Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

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smiles, for his pupil had forgotten an elementary task.

"You're doing the job, George - not I," he remarked. "Carry on, and
make a move."

At the next swing of the propeller the engine fired. Only the skids
under the landing prevented the Dromedary from rolling forward over
the ground. Now was the time for Derek to put weeks of theoretical
instruction to the test. A touch of the throttle and the powerful
engine roared "all out", the vast and seemingly slender fabric of the
'bus quivering under the strain, while the tyro pilot was almost
beaten backwards against the coaming of the seat by the terrific
blast from the rapidly-revolving prop.

The cadet waved his hand over the side of the fuselage - the
recognized signal for the mechanics to remove the skids. Slowly at
first, then gradually gaining speed, the Dromedary ambled across the
ground, the propeller raising enormous clouds of dust, while small
spurts of warm castor oil were ejected from the engine and blown back
by the wind into the goggled face of the young pilot. Unable to gauge
the biplane's speed, Derek held on until the instructor bellowed
plaintively into his ear:

"Get a move on, my lad; you're in a 'bus, not trundling a hoop along
a road."

Thus stimulated Daventry actuated the elevating-lever. Submissively
the huge machine parted company with mother earth, so gently and
evenly that it was only the change of vibration that told Derek of
the fact.

"By Jove!" muttered the lad. "I'm up now. Wonder how I'll get down
again." Ahead, owing to the tilt of the blunt nose of the machine, he
could see nothing but sky and fleecy clouds. It was only when he
glanced over the side that he saw the hangars already dwarfed to the
size of dolls' houses.

The ecstacy of it all! To find himself controlling a swift aerial
steed, to handle the responsive joystick, and to make the machine
turn obediently to a slight pressure on the rudder-bar. Anxiety was
cast to the winds. The sheer lust of flight in the exhilarating
atmosphere gripped the cadet in its entirety.

Again Derek leant over and surveyed the now distant earth from a
height of three thousand feet, as shown by the altimeter. But for the
furious rush of wind there was little sensation of speed, nor was he
in any degree affected by the height above the ground. Without the
faintest inconvenience he could watch the vast panorama beneath him,
and distinguish white ribands as dusty roads, and the variegated
patches of green denoting cultivated fields, meadows, and clumps of
trees. Although previously warned of the fact, he was nevertheless
surprised at the aspect of the ground, which presented the appearance
of a flat plain. Hills - and there were plenty in the vicinity of
Averleigh - had visually ceased to exist.

Suddenly the pleasing prospect was interrupted by a disconcerting
movement of the hitherto docile biplane. Akin to the sensation of
being in a lift that is unexpectedly put in motion, Derek found
himself dropping, while at the same time the clinometer, an
instrument for indicating the heel of the aerial craft, showed a dip
of thirty-five degrees. Instinctively Derek sought to regain a state
of stability, but the joy-stick seemed powerless to essay the task.

For a brief instant Daventry wondered what was happening. It seemed
to him that, notwithstanding his efforts, the 'bus was dropping
earthwards, and that the tractive powers of the prop. were futile.
Then, with a series of sharp jerks, the 'plane regained its normal
state of progression.

"Pocket," explained Rippondene, speaking into the voice-tube that
formed a means of communication between instructor and pupil. "You'll
soon get used to them; carry on - up to four thousand."

It was Derek's first "bump" - a vertical fall through fifty or a
hundred feet, owing to the machine encountering a patch of thin air,
or what is known to airmen as a pocket.

"Look ahead!" came the warning. "There's another 'bus."

Approaching each other at an aggregate speed of a hundred and fifty
miles an hour the two biplanes swerved discreetly, for both were
steered by quirks who took no risks. There are certain hard-and-fast
rules of the air which have to be obeyed with as much precision as
the mariner has to conform to the rule of the road at sea.

They passed a good two hundred yards apart, but almost immediately
Derek's 'bus started rocking and rolling in a disconcerting fashion
as it encountered the backwash of air from the now rapidly receding

Revelling in the novel situation, Derek held on, occasionally turning
his machine in a wide circle and resisting any great inclination to
bank. He felt as if he could carry on indefinitely, so exhilarating
was the rush through the air, until the voice of his mentor sounded
in his ear.

"How about it?" it enquired brusquely. "I want my lunch even if you
don't. Back you go, my festive."

