Air France

Somewhere in France, 1634

 

The first rays of dawn touched his face, awakening him gently to a new day. Two heads on the same pillow were all that were not tucked warmly under the woolen covers topping the tavern’s fine feather bed. His eyes still closed, Jacques slowly drifted his hand down the soft, smooth curve of her back. He came to a stop at the last curve of her waist. She breathed heavily, still asleep from the night’s exertions, barely stirring from the lightness of his touch.

“What is her name?” His mind raced. He had no idea. She faced away from him and all he could see was the tangle of dark hair which obscured her face.

With blurry eyes, he tried to focus on the cracks in the ceiling, imperfectly hidden by the recently applied whitewash. Clearing the cobwebs of sleep, he hoped her name would come to him. The familiar plaster of the post and beam walls of the fifty-year-old room offered no whispered clue. He looked at the basin and pitcher on the finely-crafted wash stand, then across the floor at their clothes, tossed randomly in the heat of passion the night before. None of this helped either.

He took a heavy breath and marveled again at such fine accommodations. As a former townsman, he was still unaccustomed to the kind of life he lived here at le Laboratoire, though it had been nearly six months since he had received the invitation to come and work at the facility, one of France’s closest-held secrets. That such fine accommodations were made available to those who worked here was testimony to the importance of their task—to perfect an aircraft design that would take France into the skies.

The floor of his room was clean, even if scratched and scuffed. Its wide wood planks extended from underneath the luxury of a Persian carpet. Elsewhere such carpets would have been displayed on the wall, but not now. The books at the Grantville library had shown them the luxury of such things and there wasn’t a noble in France that hadn’t thrown their carpets down on the floors to demonstrate their wealth and modernity, as shown in countless up-time books.

The upstairs bedrooms of the old tavern offered excellent beds. The recent redecorating had been welcome, indicating that the successes achieved so far at the Motor Vehicle Research Station had raised it even higher in the favor of Paris. His section of the Research Station was carefully named with intentional mystery to conceal its true purpose of achieving powered flight. They called it “le Laboratoire,” and this was the crown jewel of the Research Station’s efforts.

AS a result, the researchers and test pilots lived pampered lives. The furnishings were of the finest quality, the food elegant, the wines fit for nobility, and the girls . . . Ah, les filles—of the many things provided, the girls were the finest of all.

“What is her name?” he wondered again silently. “Should I ask? Or does it matter?”

After some consideration, he remembered his father’s advice about women: “Yes, it always matters.”

The least he could do was remember their names, but with so many, that was not an easy task. The party last night had been a grand affair, given in his honor as the newly-promoted First Pilot of le Laboratoire. He was proud of his role and pleased to be selected the first among the cadre that had assembled to test the skies. As the First Pilot, his name would be forever remembered and written in the annals of history. He was Jacques de Nonette, the one selected to fly the newest “aero machine” in the morning.

The researchers and pilots, after long debate, had decided that the correct term for such a machine was “aero machine.” The term airplane sounded too English and was not at all pleasing to the ear. Moreover, to call it an airplane might imply that they had copied the works of the others. They were building machines for the air—aero machines—and he was one of the lucky ones who had been chosen to fly them.

For pilots like Jacques, there was music, good wine, distilled spirits, and les filles—always les filles. They were all young, busty brunettes, and all so very willing as the tavern girls were hired to be. Les filles were a way of distracting the pilots at le Laboratoire from what they faced every time they flew, or more accurately, tried to fly. Also, they kept the men from sneaking off to town where, after a few drinks, they might give away the secrets of the Station. There were many who would pay dearly to know of the works and progress.

“What is her name?” he asked himself again. “Antoinette?” He paused, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Yes, Antoinette.”

Then he reconsidered—No. Antoinette was Tuesday. It must be Martine? Or was it Lucie? Juliette? After so many conquests, how could a man remember?

Despite all the girls and trysts of the past six months, the one conquest that mattered most to him had been the most elusive; to fly under power one of the new aero machines across the sky of the Research Station. Gliding they had achieved, but not yet powered flight. However, today was the day that it would all change. It felt like a new door had opened to a future where France could fly—and fight. They had fixed the last problems, though the flames from that last crash had nearly burned all the evidence of what had gone wrong. They must have done it correctly this time, he reasoned. Today, it was his turn, and he was confident that he would succeed.

He smiled. It would be a glorious day.

Then with a start he said out loud, “Mon Dieu! I’m supposed to be at the hanger at dawn.”

He nudged her gently, even if he was still uncertain of her name. She didn’t move. He nudged again, and then started to slide himself out of the bed slowly. Then, with a sudden flash, it came to him; this was Martine. He jostled her awake more urgently now, whispering, “Martine, Martine . . .”

Her eyes lazily opened, “Oui?

“Martine,” he spoke louder with more confidence, “I have to go fly now. Pray for me.” With a final push, he slid free of the bed and landed on the floor with a thud.

She rolled over to look at him, smiled, and nodded. He stood from the floor and stretched, then pulled on his linen overalls and shiny black flight boots. Turning quickly, he opened the glazed window, opaque with its wavy and bubbled glass, and gazed out beyond the village and across the fields of the Research Station to check if things were already stirring there. Spread before him in the soft morning sun were all the secrets of le Laboratoire. This was the place that would carry France to success in the air.

The flying field with its winter brown stubble, was wide and clear. It had once been a simple pasture but no longer. Now it was trimmed closely to ensure the tall grasses would not snag the landing skid of one of the aero machines gliders on landing.

Bare trees lined the edges of the field, their dense limbs shielding the winds. As well, they served as a screen to block the prying eyes of those who might seek to look in and know what was taking place on the field. A hill on the other side of the main field supported a long, black ramp that had been built to launch their aero machines. The bottom of the ramp was crafted much like one of the ski jumps that he had seen on screen at the electric theater in Grantville. The ramp was his own innovation, one of the things that he was most proud of from his time at the Research Station. It angled sharply skyward so as to launch the aero machine gliders into the air once they completed their run downhill to gain speed. They had done it many times with the gliders and now they hoped that the power of a gasoline engine would let them do more than glide once they had cleared the end of the ramp.

He considered the words of Le Compte, the man who had sponsored le Laboratoire, “With wings, no battle can be lost! No enemy can hide or move undetected! No message cannot get through! And think of it, Jacques, you will be one of the pilots to achieve it!”

The small corps of pilots stayed full time at the Research Station, which offered safety and security from discovery. Jacques had been there since returning from Grantville. There, at the library, he had quietly done his part of the research that France needed to learn how to fly. He and the others had made huge strides.

The others . . . He paused, remembering their faces. Among the first cadre of pilots who had traveled to Grantville, he was the last still alive. Grimly, he knew too that this was the reason that he was now First Pilot. The others ahead of him, perhaps better than him, had all died. He advanced to this position not by skill, knowledge, or talent, but by the simple fact of being the last survivor. All of the other pilots at the tavern were new faces, men who had not gone to Grantville in the early days. They picked up where the others left off, learning the lessons from each crash—and each death—in hopes of carrying forward and finally achieving flight. With sadness, one of the engineers at le Laboratoire had once confided to Jacques that they learned more from the crashes than from the successes. Jacques had vowed that they would learn nothing from him. He would never crash, so he told himself. And so far, he had been proven correct in his assumptions.

So far, he reminded himself. So far.

The losses they had suffered among the pilots were to be expected, of course. Still, it was not supposed to be like this. There weren’t supposed to have been this many losses. They began with the aero machine gliders. Step by step—or more properly, crash by crash—they had learned the ways of flight. The costs of those lessons were measured in empty chairs at the dinner table. Each time, however, a week or two would pass, and then the empty chairs would be filled with fresh, new, and always bright young faces. Each new pilot was full of confidence and immortality at the beginning. Each eager to learn and build on the preceding accomplishments. Each was a smiling face in his memory with a devil-may-care attitude that toasted the fates.

Those attitudes lasted until a friend or two was lost. Then each would come to recognize the peril of this business at le Laboratoire. The day they lost their closest friend usually marked when they would more earnestly take solace in the arms of les filles.

Yet it hadn’t been for naught, at least that was what Jacques kept telling himself. The lessons learned had been extraordinary. They had learned where the balance point should be along the wing. They understood how the controls should be wired. By trial and repeated error, they had learned what was too heavy to fly and how to lighten the fuselage and wings without losing too much strength. They had come to understand what wood to use and how to build a wing spar strong enough so it did not fold with catastrophic results.

