When I was a kid my dad was a fighter pilot at the Fresno Air National Guard. Every once in a while he used to sneak us out to the Guard to look at the airplanes. I still remember the time when I was about 8 that he let me sit in the cockpit of a F-102. The bottom edge of the canopy was well above my head so it was like being dropped into a well where the sides surrounded you with mysterious dials, nobs, and switches. It was an incredible and heady experience.
So knowing this, it’s probably not much of a surpise that I’m a fan of airplanes.
As a kid I used to draw airplanes in school. Later I learned to build models of them. First plastic and then stick-and-tissue ones. I even tried my hand at radio controlled planes, although I didn’t really get the hang of them until I met my late father-in-law, who had a massive collection of model airplanes, as well as the experience to fly them without crashing. Even now, I still look up into the sky when a plane or bird passes.
Do you remember, when you were young, reading science fiction stories of boys building rockets and flying into space? Well, Take Off, was my way of trying to distill my excitement of airplanes into that kind of a sci-fi story. Even though the protagonist of this story is an young adult, it was intentionally written as a “boy’s adventure”, with a maximum of excitement, and a minimum of adult themes. Except for a few curse words in the first paragraph, there is nothing in this story you cannot share with a 10 year old. Young children won’t get parts of the ending, things like a “love interest” are generally beyond them. But every kid knows deep in their bones what it means to belong to a family, and that is what this story sells. In spades. Well, family with a large side of math and engineering, because the future has to be built, not just dreamed.
Take Off is a little over 14,000 words long, so its going to take you a half hour or more to make it through, but it will be a half hour spent inside the mysterious world of the Cloudies; families who roam the Earth like gypsies in giant powered gliders called cloud-ships, that fly for months on end 10 miles or more above the surface, and live in a world where mathematical precision and quality engineering mean the difference between life and death.
So grab your oxygen mask, take a seat, and prepare for an adventure.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“That’s a house,” said the girl’s voice in my headset. “That’s a god-damned house! What in the hell is it doing there?”
I was in the nose of the cloud-ship Alice May, on its final approach. One of the rare times these massive gliders actually land. Landing is a tense moment, the whole family was keyed up, especially the patriarch, George, who lay next to me in the cramped observation bubble.
“Paul?” he quietly said over the intercom to the 15 year-old boy who was piloting the massive ship, “Is there any way you can miss that?”
“Unknown,” replied the calm voice in my ear. “Unknowable.” Unlike his 13 year-old sister who was navigating, Paul could remain calm in the direst of conditions.
I glanced at the instrument readouts on my tablet. We were on final approach, 1500 feet and dropping rapidly, about to turn onto our final leg and land. The giant glider, technically a powered sailplane, lumbered and creaked as its great wings flexed and shifted in the turbulent warm air near the planet’s surface caused by the heat island of the city. The excess energy of millions people living cheek-to-jowl, shimmered over the hills just below us. The long graceful wings flexed and shifted, computerized controls making subtle changes to the wing’s shape, keeping the giant glider on course. The computer guidance made going in a straight line fairly easy, but a glider with a 112 meter wingspan wasn’t exactly designed to turn on a dime, especially at its landing speed. Only now it needed to.
“Can you fly around it?” The voice next to me reverberated.
“Negative. The plotter is telling me its too close,” returned the same calm voice.
“Climb over it?”
“Negative. The R-A-S is already hugging a stall. If we try to rise even 100 feet A-G-L we’ll loose another half knot. Then it wont matter what’s below us.”
There was a pause, then Paul spoke again in that same calm voice. “There’s one more thing: Its not an it. There are several of them.”
“Several? But we shot this approach three months ago.”
“Tell me about it,” the boy said sarcastically. He turned to his sister, “Giss?”
“Radar is picking up at least five of the towers,” she replied, “packed too tight for us to slip between. And, they definitely are not on our map.”
“Looks like I’ll have to yell at the airport manager again,” said George beside me.
“Did you try the motors?” I interrupted, fingers tense.
“All thrust is at maximum,” Giselle replied, her tone suddenly frosty. She was right to sound mad. Even after three months on board I was a still visiter, not a family member. I wasn’t supposed to speak on approach. If I had been paying attention I would have noticed the sensors showed all 16 of the motors at full throttle. Then again the sound they made as they reverberated inside the foam and reinforced plastic of the wing was pretty hard to miss. Unfortunately their combined thrust was not all that spectacular, especially with almost half the wing retracted.
“Can you slew around it?” George asked. This is a trick small airplanes often use; banking the wings and using the rudders to keep the plane on course.
“Too draggy,” the boy replied. “I’ve plotted it four different ways, each one says we need either an extra 200 feet A-G-L or a dozen mips more R-A-S. We have neither.”
“Shit,” said the voice next to me. This time not on the intercom. The only reason I heard it is because the eldest male, and family head, George Henderson was laying in the cramped space right next to me.
I locked eyes with him as the plane shifted and shook around us, sounding for all the world like a pile of styrofoam pellets in the world’s largest paint-shaker. Not 12 hours ago Paul had used these very words to describe the sound inside a cloud-ship when it was on final approach. At the time I thought he was being hyperbolic. Now I knew he was telling the truth.
“Are we going to make it?” I mouthed so as to not be picked up by the mic. George looked at me for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders, or tried to at least. Its hard to shrug while lying in a cramped narrow space. His face looked calm, maybe even resigned, but trapped with him in the tiny area I could also smell his fear.
My adventure that summer started with a call the previous spring. It was late May and the warm sunlight streamed though my bedroom window, causing me to squint as I reached over to answer my phone.
“How would you like to spend the summer on a cloud-ship?”
It was my agent, Barney Sanders. “Huh?” I said as I got out of bed and stumbled over to the coffee machine, trying hard not to step on the clothes and other detritus spread all over the floor. The clock read 10:00. Was it really that late?
“How would you like to spend the summer on a cloud-ship?”
“Um,” I said thinking fast, trying hard not to sound excited and looking through the mess in the sink for a clean coffee mug. “It depends…” In truth my mind was going, “Woooo hooo!” but I had learned not to trust everything my mind thinks especially first thing in the morning. Besides there were practical matters to consider, like how was I going to afford it? While I might a times exaggerate to my friends about the glorious life of a freelance writer, the reality was good paying stories were getting hard to find. So the idea was appealing, but my rent was due in three weeks and my bank balance was close to zero.
“Don’t worry, John. Its not some luxury liner. This is the real deal. A small family-owned ship. They want an insider to do a couple of in-depth features, which means you need to live with them a while. You’ll have to put in a few shifts as well, but they claim there’ll be plenty of free time.”
“Don’t give me that, Barney,” I said. “You know how these things go. A few shifts will mean 90 hours a week. Spare time will be the gap between brushing and flossing.”
“It’s non-exclusive,” he replied.
That slowed me down. “I can write other pieces?”
“Their contract is for two, and only two, 10,000 word features. You know the drill–slick, happy, PR pieces. Everything else you write is yours to sell. And get this: I got them to promise full access.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Really?” Any freelance writer worth his salt could crank out a hundred stories on the cloudies. They lived for months or even years (no one knew for sure) in the upper atmosphere, existing on the raw fringes of human civilization. They were practically the dictionary definition of danger and mystery. There was no end to fictional accounts about them; in the past ten years there had been two major movies, four television series, and who knows how many fan blogs. Yet there was practically zero factual information about them in the public record. Cloudies were known to keep tightly to themselves, and they never mixed with outsiders. Even their family names were kept secret. No one got an inside scoop on them. No one. I know, I’d been trying for years. They were a secretive lot, an untapped market. Heck if I could live with them for a week I could probably sell their grocery lists for a couple hundred.
“And that’s not all. Bill Bryson at U.S. & World tells me he has a cover spot opening sometime in late August. That is, if you think you can put together 15k of meaningful feature.”
“A cover?” That was big news. A major feature on the largest news magazine in all the world would mean I could finally say goodbye to ramen noodles and frozen diners at the 99 cent store. It was good deal. Too good.
“Okay, I’m in,” I said. “But what’s the catch?”
I should probably stop and tell you now I’m slightly crazy about cloudies. They’ve been a hobby of mine for years. Every book, every rumor, every news story written, I’ve either seen or read. There’s even a model of the Carl Rankin, the first glider-ship ever flown, hanging from my office ceiling. So you would think with all that research there wouldn’t be much for me to learn.
You’d also be wrong. Or at least, I was.