Derek swung the machine round until the needle of the compass showed
that the Dromedary was flying in the reverse direction, but very soon
the disconcerting truth became apparent. In his wild joy-ride he had
neglected to take bearings and allow for the side-drift of the wind.
He was lost.

"Won't do to admit that," he soliloquized. "I'll bluff the old
buffer, and trust to luck."

For nearly ten minutes he flew by compass course, the while studying
the expanse of ground three thousand feet below. Away to the
south'ard he could discern the coast-line, quite forty miles distant.
Evidently under the action of the south-westerly breeze the biplane
had side-drifted more than thirty miles.

Flecks of whitish vapour glided rapidly beneath the aeroplane. The
sky was beginning to become overcast. Viewed from the ground those
clouds would probably appear dark and semi-opaque. Viewed from above,
and bathed in the brilliant sunshine, they were white as driven snow.

Setting a compass course to counteract the current, Daventry flew
steadily for twenty minutes. By the end of this time the ground was
invisible. Reluctantly he resolved to dive through the clouds in
order to verify his position. It seemed a thousand pities to plunge
out of the sunshine, but his instructor was becoming impatient. The
novelty of joy-riding in the air had long since worn off as far as
Rippondene was concerned, whereas the pangs of hunger are not easily
to be denied.

A slight touch of the aileron actuating-gear and the descent began.
Cutting out the engine, Derek let the machine vol-plane. It was a
delicious, exciting, nerve-tingling sensation. In silence, save for
the rush of the air past the struts and tension-wires, the huge
fabric glided with great rapidity, momentarily nearing the extensive
bank of snow-white clouds.

Instinctively Derek shut his eyes as the dazzling mantle of vapour
appeared to rise and envelop him. The next moment the biplane was
plunging through the mist, in which the light gradually diminished
until it was like being in a room in the twilight.

No longer was the needle of the compass visible. Even the luminous
point failed to show so much as a faint glow. Sense of stability,
too, was lost. Whether the machine was banking steeply or volplaning
naturally was a matter for conjecture. All Derek knew was that the
'bus was moving rapidly, not under its own volition, but solely under
the unseen and unfelt force of gravity. Then, like an express train
emerging from a tunnel, the old 'bus, rocking and plunging, shot out
of the cloud-bank. Shaking the moisture from his goggles, Derek
restarted his engine, and then looked somewhat anxiously over the
side. Almost the first object that met his gaze was the Averleigh
aerodrome at a distance of about two miles.

"In sight of home," soliloquized the lad grimly; "but now comes the
hardest part - landing. Hope I don't pancake or try to land below the

"Pancaking", it must be explained, consists in getting as much way
off the machine as possible, and dropping practically vertically.
Unless the correct height and drop be gauged normally about three
feet - the machine is almost sure to "crash". Pancaking is only
deliberately resorted to when one is forced to land in standing corn,
stubble, or flooded ground.

"Landing below the ground" is a term applied to an underestimation of
the vertical distance when pancaking. Although of comparatively rare
occurrence, its results are even more disastrous than overestimating
the fall, and the crash almost invariably wrecks the machine
completely and costs the pilot his life.

Turning, so as to fly into the wind, Daventry made the plunge. Intent
upon his task, he completely forgot the presence of his mentor, who,
ready at an instant's notice to operate the "dual-control" mechanism,
was silently yet critically watching his pupil.

The ground appeared to be rising to greet the descending
aeroplane - slowly at first, then with disconcerting acceleration.
There was no time to stop and think; what had to be done must be done
promptly, almost automatically. An error of judgment would certainly
result in a crash of more or less seriousness.

"Now!" exclaimed Derek aloud, although he knew not why. The nose of
the machine rose slightly; there was a perceptible jar, another, and
then a series of bumps that decreased in force although they
increased in duration. Mechanically the young pilot cut off his
engine, and after travelling a few yards the 'plane came to a

"By Jove! I've landed," he soliloquized. "Wonder how I did it?"

Rippondene clambered out, sliding to the ground, and began to swing
his arms to restore the circulation.

"Hurry up, old bird!" he exclaimed pleasantly. "We're the last down,
and lunch will be over if we don't look sharp. Yes, we'll make a good
airman of you yet. You've got it in you. Matter of fact I only had to
touch the joy-stick once, and that was when you tried to loop the
loop in that cloud. Didn't know you did, eh? I'm not surprised. We've
all been in the same boat."