Many men were buried beside the old red-yellow brick chapel that was across the street from the tavern. Their new tombstones were laid out in steady rows, almost as if to reassure those still living of their earnest work.

Suddenly he muttered out loud, “What will they write on my gravestone?”

Behind him, he heard movement on the bed as Martine sat up to listen. He glanced back and saw that she was regarding him with a seriousness he had not seen before. He winked, gave her a wry smile, and turned to look back across the flying field to the hangars beyond.

He fixed his mind on the upcoming flight—this was to be the first powered flight with an engine. Again, he repeated to himself that this day, today, would be His Day, the day that the name of the First Pilot, Jacques de Nonette, would be forever written into history. He smiled more broadly and turned to his armoire to retrieve his things.

First, he put on his best cap and adjusted its long white plume, his arm slowly curving back to ensure that it was straight and clear. This feather signified his rank among the pilots as the leader among their ranks—the First Pilot. Then he tightened his belt. He was the best of those still alive. Crash after crash, he had crawled from the wreckage, never seriously hurt. Flight after flight, he had landed successfully or at least walked away.

He had heard les filles whisper that he was blessed by God, that he was immortal. He didn’t trust that thought himself—not yet, at least—but he was thankful for the faith that somehow seemed to have propelled him to this point.

As he moved toward the door, he glanced back at Martine and caught a glimpse of her bright watchful eyes. She gazed at him over her pert turned-up, button nose. He hoped it wasn’t the final time he would see her face.

She had been resting her head on a hand, propped up on her elbow. He saw again that she was watching him carefully. He realized that perhaps it was true—les filles were there also to watch for signs of nervousness or weakness among the pilots. She had seen that first sign of weakness perhaps already when he had spoken accidentally aloud about his tombstone. If it was true, that they were reporting on all of the pilots to the commandant, then there was nothing he could do about that. He smiled at her and shrugged. He would give no further sign of the stress starting to build within him.

Making a show of it, he bowed low and said his adieux. She smiled and, as he walked out the door, she called after him, “Bonne chance! But remember next time I’m Claire. . . . I will tell Martine you’ve given her a very high compliment. . . .”

He laughed, shook his head, and closed the wooden door. Then he walked down the squeaky wooden stairs hoping he wasn’t too late for a quick déjeuner. There could be no better way to start the day. He hoped he could stomach a hunk of fresh baguette and knew the tavern would be well-stocked with rich, creamy butter. He hoped to take a slice of the fine aged cheese the kitchen often had at hand and an apple from the orchard just outside the village. That small, but impeccably-kept orchard had been attached to the horse farm before it became the Research Station.

He thought that with Claire, at least he had escaped one potentially disastrous challenge—not remembering her name—though that was only due to her forgiving him, after all. Anyway, he recognized with another shrug that he was not quite unscathed. Perhaps he would pay for that slip later. Anyway, a much greater challenge was ahead.

What he didn’t know was that the girl he left behind in his room was not overly offended that he had forgotten her name. The girls at the Research Station viewed the test pilots as their collective property. If any man got into the cockpit of a plane without having had his ashes recently hauled, it certainly was not their fault. Likewise, if you lived to walk into the tavern after “going up,” you knew before you could sit down you’d be dragged out of the common room for a proper hero’s welcome. Les filles took pride in their work, too, because they knew the importance of the effort.

Most of les filles had been brought down from Paris, where they had been in similar, though much less pleasant employment at one of the many brothels that the city offered. Most had been selected because of their beauty and little more. When they were selected, they hadn’t known to what purpose and had feared the worst. After being brought to the Research Station, however, they had come to know all too well that they were the lucky ones.

At the Research Station, unlike in the brothels, they were treated well. They were given the finest food, drink, and lodgings. They had the freedom to pick the men that were most to their liking. Nothing was forced on them. No money was charged. And they had developed a sisterhood that had one goal—to help achieve France’s first flights. They had each been told that when it was over, they would have a dowry for marriage. For them, the Research Station had been a dream ticket—to escape the slavery of the brothels and forget their past. Most were less educated and came from poor families. Some were destitute, orphaned, and without skills, except in the bedroom. But all had taken to the chance that was before them—as unlikely as it seemed, to escape a dark time in their lives and come to this, the Research Station, where all dreams came true—except for one dream which proved elusive, which was to fly.

Sadly too, they knew more than anyone at the Research Station, except perhaps the commandant and Jacques, the names of those who had died along the way. As a result, they became attached to those who survived the longest. Nobody had survived longer than Jacques. That les filles kept tabs on the pilots was suspected by the pilots, and it wasn’t incorrect. They did keep le Laboratoire‘s commandant appraised. If a pilot looked like they were about to break from the stress and risk, the girls would report it. The pilot would be given some time off, usually by assignment to work with the engineers for a few weeks, and then, when les filles thought he was ready, they would submit a follow-up report. It was a system that worked well and kept the morale of the pilots at the highest point. Despite the commandant’s original concern, none of the pilots had ever had to be grounded. A few weeks off here and there was all that was needed, despite the hazards that they had faced.

Downstairs in the tavern’s nearly empty great room, Jacques glanced at the back wall that contained rows of painted names and little sets of angel’s wings. At this early hour, there were only a couple of others at the tables. He shuddered inwardly, remembering the last smoking wreck at the base the hill. In that crash, he had found the charred remains of his good friend, still smoking and burned badly, twisted amidst the shattered boards and burned fabric. He had looked carefully, knowing that these were the charred remains of his best friend, Antoine.

Antoine had not deserved to die. The aero machine had launched upward into the air at the base of the ramp with the prototype engine mounted on the nose and the gasoline in the tank to ensure the right weight and balance. The flight was to have been a gliding test without the engine running. It was supposed to have been a short flight, straight ahead, and then a landing. Nothing to worry about, Antoine had said.

Jacques watched as Antoine had launched from the ramp. The aero machine was simply too heavy to fly. Worse yet, the balance was off, and the machine was nose-heavy. Instead of gliding to a smooth landing, the plane had arced down. With no way to pull out of the terminal dive, Antoine had simply ridden the aero machine downward into a terrible crash. He had probably realized that he was about to die in those last few seconds. The petrol on board had completed the catastrophe when it burst into flame. The fires had consumed everything, even melting the metal cylinders of the engine. The tank should have been full of water.

Jacques found himself fervently praying that Antoine’s death had come from the impact and not from the fire. Hastily, the engineers had built a new aero machine with a new engine. The balance issues were worked out now, hopefully. Jacques felt his chances of success were vastly better.

Antoine had missed a good party that night after the crash. The tradition was that if you didn’t make it back, the girls would throw a wake in your memory. It was a way of sending off the pilots to fly in heaven, to fly with the angels, as the saying went. The sadness of his passing hadn’t been felt just among the pilots, but also among les filles.

For Antoine, it had been Juliane, the girl who had last been with him and had perhaps loved him most. She took the lead at his party, but not without a fight to earn that right. Another girl had demanded to lead the wake. After a terrible spat that stopped just short of coming to blows, Juliane prevailed, winning out on the basis that she had spent last three nights with him. The others had nodded. There were rules to their world, dominated by nights with les pilotes. Three nights was the undisputed fact.

With great ceremony and tears, Juliane had added Antoine’s name along with a pair of bright pink angel’s wings to the others on the back wall of the common room. Hot-blooded pink was the traditional manly color for pilots now since, as everyone knew, pink was the color chosen for the first planes when they flew over Germany. As they painted wings on the wall, the other pilots looked on, feigning disinterest. Some looked quietly into their wine and beer.

Jacques, too, had viewed the party with a cold disinterest. To watch the painting of the pink wings on the wall was the best way he knew to honor his old friend, but he was afraid enough of showing fear that he chose to be almost heartless about it—at least on the outside. Quickly, he muttered to himself, “Fly with the angels, my friend.”

With the painting done, he emptied his wine and turned the glass bottom side up on the table. “C’est la guerre,” he had said out loud, remembering the line from a pilot’s biography that he had read at Grantville recounting the tales of flying in the future air war over France and England in 1940.

