Joseph "Jesse" Wood looked to the left and right, crossed the fingers of his throttle hand, and turned the screwdriver. Stuck in the salvaged ignition switch, replacing a long-lost key, the screwdriver completed the connection and the VW engine turned over, caught, and roared to life. The propeller whirled in front of him.
He grinned involuntarily and looked to the left where Kathy stood, shading her eyes against the early sun. She saw his glance and waved. He gave her a smile and a gloved thumbs-up. Then he looked at Hans Richter, waiting at the wingtip, and gave him the signal for chocks out. Hans grinned, ducked under the wing, and returned into view, holding the wooden chocks. Jesse turned his attention back inside the cockpit.
Not that there was much to look at. The tach indicated idle RPMs, oil pressure was good, battery the same. The airspeed indicator, altimeter, and vertical velocity indicator motionless, while the bubble in the homemade turn and slip vibrated slightly. The whiskey compass shook when he tapped it. The four inches of string attached by a screw in front of the windscreen flapped wildly at him. He wound the small clock, noting the time.
Cockpit check done. A 747 it was not.
You're wasting gas. Carefully, he moved the stick to the stops—left, right, while watching the ailerons. Then forward and back, looking at the elevator through the little mirror he had fixed slightly above eye level on the windscreen, aligned with the small Plexiglas window installed on the centerline behind the main spar above his head. He moved the rudder pedals deliberately, stop to stop. So far, so good. Before take-off check complete.
He had no brakes, which worried him some, but the plane stayed motionless, vibrating only a bit. He tightened the homemade harness. Advancing the throttle in its slot with his left hand, he felt the plane move forward over the grass. Just as he had during the taxi tests, he advanced the throttle, letting the craft gather speed, working the rudders nervously until he could feel the rudder bite. He was already pointed into the slight wind.
Moving faster now, he suddenly realized he was mentally behind the action, unready for what came next, despite the countless hours spent running it through his mind. He hadn't flown for over two years. He stared uncomprehendingly at the instruments, fighting down a slight panic. He concentrated on the tach. Engine revs good. Just as before, the salvaged motorscooter tires bumped along smoothly enough and he realized he was nearing flying speed, though the instruments still seemed mostly mysteries. Sweat rolled down his face, despite the cool morning. He pushed the stick forward slightly, lifting the tail, and before he realized what was happening, the wheel noise ceased. Pulling the stick back past neutral, he was climbing. Airborne.
Feeling the familiar rush, he caught himself. "You're behind the airplane, damn it. Get your head out!"
The sound of his own voice calmed him. The engine was still howling at full revs. Chagrined, he reduced throttle and looked around as the wind roared past the paneless window. He was already high above the trees and still climbing. The controls worked fine, though the ailerons were a bit slow, a little mushy. He made a mental note to tighten the cables and looked at the altimeter, watching it move quickly past 500 feet. That looked about right. The VVI wasn't working properly, though, as it showed first no climb, then a dive, then an impossible 4000 feet per minute rate of climb. Oh, wonderful, he thought sarcastically. Watching the altimeter, he did a quick calculation. About 500 feet per minute.
"Not bad," he said, tapping the dial. He looked at the airspeed and knew he had another problem. It, too, was operating erratically, showing only 25 knots of airspeed, then 40. He glanced at the string, his poor man's attitude indicator and angle of attack gauge. It was streaming straight back toward him, the last inch or so twitching a bit above the cowling surface. He crosschecked the angle of attack with the reference marks he had drawn on the windscreen.
"It's okay, Jesse. Settle down," he told himself. "You're about four or five degrees nose high. You gotta be doing about sixty knots." He thought about the airspeed indicator. Installation error, probably. The pitot tube must be cocked a little.
He leveled the small high-wing monoplane at 2000 feet—give or take, he reminded himself—and noticed an increase in speed. The airspeed indicator gradually caught up and showed a steady 85 knots. The string was now straight and flat against the cowling. Throttling back further, he relaxed a bit and took stock of where he was. Looking down past the strut to his left, he saw nothing but the expected forest, since his takeoff had taken him away from Grantville toward the Thuringenwald. He banked slightly to the right, holding top rudder to stay on course, and looked past the right seat. More trees.
Fine, he needed privacy, anyway. Checking the compass and the clock, he was surprised to see he had been airborne only five minutes. Keeping his course, he flew on for several minutes, experimenting with the controls. Aside from the sloppy ailerons, the craft handled just fine. He began to enjoy the clear morning as he tried a few basic flight maneuvers.
