty now, just one great-coated figure sitting at a table caressing a pot of ale, his back to them.

Ross ordered two mugs of hot black tea from the bar and turned back to where Lieutenant Cooper had taken a table by the fire. As Ross turned, his eyes took in the face of the solitary drinker.

“Bill!” he exclaimed. “Is it really you?”

“Why wouldn’t it be? Gotta keep an eye on my younger brother!”

“It’s so great to see you. Come over and meet Lieutenant Cooper. I keep his plane flying.”

Bill rose and moved over to the table by the fire where Ross made the introductions.

“Ah... Mad Bill I believe they call you. Know you by reputation, by Jove. Nice to meet you in person. Come, sit down and tell us what brings you to this neck of the woods.”

“I’ve been transferred here to No 3 Squadron for a couple of weeks. Brought one of the new Farman Shorthorns with me. Not a bad bird, very stable and forgiving. Should make a good platform for observing.”

“We’ve just been up in the Caudron,” Ross broke in. “Lieutenant Cooper did some hedge hopping and I dropped bottles into a pond.”

“All in a day’s fun, eh?”

“It was great, Bill. So you are stationed here now?”

“Yes, temporarily. In with some fellow named Clark.”

“Oh, Lieutenant Clark. A fine officer.”

“And a gentleman... you just ask him,” broke in Cooper. “Well, I must be off and let you chaps catch up. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” and Cooper strode through the inner door to the sleeping quarters, shedding his coat as he went.

“Oh, Bill, it’s so grand to see you. How’s Mum and Dad?”

***

“And how did you go with the bottles?”

They were sitting in the half dark as the fire burned low. Ross grinned as he answered.

“Fine. I dropped the first one a bit short, but worked out when to drop them and the rest all landed in the drink.”

“Hit any ducks?”

“No. They all took off when we flew over the first time.”

“Would you like to try it in the new Farman?”

“Would I what! But the Farman’s got the prop right behind the observer. The bottles would just get smashed in the screw.”

“Not the new ‘Shorthorns’. The observer sits in the front seat so he has an uninterrupted view all round.”

“Sounds grand, Bill.”

“Fine then. Tomorrow morning we’ll be up. Better get some kip, brother. Have to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning.”

***

The Farman Shorthorn was sitting on the grass, buffeted slightly by the breeze as it waited for them. Bill and Ross, arm-in-greatcoated-arm, strode up to it and admired its lines. Unlike its predecessor, the Shorthorn had no front elevator. The passenger sat in the front, the pilot behind him, in front of the engine and propeller. This gave the passenger a great view as he was out in front of the wings. This model, with dual controls, was designed as a trainer. Bill checked the fuel tank and spent a couple of minutes with Ross, explaining what he looked for before taking off.

“All safety things, chum. You don’t want things to go wrong when you are upstairs!”

“Right, Bill. I was thinking the same thing.”

“Seems fine. Let’s get on with it. Give me a bunk up, will you.”

Ross made a stirrup and bunked his brother up over the side of the cockpit. Once there, Bill extended his hand and helped him up and into the ‘bathtub’.  Bill sat in the pilot’s seat while Ross screwed around to face him.

“Look, it’s dead easy,” Bill indicated. “This here’s the stick. You pull it and the kite goes up. You push it...”

“I know all that. Let’s get serious.”

“All right then, smarty. This time, I’ll take it off and get it airborne. Then you can take over and have a fly. Now watch what I do.”

Bill called Barton over and asked him to pull the prop. The engine coughed and started its V8 chug. The plane came alive, straining at the leash, wanting to be free. Barton climbed out of the rear struts and pulled the chocks away, allowing the aircraft to roll forwards onto the take-off strip. As they rolled off, Barton gave them a big wave, but Ross was adjusting his goggles and didn’t see it. He screwed around so that he could see what his brother was doing with the controls.

“Quarter throttle,” Bill yelled as he started his take-off. “Now half. Holding her down until we get past 45 miles per hour.”

The aircraft was shuddering its way down the grassy strip, urging to get off. They were almost halfway down the runway now, as Bill bellowed, “Full throttle.”

Still he held the stick forwards, keeping the craft grounded. If Ross had been facing forwards he would have seen the hedgerow rushing towards them. However, all his attention was on the stick and rudder pedals in his brother’s control.

“Now, up,” Bill commanded, easing back on the stick. The Shorthorn came unglued and started its ungainly climb.

