The light from the single 75-watt bulb cast shadows in the dim corners of the kitchen. Rain pattered on the windows. Papers littered the table, agendas, lists, crude diagrams, and hastily scribbled notes, competing for space with the remains of dinner and a prized Mason jar, lid set aside.
"Another touch, Hal? Jim? Kathy?" Jesse asked as he reached for the jar.
"Not just now, Jesse, thank you," said the aerospace engineer, looking up from his notes. "Perhaps when we finish."
"No thanks, sir." The young officer barely glanced up from his own lists and duty rosters.
Jesse looked up at Kathy who had started clearing the dishes. She gave him a quick shake of the head and a meaningful nod toward his own glass. He hesitated and carefully put the jar back in its place without pouring. There were some disadvantages to married life. Kathy had grown up in a family riddled with alcoholism, and wasn't too happy with Jesse's somewhat hard-drinking habits. He chafed, sometimes, at her attitude on the subject. On the other hand . . .
What the hell. It doesn't hurt me any. He shoved the jar a little farther away from him and gave his full attention to the young captain.
"Okay then, Jim, you start off."
"Yes, sir. Operational support squadron manning stands at thirty-seven, including Sergeant Tipton and three men up at Magdeburg. I have four Americans and thirty-three Germans—but only fifteen of them speak English all that well."
Jesse frowned. The United States, as a political entity, was letting the language question settle itself out however it would. The Stearns administration had ruled out anything even resembling an "official language." That had been one of things which Simpson had demanded in the election campaign; Mike had just as firmly denounced the idea—and, once elected, had been true to his campaign promise.
On a strictly political level, Jesse agreed with Mike. By leaving the issue a purely voluntary and social one, Mike had taken the political tension out of it. Some people used English, some German, some—more and more—were effectively bilingual. And already, in the slang and patois which was beginning to emerge everywhere, Jesse thought the first signs of a new language were perhaps discernable. He knew enough history to know that "English" itself had come into existence that way—a largely Germanic language, in its basic structure and everyday vocabulary, which had over time been transformed by the influence of the French brought by the Normans. A language, as a wag once put it, forged by Norman men-at-arms trying to seduce Saxon barmaids.
But Jesse was running an Air Force, not a country. The needs of flying—even in peacetime, much less in time of war—didn't leave any room for linguistic confusion. So, since all the technical terms and most of the concepts involved were only expressed in English, he had quietly insisted that every airman at least had to start learning English. He knew that Simpson was following the same policy in the Navy. Frank Jackson, commanding the less technically oriented army, seemed not to be worrying about the issue at all.
As usual, of course, theory was one thing. Practice another.
"Uh, we lost four today, sir," continued Jim, proving the point. "They just wandered off and didn't report at dinner. The usual story, probably. All single men. They didn't mind working, but drill bored them."
Jesse repressed a sigh. "Go on."
"Yes, sir. Um, the barracks are nearly completed, including the fireplaces at both ends. Family quarters are next, but for the time being the women and kids of the married troops are in the barracks. We should finish before the snow comes, so at least no one will freeze."
"Good, good," Jesse said. "What about operational facilities?"
"Well, we've finished cutting down the trees and moving the field fence farther out. We filled in that ditch in front of the normal landing area. I'm afraid our neighbor, Mr. Sterling, is angry at us. He's claiming we've stolen five acres of his best ground."
"We did, Jim. Governments can do that. Don't worry about it, I'll speak to President Stearns. He'll compensate Sterling somehow. And I'll speak to Sterling myself. Go on. What about fuel storage?"
The captain smiled. "That's the best news. Capacity is two thousand gallons with eight hundred sixty gallons of M85 methanol fuel on hand. We've finished building the berms around those salvaged house fuel-oil tanks and the plumbing is finished to the hand pumps in the refueling area. No more flash fires, I think."
Jesse smiled. "Now that is good news. Fine work, son. And remind me tomorrow to send a note of appreciation to Kerry over at the methanol plant."