He wondered, too, did the Germans have a wall of pink wings and memories? Surely, they, too, were pressing ahead in the development of the next generation of aero machines there.

As he finished his breakfast, he vowed to himself, “I’ll be damned if they have such a party tonight.” There were already too many bright pink sets of wings painted on the back wall.

Suddenly, he felt Claire’s presence behind him. He turned and caught her smile. She leaned in to kiss his lips, a bit more hungrily than necessary.

Non, Claire,” he said making sure that this time he said her name with confidence. “You know I have a test flight now.”

She gave a fake pout.

“You’ll have to wait for me to get back.”

“But you might not be coming back,” she said softly. He detected a tone in her voice that she might be testing him, to see if he was showing too much stress to fly. Non, this would be His Day. He smiled and shook his head.

“Eh, what? And disappoint ma petite Claire?” He gave her a sound slap on the rump. Then he leaned up from his seat and kissed the top of her head. It was a good thing that whoever did the recruiting liked petite women.

She laughed, but then became serious. “If you make me draw your angel’s wings on the wall, I’ll never talk to you again.”

****

 

The Flight

 

Jacques stood in the dewy winter-brown grass atop the hill. It had taken some time to walk this far, and the camp below was alive with the morning’s activity. The top of the hill was quietly known among the pilots as the col de la mort, the hill of death. For a time, the commandant had tried to ban the name, saying it was bad for morale, but among the flyers, it had had the opposite effect.

From the hilltop, the launch ramp traced its downward path, with the pylons longer and shorter all the way down to smooth out the dips and undulations carved by nature into the slope. A massive dead weight drop dangled off the top of the tower just to the right side of the ramp. The falling weight helped fling the gliders into the air; a trick learned from a book they had found about the Wright Brothers and their flights in France in—Jacques strained to remember—yes, the date in the books at Grantville had been 1908.

The wooden ramp was painted with a flat black tar and turpentine mixture, giving it a somehow sinister look. The turpentine ensured that the tar soaked into the wood and the tar ensured that the ramp could handle rain and all types of weather without deteriorating. It had been built to last. France was in all the way—the research here would be successful, so the sponsors said, no matter how long it took.

Jacques stared across the field at the compound beyond. At the center was what had been a noble’s prized horse farm. The man had run afoul of Cardinal Richelieu and lost everything, even his life. The place was officially named the Motor Vehicle Research Station. However, everybody involved referred to it as the Horse Farm. A lot of work on many different projects was underway at the Research Station, but if you were a pilot, the place was simply called “le Laboratoire,” since the rest was, in their very vocal opinion, completely unimportant.

The fine manor house, where the deposed noble had lived when visiting his racing stables, did excellent service as the quarters for the Research Station’s senior officers and the commandant. The adjacent grand stables had been the first workshops for motor vehicle research and still housed the steam engine works, reflecting their place as the oldest project on the site. The steam-driven wagons were working very well, that is, as Jacques knew all too well, when they were working at all. It seemed to take longer to get their steam up than to just walk wherever you were going. Still, once the steam was up, they were as fast or faster than horses. Of course, sometimes they blew up.

Over the many months, the rest of the farm had been steadily expanded to meet the needs of ever more researchers and projects. The gas engine researchers had their own buildings, constructed in the traditional style. These were built by Danish workers impressed to the task and kept on hand for the next expansion, all the while hoping someday to make it back to Denmark. Jacques smiled, they were told that lie from time to time to keep them at work, but in truth, they had seen too much of what was going on to ever make it back. In the end, secret plans called for them to receive a free trip to America. Their work had been first-class, with post and beam buildings and stucco-finished walls that were quick to build and, most importantly, thick enough to protect the other buildings from the fires and explosions that resulted from the handling of hazardous fuels and oils. Explosions were not rare.

Most recently, a rubber division started up. Using landing skids on the aero machines wouldn’t do for proper take offs. What was fine for a glider, wasn’t suitable for a heavier plane. Proper tires were needed. The rubber division was housed in a new small building hastily erected near the stables.

The Danish workers had also constructed a behemoth dirigible hangar. It held the efforts to develop a lighter-than-air, powered dirigible, like the Zeppelin that one of the researchers had found in a book about the Great War of 1914. Jacques shrugged, wondering briefly if the dirigible would prove more capable of flight than any of the aero machines. Once the first dirigible launched, he felt sure a competition would likely develop, but for now, all was quiet on that front.

Despite the size of the dirigible hangar, the black ramp and catapult system on the col de la mort still dominated the airfield. Jacques had taken many glider flights from the top of the hill. They overcame the lack of rubber for wheels in a simple way—a landing skid at the bottom of the aero machine, which also kept the machine on the ramp between the rails.

Except for the fevered pace that had marked the construction of the buildings, to call the progress on the station’s key project slow was charitable.

As Jacques surveilled the scene, he was shocked to see that at the base of the hill, right beside the ramp, one of the working steam cars had been carelessly left parked. A wisp of smoke escaped from its forward stack, indicating that it was still hot and with steam. His brow furrowed, and he spat into the grass. This was unacceptable. At le Laboratoire, a superstition had arisen. Steam cars were a bad influence on aero machines. Earlier on, those injured in the numerous accidents were usually hurried from the field on the back of a waiting steam car. They were the fastest transport available when one was ready and waiting. Medical attention was provided at the research station’s hospital if you weren’t killed in the crash, and it was the very best available.

The use of steam cars for this ambulance service, however, gave rise to ugly rumors. As a result, it was decided that the cars were a bad influence on aero machines. Jacques, like many others, imagined the steam cars whispering, perhaps in the secret tongue of machines, that the idea was to move on the ground, rather than rise into the air.

The distrust of steam cars was rooted, too, in the natural rivalry that had developed between the different research teams. After a few deaths on the flight ramp, however, that had all changed. You could keep a black cat in the hangar, but you dared not let a steam car or any other mechanically-propelled vehicle anywhere near an aero machine on the day of a test flight. Many pilots would consider themselves fully justified refusing to get into a cockpit for at least twenty-four hours if a steam car crossed the grass field or approached the hangar on the day of a scheduled flight. Most of the pilots were so adamant about it that in more recent months, the ambulance service and fire brigades had returned to the use of six-horse carriages. Everyone agreed that it was pure superstition, but the pilots were a pampered lot. The commandant had ordered it, simply because this was the way they wanted it.

Anyway, aero machines, not steam cars, were the future and the new hallmark of the Research Station. The steam car researchers and drivers soon realized it was best to respect the superstition since any crash would be routinely blamed on the nearest steam car if one was in sight.

Yet one was parked at the bottom of the ramp—and it was the day of Jacques’ flight.

Jacques regarded the steam car coldly. He was not naturally superstitious, but this was different. This could be no casual mistake. He wondered who had parked it there and why? Surely, he surmised, someone was trying to send him a message.

After a deep breath, he crossed himself and decided to fly anyway. A message had been sent, and it had been received, loud and clear. He had no rivals among the other pilots. Those more experienced than him were either dead or injured and retired. Those who had filled the ranks all looked up to him as a survivor and professional. He spat. He recalled all too well that this wasn’t the first such message he had received. At least that was how he interpreted some of the strange events that he had seen over the months at the Research Station.

What plan was afoot? What rivalry? What quiet hatred was enough to seek to curse him to death? He pondered that silently as a ground crewman trudged up the col to his side.

Before the man made it halfway to the top, Jacques called down to him, “Get the steam car moved. We’ve got some flying to do.”

The man turned and looked back, then let out a short scream when he saw the car parked at the base of the ramp. Abruptly, he ran down and off to the buildings in the distance. He would have to fetch one of the steam car engineers to take the car away.

Jacques shook his head. There was no use in running, as it would be another half hour before they were ready to fly anyway. The bonfire pits that were used to generate guaranteed updraft for gliders were still cold. He thought about that for a moment and then remembered that nobody would be using the two-seat glider for pilot training today. Further, lighting fires beneath a petrol-burning aero machine wasn’t a good idea anyway.

He began the long climb up the col to the top, in preparation for the flight. He was glad that he carried only himself and pitied the poor engineers who often had to bring tool boxes, fuel, spare parts, and more. It was always a tiring climb, even so, and he did it on foot, as a usual tip of the hat to superstition. Every time he had climbed the col on foot, he had survived, so this wasn’t something he would change.

In the gliders, Jacques had flown many flights over the bonfire pits. Even if he had become quite expert at flight, he remembered how the previous First Pilot, Thibaut, who was “no longer flying,” came to his end. He had been testing a glider on which they had mounted a motor. The glider had come down in some trees, another disaster while testing the handling and balance with a motor fitted. After the test, the designers admitted that the engine was too heavy for mounting on a glider, and that either a lighter engine or a heavier aero machine would be needed. They had opted for the heavier aero machine, since it would be easier to fashion from wood and the common skills that they already had. Hence, the aero machine that he was to fly today had been built and, even if rushed, Jacques felt it was a good design.

As Jacques stood there, he spied a pair of oxen exiting the hangar. The newest aero machine was atop a cart and dragged behind. In front of that, a group of six men, all dressed in the gray tunics of the hangar crew, were attending the movement. Steadily, they hauled the aero machine across the field and up the col to the top of the ramp. Jacques watched it calmly, marveling at the beauty of the latest creation of the engineers. Rushed, he reminded himself, but it was a thing of beauty all the same.

The new aero machine was a linen-covered and wood-framed biplane powered by a newly-built rotary motor and fitted with Grantville’s latest design in spark plugs. The spark plug research team at the research station finally had something that they claimed would work even if they were the size of a child’s fist. For the French engineers working in le Laboratoire, reproducing twentieth-century spark plugs had proven to be impossibly difficult. Thus, after many trials and failures, the researchers had simply bought several from Grantville.

As all knew, metal works were the key in engine technologies. The iron for the latest engine had been laboriously hammered out by a blacksmith. The man usually made swords and knives, and his talents at that allowed him to develop a relatively light casing for the cylinders and the other moving parts. The forge burned only the finest oak charcoal. A bellows would heat the fires in the forge to white-hot flames. The metal was then carefully worked, hammered, shaped, and then dipped not in water but olive oil to temper the pieces to greater strength. They were almost impossibly lightweight, yet stronger than any metals made by anyone in all of France, so the blacksmith had told Jacques.

Even with all of the blacksmith’s expert efforts, the weight of the rotary engine was still too high when compared with up-time motors. They would make do, and Jacques recognized that this was a small step, but an important one.

If he could sustain a flight around the field before landing, they would have made a huge step forward in their quest to build France its first successful aero machine. After two crashes of prior aero machines with the engine mounted for gliding tests, the decision had been made to fly with the engine running. There would be no more tests with the engine mounted but not running.

Progress would have been faster if some of the other projects had come through as promised. Jacques heard there was a research station somewhere else trying to get a Bessemer converter to work and to turn iron into steel. When they met their goal, the need for the blacksmith’s best efforts in iron was at an end. Yet, like so many of the projects, they kept promising results “in a month.” Then another month or two would pass with little news and probably less progress.

As Jacques experienced first-hand, reading the information in the books only generally pointed the way to a workable solution. This applied to almost every project, not just the challenges of achieved powered flight. In the books, details were typically lacking, as if the readers already knew all the basics, which perhaps they would, though only at some time in the future. As a result, achieving the promise of the literature often proved seemingly impossible.

As Clausewitz said, “In war everything is simple. But the simple is very difficult.” This was a war, though it was a war of knowledge, to conquer not land, but the world of ideas. Along the way, Jacques considered, there were already many casualties.

Before climbing the col to the top of the ramp, Jacques had gone to the hangar to grab his flying helmet and a pair of goggles. He thought with a laugh that he must have cut quite a sharp figure at the top of the col, standing in his flight clothing, wearing his helmet with the goggles perched on top as the men worked their way across the field with the aero machine in tow behind the ox team. He was glad that none were close enough to see that he was winded from the long climb up—too much good living with les filles, he mused. He saw in the distance that the commandant had come out and, spotting him on the top of the col, waved. That would be reassuring, Jacques thought, knowing the commandant would see his early arrival at the col as a sign of calm and eagerness to fly.

The sound of birds chirping from the trees and bushes behind the hill was a good sign. It promised to be a good day for a flight. The wind was almost non-existent. A soft dampness clung to the grass under his feet. The winter was still upon them, but in the south of France, the temperatures were more reasonable. His breath still made a slight fog, even though it wasn’t that cold. That too was good—he didn’t understand why, but whenever he flew the gliders, he seemed to go longer on colder mornings. The reasons for this were probably buried in some book on aerodynamics that was yet to be found in Grantville.

The biplane, towed by the pair of oxen, had arrived at the bottom of the col and started making its way steadily upward. Despite its two wings, this new model was lighter than the monoplane that took Thibaut to his death. Still, it was heavier than even the two-seat gliders Jacques had flown. Those he considered safe because, so long as a wing or tail didn’t break, you could bring the gliders to nearly walking speed on touchdown. Even if you made a mistake, you usually walked away from the wreck. This new aero machine would be much heavier. He knew that would mean that he would have to fly faster at touchdown to get the necessary lift from the wings.

As well, the landing skid would slow the gliders quickly once the glider had touched down. As the skid dug in after landing, quite a few had dropped a wing, which stuck to the ground, spinning the whole thing around. Most of the time when that happened, the pilot simply got out of the broken glider and walked away. With the new aero machine, the heavier weight would also mean that if a wing touched, it would likely sheer off, rather than spin the machine around.

The heavier biplane design was still the right choice for the challenge ahead. Having two wings was the choice of the builders because they had caught wind of the romantic nature of the French escadrilles of the Great War—as the books about the World War I called the squadrons. They quickly worked out that having two wings made a big difference in the amount of lift produced. In a salute to the escadrilles, someone had painted a stork on the side of the fuselage just behind the cockpit. Appropriately, the new plane was called la Cigogne—the Stork.

Finally, the aero machine reached the top of the ramp, pulled along steadily by the ox team. Quickly, the six men on the ground crew maneuvered it to the ramp and put the nose into the launch sling. Like they did with the gliders, the sling would pull the aero machine down the ramp, accelerating it to flying speed. It was always an exciting start.

Jacques walked briskly around the biplane as the ground crew waited for him in silence. Nearby a small group of the designers who had walked up the hill were huddled together. They eyed him suspiciously. He paid them no heed; they would have to trust his abilities as a pilot, just as he had to trust their abilities as designers. It was an unfair bargain—while they trusted him with their creation, he trusted them with his life. Silently, he vowed that he would bring their aero machine back to the ground safely.

One of them, Vincent Sauvage, the head designer on the project, called over to him, “Don’t get fancy, Jacques.”

Jacques shrugged and smiled. Words were unnecessary. Whatever could be done was done from their side. It was time to fly.

If things didn’t work out, then after the crash, the designers seemed to always blame the pilots first, all the more if the poor man had died. Only later, when they identified the real cause would the designers and engineers quietly go about making the adjustments and improvements to ensure that it didn’t happen again. Never was an apology offered, and none would have been accepted on behalf of the dead anyway, but everyone knew the real story of what was going on.

Resting both his hands on the top of the fuselage, Jacques spread his feet. He put his head down intending to make a prayer, but the tension of the linen stretched over the frame caught him short. The feeling was good—very good. Instead of praying, he focused on the stitching; it was excellent. No expense was spared.

Vincent seemed unsatisfied with his silence and walked over. Once close by, he said in a quieter voice, “Just get it up and then get it back down. Treat it like one of the gliders, just like you did in the wind tunnel. The motor running on the nose won’t affect the way it flies, except that you will have more acceleration, and you should fly longer.”

Jacques nodded. He took a breath and climbed up and into the cockpit. Words weren’t necessary now. This time, Vincent took the silence as an affirmation. He had his answer or the closest thing he would get to one.

As Jacques sat in the cockpit, he recognized that the biplane had a character about it that was different. It was sleek, not boxy or jury-rigged like some of the gliders and monoplanes that he had flown. This one was more carefully built, despite the rush with which it had been constructed. He breathed in the smell of her—aero machines were “her” because that was what was in the literature. He felt somehow that la Cigogne would not fail him. His main task was to be sure that he did not fail her.

In a final gesture, he crossed himself, blew into his hand, quietly whispered to himself the prayer he had read in one of the aviation books in Grantville—”God, don’t let me fuck up.”

He strapped himself into the wicker seat and felt securely nestled into the narrow fuselage. The aeroplane smelled like fresh linen and newly-cut wood. Behind that scent was a darker, almost acidic smell coming from the rotary motor. He recognized the rare and sweet scent of gasoline and oil. La Cigogne was a serious machine meant for flight, not display. This was not a machine built for brief “hops” as one took from the glider ramp. With this, he felt that he could really fly. How far would she go?

He pulled down and adjusted his goggles. Reaching under the instrument panel, he disconnected the ground wire, something he had done more than a dozen times on the test stands. This meant that the spark would be live to the cylinders of the engine. He nodded and twirled his finger in a gesture he had read about in the books—start her up.

Bernard, one of the ground crew, stepped forward and threw the prop with a heavy pull. The rotary engine spun easily along with the prop and caught right away. This was a good sign.

La Cigogne wants to fly,” he yelled to the chief designer.

Vincent nodded and yelled something back, but the words were drowned out by the noise of the motor. Then Vincent crossed himself as if with a prayer in response. Then a fleeting smile crossed the man’s lips.

Jacques waved everyone away so he could run up the engine, his attention entirely focused on the sound. The slightest noise might signal a flaw, some malfunction, or a bad spark plug.

With the engine spinning under power, Jacques played with the spark advance and the gas supply for a moment, hoping to warm it up without starting to foul the spark plugs. The engine didn’t have a throttle but rather depended on the spark advance, which he could ground or disconnect, blipping the engine to life or letting it spin. The rotary engine was a marvel, a design that had the whole engine and propeller spinning together while the central crankshaft was bolted, unmoving, to the firewall directly in front of the cockpit.

The petrol and oil fed into the engine by gravity from overhead tanks, a small one for the oil and a larger one for the petrol. Valves gave him control at the twist of a pair of knobs. The spark advance could give power as needed—on or off. If left on, the engine ran full out, if off, it spun freely without ignition. It was all or nothing. Whether it was running or not, the fuel and the oil steadily fed into the cylinders. Thus, if you left it off and spinning for too long, the petrol would spew backward out of the exhaust ports and, if the engine backfired, it might ignite. This was a known risk and one that was easily solved, just leave the engine on at full power and, as soon as you went to land, be sure to also shut off the fuel valve.

There wasn’t much power anyway, Jacques reasoned, so it probably didn’t matter whether it ran at full power or not.

The fuel flow was a strange thing, however, since starving the engine of fuel didn’t give it less power unless you made it so lean that it would cut out. Rather, the engine would run faster and quickly heat up. Then it would begin to backfire. This too would throw flames out that might ignite the unburnt fuel and oil that had been spat from the rotary as it spun. More than one test bench had been set aflame exactly in that way. Similarly, too much fuel would not only cool the engine but also result in a lot of runoff and fouling of the spark plugs. The excess, unburnt fuel spattered back onto the aero machine and pilot, making for an equally dangerous situation if a fire ignited. The key challenge was for the pilot to adjust the fuel flow to the right setting, neither too hot nor too cold, without backfiring or excessive spatter.

The oil feed was easier. Jacques knew enough to just turn it on all the way. The oil would flow into the engine, and whatever excess was there would just spatter out into the airstream. If a pilot tried to save oil by dialing it back, he ran the risk of putting too little into the engine, which could result in serious problems and damage. He recognized that too much oil would also foul the spark plugs, but while he had no solution Jacques believed that the petrol caused the fouling most of the time. The engineers still debated the matter. Sadly, none of the books at Grantville addressed the issue, and they were all left to theorize as to what was actually happening when the engine stopped. Each time, all they could find was that the spark plugs had fouled, though whether from the petrol or the oil was a matter of conjecture.

Jacques moved quickly, remembering the last time an engine had clogged plugs while on the test bench. It had been left running too long. He would not make that mistake, and he hurried to prepare for the launch. Satisfied with the sound, he signaled that he was ready.

He held the spark advance switch down, keeping the ground wire disconnected. The engine had a roar to it that sounded like life itself. Then he held up one hand with his fist clenched as the signal to prepare to launch, and then he opened his hand. With that, the launch weight dropped on cue.

As with the gliders, the aero machine jerked forward on the ramp and began its race downhill. The noise, the wind, the blast of the propeller, and the smell of oil together were invigorating. He breathed deeply and steadied himself to face the risks of flight. His own talents were beyond doubt, but would the engine work? Would the airframe have some undiscovered flaw? Would the controls be properly balanced or improperly rigged? Would the center of gravity be too far off, forward or back?

Faster and faster, la Cigogne sped up down the ramp, each hop on the wooden planking steadily jarring the aero machine as it crashed its way back and forth in the ever-widening gap between the rails. A misaligned wooden board on the ramp caused the biplane to take a bone-jarring bounce, but this was something he was used to. He held firmly to the controls and when he reached the bottom of the ramp, he felt that he was fast enough to fly. The engine was a steady roar of power. The upturn violently heaved the biplane into the air and, in an instant, Jacques was surprised by the feeling on the controls. La Cigogne was still not fast enough to fly.

The biplane staggered along in the air for a few seconds. Jacques had enough experience to know what to do; he had experienced the same thing several times before in one of the heavier gliders. Calmly, he pushed the control stick forward rather than pulling it back. In doing so, he pointed the nose farther down the hill. It seemed counter-intuitive, but it was the only way to get enough speed to fly. If he pulled back, the aero machine would slow even further and, like a stricken bird, would fall out of the sky.

With the stick forward, he added speed from the rapid descent and soon felt that he could pull back on the stick to level it out. It was a close call, the plane mere inches from the top of the grassy slope that still descended toward the flat field ahead. He gently adjusted his flight with a steadily increasing pull on the stick. Despite his best efforts, the landing skid lightly touched, but still the aero machine lifted upward again. With the power from the engine and the remaining downhill slope at the base of the col, and with this bounce, he felt that he could hold it up longer.

He was gaining precious speed. He leveled off as the aero machine settled back down toward the grass. He was now over the flat part of the field, racing toward the buildings and hangar in the distance. The skid skimmed across the top of the grass but did not touch. With a start, he realized that he was accelerating from the power of the engine!

Steadily, the controls felt lighter. A few seconds later, he had enough speed to start a slow climb. The engine was working and the balance of the aero machine was doing its job. He found that he had to hold some back pressure on the control stick, a sign that the balance point was slightly too far forward—he could have guessed that given the weight of the engine—but this was something he could work with. Weirdly, the continuous pressure he had to apply, pulling back on the stick, made it feel as if he was pulling the aero machine into the air himself with his own hands. Calmly, he put both hands on the stick and held it steady.

Jacques knew from his gliding flights that even the slightest bank meant that he would lose altitude. He held tightly to the stick, making sure that the nose did not rise too high above the horizon line. If it did, he would cross into the danger zone. He didn’t understand the principles involved, but there were demons in the air, as he had learned. The worst demon was named the Stall.

The literature he had read referred to such things as the Stall, which he had learned meant that when the nose was too high, the air over the wings would break up, and the magic of lift would suddenly fail. Just what the Stall was remained a mystery, but whatever it was, it was one demon that remained invisible to the eye. These air demons must be hiding in the winds, ready to ambush an unsuspecting pilot, so Jacques reasoned. The cost of inattentiveness would be a crash.

He shook off the thought of the worst demons and pressed on, banishing superstition from his mind. The morning air felt crisp on his cheeks as it blew past his face in the slipstream of la Cigogne, giving no clue to a lurking danger. A new confidence built in him. La Cigogne was now higher, and he gently pushed the stick forward, trading the precious little altitude he had gained for yet more speed. He urged the engine on.

As he neared the grass again, he pulled back again on the control stick to climb and allow the engine to slowly carry the biplane even higher. The speed was good now—faster than the fastest gallop of a horse, faster even than a steam car. AHHH, banish that thought! He threw off the superstition yet another time. He cursed to himself. Think not of steam cars, you fool!

He could see the tops of the trees at the end of the field, a first signal that he was going to make it. He knew from his many glider flights that when you saw the tops of the trees from above, you were doing well. Many a pilot had been forced into a short landing just before the treetops had come into view. With altitude, there were many options.

He hoped his engine would continue so strongly. Even the best engines, however, would steadily accumulate sludge until the cylinders started to lose power. Just how quickly that happened depended on the ever-varying quality of the fuel mixture.

Unsure if he would continue to hold altitude enough to clear the buildings ahead, Jacques started a turn, pushing the stick to the right to bank the biplane. The rotary engine’s spin took the nose over quickly—almost too quickly—and he was forced to recover with a jerk on the control stick. This was something he had expected from his experience in ground runs, though he hadn’t thought it would be so pronounced. The spinning engine created a gyro effect, making it difficult to turn to the left but easy to turn to the right.

At this speed, based on the feeling of the stick, he had the sense that if he let go, the plane would twist down and to the right into an immediate crash that would flip it upside-down. There was no control balance, and so the new biplane had to be flown with a firm grip at all times. Do not let go of the stick, he realized, as la Cigogne has teeth after all.

He let the biplane pull around in a wide one hundred eighty-degree turn that took it onto a course parallel and back toward the col. His turn had lost altitude and was skimming along just over the highest leaves and branches. This was a most dangerous sport, but he had reversed his course and was now coming back toward the col, but off to the side, over the trees that lined the edge of the field.

He could be caught over the trees if the engine suddenly faltered. He resisted the temptation to ease the biplane toward the field, knowing that he would lose altitude and come down into the branches. Gingerly, he pulled back on the stick and started to gain more altitude.

He would have to make one more turn to land. For that, he would need yet more altitude. As he bored on straight ahead, he saw that if he didn’t start the turn, he would ram into the col head on. He wasn’t high enough yet to bank into a turn, however. Then he remembered how, at the base of the col, there was a gap in the tree line. He craned his head forward to look for it. If he timed his turn just right, he would be back over the field, still too close to the col itself to land normally, but he could set it down and make it out. The aero machine might be damaged, but it would be a flight to celebrate. Fleetingly, he thought that maybe he could bring it in to a successful landing. Critically, the gap in the trees was the only way to avoid a crash, but he had no choice but to turn once more. It was either flying directly into the face of the col or descending into the trees that were whipping past just below his landing skid—unless he could find the gap and use it well.

As the seconds ticked by, the aero machine gained altitude slightly over treetop level. With this, he knew he could make it if the engine held out. He listened intently to the sound of its roaring cylinders. His imagination filled in noises that weren’t there. Yet it ran smoothly, only oddly skipping from time to time as the spark didn’t light with the action of the cylinders. He knew the signs of a foul—one cylinder would begin to miss and then another—and it wasn’t happening yet. With every second, he knew that likelihood grew.

It seemed as if it had been the right development path, to distill petroleum fuels rather than try to purchase them, which would have brought a dependency on some outside source. However, the results were far from ideal. The fuels were not clean-burning nor reliably distilled. Despite their best efforts, a residue always built up and fouled the spark plugs, often in short order. With no spark, there was no explosion in the cylinders and thus, no power.

He reached the end of the trees at the base of the hill. With a deft flip to the side and a slight tug, he leaned the control stick to cut a final turn back over the field, this time more expertly using the engine’s gyro effect to pull the aero machine around. Once again, the spinning rotary engine did its job. Still, the gyroscopic effect pulled the bank into a more acute angle than he had planned and the machine lost most of its remaining altitude. The spinning cylinders had pulled the protesting biplane all the way around a full 90 degrees—a proper turn! He had done it! He leveled the wings, just inches above the ground, running parallel to the base of the col. The flight was going perfectly, against all odds.

The field ahead was clear and the launch ramp, which ended just above the base of the col, would not hinder his flight. Only a landing stood between him and a major celebration ahead. He reached up and shut off the fuel flow and then set it down. It had been a perfect flight after all, he thought.

Then he saw it.

The steam car, the one that earlier he told the crew to move, was finally being repositioned away from the base of the launch ramp. In his rush to launch he had forgotten about it. Paying no heed to the flight, the steam engineers had arrived and had started it up to move it back to their hangars. The timing was terrible.

The little steam car bounced its way down the col until it was nearly directly ahead, then weirdly, it turned to drive directly toward him. It seemed that the driver was looking down at the temperature and pressure gauges on the dashboard, rather than ahead across what should have been an empty field—empty except for one aero machine.

Jacques considered whether he could attempt a quick landing before he reached the steam car. He quickly discarded the idea. He was still too fast. If he attempted that, he would certainly crash. As low as he was, if he attempted a turn, he would catch a wing and cartwheel the aero machine across the field. There were no other options—he would have to fly over it. However, la Cigogne didn’t seem to want to climb anymore. He had to get enough altitude to fly over it—so he would descend the last few feet to gain speed, and then pitch up sharply at the last instant. Maybe, if he did it just right, he could clear the steam car’s smokestack and push the nose over to land immediately beyond.

Almost as if in response to some whispered curse from the approaching steam car, his rotary motor issued a loud bang. A puff of black smoke followed, then a wisp of white. He was almost to the steam car—probably within earshot of the damn language these machines seemed to speak to one another!

He felt his power drop off even as he was hauling back on the control stick to arc the nose upward. He reached for the fuel valve and gave it a hard twist to increase the fuel flow. He hoped to cool the spark plugs with the richer mixture—that might just keep the engine running long enough.

It was exactly the wrong thing to have done.

A leaner mixture of fuel and air would have been better. For those precious seconds, the engine would have run hotter and burned off the sludge accumulating on the spark plugs before giving up the ghost for good.

Nonetheless, for a half second, the richer mixture did have a positive effect, as the added oil caused his engine to smooth out, though the extra fuel began to spray out from the spinning cylinders onto the aero machine and into the air in all directions.

There was more to the engine problem than just the fouled spark plugs—something in the crankcase had started to break and come apart. With the pressures of five cylinders ramming it around and the weight of the rotary engine itself as a flywheel of sorts, the stresses on the iron were beyond the skills of the blacksmith.

Merde, he cursed.

Would the engine hold long enough to get over the car? Responding to his pull on the stick and by momentum alone, the aero machine lifted skyward to crest over the steam car, the lower wing taking off the smokestack near the top. Without its full engine power, Jacques felt that la Cigogne was no longer as light and graceful in his hands as it had been. A new vibration suddenly shook the whole machine. Jacques knew the signs. One of the engine’s five cylinders had completely fouled and missed on each stroke.

His rudder pedals felt suddenly mushy and loose under his feet. The nose of the aero machine was pointed too high, and la Cigogne seemed to be hanging there, pointing to the skies high above. He had the feeling of balancing the plane on a knife edge. He could feel his wing stalling and knew that he would soon be heading downward. The stick began to shake in his hand. The Demon of the Stall had arrived.

Suddenly, the nose skewed to the right even if la Cigogne stayed pointed skyward. Would the machine flip over to the right? No, Jacques reasoned, he didn’t have the height for that. As it was, he had just barely cleared the steam car. He rammed the stick forward as the steam car flashed the rest of the way underneath. La Cigogne clambered for its final few feet of altitude.

He had seen a glider once suffer a Stall Demon with the nose high and then fall off on a wing into an upside-down spin. There was no surviving that.

What was supposed to have been a brief flight straight ahead, shutting down and landing, had turned into him pressing his luck. He had made a unthinking mistake, seduced by the feeling of flight that la Cigogne had given him. In his mind’s eye, he knew that he could have simply cut power and landed soon after take off, before making his first turn. He hadn’t even thought of it, so consumed was he by the feeling that the aero machine had given him as it skimmed along and climbed under its own power.

That feeing had been something new and different, to accelerate and climb, rather than settle as he slowed and descended as always was the case in a glider. When the engine had produced enough power to fly, he had simply gone with it. Then, he had had to turn to stay over the field, but that had carried him over the trees instead. Step by step, he had signed his own crash certificate by making decisions, unthinkingly and without even a tiny shred of reflection.

One thing had led to another, and suddenly Jacques realized that he would be lucky just to survive.

****

 

The Crash

 

The driver saw him just then. Jacques caught a glimpse of the startled look as his face turned up from the dashboard at his aero machine as he passed overhead.

He cleared the top of the man’s head by mere inches. The falling smokestack from the steam car, however, did not. It crashed directly on top of the driver.

Jacques didn’t have time to look back at the damage done. He let the stick edge forward slightly, hoping to avoid the Stall. If he could bring the nose down, then even trading a few feet for speed would give him advantage enough to land.

His attempt at control, however, seemed to be an empty hope. The nose of the aero machine was still pointed upward too steeply. Without enough forward speed, the controls gave little effect to the direction la Cigogne seemed to have chosen for itself. All Jacques could see forward was the blue of the sky. The aero machine seemed to be hanging in the air, almost as if stopped in place.

Despite having pushed the stick forward, the nose didn’t fall at all. The aero machine simply hung there pointed upward as Jacques struggled with the rudder pedals, mashing them side to side to keep it from rolling off on its wing. Incredibly, he held it there almost motionless, the nose pointed upward and the tail hanging off the ground.

For an instant, Jacques thought that he could just let it slide backward into the ground to a safe landing. His hopes, however, were dashed when one of the exhaust pipes on the engine tore away. A sharp explosion belched fire from within the engine itself out the left side of the aero machine. A cloud of white smoke kicked from the open ports as the cylinder rings burned out—the sweep of the propeller drove it backward and past him so he could still see, but to all those watching, it seemed as if la Cigogne suddenly was hidden in a cloud of white smoke.

The aero machine’s forward speed was completely exhausted. The engine seemed to claw at the air with the last gasp of remaining power. The spinning of the rotary engine had enough momentum to keep the propeller turning, but it also meant that the gyroscopic effect took hold and the machine twisted hard to the right, flipping sideways. Jacques rammed the left rudder pedal to the bottom of the cockpit, nearly breaking it off its post. It had no effect. What felt like minutes to Jacques of hanging in the air had been mere seconds.

The nose pulled down and to the right. Despite throwing the control stick all the way to the left, he couldn’t stop the aero machine from twisting its way down. With no airspeed, the ailerons were useless. With a sickening shriek, the engine seized just as the nose dropped suddenly toward the ground.

Jacques’ final scream—”Merde!“—could be heard in the instant between when the engine stopped and the aero machine crashed to earth. As Jacques had predicted, the spinning rotary engine pulled the aero machine onto its side and attempted to flip the plane into the ground. With more altitude, he would have hit upside-down. From this height, mere meters off the grass, the aero machine only managed to twist sideways into a ninety-degree bank before hitting the ground.

The propeller and engine hit first, flinging the tail sideways over the top. Strapped in tightly, Jacques, who might have benefitted from being thrown clear, was instead tossed like a rag doll in the seat. His face smashed into the front lining of the cockpit rail, knocking him unconscious.

Both right wings tore off, bending backward against the cables and spars between the wings.

The fuselage ripped into two parts, severing the engine off at the firewall.

Luckily, the hot engine and propeller had impacted into the dirt of the field and stuck fast. The rest of the fuselage cartwheeled past and came to rest on its side, the left pair of wings still attached. The rest of the fuselage, on its side, slid forward across the grass with what little momentum it had generated from being flipped sideways into the ground. The fuel and oil tanks atop the center part of the wing were torn partly free, and the piping sprayed the remaining precious fuel out onto the grass. There wasn’t much, thankfully, as the aero machine had only had enough fuel on board for a few minutes of run-up and flight and most of that had been used up.

Finally, the remains of la Cigogne skidded to a stop in a shower of dirt, grass, and small rocks.

****

 

Aftermath

 

The smell of fuel brought Jacques back to consciousness. Where was he? For precious seconds, he couldn’t remember what he was doing. Then he recognized a part of the broken upper wing and the wooden struts in front of the cockpit. He was in the new biplane. He glanced around. He had crashed. He was jammed in the cockpit, held fast by the seat belt. The smell of fuel was overpowering.

He had to get out; if the spreading petrol vapors got as far as the hot engine, the gasoline could catch fire. The side of his head hurt. He could hear the sound of the steam car nearby, rapidly approaching, though not at a high pitch. He reached down into his right boot and pulled out a knife, one of the few things that he always brought along when he flew.

With a quick cut, he slit the seat belt harness. He was free. He tried to pull himself up and out with his left hand but couldn’t move it. He dropped the knife and dragged himself clear with his right arm, pulling his body out of the fuselage. He grabbed at the dirt and pulled himself steadily away from the wreck, one fistful of dirt at a time.

He could hear the clanging of the airfield’s six-horse fire wagon running hell for leather across the grass from the hangar toward him. The steam car hurtled past and started to drive up the col. Smoke belched from its boiler, the stack having been torn away. The driver was missing from the seat, perhaps knocked out of the car when the smokestack had come down.

Meter by meter, Jacques dragged and pulled himself away from the wreck.

Then the wreckage ignited. To protect himself, Jacques covered his face with his right arm. It was good enough. His leather flying suit blocked much of the heat. With the flames so close by, he continued scrabbling along, now in a panic. La Cigogne was no more—all that effort, all that research, all of the hours spent building it, were lost. And what had they learned from the effort? Almost nothing, he realized, except . . .

As the fire wagon pulled up to the flaming wreck, it was clear that there was no saving the biplane. Yet Jacques was there, and the crew ran to him.

He kicked himself mentally. How could he have messed it up so badly? Merde, merde, merde, MERDE!

There was no use replaying the events, but he knew he would do it a hundred times before nightfall. Ultimately, what could he have done differently? It seemed comical to even think of it. He suddenly felt like an idiot. He was the best of the pilots and he would likely be grounded, maybe even permanently.

Merde, merde, merde . . .

He pulled himself up to a sitting position and felt that his left arm had gone numb and limp. Was it broken? He felt at it. There were no sharp pains. No broken bones. The pains were all dull. Was it just the shock from the impact that had left it temporarily numb? Could he already feel it recovering?

Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, the fire wagon team’s medical officer was beside him, checking him over for injuries. Jacques waved him away and tried to stand. It was no good —he lost his balance and settled back to the ground. He would have to take his time, but at least he would avoid the surgeons, with all that that might entail. Surgeons were dangerous. At least the medical officer was decent enough to offer him a skin of water, which Jacques gratefully accepted.

As he calmed himself, one of the fire crew unharnessed the lead horse and rode back toward the hangar. No doubt the man would be summoning a recovery crew to pull the engine from the flaming wreck to hopefully save it. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that the engine was already destroyed, a casualty of its own operation. Already the fires were burning lower. Most of the remaining fuel and much of the wood and fabric were gone. They would probably let it burn out. Nothing was recoverable, anyway.

He resigned himself to trust his body to the fire wagon crew. They picked him up and loaded him onto the back of the wagon. At least he wouldn’t be taken in on the back of the steam car, he mused, as he remembered the look on the driver’s face just before he cleared it. As he glanced around, he realized that beside him, unmoving, was the body of the steam car’s driver with a badly burned face, and a split in his skull was leaking cooked brains from the impact of the smokestack.

Over the sound of the horses, he heard the voice of one of the designers saying from atop the hill, “He was landing it, perfectly, but the steam car rammed him—I saw it myself!”

Then he was on the way, his numb body atop the fire wagon as the five remaining horses pulled steadily back to the hangar. It had been a bad day, on balance, and it seemed hard to think that anything else could yet happen. The steam car driver had had the worst of it, though Jacques felt it hard to feel bad for the man, even if the man had died for his sins. What kind of idiot drives without looking where he was going?

He knew that his many mistakes had somehow been missed by those who had watched. They were blaming his crash all on the steam car. Those who had watched the flight knew, as he did too, that if not for the steam car, he would have landed it perfectly right at the base of the col.

He couldn’t help but smile. He remembered something else he had read in the books at Grantville: Any landing you could walk away from was a good landing. He knew, too, that les filles would be waiting to nurse him back to health.

****

 

That Evening

 

The party that night was loud and rowdy and lasted until dawn. He had flown and lived to walk away. No pink paint and wings stencil would be needed, at least not yet.

The commandant had come to the tavern to give a speech, in which he stated that from this point forward, all steam cars would be banished forever from the flying fields. Further, he vowed to go to Paris and demand they move the steam car research to another station. “This,” he had said with great solemnity, “is the final straw!”

Jacques let the steam cars take the blame for the accident, though he knew in his heart that he shared much of it. He consoled himself in knowing that, as he expected, les filles were indeed very happy to see him again. They were making their feelings very clear and just as dawn broke, two of them—Claire and Martine together—volunteered to help him upstairs to get to bed.

At least he remembered both their names. . . .