My first lesson came when I showed up at the airport. My bags were packed for a summer in one of most exclusive experiences on the planet. I had everything I needed, my tablet, camera, week’s supply of clothes, a couple of pairs of shoes, toiletries, and other things a modern man needs. What I wasn’t prepared for was the person they sent to greet me. It was a kid. Maybe 10 years old.
The boy took one look at my bags, and shook his head. “You the reporter?” he asked. I nodded. Then he said in a firm voice, “You can’t take all that.”
“But I need it,” I said, feeling somewhat out of place having a conversation about my underwear with a kid.
“All that you don’t,” he said with a surety that belied his years, “not where you’re going, at least.”
I wasn’t used to being told what to do by a child. I knew each glider-ship was based on a family, so I thought I could do an end-run around him. “Look kid. Are your parents around so I can ask them?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders, and slid me a number from his tablet. “Suit yourself,” he said politely.
Ten minutes later, after getting one of the most blistering tongue lashings in my life, I was standing near a table as the boy expertly went though my stuff. Half of the gear I brought, the special high altitude breathing gear, the thick clothes, the leather boots – were sitting in a pile, along with half my clothes and most of my toiletries.
“Are you sure I don’t need this,” I said holding up a bar of soap trying and desperately to hold on to some of my dignity.
“Where’re you going to use it?” he asked. There was no challenge in his voice. It was a rhetorical question. “There’s no shower on the Alice May. There’s not even a bathroom.”
“There’s not?” I said in some surprise.
“Don’t worry,” he said as he gently took the bar of soap out of my hand. “You have enough. Really. You’ll be fine.”
I thought the kid was messing with me, still sore from when I tried to go around him. As it turned out, he was being generous. I didn’t use almost a quarter of the things he let me keep.
That first meeting taught me two important things about Cloudies; they are deadly serious about their weight, and they are kind even generous to strangers. I didn’t know then how important either would be until later. And then it was only because it changed my life.
They call themselves the Cloud People, or the Cloud Clan. Sometimes People of The Clouds. Cloudies, for short. They are a funny breed. Fiercely independent, beholden to no man or country, they roam the skies converting small pockets of trace gases into cash, most of which they fold back into their glider-ships. They live in a tight space, under severe conditions, and with very little latitude for error. They live in the margins, forever tweaking their planes, and their processes, always digging for a few more percentage points of efficiency or profit. Most Cloudies fly as a family; the work is too difficult, the price of a mistake too great, to trust to the hands of an outsider.
Imagine living with six other people in a tiny studio apartment day in and day out, 51 weeks a year, and all at eleven miles above the ground where the slightest mistake can mean economic ruin, starvation, or worse. More than one glider-ship had taken off never to land again, at least in one piece.
This is what was going though my mind as the boy, Jared his name turned out to be, lead me and my much reduced gear to his family’s plane. The Alice May sat on the tarmac like some obscene foam whale. The huge wing spanned over 100 meters, and easily thick enough at the spar for a six foot man to stand upright inside. The enormous tail at the back of the plane looked big enough to count as a wing in its own right. Later I found out the horizontal stabilizer, the flat part on the tail which is parallel to the ground, was actually slightly larger in area than one of the wings on the modified 747 that was preparing to tow us into the air.
Walking up to a plane that size was definitely impressive. It didn’t just sit there on the ground, it loomed. From a distance the color appeared a uniform white, but up close I could see slight imperfections in the color of the sheet foam. Tiny numbers, lines, and neat handwriting were etched at every joint and sheet. It was like seeing a model airplane plan written right on top of the plane. When I got up close enough to see the writing I noticed most of it was reversed. I was looking at it from the wrong side.
Seeing me stop to look, a tall man with hard blue eyes in a perpetual squint approached me from one side. I could sense an impatience in him, but he let me look undisturbed. I was just about to ask him why someone had written all over the inside of wing when it came to me. Of course. It was easier to have all the parts labeled right where you were working on them, than to have a plan written somewhere else. The writing was on the inside because while the plane was in the air no one would be working on it from the outside.
“Ingenious,” I said, appreciating the planning behind this approach. More than once I had wished my car was equally labeled.
“What’s that?” the man with cold eyes asked.
“The labeling,” I said turning to notice tan leathery skin and a receding grey hairline. “That’s a smart way to mark things. Are all cloud-ships labeled like this?”
The man smiled at my compliment. “Only the ones that want to keep flying,” he said matter-of-factly. “The name’s George. George Henderson.” He stuck out his hand and we shook. Not ten minutes before this same man had been yelling at me for being a fool. Now he seemed calm and untroubled.
“I see you’ve met Jared,” he said with a wry smile, telling me he hadn’t forgotten, but he also wasn’t going to necessarily hold it against me. “Why don’t you come inside and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew?”
The rest of the crew turned out to be the Henderson family. George, and his wife Bonny (who curiously went by the nick-name Cobra) were the parents. Their children were, in order of age, Lisa (21), Paul (15), Giselle (13), and Jared (10) whom I had already met. They welcomed me to the Alice May like any family might welcome a stranger to their home. Only this family was decidedly different. For instance, Giselle’s room looked like a typical tween room with large photos of boy bands cycling on her wall, but our first conservation jumped rapidly from the latest hair fashions on musicians to the problems of wind-sheer in the upper atmosphere. To her the two topics appeared to be of equal importance, never mind that one usually required about three years of college level math to even understand.
And then there was Paul. I first met Paul as he was holding a carefully constructed piece of foam, carbon-fiber sheet, and plastic. The piece was flat, approximately three feet by one, and maybe 1/2” thick. Looking inside (it was mostly hollow) I could see a complex pattern of inter-weaving struts, each no thicker than a spider web, but together comprising an elegant solution. It weighted only about two ounces, but was so rigid I could not twist it with my bare hands. I know because he had me try. It was about as a nice a piece of engineering as I have ever run across, and belied a level of mathematics which was well over my head.
“So what is it for?” I asked when I handed the piece back to him.
“This is the new and improved FC-13,” he said with some pride.
“What happened to the old one?” I asked.
He frowned. “Its a bit complicated.“
“Try me,“ I said with a smile.
He looked me in the eye for a moment. I could see him measuring if he could trust me. I was tempted to say something to reassure him, but decided not to. After a moment’s thought his shoulders gave a shrug and he continued, his mind apparently made up.
“I’m not sure,” he said, answering my question. “We changed the airflow over some parts of the wing a while back when switching to a different set of airfoils. The changes were largely benign, but for some reason they increased flutter at one spot; FC-13. Part of our flying-flap system.”
Most people wouldn’t know what flutter was on an aircraft. It is hard to believe that tiny up and down fluctuations on only part of a flying surface could be a problem. But flutter is no joke. Such fluctuations if left unchecked have been known to rip an airplane to pieces, or worst, make it impossible to steer. The standard solution for flutter is to make the part stiffer, which explained the piece Paul was holding. This wasn’t the only solution. On some planes counter weights were added instead, like they did on the P-38. Adding stiffness was just the easiest fix.
“Well,” I said. “It looks like you found a good solution. I can’t imagine that piece flexing anytime soon. For as thin as it is, the torsional strength must be off the charts.”
Paul smiled at my compliment. “Well, I did try to make it as strong as I could. After all, its not fun to replace this piece, even on the ground. Its a right pain to fix while at altitude.”
“I can imagine,” I said. “Need any help with installing it?”
“No thanks,” he replied with all the surety of a teen. “I’ve got it handled. I’ve done this before.”
For all the rumors about Cloudies being taciturn and secretive, I found the Hendersons to be delightfully open and accepting. The one exception was the eldest daughter, Lisa. Perhaps it was her age, perhaps it was that she had just finished going to a university and was overly tired of living around ground-pounders (as Cloudies humorously liked to call the rest of humanity), but whatever the reason, she made it abundantly clear I was not welcome on board. Oh, she was not openly rude, but she stopped just short of that. I had started my career as a reporter, so I was used to going places I wasn’t always wanted. Still it had been a while since I had been around a person who treated silence not only as a tool but as a weapon. I did my best to get along with everyone, and tried not to let it bug me.
Besides I had a lot on my mind. To work as a crew member in a glider-ship one needed to be an expert on several different subjects. Everything from cooking for six people, keeping yourself clean (which is not so easy without a shower), to advanced fluid dynamics. When I arrived on the Alice May I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what makes an airplane fly. What I discovered was that I had only a cursory knowledge of some of the subjects. I needed to catch up to speed quickly if I was going to be of any help. I also needed to write some stories if I was going to pay my rent.
George and Bonny happily gave me a course of study, and everyone else pitched in to tutor. There were no tests, yet I sensed at every step I was being graded. George and Bonny demanded perfection, and accepted nothing less. They were polite, but firm. It was like a cross between a bizarre liberal arts college where you lived in the dorms with your professors, and a military academy for wayward teens. The combination was like nothing I had ever experienced, and it took me a while to come to terms with. The kindness I could understand, but the rock-hard expectation of perfection was something else. That being said, I never once felt they were too strict. As George liked to point out, “at eleven miles up, any mistake can be a fatal one.”
One day I was working through a practical engineering exercise having to do with calculating the amount of flexibility inherent in a wing structure. For the past three weeks Giselle had been helping me with the math until I was versed enough in it to go over the engineering with Paul. He had been showing me a few tricks he’d picked up for adding torsional stability when George came by to check my progress. George took one look at my structure and said, “This looks like crap.”
I had been working non-stop on that engineering for weeks, and his words hit me like a blow. I must have looked pretty shaken because George’s face softened, and he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Look. Don’t take it personal, Bob. Its not about you. When your whole family is riding on the equation–everything you love and own–there is no room for error. None. Remember, there are a thousand ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. Make sure you pick that one.”
As he walked out I turned to Paul. “Is he always like that?”
“Demanding?” he replied with a smile to show he empathized. “Sure. But I think he has a good reason to be. Don’t you?”
I nodded my head reluctantly. Still feeling despondent I said, “I guess some of us were not born to be engineers.”
Paul laughed. “Like him, you mean? You wanna hear something funny? Mom says Pops failed first-year engineering, three times in a row.”
“Sure. Even now he’s always careful to have someone else go over his work.”
“So he uses you to double-check?”
“Oh, no. I’m pretty good, but I’m not that good. He uses Lisa. Even when she was in school he used to send her stuff.”
“Really?” I was surprised. I never heard Lisa speak up about engineering. Then again I had never heard her speak up about anything.
“Yep. Mom says she’s a natural. Pops says he’s never seen anyone so good.”
“Your sister? Well if she’s that good, then why does she never talk about it?”
“Dunno,” he said shrugging his shoulders, but I could tell by his eyes he knew something more.
That night I stayed up late outlining a few pieces for some fan blogs. Nothing serious, just day-in-the-life stuff. The big money would come later, but I still had the rent to pay. Besides working on the Alice May was keeping me pretty busy. I was finishing up around 2:00 am when the banging started just outside my room.
That was not a good sign. In a flash I was up, had my pants on, and was heading with my pad towards the wing access panel. Cobra was on duty that night flying solo, so I sent her a message. “Always tell the pilot,” had been drilled into me from my first day aboard. I guess all that training had been good for something.
A rather sleepy looking Paul joined me by the time I got the panel off, and was ready to crawl into the wing. I noticed another beautiful piece of foam and plastic was already in his hand.
“Let me guess, FC-13?” I asked nodding towards the part as the banging continued unabated.
“Sounds like it,” he said looking grim.
“Well,” I said. “Sooner started, sooner finished.”
“You don’t have to do this,” he said to me. “I can handle it.”
“Is it that bad in there?”
He shrugged his shoulders. The universal teen response.
“Look,” I told him. “Its not a big deal. Besides, it might be a good idea to show me, just in case it needs to get fixed again and you’re too busy.” I didn’t add that there was probably nothing on the plane that could keep him too busy to not want to repair it. Paul liked to fix things. It was in his DNA.
He shrugged his shoulders again.
“Okay,” I said. “The truth is I was up anyway, so you might as well give me something to do.”
He stared at me for a moment, then jerked his head. “C’mon. You really should know how to fix this. Just in case.”
Most people would be surprised to know that most of the wing on a plane that large is devoted to storage space. The structure itself was light and thin, with lots of volume in-between. That volume was used to store everything from batteries to razor blades. Even the kid’s rooms were out in the wings. It was only near the back part of the wing, called the trailing edge, that the structure got too narrow for storage. Which also meant it was too narrow to crawl in. Almost.
Working as quickly as safety would allow, Paul and I wormed our way in, and started deconstructing the wing surface. It took us almost 30 minutes to get to the offending part; FC-13. By then it had been banging around so much it had damaged some of the pieces around it. Paul is thin, but fairly short. We discovered that with my long arms I could reach things easier and faster. Never in my life had I been so thankful for being tall and thin. Before long Paul was fetching replacement parts out of the emulsifier, and sliding them out to me while I gently put them in place. It a few hours the job was done.
Climbing back out, hot and dirty, Paul thanked me as dusted ourselves off.
“Hey,” I said to him. “I noticed you showed up with a new FC-13, but the rest of the parts you just extruded. Why not extrude the FC-13 too?”
“The simple answer is it takes too long,” he said.
“And the long answer?”
“It takes too long.” He smiled at his joke and continued. “Simple pieces we can extrude rapidly, but the complex ones take several hours or even days. That’s why I built a couple of replacement parts in advance.”
“Looks like you were right then. Did you build a third?”
“Hey maybe you can get your hotshot sister to engineer one.”
Paul looked at me, his eyes suddenly absent of emotion. I had stuck a nerve, I just didn’t know which one.
“Look,” I said, “I didn’t mean…”
“Its okay,” he interrupted. “I know, its just…”
“Not a good subject?” I offered.
“Something like that, yes.”
He looked pained, so I offered some sympathy. “Well if it makes you feel any better, I can’t get a word in edgewise with her either.”
He looked back at me, for a second time his face was unreadable. “Yes,” was all he said.
The next morning I decided to confront Lisa and see if I could get to the bottom of this. I didn’t care what she thought of me, or what was going on between her and Paul, but I had a story to write and didn’t have the time to deal with petty issues. To do this I needed a neutral place to meet her, some place she would feel safe, so I decided to face her while she was doing dishes.
“So what did you think of the chicken?” I asked as I entered the small galley. I had cooked a dinner that night for the second time, and I was pretty happy with the results.
She glanced at me and then quickly looked back at the sink. “It was okay,” she said with the absent tone one uses to signal they are busy and do not wish to be disturbed. I crossed my arms and leaned back against the oven/stove.
“How about the broccoli?” I said.
“It was fine,” she replied. This time not even bothering to turn around.
“Adequate.” I could see her back starting to tense.
“How bout the wine?”
She whirled around, her eyes flashing. “Look are we going to do this all night, because I’m kind of busy right now.”
“It depends,” I said.
“Depends on what?”
“You,” I said quietly so it didn’t sound like a challenge. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I came here to do a job, and I need your help to do it.”
“My help?” she said.
“I’m doing a piece on your family, and I need to include everyone so it’ll work. To do that I need your help. Your cooperation. To interview you. I’ve already got everyone else. All’s that’s left is you, only every time we talk you don’t say a thing. I don’t know what it is you have against me, and I don’t care. All I ask is that you give me a short interview, and in return I’ll do my best to leave you alone. Okay?
“That’s it?” she said in disbelief. “That’s all you want?”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded my head.
“A interview?” she continued. “For some Cloudy fan-blog, I suppose?”
“Yes. Hyper-Flight.com, in fact,” I said with pride. It was a big step up for me.
She looked me in the eye. Not with anger, but with something else. “Do you even know why you’re here?” she said carefully. “Why they picked you?”
“To write a story. Two really. That’s what I was told.”
She stared at me for a moment, disbelief and anger at war on her face. Anger must have won. “They picked you,” she said enunciating each word slowly, as if speaking to an imbecile, “because you are thin.”
“What?” I asked, not understanding.
“Your weight. They didn’t pick you because you can write, or love airplanes, or can learn slightly faster than the usual brain-dead ground-pounder. They picked you because you were ten pounds lighter the the next guy. That’s it. That’s the reason. Ten pounds!”
“Huh?” I said completely surprised. By then she had stormed out of the room.
I didn’t have the first clue about what to do with Lisa, but I wasn’t lying when I said I had a story to write. And let me tell you, writing pieces for the larger blogs is a headache. For all that they pay well, they suck up a lot of time and resources. Fact-checking alone can eat up days and days of work. Only I didn’t have that luxury. My solution was to fall back on a habit I picked up in college; staying up later. In essence, trading work for sleep. There is a down side to this: After the forth night, the lack of sleep starts getting to you. After the sixth night, well, that’s how I fell asleep sitting at my desk.
And this time I dreamed…
I was standing on a the runners for a dogsled, the snow wooshing by my feet, the team pulling hard, and me yelling at them at the top of my lungs. We were on the last leg of a long race, and the crowd around the finish line could be seen just ahead. Our sled was carefully engineered out of carbon fiber and plastic with all the spiderweb engineering to make it both strong and light. Even after countless miles and horrible abuses, the framework still gleamed like it was brand new. It was by far the slickest sled on the course, and with it we held a commanding lead.
As I watched the finish line approaching I heard a change in the crowd. The cheering suddenly stopped. Without the sound of the crowd I could hear the scratching of the runners sliding across the icy spots in the snow, each imperfection passed up to my hands as a vibration. Bang, bang, bang.
A small bark behind be alerted me to another competitor. I turned around to find the strangest sight I have ever seen. It was a sled built from the flimsiest of thin foam and supported apparently only with long thin drinking straws. The runners were held in place by strips of clear tape, wrapped around and around the frame in big wads. Gaps between the foam and straw supports were covered in plastic food wrap, which hummed and stretched with every jolt. This strange contraption bound over the snow like a crazy funhouse on skis. Every bump and dip, even the slightest of breezes, made the whole thing flex and bend like a palm tree in a hurricane. First one side touching the ground, then the other.
Pulling the sled was a team of miniature poodles; dogs obviously not suited for the snow, let alone a serious race. Each poodle was carefully dyed a bright pink, and encircled in a rhinestone covered harness. The team barked and nipped like they were frolicking at the park instead of pulling a heavy sled. Yet most surprising of all came at the very back of the sled: Running the sled was that most famous of airplane designers, Carl Randkin. He had a crazy smile on his face, and waved a drinking straw like a whip as he encouraged his team to run faster and faster.
While I watched, Carl’s sled slowly caught up, and then started to pass us. The crowd was dumbfounded at first, but soon they began to cheer in earnest as the our two sleds raced for the prize.
The passing sled whipped our own team into a frenzy. They pulled at their harnesses like mad things, their frantic motion jerking the sled this way at that. Worse still, the quality of the snow near the finish line deteriorated from all the passing of the fans. Icy footprints and sled marks turned the once smooth snow into a bumpy mess. Each imperfection in the snow was like running over a rock, with the frame faithfully transmitting the impact to my hands and feet. These bumps also had the effect of slowing us down, transferring our forward momentum into noise and vibration.
Paul dove onto the front of the sled, and desperately tried to smooth the snow in front of the runners with his gloved hands. Lisa sat on the back with a frown on her face, repeating over and over I was ten pounds too light. I ran along at the back, alternating between yelling at the dogs and attempting to steer the sled around the worse of the tracks in the snow. I jumped on the back of the runners for the finish line, feeling them pounding into rut after rut, the impacts shaking the sled and sending tremors up my legs.
Just as we reached the finish line, the crowd started chanting, “Wake. Up. Bob. Wake. Up. Bob. Wake. Up…”
Suddenly I woke up at my desk. There was a pounding sound like someone was banging on my door, and a thin line of drool dripped from my mouth to the surface. “What?” I shouted at the noise, wiping the wet from my mouth. “Hold on already.”
“Bob,” a voice said from my tablet.
“Huh,” I said disoriented. I looked down and saw Paul’s face. He was talking to me from the pilot’s seat.
The banging from the dream continued. Then suddenly it clicked into place. It wasn’t someone knocking at my door. It was FC-13, and it was failing. Badly.
“I’m on it,” I yelled towards the tablet as I got up quickly, banging my head against a bulkhead. “Shit.”
“You okay?” Paul asked.
I didn’t bother to answer. I was already out the door.
Exhaustion does funny things to a person, blurring the lines between the waking world and dreams. As I crawled through the wing access hatch a part of me was also crawling along on top of the sled. When I got to FC-13, I could see there was already a lot of damage to the wing. There wasn’t time to extrude custom parts. That piece had to come out of there. Now.
Working quickly I grabbed parts out of a pile of sheet foam stored in a space nearby, and started cutting. I wasn’t thinking clearly. To be honest I wasn’t thinking at all. I kept seeing our runners pounding away, and the crowd roaring past. I crawled and I cut, I pieced and I pushed. I didn’t even realize what I had been attaching the foam with until I put the last piece in place. That’s when I noticed the roll of clear packing tape in my hands. I don’t even know how it got on the plane. It was about as low tech a solution as I could think of. Like fixing a broken computer with a band aide.
I was thinking of how I was going to explain this to Paul when his face showed up on my tablet.
“Good job, there Bob,” he said with a smile. “The instruments say the wing is stable, and the flutter is gone. At least for now.” His smile slipped for a second as he checked a reading on his board, then he continued. “You had me worried there for a moment when you didn’t wake up at first, but whatever you did it the wing seems to be working fine now.”
I looked back in the tiny bay where I had been working, and swallowed a lump. It looked like a mad scientist had let loose in there with a roll of tape, and a pile of foam. I shuddered to think at what George would say when he saw the sloppiness of my repair.
Paul must have seen the look on my face, but misunderstood the meaning. “You looked pretty beat, Bob. Why don’t you get back to bed. I’ll go over the repair with Pops at the end of my shift.”
That was even worse. “But..” I said.
“I mean it Bob. Get back in bed. I know your worried it might fail again, but don’t. Trust me. If it fails you’ll be the first to know.”
That’s what I’m afraid of, I thought, but at that point I was too tired to argue. I gathered up the few tools I had used, and crawled back out of the wing. I was so tired by then that I don’t remember anything until I woke up the next afternoon, stiff and sore, the bright sunshine coming almost straight down through my window.
Paul and George met me as I was sipping hot coffee in the galley.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” George said in his normal stern tone, “about the repair you did last night.”
I took too large a sip and burned my tongue. Ouch. Pain distracted me for a moment, but my mind was racing. I knew I had nothing to lose by being honest, and everything to lose by trying to bluff my way out the situation, so I tried to head him off. “You mean the disaster I did to the top of bay 13?”
George grimaced at the word disaster, but didn’t say anything for a second. He shared a glance with Paul. “Well, that too,” he said with a slight smile, “but what I most want to talk about was your, uh, unorthodox repair methods.”
“You mean the tape?” I asked.
“Not just the tape. The use of sheet foam. The tape. Everything.”
I was cooked, and I knew it. I had blown the gig. I could feel it in my bones. I had taken the Henderson’s clean and orderly plane, and decorated it like a kindergartener on crack.
“I…” I stammered looking down into my coffee. “I really don’t know what to say. I’m sorry? I don’t know. I was tired, and I wasn’t paying much attention…”
“Stop,” George said.
“But I really didn’t mean…” I continued on.
“I mean it, Bob. Stop.”
I looked up expecting to see anger in their eyes. Instead I caught bemused expressions. They were smiling. Both of them. Genuine smiles.
Seeing my confused look George said, “I suppose I should have started this conversation with Paul’s data. You see he was very careful to show me how well your repaired worked..“
“I showed him the data,“ Paul interrupted, “before I let him out in the wing.”
“Before?” I asked still confused.
Paul slid something from his tablet to mine. It was an overlay of two charts. One chart was of his fancy FC-13 fix, the complex one. The other chart was of my foam and tape fix. Both charts measured fluctuations up one axis, and time on the other. It took my tired brain a while to grasp what I was seeing, but there was no denying the numbers. My cheap fix was already holding up much better then the expensive one.
“You showed this to your dad before he saw the repair?” Was all I could think to say.
George managed a smile. “Yep. He even went so far as to turn off the internal camera in the bay.”
I turned to Paul. “You turned off the camera!” I said in surprise. Falsifying information about the ship was against the rules. Turning off a camera was a definite no-no. Paul wisely said nothing, but I could see his cheeks start to turn red.
George continued as if I hadn’t said anything. “It was a good thing too. Had he shown me that repair first I might have tossed you out of the nearest opening. Without the benefit of a parachute, that is.”
George was smiling as he said this so I knew he was only half serious.
I was still trying to process the whole thing. “But it works?”
The smile slipped, and he was back to his usual austere self. “For now. We still need to get in there and refit the whole area, but that can wait until we’re back on the ground.
“On the ground?”