"Uh, yes sir. Uh, Kerry told me to pass on to you that you owe him five dollars."
Jesse's eyes widened. "What for?"
Behind him, Kathy snorted. "You don't remember? I'm not surprised, as blotto as you were. About two weeks ago, over at the Thuringen Gardens, you bet him five bucks he wouldn't make his methanol production goal. I tried to stop you, but . . ."
Jesse grimaced. "Anything else?"
Captain Horton referred to his notes. "Not at this time, sir. Sorry about the runners."
"Can't be helped, I suppose," Jesse said. "But take a word of advice. These newcomers don't understand us, yet. Ease up on the drill."
He held up his hand. "I know, I know, it instills discipline and a sense of teamwork. But consider—we're not going to ask these men to stand in a battle line. Their job is to serve those aircraft out there and this airfield. Most of them are only here for the food and shelter, at this point. So keep 'em busy and too tired to run. So long as we are flying, we can expect the majority to stick. I'll work on getting them uniforms and we'll hand out a few promotions. You made a good decision by making Danny Tipton the squadron first sergeant. He's a steady sort and he's done a fine job organizing the airfield up at Magdeburg. But while he's gone, you need another NCO. That mean-looking tall German, what's his name—Krueger? Make him a sergeant. If he hasn't been one before, I'm Queen of the May. He'll help keep the Germans in line. And work on your German. Just because we're requiring them to learn English doesn't mean we shouldn't speak German ourselves."
"Okay, then. Now get out your list, because I'm about to give your squadron some more work."
The young officer obediently bent to his paper.
Jesse ticked off the items on his fingers.
"First, airfield lighting. With us 'to-ing and fro-ing' back and forth from Magdeburg, eventually someone's going to get caught up at night. It doesn't have to be fancy. Maybe a line of methanol-filled tin cans on each side of the 'runway.' Have the men practice lighting them off a couple of times.
"Second, I want three aircraft shelters ready before winter. Again, nothing fancy—three-sided covered affairs, facing south. You figure out where it's best to put them. Oh, and find some small tarps. I want one in each aircraft to cover the engine when it's away from home station. Got it?"
"Good. Third, start detailing an enlisted man to assist the Tower Officer. They're to be taught basic radio procedures and traffic control. Now that we have two aircraft, I don't want an accident because someone went outside to take a leak. We'll eventually transfer tower operations over to your men entirely.
"Lastly, I want you to start investigating the possibility of paving the entire runway. That includes taxiways and parking ramp—the whole nine yards."
Jim protested, "Sir, that's impossible!"
Jesse grinned. "Sure, right now, it is. I said 'investigate,' didn't I? Next time you're in Magdeburg, go talk to Mr. Simpson. I understand he's got plans for producing some sort of paving material. Find out what it is, concrete, macadam, whatever, and what it will take to get it down here to the field. We're talking long range here, son. But in case you haven't noticed, that field out there gets pretty sloppy when it rains and takes just about forever to dry. Can do?"
"Fine, then." Jesse leaned back in his chair. "Oh, and remember to salute Admiral Simpson when you meet him. He goes in big for that kind of stuff."
"Roger that, sir."
Jesse paused as Kathy placed a cup of tea in front of him. He leaned his head against her hip for a moment.
"Jess, I think I'll go to bed. Don't be long and don't forget to turn down the stove," said the tall blonde. "G'night Hal, Jim."
"Good night, Katherine."
"G'night, Mrs. Wood."
Jesse admired the view as his wife left and turned back to the men at the table. He saw Hal grinning around his pipestem. The retired aeronautical engineer had kept his pipe habits, even though Grantville's tobacco supply had long since vanished.
Hal removed his pipe, unconsciously tapped it in his palm, and smiled even more broadly.
"Nothing, Jesse, nothing. These days, it's just nice to see such a scene of domestic bliss. Makes me miss my Dorothy."
"Heh." Jesse grinned back. "You'll see a different aspect of 'domestic bliss' if we don't get on with it. So go ahead, please. Materials, problems, construction status."