"Damn, I'm good!" He grinned ironically as he finished off with a rather timid cloverleaf. The sun glinted off the angled, glossy skin of the fuselage and cowling as he leveled off.
Jesse squinted at the glare off the shiny cowling. Shoulda painted it flat black or something. Well, you can't think of everything. I got most of it right, anyway.
He took a few minutes to admire his own handiwork. There was very little vibration, a testament to the care with which the engine had been braced on its welded steel cradle. That assembly had been likewise well joined to the four angled, light steel tubes that served as the base of the fuselage, converging at the tail and to which the castering tailwheel, salvaged from a garbage Dumpster, had been affixed. More steel tubing overhead anchored the main spar, to which the wings were joined. Vertical pieces bracketed the cockpit space, further braced with half-inch plywood, secured with screws. The cockpit floor was a single cut sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood, perhaps more than needed, but solid and giving a firm base for the seats.
Jesse glanced behind him at the thin wooden strips that formed the remaining longerons for the fuselage, looking for gaps or vibrations where the semi-rigid skin had been secured. He could see none, though he'd thought he should have used more wood screws.
Tight, he thought. Well, we'll see when it rains. Maybe I can liberate a tube of bathroom caulk or something.
Best use of pink kitchen Formica anyone ever came up with, he thought smugly. Especially when you're short of lacquer.
He had found a room almost half full of sheets of the stuff at his father's place, undoubtedly acquired at some ridiculously low price when it had gone out of style. Heavier than prepared cloth, the Formica, while too inflexible for the wings, served to stiffen the fuselage construction admirably. Jesse had always preferred a stout design and he suspected the smooth surface would cut down on drag.
With a glance at the cloth-covered wing, traditionally braced from the spar above to below the door, he turned his attention back to flying.
* * *
The last part of his flight profile was the most critical, especially with a balky airspeed indicator. Before attempting a landing, he wanted to know how the aircraft felt as it approached stall speed. He deliberately went into his instructor mode, talking himself through the procedure.
"Okay, Jesse," he told himself, "take it slow and easy. Straight and level at three thousand feet—no, better make it five thousand." He whistled as the aircraft climbed and leveled at the higher altitude. "Okay now, slowly pull off some throttle. Try to keep it level as it slows. Pull off some more. A little more."
Working off the altimeter, he followed his own instructions, hands more sure now, feeling the aircraft slow and raising the nose as it did so. The controls became less effective and it became harder to keep the nose up. His experience made him confident he could sense the stall approaching. He made a quick note of the power setting and angle of attack. The aircraft felt steady.
The string blew out at an increasing angle from the cowling and then fluttered wildly. As the aircraft slid past fifteen degrees nose high and slowed even further, it suddenly fell off in a stall, snapping over to the left, plunging toward the ground, departing controlled flight as it whirled into a tight, nose-down spiral. Despite his earlier confidence, he was completely surprised. Negative G forced his body up against the straps and his head struck the low cockpit ceiling, stunning him.
"Jesus! Shit!" he yelled, disoriented and scared, as he looked out the windscreen at the blurring trees. He churned the stick with no result. His heart raced. The instruments were crazy.
No they're not, Jesse, he thought. You're in a spin. He shook his head and checked again. The bubble in the turn and slip was in the far right of the curved tube and the altimeter was unwinding past 2600 feet.
"Okay, okay," he panted, as his training took over. His hands went through the recovery procedure learned thirty years earlier and a world away, his mind seeing the boldface words from the manual. CONTROLS NEUTRAL. STICK ABRUPTLY FULL AFT AND HOLD. He pulled the stick into his stomach. DETERMINE DIRECTION OF SPIN. Left. FULL RUDDER AGAINST THE SPIN UNTIL ROTATION STOPS. He stomped right rudder and the world slowed. STICK FULL FORWARD TO BREAK THE STALL. He slammed the stick forward and the nose pitched over even more. He felt the controls start to bite. RECOVER FROM THE ENSUING DIVE. The engine roared as he firewalled the throttle and eased back on the stick.
He wiped the sweat from his eyes as his breathing slowed back to normal. He noted the altitude. 1200 feet. The tree-covered hills were no more than 700 or 800 feet below, and ahead of him he could see Grantville looming up, with the unmistakable outline of the power plant beyond it.
Yep. Five thousand feet was a good idea. You were a little rusty there, Slick.
He needed to know what had gone wrong, why he had been surprised. It came to him almost immediately. "No stick shaker, you dummy," he told himself, referring to the artificial device installed in most aircraft to give the pilot a critical three or four knots warning of a stall. "A little something to remember."
Fifteen minutes later, he had completed three uneventful approaches to stall with no problem and was headed home. The sky was an achingly beautiful blue, with small cumulus clouds near his altitude. A flood of memories from a carefree time rushed at him as he slalomed between the white clouds, practicing coordinated turns with a grin plastered on his face. He took his own dare and punched right through a small puffy, reveling in the sudden dimness, the cool mist flowing through the window, and the blinding brightness as he burst out the other side. He had to stifle the urge to do a victory roll. You're flying an experimental, Jesse.
All too soon, he was approaching the field and it was time to concentrate again. He set up in a downwind at a thousand feet and throttled back as he checked his spacing before turning final. For the first time, he noticed people on the ground—a lot more than had been there when he took off—farmers working with horses in a small field, staring up at him, shading their eyes. A pickup truck was highballing it from town toward his place, raising dust on the gravel road, followed not too far behind by one of the town's buses. He recognized the pickup as the one set aside for the use of the President of the United States.
Back in instructor mode. Okay now, Jesse, nice and easy. Let's make this a good one. Low and drug in, with lots of power. A real bomber pattern. Mind your speed. No other traffic. He grinned at the last thought.
He pulled off power and turned ninety degrees, descending, leveled the wings for a few seconds and turned to final, rolling out of the turn about one mile from the field at 400 feet, right over the Sterling house.
"Falcon 01 on final, gear down and welded," he made the old joke aloud, as he lined up on the intended touchdown point, coming in twenty feet over the small trees at the edge of the field. Lower, straight into the wind, the grass racing beneath the wheels. He glanced at the string, now slightly separated from the cowling surface. He tweaked the throttle back and felt for the ground with a small flair. Feeling the wheels touch, he let the machine settle, pulled the throttle to idle, and let her roll to a stop. Engine off. He'd waste no fuel taxiing.
* * *
Joseph Jesse Wood was down, back in the world of people and trouble, in the Year of our Lord 1633. And, judging from the way Mike Stearns brought his pickup skidding to a halt on the edge of the field, was about to catch his full share of that trouble.
* * *
Fortunately, Jesse's partner Hal Smith intercepted Mike before the obviously irate President had taken three steps from his pickup. By the time Jesse clambered out of the cockpit and started securing the plane, with Hans and Kathy's help, Hal seemed to have gotten Mike to simmer down a little.
Jesse gave silent thanks. The retired aeronautical engineer had a far more placid temperament than Jesse did himself. If he'd caught the first sharp edge of Mike's displeasure, instead of Hal, the thing probably would have escalated immediately.
Still, the inevitable could only be postponed for so long. "Finish it up for me, would you," Jesse whispered to Kathy. She gave him a quick sympathetic smile and he straightened up.
"—dammit, Hal, you both swore to me you wouldn't pull a stunt like this," Mike was half-bellowing. "I've got enough grief to deal with as it is, without people climbing all over me with another accusation that I'm presenting them with another high-handed and unilateral policy decision. Damnation—"
As Jesse walked slowly toward the arguing pair, he winced a bit. The accusation, applied to himself instead of Mike, wasn't too far from the truth. They had decided to launch this first, unauthorized flight, as a way of forcing the issue. Mike had supported them from the start, but there were plenty of people in the new government who hadn't been enthusiastic about the "harebrained" notion of restoring manned flight to the "new world"—not to mention a large pack of budding industrialists and entrepreneurs who'd resent the diversion of resources from their own pet projects.
Mike was glaring at him, now. "And you! What the hell's the idea of risking yourself—the only damn real pilot we've got except—"
Catching sight of Hans, who was practically grinning from ear to ear, Mike broke off. Then, sighed. Then, wiped his face with his hand.
"Oh, don't tell me," he groaned softly.
Jesse shrugged. "Sure, who else? But I couldn't very well let him take it up the first time. He's never flown before, Mike. Nobody around here has, except Lannie and the Kitt brothers and Bob Kelly and, uh, Bob's wife." As always, that woman was "Bob's wife." Jesse never used her actual name to refer to her. It wasn't that he had any particular prejudice against women flying, it was just that he completely, thoroughly and utterly detested the woman.
"And the Kitts and the Kellys are working on their own designs," added Hal, "so we could hardly ask them. And Lannie, well . . ."
"He's plastered half the time," concluded Mike glumly. His hand was still rubbing the lower half of his face, as his eyes remained on Hans Richter. "Not," he muttered, "that I don't wonder if a drunk wouldn't do better than him. Christ, the kid could wreck a toy wagon taking corners."
Jesse felt compelled to rise to his young German assistant's defense. "That's not fair, Mike. I won't really know whether he'll make a pilot until I get him in the air, of course. But the fact is Hans has got very good reflexes, andhe keeps his cool pretty well when things get dicey—"
Jesse broke off. He was speaking from experience, to be sure, but he decided to skip over thatparticular episode. There was no reason to delve into the awkward fact that if Hans hadn't been driving like a maniac to begin with the pickup would never have fishtailed, even if the kid had pulled out of it with style and verve.
"I've driven with him too, y'know," Mike muttered between his fingers. He lowered his hand, and Jesse was relieved to see the hint of a smile on his face. "Okay, 'wreck' it, maybe not. Just put a zillion dents in it. And how many dents can an airplane stand, anyway?"
By now, the bus which had been following Mike had arrived, and started disgorging its passengers. With a sinking stomach, Jesse saw what seemed like half the government of the United States unloading—the executive branch, anyway. Not too many of whom seemed any too pleased, either.
Mike glanced over his shoulder. "We were in the middle of a cabinet meeting when you flew over the town. Nice timing."
Luckily, the first one up was Frank Jackson. Frank wore a lot of hats, one of which was "Mike's good buddy" and another was "Vice-President of the United States." Rather more to the immediate point, however, was a third one: "General." His precise title had still never been decided, but what it amounted to in practice was that Frank was the "Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff"—on a "staff" which had exactly one member. Himself.
Best of all, Frank and Jesse liked each other, and Frank had been supportive from the beginning also—more even than Mike, in fact.
Frank's first words, however, caused Jesse's stomach to plummet.
"Congratulations!" he boomed. " 'Greetings' and all that. You're recalled to service, Jesse. Pick your own title, as long as it's not too fancy. But call it whatever—I'd recommend a simple 'general'—you're now in charge of the U.S. Air Force." He grinned wickedly. "And the 'chiefs' are now actually joint."
Jesse started to protest, but one look at Mike's face squelched that idea. He was, after all, still a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force, even if that 'United States' was gone somewhere, in some other universe. And he'd been half-expecting this development, anyway, if he could prove that manned flight was practical.
So, he decided to make the best of it. "From major to general overnight, huh? Hell of a promotion. Too much. It's silly, having a general in charge of a one-plane air 'force.' Colonel will do fine. Modest Joe Jesse, that's me."
He ran fingers through thinning hair. "You going to let me have a separate Air Force, then? Or are we going to have to go through that silly 'Army Air Corps' crap again?"
Frank's grin seemed permanently fixed. "Won't be a problem with me. But the Chief of Naval Operations might have a different opinion. Once he gets appointed."
It took a moment for the meaning of that to register on Jesse. Once it did, his stomach felt like it was trying to dig a well.
"Oh, Christ," he groaned. "Don't tell me . . ."
Mike was now grinning himself. "Two birds with one stone. As long as you've handed me this headache, I may as well make the best of it. Simpson's been hounding me for weeks. You know how he loves his titles. It'll give me, oh, maybe a week's worth of peace and quiet, before he starts bitching about something else."
Jesse couldn't help but chuckle. His own occasional encounters with John Simpson hadn't endeared the man to him. "Almost a shame we couldn't pretend we didn't have radio, isn't it? With couriers, it'd take Simpson forever to send complaints all the way from Magdeburg."
The word "Magdeburg" consoled Jesse, a little. At least he wouldn't have to deal with Simpson directly. Not for many months, at any rate. The dictates of simple geography meant that the "U.S. Navy" coming into existence was going to be based at Magdeburg on the Elbe.
But that was all grief for later. For the moment, he was suddenly deluged, as the rest of the cabinet—and what seemed like half the town, by now—surrounded him. What followed was a veritable Niagara of words. A lot of them questions, a lot of them gripes, but most of them . . . simply the sounds of acclaim.
Somewhere in the middle of it, he caught a glimpse of Mike's face. The President had eased himself back, away from the crowd clustered immediately around Jesse. He seemed to have a sly little smile on his face. It didn't take Jesse long to understand it.
Arguments over policy were one thing. Success was another. And no matter what they felt about the complicated economic issues which surrounded the question, there was not a single American in Grantville—and precious few Germans—who hadn't found the sight of that airplane flying over the capital of the new United States a lift to their spirits.
Yeah, sure, it was a home-built contraption, jury-rigged from top to bottom. Even World War I era pilots would have sneered at it. But in this world, it was the only airplane in existence.
Eat that, Richelieu. You too, Emperor Ferdinand II and Maximilian of Bavaria. As for you, King Philip IV of Spain—
* * *
Grantville, in the two years since the Ring of Fire, had developed no fewer than three newspapers—and had stringers from newspapers springing up in all the major cities of the United States. However inexperienced most of those reporters might be, by now they'd all learned to elbow their way through a crowd. So, soon enough, the questions started getting more pointed.
"—many more, do you think?"
Jesse pondered the question, glancing at Hal for assistance. His partner, smiling, held up one finger, then three.
"We figure we can build another about like this, then three more with a larger load capability. All of them will be two-seaters, although we'd maybe go with tandem seating in the bigger ones. That's 'cause—"
He shook his head. "Folks, don't get carried away." He jerked at thumb toward the aircraft. "This one'll carry two people—figure three hundred and fifty pounds—plus maybe another hundred pounds in the way of a load, and with a thirty-two gallon tank weighing, say, another sixty-five pounds or so. We aren't talking B-52 here, we're talking early days. Even the bigger ones—"
"Forget it! D'you have any idea how tricky—"
"—oughta be something the machine shops could—"
"—not to mention the weight of the ammunition. So forget it. Early days, I said."
He nodded. "That's one of the problems, of course. We're looking into the possibility of using a converted natural gas engine—"
He could see Hal wincing, and had a hard time not doing so himself. Flying a plane, especially under combat conditions, was dangerous enough under any circumstances. With a natural gas tank in the middle of it . . . just waiting for any stray round . . .
He did wince. But the reporters bombarding him with questions didn't seem to notice. Or maybe it was just that they didn't care. They tore at the fuel problem like sharks in a feeding frenzy.
"—very limited. What's the point of building the things if they're all grounded a month later because we're out of fuel?"
He tried to fumble his way through, mouthing vague generalities about the new Wietze oil field coming on-line near the town of Celle and the likely success of the methanol project. But, in truth, this was not something he was especially knowledgeable about. Jesse had never worried about the fuel shortage much, because he was firmly of the opinion that if you made something necessary, some smart fellow would figure out how to do it.
Fortunately, the reporters let it drop after a bit. Jesse could see that Mike's sly little smile was gone. No doubt they'd be pestering him on the subject before the sun was down.
Finally, he'd had enough. "One last question, that's it."
There was a moment's pause. Then: "What'd you name the aircraft?"
He stared at the reporter who'd asked the question. Dumbfounded, for a moment. Name? Jesse was the product of Purdue ROTC and the U.S. Air Force of the late 20th century, before he'd retired. A tanker pilot, fer Chrissake. Who the hell named a KC-135?
Another face, far back in the crowd, swam in front of him. A face he'd seen for the first time after the Ring of Fire, when the turbulence of a new society had brought a retired Air Force officer to a community dance—first one he'd ever attended in his life—where he'd met a woman whose own drifting life had brought her through a small West Virginia town for a few months. It wasn't a particularly beautiful face. Middle-aged, careworn under the dark blond hair. There was still more than a trace of a pretty young girl there, to be sure. But the truth was, he'd been more attracted by the lines that time and travails had added to it.
"The Las Vegas Belle!" he boomed loudly. And then, seeing Kathy's face light up, he felt his heart lifting.
* * *
He liked the feeling. So, some time later, as they walked back toward the hangar—a converted barn, jury-rigged like everything else—he finally got up the nerve to ask the question he'd been mulling over for several weeks.
"Will you marry me?"
"Sure," responded Kathy immediately, her arm tightening around his waist. "Makes perfect sense. I've been working toward this my whole life. Small-town girl from the boondocks of northern California, Las Vegas showgirl, piano bar singer—God, they missed a bet there, those music industry dummies—cocktail waitress, greasy spoon waitress—the trajectory's obvious, isn't it? Where else would I wind up except as Mrs. Strategic Air Command?"
"You'll need an official driver!" piped up Hans from behind them. "Me, of course!"