George looked at me in surprise, and then smiled. “Didn’t you know? The Cloudy Jamboree starts next week. Normally we wouldn’t drop in till Wednesday, but this year I’m on a committee and need to be at a meeting on Monday. The schedule’s been on the nav station for a month. Didn’t you see?”
I shook my head. They hadn’t taught me navigation yet so I hadn’t had a chance to look at the screen.
George got up from the table. “I have a shift to run, and you two are going to be busy of the next couple of days. In addition, I expect complete a refit plan for bay 13 on my tablet no later then tomorrow evening. Is that clear?”
We both nodded our heads, and he walked out the door.
“Oh I can’t wait,” Paul said his eyes glowing with excitement after his father left.
“The Jamboree, ground-pounder,” he said teasingly. “Didn’t you hear?“
Paul continued, ignoring my grunts. “Its going to be so great. Bonhill’s will be lecturing on fluid dynamics on Thursday. I mean, the Bonhill.”
I made a mental note to look up whoever Bonhill was.
“They’re also doing a new building competition this year, and now that I’m 15 I’ll be in the seniors category.”
“Is that good?” I asked somewhat perplexed.
He laughed. “Good? No, great! I’ll finally have some real competition. Not those stupid kiddy planes. And then there’s the food and the drinks, and the booths, and the latest software gadgets for the emulsifier, and, and the girls,” he blurted out without thought. Suddenly his face turned red again. He shook his head as if to clear it. “Anyway, you just have to see. Why the Jamboree is just the best.”
It turns out the Cloudy Jamboree is the best. It is the one time of the year when all of the cloud-ships can come down, and the families can get together and mingle without fear of the ground-pounders. It was also the only airport in the world where the glider-ships could land, taxi, park, and take off with their wings fully extended. It was a time for Cloudies to relax and let their hair down, a time to refit, a time to learn. Even a time to brag. Think of it as a cross between Mardi Gras, and Christmas, only add in about a hundred weddings, and you’ll get pretty close.
So a week after I sent my first story in, I found myself walking between the rows and rows of shops at the largest gathering of Cloudies in the world. It was like a dream come true. There were booths all around, games, and drink. The food was incredible, the lectures amazing, and thanks to the popularity of my article, I found myself for the first time with plenty of coins in my pocket.
There was only one problem. Everybody hated me.
Ever had one of those dreams were you felt like there was a target painted on your back and everyone was shooting at you? Well I can tell you from experience its a lot worse in real life.
The Hendersons had taken me on as part of “Openness”, which was a PR campaign devised by CPACA, one of the larger organizations that most Cloudies loosely followed. The operative word here is “loosely”. It turns out that not all of the Cloudies liked the idea of Openness, or what CPACA as doing on their behalf, and they were pretty comfortable at expressing their opinions. The President of CPACA, and every one on the Openness committee, including George, got their fair share of nasty comments and email. But the majority of the Cloudies seemed to vent their frustration on the one outsider in their midst; me.
Of corse I didn’t know this at the time we landed. It wasn’t until I heard the words “that reporter” for the hundredth time that I learned to duck after hearing it.
To be fair, most of the Cloudies were not angry at me. Most where either neutral, or slightly perturbed. A few even took me aside to thanked me for the article. In secret.
The worst of the abusers were the third hands, which was the loose term a Cloudy would use for a spare helper on a plane. What they used to call a “hired hand” in the old west. They were a rough lot; young men who didn’t fit in, or were saving money for a plane of their own. Some were outsiders like me, which surprised me a bit, and a few were even women. They occupied that strange place; too close to be an employee but too distant for family, and something about that position made them chafe. They assumed my article would increase the number third-hands as public interest in Cloudies grew, and they thought these potential competitors might ruin their good thing.
Not that they generally spoke so eloquently, but one could piece together their opinions between the punches and the kicks. After four days I had managed to receive a black-eye, two lacerations, a sprained wrist, five broken knuckles, and a couple broken ribs. It got to the point that the staff at the infirmary started placing bets on when I would return. At least they did a good job healing me before they sent me back out into the fray.
So as you can imagine I was feeling pretty low the afternoon Lisa found me in a quiet corner behind the tent village. It wouldn’t quite call what I was doing as hiding, but it was next thing to it.
“Hey,” she said walking up to me. “What’ch doing?”
This caught me by surprise. I stood there thinking this was the first time Lisa had initiated a conversation with me, when I realized she was staring.
“Uh, I was supposed to say something, wasn’t I?”
“Generally, that’s how a conversation starts,” she said helpfully. “New at this, are you?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“In fact, I did,” she replied, this time with a smile to show she was only having fun. “You finding the Jamboree a bit overwhelming?”
I nodded my head. “That wouldn’t be the first word I’d choose, but it’ll do.”
“Thought so. The first Jamboree is a bit too much for anyone. Sometimes its nice to step back from the crowd.”
“Now that I can agree with,” I said still puzzled at her new behavior.
Seeing the question in my eyes she said, “Pops sent me over to see how you were doing.”
“So you’re checking up on me now?”
“Well…” she said glancing around, “to be honest I was bored and wanted a drink, but I hate to drink alone. Wanna join me?”
“Well, since we’re being honest,” I replied, “that’s the nicest invitation I’ve had all week.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s right. Your story.”
“Not everyone liked it, I take it?”
“Um,” I said, “that’s one way of putting it.”
She looked me in the eye, and really looked this time. I could feel her focus, her intelligence, like a white hot light. “C’mon,” she said looking away. “I know just the place.”
She found us a nice quiet bar, sat me down with a drink, and went to work. It took her a couple of hours, and maybe a few drinks, but she finally got me to talk. Look, I wasn’t trying to not tell her. I just could not. Maybe all those years of interviewing others made me bad at it myself. Maybe it just took me a while to trust her after the way she had been for the last month and a half. Maybe I just don’t like to dump my problems on women, especially after all the nice things her family had done for me.
Did you ever try to not tell something to a smart girl? A pretty one too? See what I mean? And that was the weirdest thing. Sometime in all that conversation I realized she was pretty. And oh my gosh did I clamp down on that thought. Hard. All I needed was to let that feeling show, and I was cooked for sure. So much for the vaunted emotional distance of my journalism training.
So rather than focus on that, I told her about my week. As I talked her face grew harder and harder. Each time I stopped she asked me to continue, her voice calm, smooth, and very much at odds with her eyes. By the time I got to the broken ribs her jaw was set and there was an intense glow in her eyes.
When I finished she stood calmly, took my hand and said, “C’mon.” Not knowing what she had in mind I meekly followed.
We crossed the whole grounds, her leading me like a child. I was too numb to care until we came up to the Third Ward which was a cross between a bar and a meeting hall. It was the place that most third-hands hung out looking for work, or having drinks. It was also the place I received my black-eye. I tried to shy away from the door, but she just pulled me right in. Too late, I noticed she was pretty angry.
As we entered the room, the crowd went suddenly quiet. I had read about this happening a hundred times in books, but this was the first time I had seen it happen in person. Let me tell you, its not so fun when you’re the one everyone is staring at.
Lisa didn’t seem to care. She glared right back at them. Her anger easily a match for the whole room. After what seemed like hours but was probably a few moments she said quite loudly, “I wish to issue a challenge.”
A large man came out from around the bar and crossed his arms. He looked like a bouncer complete with tattoos and a few stray earrings all over his face. “Yo, Lisa,“ he said.
“Yo, Derek,” she said back.
“You can’t issue a challenge,” he said. “You know the rules. You’re family.”
“Its not for me. Its for him,” she said tugging my arm.
The quiet room was suddenly a buzz with whispers.
“Him? The reporter?” Derek said as if he was talking about a slug.
She didn’t respond. She simply stared at him.
“But he’s only been in a plane, what, a few weeks?”
“The Alice May will vouch for him,” she said.
A shock went though the room at that. The bouncer looked taken aback. He leaned forward and in a quite tone so as not to be heard above the noise he asked, “Are you sure?”
She stared him right in the eye. “We consider it a matter of honor.”
Derek leaned back, staring at her as if he couldn’t believe his ears.
“Pick your best man,” she continued. “We’ll do the test tonight.”
“Tonight? What test?”
“The Spar Test,” she said, and then the next thing I knew she was leading me out the door while the room behind us erupted into noise.
Its a funny thing about being brave. Sometimes it comes on at the strangest moments. Leaving that room must have flipped a switch in me because suddenly I was incensed.
“What in the hell was that all about?” I shouted. “What do you mean by a challenge, and what is a Spar Test anyway!”
I looked around and noticed a crown was starting to form. Lisa looked back at me calmly and said, “As I mentioned it is an issue of honor. You are a guest on the Alice May. If someone harms you, it is as if they had harmed our family.”
“What?” I said. “That’s crazy. This isn’t some medieval village. You don’t have to stand up for me like that. I can take care of my own.”
She looked me in the eye, and arched an eye-brow.
“Okay, so maybe I’m not so great a fighter. But you sill don’t have to be involved.”
“Its not like that,” she said. “Its not about you. Its about the Alice May. We can afford a lot of things, but we cannot afford to have someone in our family who does not trust us. Among the people of the cloud this is the worst crime; to lose the trust of a family member. We simply cannot allow it to happen.
“Okay,” I said. “I can see that. So what’s a challenge then.”
“Oh, that is easy. It is sort of like a duel, only a duel of wits.”
“A duel of wits? Like an IQ test with guns?“
“No. No weapons.”
“Okay, then what is the Spar Test?”
She smiled at me and took my hand. “Only the toughest challenge I could make.”
“The toughest? What are you going to do, engineer them to death?”
“Not me. As Derek pointed out, I’m family. I’m not eligible. It will have to be you.”
“Me?” I said, suddenly afraid again.
“C’mon,” she said taking my arm. “You’ll be fine.”
“But some those guys,” I protested, “have been doing this their whole lives.”
“Yes,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I’m counting on it.”
“You are? But…”
“Hush,” she said and put a finger to my lips. “I said you’ll be fine, and I meant it. But, there is one thing.”
“What?” I asked.
“The rules state you can’t use packing tape.”
“Har de har har.”
With that joke she took me for a walk, holding my arm the whole time. Sure we got stares, sure lots of people glowered, but you know what? When there’s a pretty girl on your arm, its really hard to notice.
As Lisa explained to me, the Spar Test was pretty simple. Take a complex wing structure like a spar, with all the parts custom engineered to fit together in a particular way, and put the parts all in a bag. Then you shake the parts up, and build. Did I mention there was no labels? It was like a crazy 3D puzzle, only it was done against an opponent. Whoever finished their wing first won. Won what? I asked Lisa. She told me it was a honor thing only, although lots of families used a challenge to solve disagreements. Sort of like the medieval trial-by-fire, only without the fire. So no lives, and no first-born male children were at stake. I could live with that.
But the test still didn’t make sense to me. I mean why have a competition which turns out to be nothing but high speed puzzle building. Lisa laughed at my description, but then explained that there was something about this test called intuitive engineering that the Cloudies valued most of all. “When you’re in an emergency and you have no time to think, but you still have to act, what part of your brain do you use?”
“Huh? I don’t know.”
“We do. We call it the “intuitive engineer.” It is the thinking that only comes out under times of stress. When a person doesn’t have time to think, only react. That is when we are at our best. That is what we prize.”
Which made about as much sense to me as everything else that had happened that day. But what could I say? If she had told me to jump off a cliff, I might very well have.
The test itself was pretty easy. I mean I knew I was going to lose, so much so that I didn’t really care. But I also knew this was important to Lisa, which meant it was important to the whole family. So even though I didn’t care, I still had to try my best. George and Bonny would expect nothing less.
We showed up at the auditorium a few hours later, and it was packed. Every seat was taken, people were standing in the aisles, and crowded out the door. The seats surround two pits, circles really, each maybe 3 feet deep, and each holding a table in the middle. George, Bonny and the whole family had a seat in the front row. They looked a bit harried, but smiled and waved when we came in. Lisa took me to my table, and showed me how to use a shocker, which is an electric device that can glue any two pieces together. Then she left me to sit with her family. That’s when the stage fright hit.
“But what am I going to do? Those guys have been with their ships for years?”
“Don’t worry,” she yelled back from her seat. “Just remember what we taught you, and do the ship proud.”
Before I could protest more a loud horn sounded, and the room descended into silence. I looked around the room at all the intent faces. When my name was announced only the Hendersons cheered. Everyone else just glared. Then when they announced the other guy, Phillip was his name, the crowd went wild. Great. Well I knew going in I wasn’t the home town favorite. This only proved it.
Two judges came in, and handed us our bag of parts. I took mine and set it on the table waiting. The horn sounded again, and I dumped my bag on the table.
The rules said the wing structure could be of any type, but most of the time it was a simple wing cross section. I looked at my pile of parts, and decided to sort them out. Looking over I saw Phillip working feverishly. Already he was sticking parts together. Woops, I better pick up the pace.
I started grabbing parts and seeing how they fit. Before long a kind of structure emerged. The crowd was chanting “Phil-lip, Phil-lip,” but to be honest I sort of tuned them out. It was like working on a story. I entered the “zone” as we called it in school, and tuned everything else out. Before long I had a wing going, an honest to goodness wing. I could see the parts in my mind, see how they went together. My hands sort of worked on automatic. Going where they needed to, picking up the parts they needed without thought. To be honest, I have no idea what I was thinking. I really wasn’t. I guess this was the intuitive engineering thing Lisa was talking about.
I was almost done when something about the wing bothered me, so I stopped. I picked it up and looked at it one way, then the other. Then looking down it I saw the problem. The wing was weak. Too weak. Not a lot, just enough. It was strong enough to hold together under it’s own weight, but if it was ever put to use it would crumble. For some reason this bugged me. I didn’t know if the Spar Test included a pressure test, but if it did this design would fail. The pieces had gone together right, but the wing was wrong.
I looked over at Phillip. He was struggling, but still going hard. He was maybe 80% done. Then I looked back at my own pile and was shocked to see only a few parts left. I could easily glue them on and be done, and no one would know. No one would know but me. I looked over at George. He was staring at me intently, as was the rest of the family. I thought about them, and about all that they had taught me. Then I got out my glue gun and went to work.
It took me a while, but I eventually got the wing right. By then Phillip had finished, so I guess he won. I didn’t care. I wasn’t there for him, and I certainly wasn’t there for the crowd. I was there for the Alice May. And by God I was going to do her proud.
When I finished, I showed the wing to George. I had had to break several trusses and glue them back together at odd angles to make them fit, but the wing was strong, wonderfully strong. If I had built it the way it as given to me, it never would have worked. Someone had tried to sabotaged it. George took one look at it and scowled, handing it to Lisa. She smiled, and pointed out some of my modifications. They huddled together talking, but I was too tired to hear what they were saying, much less care.
Bonny took me by the hand and led me back to my bunk on the Alice May. George didn’t say anything that night, but spent the next day in several hushed meetings. No one said anything to me, but I could tell by his grin he was happy.
By then I was pretty sick of the Jamboree, and couldn’t wait to take off, which we did the very next day. That night over a late dinner at 10,000 feet and climbing George held a toast for the strongest wing he had ever seen. I knew they were proud. That was all that mattered.
Two weeks later my temporary fix to FC-13 started to fail. I could hear it flutter every once in a while when every thing else was quiet. A little buzz of vibration, like the sound of a hummingbird flying close by your ear. The tape allowed the part to flex, but it still did not solve the initial problem. Something about the shape of the wing was causing the air flowing over it to become chaotic, and when it did FC-13 would flutter.
When I was a kid a neighbor of ours used to fly radio controlled airplanes. He used to take me to the flying field on Saturdays, so I could watch and learn. It wasn’t long before I had a few planes of my own. I used to love sitting with the old guys on warm afternoons, swapping stories, and learning about planes.
One day I guy came to a field with a plane I had never seen before. The plane itself was fairly typical, but the wing was not. Instead of a teardrop shaped wing, smoothly curved on top and slightly curved on the bottom, this wing was flat on the bottom with steps built into the top. It was constructed of several flat sheets of foam, each about 1/8” thick, and layered one top of each other like a cake with very thin layers. Each successive piece was less wide then the one below it, and all of the pieces met at the front, which was sanded to a nice rounded shape. The overall effect was exactly like a normal airfoil on the front half of the wing, but the back half sported a number of steps instead of a smooth curve. It was exactly as if someone had cut a stairwell into the back side of on an otherwise smooth wing.
I remember all the old men scoffing at this guy when they saw his wing. There was no way that ugly thing would fly, they told him, the design would cause too much drag. So when he tossed into the air we were surprised. Not only did the plane fly, but it flew well.
Thinking about this gave me an idea. The guy had called his airfoil a KF something or other. I didn’t remember. A quick search of the web found the airfoil name; KF-5, and even who it was named after; Misters Kline and Fogleman. The KF airfoil hadn’t originated on a model airplane as I thought, but a paper airplane. One that held the world record. Even then paper airplanes didn’t scale up to glider-ships too well. I was just about to give up when I ran across a paper that described the laminar air flow properties across a KF airfoil.
That’s when I ran to the cockpit to tell Paul.
When I got there I found Lisa instead. She was using the Nav screen to work out some complex problem, glancing between it and the regular instrument read-outs. She was so focused she didn’t even look up when I came in.
“Oh, hey,” I said.
“Hi, Bob,” she said still peering intently at her screen.
“Is Paul around? I’ve got something to show him.”
“Paul?” she replied. “He’s been down for hours.”
“He has?” I looked at the clock. It was 3:00 in the morning. “Oops. I guess It’ll wait till tomorrow. I didn’t realize it was so late.” I turned to leave.
“What ‘cha got?” she asked.
“Nothing?” she said. “Normally you don’t come charging into the cockpit over nothing.”
She had me there. “Okay,” I said stepping back into the room, “I was poking around on the web, and I think I found a way to fix FC-13. Permanently that is.”
“You solved the flow problem?”
“Possibly,” I said.
“Possibly is still better than anything we’ve been able to find. Can I take a peek?”
For some reason I suddenly felt shy. “Um…”
“Okay. Promise you won’t laugh, though.”
She looked back at me. “Why?”
“Well, it’s a bit eccentric.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Eccentric, huh? Will it work?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“What the heck. Its not like I have anything else to do this shift.”
I slid the data file to the Nav screen. A KF airfoil popped up with all its graphs. Lisa took one look at it and said, “Hoo-kay.”
“Hey, you promised you wouldn’t laugh.”
“Did I? Well I’m not laughing,” she said with a smile. “Yet.”
“Great,” I mumbled as she glanced closely at the figures.
“Well, I’m surprised,” she continued. “That thing is ugly, but it looks like it actually works. At least at a higher AOAs that is. But I don’t see how it could help us with FC-13. Not without adding more parasitic drag.”
“Well,” I said leaning over to touch the screen. “I was looking at the steps, and wondering why they worked. Somehow those steps kept the airflow stuck to the wing.” I pulled up a schematic of the Alice May’s wing. “And that’s when I started thinking about how the wing was working here and here.” As I spoke I pointed to the curved sections around the cowling for motor one. The motor was on the front of the wing, its the cowl wrapped around it, and fitting smoothly into the wing as it made its way back. It also happened to be almost exactly in front of FC-13.
“Go on,” she said.
“Well I thought maybe the chaotic flow we’re getting was caused by the air crossing over the wing, and flowing around the cowl.”
“But it flows like that over every other cowl too,” she said.
“Yes, but not near the fuselage, like motor one, and not with the spiral flow of the working motor.”
“You think it’s caused by the flow from the prop, or the fuselage?”
“No. I think it’s a combo of both.” I showed her the formulas I had used, and how I thought the combined airflow might cause the problem.”
“Hum,” she said, staring at my work. “This is…if not promising, at least interesting. Where did you find this airfoil anyway.”
“Um, I used to build model airplanes. Radio controlled ones, that is.”
Lisa looked at me, a grin slowly spreading on her face, then she tilted back her head and laughed.
“Hey,” I said. “You promised.” For some reason I found myself laughing too.
“I’m sorry,” she said when she could finally control her breathing. “Its just, so weird, and yet so, so, I don’t know. Unusual? Perfect?”
“So you think I’m unusual?” I asked feeling my cheeks start to warm.
She looked at me, searching. Her eyes serious. “Yes,” she said. “I believe so.”
For some reason from her it sounded like a compliment.
We stayed that way, looking into each other’s eyes for I don’t know how long. Then she yawned, and that was that.
“Look, Bob,” she said. “I was… uh, rude to you when you first came aboard.”
“Is that what you call it?” I said playfully.
“I was thinking more like impudent. Maybe cheeky,” I said.
“Perhaps churlish. Do you think that’s a better word? Its got a nice ring to it, churlish does.”
“Hum,” she said. “I’m afraid I haven’t given it much thought.”
“There’s also discourteous, and unmannerly. Tactless, is a good word. So is undiplomatic.”
“I see,” she said.
“There’s also brusque. But my personal favorite is insolent.”
“Are you through?”
“No. I have more if you would like?”
“Thank you,” she said in mock seriousness. “But I believe you’ve made your point.”
“Yes. Only, there’s something, uh I think you should know about us Cloudies. A cultural thing. Uh, something that perhaps you were not aware.” I noticed her cheeks were staring to turn red. “Not that this is an excuse mind you,” she continued. “Its just that…that…”
I waved my hand in a circle. “C’mon. Spit it out. I haven’t got all night.”
She swallowed hard. “Well, on most planes when there is a girl, a girl of… lets say marriageable age…”
“Go on,” I said.
“Her parents often hire on a third-hand, to… you know, try to marry her off.”
This stopped me cold. “You’re serious?” I said.
“You mean I was hired on, to set you up?”
“Yes,” she said. “You mean you didn’t know?”
I shook my head. “No.” Now it was my turn to be embarrassed. “Oh, my G…. Well that does explain a lot, doesn’t it?”
“Yes it does.” she said. “I can’t believe Paul never told you.”
“Was he supposed to?”
“He said he was.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say to that. He must have known this information would have been helpful, but he never let on. I guess the feeling on my face must have shown.
“You really didn’t know, did you?”
“No. And had I known I… I…” Suddenly realized I didn’t want to finish that sentence. “Uh, look,” I said after a moment’s pause. “Its late, and I have a shift tomorrow. I really should be turning in.”
“Yes,” she said jumping at the change of topic. “Good idea.”
I was just starting to turn around when I remembered why I had come in the first place. “Oh, yes. About that airfoil.”
“What about it?” she asked.
“Well I was hoping to show it to Paul in the morning….”
“And, you don’t want me to tell him first? Is that it?”
“Something like that,” I said.
Suddenly her face took on a mischievous look. “I’ve got a better idea,” she said. “How about if we surprise him instead?”
“Um…” I said, feeling unsure.
“Look, if the ridges work, you’ve got nothing to loose. Right?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“And if they don’t work, you’re out nothing.”
“Sure,” I said. “But how can I be sure…”
She held up her hand to stop me. “Don’t even go there, ground-pounder. I’m still the best engineer on this ship. If anyone can make it work, it’ll be me.”
She had me there. She was the best engineer.
“Besides,” she continued with an innocent smile. “I think we own my brother a nice little surprise. Don’t you?”
It was the smile that got me. “Yes,” I said feeling the matching smile on my own face. “I think we do. Only on one condition: you have keep me in the loop. Okay?”
She held out her hand and we shook.
“Deal,” she said.
True to her word, Lisa kept me informed on her progress. At first we met every couple of days, but soon we were going over her figures almost nightly. She ran the simulations and tweaked the math, and I reconfigured the wing so it could produce the steps as needed. We tested in small sections first, always at night when everyone else was asleep, and always very careful to double-check our work. Within a couple of weeks we rigged a few sensors on the back of the motor cowl, and had a program which popped up the KF steps, or ridges as Lisa called them, every time it sensed a separation in the airflow.
After that, we never had a problem with FC-13 again.
You would think Paul would have noticed, after all it was his project initially. By this point it was fairly late in the Summer, and Paul had his own issues. You see he was about to leave the Alice May for ground-pounder school. The very same university Lisa had just left. Between the books, the girls, the dorms, the girls, and the 10,000 things a college student needs to worry about, airflow separation was rather low on his list of priorities.
Which is why he was slightly preoccupied as we attempted to land that Fall.
“Hold on,” came the voice of Paul over the noisy intercom. “I think I got something. Giss?”
“The one coming up the pass? I’m already on it,” said Giselle. She spoke again a few moments later. “Hum. Its a warm mass, and it looks like its peaking.” Giselle spoke as she was glancing at a thermal imaging array of our flight path. Sensitive cameras all over the ship focused at highlighting tiny differences in air temperature. She was watching the ground for thermals much like a bird of prey might. Thermals are the bubbles of warm air that hawks use to gain elevation without flapping. Only we were about a thousand times bigger than any hawk. “Yes,” she said, her voice excited for the first time. “Its separating… Its clear. We should feel it when we crest the ridge.