"Right." Hal checked his list momentarily.
"Engines. As you know, we've obtained first right of purchase or salvage of light-block, aircraft-compatible engines from the strategic resources board. I've identified at least a dozen engine types in town that will probably serve, but I would prefer using those that I can find in multiple units. A one-of-a-kind engine presents obvious spare problems. The best news is that most newer engines tend to be smaller and lighter, turbocharged, with higher compression ratios and horsepower than older models. Suitably stripped down, with such things as the air conditioning, power steering and anti-pollution devices removed, we can even use water-cooled engines. The town mechanics really got enthusiastic when I explained what we needed."
Hal paused. "By the way, I hired Harvey Matowski as chief mechanic—for the firm, that is. If you want him in the Air Force, you'll have to talk to him."
"Right. I will," Jesse noted. "So what kind of engines did you find?"
"Well, we've found good engines to power the "X-2."
Jesse interrupted, "X-2?"
Hal looked up. "Oh, Yes, sorry. I've gotten tired of referring to it as 'it.' I assume at some point you'll want to give it a suitably warlike name."
Jesse smiled. " 'X-2' is for test-pilot types, Hal. When you get it ready, we'll come up with something else. I'd go with Hellcat except we already get accused of witchcraft often enough as it is, without fueling the flames."
"Thunderbolt," Jesse mused to himself. Or "Liberator." Hell, maybe the "Gustav." It kinda looks like an ME-109 from the side and our Swedish ally might think it's named after him.
He mentally shook himself.
"But you were saying about engines?"
Hal beamed. "Yes, a fine pair of Mazda 13B power plants. Thank God for young men and their sports cars. Imagine, two RX-7s in a town like this. Wonderful engines. They should produce over a hundred sixty horsepower, easily. Very sturdy with a superb crankshaft. Good cooling system, though we're going to remove the electric oil cooling bypass valve. That just wastes space, you see, and . . ."
"Hal. Hal, please," Jesse interrupted. "Not now."
"What? Oh, sorry," Hal said sheepishly. "Where was I? Oh, yes, engines.
"There are four Saturns in town with 2.2-liter engines that will work. Two Honda Preludes. Perhaps ten or so Chevy S-10s, since they're already methanol compatible. We're even looking at a number of V-6, twenty-four-valve engines, with horsepower in the one eighty to one ninety range. Plenty of makes and models to choose from, there; but, of course, it will depend on the reduction drive. When modified, they should all have power-to-weight ratios above .35 and some considerably higher. Here's the list. I should think we'll want to take out options on the whole lot."
"Thanks. What's next?"
"Wood, or, rather, wood storage. Rudi says he can get as much as we need from Weimar, but he can't keep it dry here. That barn needs a new roof."
Having already run afoul of the irascible German carpenter several times, Jesse grimaced. "Well, whatever Rudi wants, Rudi gets, I suppose. Jim, there's another job for your list."
"And speaking of wood," Hal continued, "I'm not having much luck with that three-bladed prop design. The balance is much more difficult than with two blades. I'm afraid we'll have to settle for a two-bladed prop on the new model, at least initially. That will mean we can't obtain peak performance, of course. Perhaps one twenty knots at cruise and a top speed of no more than one fifty knots."
"That will be fine, Hal," Jesse said. "Remember, we're looking for reliability, first and foremost."
Hal nodded. "Well, if that's the case, we'd also better take the props off the Belles and cap the ends with something. I've noticed some wear and splitting along the leading edges, too. Hmm, thin brass, I think. Drill small holes and put long brass rivets right through. That should work. No dissimilar metal problems."
"You're the engineer, Hal." Jesse smiled.
Hal snorted. "More like a shade-tree mechanic, these days. Look at the trouble I'm having coming up with a reasonable attitude indicator. If I could just find some small, reliable gyros . . ."
"Don't beat yourself up too much," Jesse said. "Besides, if we had good attitude indicators, we'd just be tempted to fly in bad weather. And without any navaids, someone would come to grief, sooner or later. So, where do we stand with modifications and construction?"
"Well, now that the 'Belle II' is fully operational, we're concentrating on production of the X-2. Naturally, we've learned some things about construction techniques from building the 'Belles.' Provided the power-plant design proves out, we should be ready to test by midwinter, weather permitting. As you realize, this is a much more advanced aircraft. Trim tabs, windscreen anti-icing, tandem seating and controls—that means duplicate instruments, such as they are—semi-wooden wings with cloth only from mid-chord rearward, landing lights in the wingroots. It'll even have brakes. Not to mention it's a low-wing, strutless planform with much more power than the 'Belles.' Much heavier too, of course. Fully aerobatic and capable of something like five gees. And I've decided the fuel tank must be placed somewhere under the rear seat to maintain proper weight and balance. You don't know the difficulties we've already overcome—"
Jesse held up a hand. "Wait a second, Hal. Slow down. First things, first. Is there anyone we don't have whose particular skill you need?"
Hal thought a moment. "Well, I could use a glazier."
Jesse stared. "A what?"
"You know, someone who can fit glass."
"I know what a glazier is, Hal. Um, why do you need him?"
"Well, you've insisted that the X-2 have a closed cockpit . . ."
"You're damned right, I did," Jesse groused. "Do you know how cold it gets up there?"
"Certainly, I do. That's why I agreed on this design. But as you know, the cockpit will have two hinged segments, a way to get into each seat. That means using at least thirteen cut pieces of auto safety glass, frames, supports, bracing. Remember how many leaks you found on the Las Vegas Belle, once it rained? Who did the work on the windscreen? I should think you'd want an expert to do it this time."
"Uh, point taken," Jesse conceded readily, since he had installed the Belle's windscreen. "We'll get someone from the auto glass place."
He changed the subject.
"Let's go back to the 'Belles' for a moment. Now that I've flown the Belle II, I'm anxious to get the improvements retrofitted on the original Belle. For example, that stall warning device you came up with. That could save a pilot, one of these days. Good going."
Hal beamed. "Nothing, really. Just a short piece of angle iron attached to the underside of the left wingroot. At a sufficiently high angle of attack and low enough airspeed, the propwash gives you a little shake. Ten minutes work. I should have thought of it earlier. I can show you the equations, if you like."
"Never mind, I'm just a simple airplane driver. It works and that's good enough for me. I also want that dual throttle control lashup copied on the Belle I. Can do?"
Jesse checked off that item on his list. "Okay, how about the rocket wiring and the flashguards?"
Hal sucked on his pipe for a moment. "Should be no problem. Perhaps half a day's work, once we find the tin sheets and insulation. We'll have some loss of airspeed due to increased drag, though. You can tell the government 'weapons board' we'll be ready to test next week. You'll be able to carry eight rockets solo, perhaps four with a second person on board. Each rocket will have an individual switch, all in a row in front of the left seat. But I warn you, if one of those things explodes under the wing, you'll have to walk home."
Jesse grimaced. "Yeah, right. Well, the President says he expects we'll soon be at war and our pilots will have to take a warrior's chance. How about the bomb racks and releases?"
Hal waved dismissively. "Couldn't be simpler. Four racks under the fuselage ahead of the airscoop. Shouldn't disrupt the airflow overmuch. The releases will be mechanical—just pull the handles back. We'll have to drill through the floor, of course. And, with the 'Belles' it should be one thing or the other, rockets or bombs."
Jesse nodded again. "That gives us operational flexibility. Chances are, we won't have any time to practice dive bombing before we see action, but, hell, six months ago, nobody believed we'd ever get anything flying. Next week, we'll have an Air Force."
He reached for the Mason jar with an air of satisfaction. How's that for military efficiency, Admiral Simpson?
After pouring, the Air Force Chief of Staff lifted his glass. "Gentlemen, I give you a toast. 'To the First Air Squadron, the best damned flying unit this side of the Ring of Fire!' "