The Derelict

Lunch was almost over when Derek entered the crowded mess in which
the quirks of Averleigh did justice to the plain but substantial food
provided by a paternal administration for the benefit of the airmen
of to-morrow. The air was buzzing with animated conversation, mostly
upon subjects entirely unconnected with the serious art of aviation.

Concealing his anxiety to hear how his chum fared, Derek took a
recently-vacated chair at Kaye's side. The latter nodded
appreciatively as he passed Daventry a bowl containing a concoction
which must never be referred to as margarine, but always as "nut

"Lorry's going into Rockport," announced Kaye. "It leaves here at
six. Coming?"

"What's the scheme?" asked Derek. "Nothing much to do in Rockport, is

"It will be a change," replied his chum. "And we can walk back."

"Eight miles," objected Daventry, shrugging his shoulders. "Bit
steep, eh? Very well then, I'm on it."

The meal finished, the cadets adjourned for ten minutes' "stand easy"
before the afternoon parade, a purely perfunctory ceremonial which
takes place at 1.30.

"Well, how went it with you?" asked Kaye, as the two made their way
to the fives court.

"Not so dusty," replied Derek modestly. "And you?"

Kaye grinned.

"Smashed a couple of landing-wheels," he replied. "It was hard luck,
but no one seemed to mind very much. It was topping up there, though.
I'm all out for another joy-ride to-morrow. Rough luck on Dixon."

"What was that?" asked Daventry.

"Didn't you hear? You know him, don't you?"

"The little merchant with a mole on the point of his chin? I was
yarning with him last night."

"That's the fellow," agreed Kaye. "'Fraid he's crashed for good.
Didn't clear the pine-trees, and ripped off the left-hand plane. Came
down like a stone, of course, and they've taken him to hospital with
a compound fracture of the thigh. Old Biggs is rather cut up about
it, because Dixon had a good reputation as a centre-forward. Just the
fellow we wanted for the First Eleven."

Biggs - Old Biggs as he was generally called - was the captain of the
first footer-team, hence that worthy's regret at losing what promised
to be a pillar of strength to the sports club. Biggs was an
ex-ranker, who, as a flight-sergeant in the old R.F.C., had performed
wondrous and daring feats over the Boche lines. It was reported that
he climbed out to the tip of one of the planes of a machine when,
owing to extensive damage by gun-fire, it was in danger of losing its
stability. And this at 9000 feet, with three Taubes devoting their
attention to the disabled British 'bus. And yet, before being granted
a commission, Old Briggs had to pass through the cadet
training-school like any ordinary quirk.

The afternoon passed only too quickly, the lecture being both
instructive and entertaining, and when tea was over the cadets were
at liberty to spend the rest of the evening in whatever manner they

It was one of the standing orders at Averleigh that three times a
week a large motor-lorry was detailed to take cadets into Rockport, a
privilege eagerly seized upon by the quirks.

Punctually at six the huge, khaki-painted vehicle emerged from the
garage, and the cadets, after passing inspection, boarded the lorry
in a seething mob, swarming over the fastened-up tail-board with the
utmost agility, until the lorry was packed with forty odd youngsters.

Away rattled the heavily-laden wagon, followed by a couple of
motor-bikes with side-cars, each of which bore three cadets in the
side-car and one on the carrier, while a straggling mob of quirks on
push-bikes brought up the rear.

Directly the precincts of the aerodrome were left behind, the driver
of the lorry was bombarded with frantic appeals to "whack her up".
This request was complied with, with alacrity, and, the road being
narrow, progress resolved itself into a series of vain attempts on
the part of the motor-cycles to pass their lumbering, swaying, big

It was a distance of eleven miles to Rockport by road, and three
miles less by a footpath along the cliffs that eventually cut across
some marshes on the south side of Averleigh aerodrome.

Rockport, a small seaport of about nine thousand inhabitants, offered
very little attraction to ordinary visitors, but it was one of the
chief places of interest to the cadets of the T.D.S. They certainly
livened the old town up, and their presence was more appreciated than
otherwise by the bulk of the residents.

Upon arriving at Rockport the lorry quickly disgorged its load of
khaki-clad, white-banded cadets, most of whom had some definite
object in view. Derek and Kaye, however, being strangers to the
place, were somewhat at a loose end.

"Where are you fellows going?" exclaimed a voice. Turning, the chums
found Biggs overtaking them.

"Nowhere much," replied Derek. "We're going to walk back."

"That's good," ejaculated the captain of the team. "I'll come with
you, if I may. Nothing like padding the hoof to keep a fellow fit.
You play footer, of course."

"Not since I left school," replied Daventry.

"Where was that?" asked Biggs. "What's that? Full-back an' got your
colours? Why, you're just the man I want! You'll jolly well have to
train, and look mighty smart about it, young fellow."

"I'll think it over," said Derek guardedly.

"What's the objection?" asked the skipper pointedly.

"Since you ask me, it's like this," replied Daventry. "If a fellow's
a good player he's often kept back solely on that account. I know a
man in the army who's been knocking about in England ever since 1914,
simply because he's a professional full-back. Footer's all very well,
but I'm not here for that."

"Don't worry on that score, old bird," replied Biggs. "I'm keen on
getting back to France myself, and I'll take jolly good care that I
do as soon as I possibly can. So you can play with a good grace while
you're here."

"In that case, count on me," decided Derek.

Still discussing footer, the three cadets made their way along the
promenade until they reached the commencement of the cliff path. It
was now about an hour before sunset. The air was calm, and, for the
time of year, remarkably mild. Hardly a ripple disturbed the surface
of the sea, although against the base of the cliffs the surf roared
sullenly. Out of the little harbour the fishing-fleet was putting to
sea, their dark-brown sails hanging limply from the yards. Almost
sky-down were three or four tramp steamers leisurely plugging their
way towards London river. Outwardly there were no indications that
the nation was at war. Ships came and went, in spite of the vaunted
submarine blockade. Many went and returned no more, but still the
mercantile marine "carried on", hardly perturbed by losses through
mines and German pirates.

"Do you know the road?" asked Biggs. "I don't."

"We looked up a map this afternoon," replied Kaye. "It seems simple
enough. We strike inland at about a couple of miles from the
outskirts of the town. Not much of a path, is it?"

"Shouldn't like to tackle it after dark," rejoined Derek. "I guess
those coast-patrol fellows have a rotten time, especially in winter."

"A regular causeway," remarked Biggs, regarding the cliffs on either
hand, for the path itself ran along the top of a "hog's back"
formation. On the seaward side the cliffs were bold and precipitous.
On the landward side they were lower, and showed signs of crumbling.
Obviously, years ago, the existing marshes formed part of a large
harbour, from which the sea had long since retired.

"By Jove! I don't like the look of this," exclaimed Biggs, coming to
an abrupt halt. He indicated a chasm that completely cut through the
ridge. Evidently it was of fairly-recent origin, for the rock showed
bare and clean. Across the rift was a plank, about nine inches in
width, forming the only means of communication with the opposite

"Hanged if I like the look of this stunt," observed Biggs, regarding
the ten-feet gap with obvious misgivings.

"Plank's safe enough," rejoined Derek, and, putting his statement to
the test, he crossed the narrow bridge without mishap. Kaye followed,
and the two chums turned and waited for their companion to rejoin

"Come on, old son," exclaimed Kaye. "Don't keep us waiting all the

"Sorry," admitted Biggs frankly, "I can't face it. I'll be sure to
topple overboard - honest fact."

"Rot!" ejaculated Daventry incredulously.

"'Course it is," agreed the cadet. "Never could stick heights.
Looking out of a window of a two-storied house makes me giddy."

Derek could see that Biggs was not trying to hoax him. The airman
whose deeds in the air had already gained him no mean reputation, who
could soar at a terrific height amidst a heavy fire from German
antis, was unable to trust himself to cross that ten-feet gap.

"Jump it, then," suggested Kaye, and, setting the example, he leapt
easily across the chasm. Even then Biggs, the airman-athlete, hung

"Can't make up my mind to try," he declared. "I feel an awful rotter,
but I can't help it."

"Look here," suggested Derek. "I can see a path leading down the face
of the cliff. Are you game to take it on? If so, we can climb up on
both sides. It doesn't look very difficult."

Biggs still hesitated. Daventry, leaping across the gap, made his way
to the place where the head of the natural steps began. There were
signs that the path had been frequently used, possibly as a means of
access to the sandy beach and caves at the foot of the cliffs.

Standing close to the edge of the cliffs (that headland attained a
height of fifty or sixty feet), Derek surveyed the expanse of water
beneath him. As he did so, he saw something that caused his heart to
throb violently.

Drifting aimlessly with the tide, and at about a hundred yards from
shore, was a waterlogged boat, with a crew of motionless and
apparently inanimate seamen.

Attracted by Daventry's shout of horrified surprise, Kaye and Biggs
came running up. They, too, stood stock still, filled with horror at
the pitiable sight.

The boat was about eighteen feet in length, and of the whaler type
usually carried on board tramp steamers. Only three or four inches of
the stern and stern-posts showed above water, the gunwales amidships
being flush with the surface, save when the waterlogged craft rolled
sluggishly with the motion of the ground-swell. The topstrake was
jagged and splintered, showing signs of having been riddled by

Lying inertly across the submerged thwart were four men, their heads
rolling grotesquely from side to side with every motion of the boat.
On the stern-sheets, and partly supported by their cork lifebelts,
were two others, who appeared to be leaning against each other for
mutual support. Whether they were alive or dead it was impossible for
the three onlookers to determine.

"Come on!" shouted Biggs. "We'll have to get those fellows ashore or
it will be too late."

Quite unmindful of his former lack of nerve, Biggs began to descend
the cliff path - a performance highly hazardous compared with the
crossing of the chasm. Quick to second him, Derek and Kaye followed
his example, descending the slippery steps at a tremendous pace.

"You fellows hang on here," exclaimed Biggs. "If I want help I'll
shout. You can do better on shore, I think. I'm going to swim off to

Feverishly the cadet threw off his tunic, unlaced his breeches and
unrolled his puttees in record time, and kicked off his boots. In
less than a minute he was ready for the plunge, during which interval
the waterlogged craft had drifted a dozen yards farther along the

The water felt horribly cold as Biggs waded in; it caused him to gasp
violently. Then, settling down to a powerful breast-stroke, the cadet
struck out in the direction of the derelict.

At length he came within arm's length of the boat. Grasping the
gunwale, he sought to clamber in, but the craft, having very slight
buoyancy, dipped as his weight bore on the side. Obviously there was
no chance of rowing the boat to the shore, even if there were oars on

"I'll have to tow her," decided the swimmer. "It's a tough
proposition; and isn't the water beastly nippy?"

Groping for the painter, Biggs started to swim shorewards. The
waterlogged boat responded ungraciously - in fact, so slowly that the
swimmer was beginning to doubt his powers of endurance.

"Stick it!" shouted Kaye encouragingly. "You're moving her. Shall we
come out and give a hand?"

Biggs shook his head. He could not trust himself to shout a reply. He
wanted every ounce of breath to carry him through the ordeal.

Yet he was obviously tiring. The numbing cold and the prolonged
immersion were beginning to tell.

"By Jove! he'll never do it," exclaimed Derek, who had already
removed his boots and tunic. "We'll have to go in after him."

Hurriedly the two chums threw off their clothes, and plunged in to
the assistance of their comrade. They were only just in time, for
although Biggs had succeeded in towing the boat to within twenty-five
yards of the shore, he was on the point of being vanquished by the
cold water.

Comparatively fresh, Derek assisted Biggs to the shore, then,
returning, swam to the stern of the whaler, while Kaye struck out
with the painter. Under the combined action the boat was moved
slightly faster, and presently, to the cadets' intense satisfaction,
her fore-foot grounded on the soft sand.

"Can't get her any higher," declared Derek breathlessly.

"Let's lift these fellows out."

This they did, only to find that four of the crew were dead. The
remaining two were insensible, but showed signs that life was not yet
extinct, although both were far gone through exposure.

Partly dressed, Biggs ascended the cliff path, and hastened back to
Rockport for assistance, while Derek and Kaye, having tumbled into
their clothes, proceeded to do their best to restore the two
unconscious men to life.

"Look!" exclaimed Kaye, as they cut away a saturated jersey from the
elder of the two men. "Dirty work here, by Jove!"

For in the bluish flesh of the sailor's shoulder were three small
punctures - unmistakable indication of machine-gun fire. The other man
had likewise been hit, a bullet having completely passed through his
neck, and two more just above the knee.

Deftly the two cadets set about their task of restoring animation.
Regardless of time, they worked in the rapidly-fading light, without
any indication that their work was showing any signs of success.

In about an hour Biggs returned, accompanied by a doctor, a couple of

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 2 of 16)