At five hundred feet, Bill called for Ross to take over, and laughed uproariously as his younger brother tried to steer the plane. However, after a minute, Ross did get the hang of it, and with Bill’s help on the pedals, was able to turn the lumbering craft to the left and try a shallow dive and recovery.

“I’ll take it now,” Bill yelled over the engine. “You can keep your hands on the controls, but don’t force them while I steer. You get the feel of it.” He then took over and headed back to the airfield, where Ross again watched and copied his movements as he brought the Shorthorn in for a fairly smooth landing.

As the wheels stopped, Bill commanded, “Your turn now. See the pitot tube? That tells you the airspeed.”

Barton had run over to them and at Bill’s command, turned them around to face back down the strip. Bill swivelled in his seat to find the wind-sock and said, “Lucky there’s no wind. We can take off in either direction. Now, blip the engine and get it rolling. Remember, a quarter, then half until I indicate, then full throttle and hold her, stick down, until at least forty-five. Then ease the stick back and we’re away. Nothing to it really.”

Ross nodded, sick with anticipation, his heart racing. Mustn’t show I’m nervous! Bill would laugh at me. Well, here we go!

He opened the throttle part way and the wheels began to turn. A touch of rudder to keep her on line. That’s better, She’s running straight now. Time for a bit more. Half throttle. The wind is starting to batter my face now. Must be halfway up the strip by now. Should I go to full?

Bill leaned right over him and circled his hand in front of his younger brother’s face, then Ross opened the throttle to full.

Keep the stick forward. Keep her on the ground. But the hedges are coming up fast. What’s the revs? 1200. Good.

Speed? Forty two, forty three, forty four. Sheeet, the hedges!

A quick glance at the pitot tube again...

Forty-five! Now, ease back on the stick... but the hedges! So close!

He felt the wheels lift and their vibration stopped. He pulled the stick back hard to clear the hedge, only to have Bill push it forwards again as the straining craft almost stalled. Then they were over the hedge and away.

“Shit! Shit! Shit! I nearly stuffed it. Keep her at fifty. Revs 1200. That seems all right. Let her gain height slowly. What are we? Three hundred feet. Three-twenty. Three-thirty. Good. Keep climbing, baby. Wheeeee.

He looked over the side and saw the patchwork quilt of fields below, slowly getting smaller. A river over to his left beckoned so he pushed the rudder pedal and eased the Farman into a turn. Bill clapped his hands over Ross’s helmet to signify approval.

Holy Hell, this is great. Let’s see if I can dive and recover like Bill did. Now, stick down a bit with a touch of left rudder. Great.

He saw the horizon rise up and over Bill’s shoulder caught a glimpse of the Church.

Great, I kept that one under control. Now for a climb. Full throttle? Fine. Stick back gently, a bit of right rudder to counteract the breeze...  Horizon’s gone, clouds ahead. Height three hundred, stick back to centre, three-forty, three-sixty, still climbing nicely, four hundred feet. Bills turning... what’s that? He’s yelling “Land her now”. Geez, how do I land her again? First find the strip. I think it’s behind me. So turn...

Good, there it is. Now, line up with the strip. Um, throttle down to half? Losing speed and height. Keep the nose up a bit. What’s the landing speed again? Fifty-five wasn’t it? What’s Bill saying? Switch off? Oh, yes.

With the engine off, the wind vibrating the fragile craft belted their eardrums and Ross could just make out what Bill was saying as he leaned forward.

“Keep her at about fifty with the stick. Your height is fine. Be ready to blip the engine again if you get too low. Looks fine so far. Keep the rudder straight. A bit of engine. That’s fine. Pull the stick back ever so slightly. You’re over the hedges.  Back a tad more with the stick . That’s it...

Bang, shudder. Bang, shudder.  Bang, shudder. He felt the whole craft vibrating violently as the wheels ran along the tufts of grass.

Pull back on the stick, get the tail down. Speed dropping off.  Thirty, Twenty-five, Twenty. She’s pulling to the left. A bit of rudder. That’s better. Rolling to a stop now.  Ahhh!

He sat there, hands locked onto the stick, every muscle in his body shaking. Sweat trickled down the sides of his goggles and he felt blood where he had bitten his lip in concentration.

But he was down, safe.

He had flown.

He was a pilot!

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Copyright 2006 by Rob. McCubbin • Email: