The View from on High

It was like climbing into a cloud. SeaSicker floated less than fifty feet above us when we climbed the gangplank into her belly. The bright white wings stretched out forever on both sides of us and over our shoulders we could see the massive burners in the darkened hot air bay.

We’d all been warned to never call her the SeaSicker in front of Captain Lawson, but no one who’d flown in her called her anything else.

We all knew we were volunteering to ride a ship that had had its problems. I was on the beach the day she returned from a test dive running about fifty feet above the waves. Her gas valves all ran through one manifold. When it jammed, she couldn’t restart her gas jets and damn near crashed before they valved more hydrogen into the bags.

We all heard that she ended one flight hanging straight up in the air with her nose to Heaven and her tail to hell, and no way to right her. Speaking of her tail, there was a rumor that the one she carried now was the third one they tried. One almost crashed her. One couldn’t control her, and the current hawk like one was the first that seemed to actually work.

But when she flew right, she was faster than Hermes, and just looking at her took your breath away.

She was also a modern marvel. She was way bigger than a battleship but, for all her size, she only needed twenty common seamen, all warriors, to keep her aloft. Another fifteen officers came along and kept getting in our way. She was so big that every man, including our five squires had a cubbyhole all of his own, and there were common rooms for both enlisted men and officers.

Of course, outside of the pressurized area, you had to kinda walk careful because all that was between you and your God was the catwalk you were on and the canvas below it.

My battle station was outside the pressure, and I would be wearing an oxygen mask and fur lined leather while I did my job. I was a loader for the machine guns. There were eight guns in fixed mounts on each side of the hot air bay. There had been more, but they damn near shook the ship apart when they fired, so we ended up with sixteen total. I carried ammo up and down a narrow catwalk, reloaded the guns, and cleared jams. It was cold, noisy work but I didn’t have to do it often. Mostly, I cooked.

Riding her wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. The engineer would fire up the gas jets and we would start to slide up in the air. The wing forced us forward, picking up speed as we rose. When we were about five miles higher he’d shut down the jets and we’d start to glide down, trading height for speed. If he was in a hurry, he’d open the vents over the hot air bay and drop us fast.

What I hadn’t realized was that when were just cruising easy, the ship had a glide angle of over thirty to one. While we rose or went down five miles, we went forward about hundred and fifty miles, so each cycle was over an hour long.

Of course, when the captain was in a hurry we went up and down like a pogo stick. That’s when SeaSicker got her name.

We were on a test flight over the Black Sea when the captain opened the intercom to tell us we going to war. “This is the captain. We have received an urgent request for help from the Eastern Expeditionary Force. They will be going into combat against a numerically superior force in less than twenty four hours. All areas rig for flank speed. All non-essential personnel stand down…. And hold on.” Rigging for speed involved clearing all the counters, locking all the cupboards, picking up tools and mops and anything else that bounces, roles, vibrates, falls over, falls off, or slips, and then strapping in wherever you were.

Ever watch a fish try to get away. You remember that high speed tail waggle that propelled it through the water? That was us for the next twenty hours. Jam the jets full on. Climb fast. Dump the heat and dive. Jam the jets. Climb fast. Dump… There was a debate among the crew members whether it was better to be in bed or standing. In my mind it was miserable either way.

I delivered coffee and sandwiches to the wheelhouse several times during the trip. There was no question of using standard platters or cups. The sandwiches traveled in cloth sacks slung over my shoulder while the coffee went in closed jars. All of the staff stayed strapped in except Captain Lawson. He relaxed in the captain’s chair behind the helmsman drinking coffee and munching sandwiches, immune to the changing pressures on his body. Even among a crew off old saltwater sailors, he stood out for being totally immune to seasickness. I never saw him in his cabin that trip, so he must have slept in his chair.

The next morning we were over the plains of Mongolia, following roads, looking for Karakorum. We had a great view of the landscape out of the galley windows. The galley, like everything else, was enclosed inside the pressure vessel but there were clear observation panels in some of the walls. We watched as the captain brought her over a ruined city, still smoldering below. He turned north, northeast and then brought us to flank speed again.

A few minutes later, beat to quarters rang out on the ships bells. I was already halfway to the machine gun platform when the captain made the announcement, “Battle Stations. Battle Stations. This is not a drill. Our first run will commence in less than fifteen minutes.”

The guns were mounted on the inner side of the heat chamber, so I was standing next to an open area the size of a stadium with nothing between me and the ground but air. My guts refused to trust the safety line I had clamped to a rail behind me and insisted on heaving a little, but I had a great view.

I checked all of the guns on my side, opening the ammo canisters again to verify they were full, making certain they were cocked, needlessly straitening out the ammo belts and checking the safeties. I had done it all before, but I was full of nervous energy. In the distance, I could see Boleslaw wearing his leathers and fur doing the same things on the other side of the bay.

We both stopped when the gas jets came on full force. The roar was deafening and my face burned from the heat as we rose into the sky. My feet felt the deck pressing up on me, and then suddenly the world dropped. The jets died and the huge roof vents opened up to dump the heat. We dropped like the proverbial rock. It took both arms to pull myself close enough to the open bay to see the ground. We sped past hills, then tents, and then armored men, then the guns opened up and ship shuddered almost to a stop. The vents snapped shut and gas jets opened up again as we sped over a battlefield spewing death below.

We went up slower than we went down. It was almost peaceful.

This time, the captain lingered at the top of our arc. He used the maneuvering engines to line us up carefully before we attacked again. This time we were attacking east to west and below us I could see Mounted Infantry being pounded by Mongol guns – until we silenced the Mongol guns.

We made one more pass before we took a break. The captain was waiting for something. We just floated for about an hour. The guns held enough ammo for maybe three strafing runs, so it was time to refill the ammo canisters. That took half of the hour, and I spent the second half of the hour wishing I had gone to the john before the battle started. I tried to figure out if I could get in a position to piss over the rail, but I was afraid that I would be unzipped and pants down when the captain decided to make another run. Eventually nature won the argument. I hope there was a Mongol below.

Then I heard the maneuvering engines running again. The captain lined up carefully and began another high speed run. Damned high speed. I was watching the guns chew up the ground beneath us when I heard a large crash behind me and felt the ship heel over. I could see sky through the canvas about half way down the wing. Something had punched a big hole in our wing.

We were still tilting when the load speaker came on, “Damage crew to the starboard wing. Hydrogen crews prepare to mount new bags. Move!”

I saw crewmen scrambling down the wing, holding onto a catwalk that was suddenly vertical. In fact, I was standing on the side of the rail and lying back on the catwalk floor. Above me, the other gun tender was hanging over the edge of hot air bay, dangling from his safety belt.

We were still sliding toward the ground. The gas jets fired several times, but we were so keeled over the hot air was escaping out the sides of the bay and not doing much good.

It did slow our fall a little, and the gas boys must have done something. Either they pumped enough gas into our good bags to lift that side a little or they got new bags fitted and filled or something because we came back to almost level.

Boleslaw was left hanging onto the wall of the air chamber – from the outside, feet dangling over death below. I will have to make penance some day for the delay. Fear glued my feet to the catwalk for far too long. It took every bit of courage I had to clamber around that tilted chasm and pull Boleslaw over the edge.

We sat down on the catwalk for several minutes, holding onto our safety lines and waiting for another disaster. The ship continued to rise slowly and finally settled down about ten degrees starboard.

Finally, the speaker barked, “All hands stand down from general quarters except for damage crews.”

We stayed over the battlefield for the rest of the day. I suppose the captain was doing his best to be an observation platform for the men below, but the reality was that we weren’t able to go very far anyway. I want back to preparing tea and sandwiches for the bridge crew and rehearsing the heroic lies I would someday tell my grandkids.

The next day, we were all pressed into service repairing the damaged canvas and shoring up the wing. Much of the work on the envelope had to be done from the outside, standing on the top of a wing that was five thousand feet above the ground. The new canvas had to be glued and sown at the leading edge and then unrolled back over the spars and glued as it went down. The job needed men all around the edges. The curved shape of the wing made footing uncertain, so I was constantly looking for a place to clip my safety belt or a way to work on the canvas with my feet stuck inside the envelope. Like all sailors, I got not one bit of fear of heights, but I was relieved to get back inside when that job was done.

We were level by then, but our airfoil shape was wrecked and the captain was afraid the repaired wing wouldn’t handle the stress of high speed flight.

Fortunately, we did have engines. There were the two rather weak diesel engines near the end each wing. They were only backup engines and normally only used for fine direction control, but if the winds were on our side, they would take us back to Poland.

It took a week, but the captain nursed us back to dock. After the repairs, we were mostly used for diplomatic missions to China and the new world. White Dragon became vital tool to impress people who didn’t have to ride her. We only fought one more small battle during my service.

And that, my children is the story of your father’s illustrious battle career.