“Roger that,” Paul said calmly.
The giant glider hummed and moaned. In front of me I could see the new houses. They were towers really. Tall, thin, made of some kind of clear plastic, carbon fiber, and injected foam. They loomed over the homes below them for hundreds of feet, standing right on the top of the ridge where they would have the maximum view. They were shiny new examples of the high rise homes people were building. Minimalist design, light construction, yet strong enough to handle the Santa Anna gusts that tore though this area annually. If the Alice May hit one of them, the impact might be enough to cause an early morning riser inside to spill their coffee, but it would also dump thousands of pounds of glider-ship on the the roofs of the houses below. And incidentally kill all of the people on-board.
The glider’s speed, the RAS or Relative Air Speed –– that most precious commodity, and most looked at reading –– slowly dipped into the red on my screen. All along the huge hollow wing I heard the tiny servos rapidly push and pull the flying surfaces, trying to eek out a bit more speed to counter act the huge drag of skidding a plane sideways. There was a bump, like we had just drove over an invisible hill, which in point of fact we did. But it wasn’t enough.
Suddenly Lisa spoke formally over the headset. “Pilot. Requesting permission for the controls.” It was the protocol used for passing control of the ship from one person to another.
“Damn it sis,” Paul said, sounding rattled for the first time, “I can handle it.”
“I’m asking,” Lisa said calmly but firmly, “but in three seconds I’ll be telling.”
There was a long pause. No one said anything. By long tradition one could take over piloting from another if you were sure the pilot was not able to handle the situation, or if there was information they were lacking. There was only one caveat; you better have a darn good explanation for your actions, if you ever expected to pilot again.
“Okay. Damn it,” Paul spit out. “Just go. Take it!”
“I have the controls,” Lisa said calmly, completing the protocol.
The plane shifted slightly as she tested the controls, then over the headphones she said, “Hang on everyone. This is going to get interesting.”
Then to her computer she said, “Pop the ridges.” This was the key-word to configure the entire wing for the KF structures. We’d tested this airfoil in small sections, and run hours and hours with it on the simulator, but we’d never actually tried it on the whole wing.
The servos whined and the steps formed up and down the whole length of the wing. The sound level dropped, and some of the vibration vanished. I was looking at the external camera to make sure the steps deployed correctly when I heard Paul’s voice.
“Shit,” he said.
I looked down at the RAS and saw what he meant. Lisa had pulled the nose up to climb, but we were now going uphill which was slowing us down. The needle was slowly creeping down towards the red area of the gauge, indicating a stall. Then it dropped lower. Technically, a stall was when a plane’s wing no longer produces more lift than its weight. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the wing simply stops flying. As does the plane. We watched as the RAS needle dropped 2, 3, and then 4 miles per hour into the red. Any second now we should start to drop. I kept waiting and waiting for that sickening weightless feeling, but it didn’t come. The needle finally stopped 6 miles per hour past a stall, and there it stayed.
In the mean time we were still in the midst of a thermal. The slower speed kept us in the warmer rising air mass for longer. It wasn’t much longer, but it was enough.
The plane tilted to one side as Lisa raised the right wing. The nose pointed off to the left, but I could feel the plane still flying the same direction, the long fuselage was literally flying sideways, like a car skidding on ice – heading down the road in the same direction, but the front turned on the yaw axis. Lisa was using the rudders to keep us on path while the ailerons raised the starboard wing to clear the tower. Yet slewing like this created extra drag which slowed the plane down, which in turn…
Right as we approached the tower the Alice May finally stalled. It wasn’t a typical stall; she didn’t drop a wing, or loose several hundred feet of altitude. Instead, she just sort of mushed along. The whole plane lifted, the wings shuddering, the servos rapidly chattering, and very lightly the starboard wing cleared the tower in front of us, neatly clipping the tiny antenna sticking up on it’s roof. Then we dropped a bit, maybe 10 feet, and were flying again.
While we were passing I looked down below at the tower and saw a woman on her balcony. She was 400 feet above the ground, holding onto a toddler, and waiving at us enthusiastically as we passed, like we were an attraction at the zoo. I could imagine her saying something like, “Look at the pretty airplane, sweet’ums. Isn’t it shiny?” I swallowed the lump of bile that was suddenly in my throat. She had no idea how close we’d come to dying.
Lisa expertly lowered the nose and straightened the plane back to our flight path. With the nose down we quickly picked up speed, and we’re soon back in the groove. Two minutes later the wheels smoothly touched down on the runway 200 feet from the start, and we rolled almost the whole entire length until we came to a stop.
We were alive, and on the ground.
George pulled himself slowly back from the cramped observation bubble and said with some sarcasm, “Well, that was interesting.”
I looked down still too stunned to move and noticed for the first time my nose was only a few inches from the ground. As I slowly wormed my way out of the cramped space, I noticed the huge plane whispered and shifted on the ground almost as much as it did in the air. The wind outside blew past in waves. Each gust echoed by tiny pops and cracks in the structure. Standing up, I glanced out the front canopy as a truck came to tow the plane off the runaway. When I stood, George shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the Couldies,” he said with a smile, but his eyes betrayed his worry for those close enough to read them.
Two hours later, the plane was strapped down, the galley cleared, and the whole family ready to leave. It was time for our goodbyes. For me it was time to go back to my apartment, which for some reason no longer held any appeal. For the Hendersons it was time to take Paul to the university, and help him settle into his dorm room.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” George said to me as he shook my hand goodbye. “With Paul gone to school the Alice May could use an extra hand. Would you consider shipping with us a while longer? I can’t promise you a birth once he gets back, but that should give you a good three years to look around for another plane. What do you think?”
I smiled at him, having already expected something like this. “Well,” I said, “it depends.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Depends?”
By then the rest of the family had started to gather around.
“Yes,” I said trying to keep my voice steady. George has that effect on people. “There’s a lot I don’t know yet about flying, so I’ll need a lot of training still.”
“And, I’ll need a little more time to write. After all, I still have my freelance work, and it’d be too costly to drop it just now.”
George frowned for a second, but I knew he couldn’t refuse a man who wanted to work. “I can see that,” he said starting to realize the conversation wasn’t going quite the way he expected.
“And one more thing,” I added. “I’ll need some kind of income.”
At this both of his eyebrows shot up. “Income?” he asked.
“Income,” I said steadily. “I’m going to be doing some saving, and I need to be able to put away a little bit each month for that purpose.”
George put a hand to his jaw and looked away in silence. It was a trick he used to make the other person feel uncomfortable. It comes in handy when trying to negotiate a price, especially when your whole family is riding on the decision. Fortunately, I had been carefully coached through this part by an expert. I waited it out, both eyes on him.
“C’mon Pops,” Paul said. “You said yourself he’s pretty handy with the tape?”
“I did?” George replied.
“And you know,” Gisselle added, “he picked up the math faster than any of the other hands.”
George nodded. “There is that,” he said begrudgingly. He looked around at is family. “Anything else?” he added sharply.
“Well, he does cook the chicken vindaloo pretty well,” said little Jared in his thin voice.
“Hum,” said George looking around again. “Don’t any you think I don’t know what’s going on here.” he said with a frown.
Just then Bonny put her small arm around him and whispered into his ear. I don’t know what she said, but George’s face flashed anger at first, then quickly resolved to calm acceptance.
“It appears,” he said, “I’ve been outflanked by my own family, the bunch of degenerate mutineers.” He smiled and stuck out his hand to me. “I’ll toss in a slight income as well. It will be slight, mind you…”
Bonny cleared her throat with a loud “Ah, hum.”
George looked her way, and his smile faltered. “Okay, more than a slight income. It appears my wife thinks we can afford it, though I hazard to guess why.”
“Thank you, George,” I said. “I think you’ll find its money well spent.”
“You think so, do you? Mind telling me what you’re planning on saving it for?”
“Well I was thinking…” Suddenly I found myself at a loss for words. I thought to myself, Some kind of writer you turned out to be. Just then Lisa stepped in beside me, slipping her hand in mine. I felt a light squeeze. That was all I needed. “Um,” I muttered, “the thing is, its going to take years and such. And a lot of planning… so don’t think its going to happen over night, or anything. But we, that is Lisa and I. We were thinking of building a plane. Of our own, that is.”
George looked me hard in the eye, a scowl on his face. Then a smile came across his eyes and his hand come out again.
“In that case,” he said as he shook my hand again, “I guess you better call me ‘Pops’.”