The next day, Jacque woke with a splitting headache and a groan. Claire snuggled into his right side with her head pillowed on his shoulder and arm. He sought to brush the hair from her face to kiss her awake. He tried to move his left arm, and it brought a loud yelp of sharp pain. It remained numb and painful.

“I was right!” Claire said. “You are hurt. We must take you to the surgeon.”

“Nonsense,” Jacques told the pouting face just inches from his own.

Martine looked up from the shared pillow to his left and lifted the covers. “Your arm is badly bruised and swollen. Claire is right. You must see the surgeon.”

“But . . .”

“No buts, lover boy.” Martine cut off his protest. “We will feed you breakfast, but after that, you are going to the infirmary.”

After a short meal, Jacques was hustled over for some overdue medical care. The surgeon took one look at his left arm and nodded. “Lift it over your head for me, please.”

Jacque tried and yelped. Then he gritted his teeth and slowly tried again. When his elbow was shoulder high tears streamed down his face, and the doctor said, “Enough. Let us put the arm in a sling and look at it again in a month. I suspect it could be three months before you have full use of it again.”

The commandant’s response to the news that his best pilot was grounded was to send one of his better researchers back to Grantville to make proper use of his down time. He would need a nurse, so Claire was assigned to travel with him.

****

 

A Return to Grantville

 

Odette Moillon chatted with Claire in the large upstairs private dining room at the Thuringen Gardens, the third Thursday of the month being the date set aside for French Night. The Gardens did a solid business in dinners and drinks to the various expatriate groups that accumulated in Grantville. It helped to fill the private dining rooms on weekdays. People came to use their mother tongue, talk about home, and network problems and needs.

“So, what brings you and your husband to Grantville?” Odette asked one of the questions most frequently asked of new arrivals. The two women could pass for cousins or even sisters. Both were petite brunettes with high cheekbones and straight noses.

Claire hid a smile. They were traveling under the masquerade of being married. They both were getting their contracted salaries and an allowance for travel.

“We came to see what the doctors here made of Jacques’ problem with his left arm.”

“Oh, I would have guessed that you were here to gather information for a business party back home. The government spies are always single men. They never come in mixed pairs.”

“We are not government spies,” Claire answered sharply.

“Well, if you aren’t, then don’t give any reason for being here other than import-export or research because with any other reason people will assume you are spies. Come to think of it, don’t give any other reason even if you are spies. Well, you can claim you’re fleeing persecution or legal problems, but you’re attending the Calvinist church, so it isn’t persecution, at least not yet. And hiding out isn’t something one admits to.”

“Are there a lot of spies?” Claire asked.

“At least three different French groups right now. Richelieu’s people are still here for now, though we are all wondering how much longer their funding will last. The new king has people here. And then the third group might be spies or might just be thieves; we’re not sure. So far the police haven’t been able to nail them, as the locals put it. But whether they are spies or just thieves, everyone is sure they’re involved in mischief. They just can’t prove it. But none of them come around for French Night. They try to act like they’re invisible, but everybody knows who they are.”

“We’re here to find out some mechanical information and buy some supplies for my husband’s employer. But we thought we should be quiet about that.”

“Oh, there’s no need for that, Claire. They encourage foreign researchers.”

“What brought your family here?”

“We came to Germany on an annual buying trip for paintings. For years we bought good quality paintings in Germany for next to nothing and stocked a gallery in Paris to supplement what the family painted. But because of Grantville, the prices have shot up through the roof, and instead, we’ve started importing cheap paintings from Paris to sell here. We’re sending home flip books and a sparkling white wine that is selling very well back home. And then my sister Louysa is selling everything she paints in the oldest of the local galleries, and so far, they have been hanging what we import on consignment. My husband Pierre is studying photography. What sort of thing will you be buying for your husband’s business?”

“Spark plugs,” Claire replied without thinking.

“So, someone back home is working on gasoline engines?”

Claire blanched, realizing that she had just given away something important.

“If he’s buying spark plugs there isn’t really anything else to do with them. But the good news is no one cares. He can buy them new at the hardware store now since someone started a shop making them. Are you doing research, too?”

“No, I don’t read,” Clair replied, thankful that the subject had changed.

“What are you doing with your days while he’s in the library?”

Claire sighed. “Not much. That’s why I’m here. I spend a lot of my time at the market in the park talking to vendors to work on the English that I’m still learning.”

“Well if you can talk to the vendors, you can wait tables. You need to talk to Melle. Maybe she can help you get a job where she works.” Odette turned and called out to a red-headed lass, “Melle! Hey, Melle! Come here and meet Claire.”

****

 

At the Library

 

One morning someone dropped a book on the table where Jacques was reading. Jacques looked up. A short, dark-haired Italian met his gaze and said in passable French. “I’m finished taking notes. You need to look at the section with the book marker. It’s got some good details on planes with the engine behind the pilot. That helps with the balance if you’re using a heavier underpowered motor. You don’t have all that weight in the nose.”

Jacques turned pale.

“What? You didn’t think anybody was noticing which books you were working your way through or that you were here once before a couple of years ago?” the man continued calmly, his eyes flashing a slight inquisitiveness that Jacques felt was none too welcome.

Jacques said quietly, “I was hoping no one noticed.”

“Oh, you’ve been noticed alright. Trust me. You’re French, so they’re keeping an eye on you to make sure all you are doing is research.”

“What else would I be doing?”

“You might be part of the group that is shipping stolen property, back to France.”

“Someone’s doing that?”

Oui, at least until they can prove it.” The Italian extended his hand. “Guido Rossi.”

Jacques stood and shook hands.

“I think,” Guido said, “you will find the article about turning the motor around to push from behind instead of pulling from the nose interesting. I ask nothing in return for my help, really, except that if you turn up anything you think is new or interesting, I would appreciate it if you called on me.”

****

 

The Grantville Police Station

 

“How’s that new Frenchman shaping up?” the young detective asked.

“So far he looks clean,” replied the older of the two, though the older man was a police sergeant and technically junior. “He brought his wife along, so he doesn’t fit the profile, and he spends all day every day in the library. He did get drunk one night, and the two of them snuck out to the airfield where he added a name to the list of dead pilots. But other than that, he seems legit. Everything he has had sent back to France are just things that he has bought and paid for. He used the regular commercial mail. As a matter of fact, he’s spending so much time in the library, I feel sorry for his wife.”

“Don’t worry about that,” commented the young detective, “I made sure someone mentioned French Night to her. I’m waiting to hear back. If she comes, we’ll find out more.”

****

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7 thoughts on “Air France

  1. Charles K. Alexander II

    Well, that was fun! You should have seen me on the edge of my seat during the test flight, my cereal-filled spoon occasionally paused before entering my mouth, whispering to myself that I hoped Jacques would survive. It’s obvious that one or both of you are very enthusiastic about the early days of powered flight because that came through in the build-up to the test, from the superstitions to the borrowed phrases and prayers from up-time.

    Really good job with this one, folks. I look forward to a sequel.

  2. Tim Sayeau

    “Claire hid a smile. They were traveling under the masquerade of being married.” Oh, Claire. And Jacques. I do believe that you actually ARE now married, per the laws of West Virginia. If I recall aright, there was a story some time ago involving Thomas Riddle explaining the marriage laws and common-law marriages, about living together for six months and about registering in hotels as a married couple.

    1. Bjorn Hasseler

      No, that couple (Dennis & Patricia Stull) were married because they had represented themselves as married for over a year in Kansas and Iowa, states that recognize common-law marriage. West Virginia does not itself recognize common law marriage, but under the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution recognizes marriages from other states. So unless West Virginia County law has been changed since the Ring of Fire, Claire and Jacques would not be married.

  3. leegibson

    Yes! By all means let us have another installment and soon. The plot holds together and fits into the cannon fairly well. My only concern is the French ballons from “Commander Cantrell in the West Indies”. Are there not internal spies to connect Tor d’auvergne’s efforts with this research group? Perhaps all is now awaiting the French revolution and the return of Reichlieu and the rightful Pope?
    Good work in any case😝
    Lee Gibson

  4. James Chase

    Very good story, well thought out. Had me on the edge of my seat pulling for him. Not sure about the ramp pushing up at the end. Some of the failure to aircraft could be because of the G-Force exerted on the airframes. Never the less, good story, keep it coming. I enjoy the serials of the 1632 universe, following the time lines and success of the people involved.

  5. Timothy Thompson

    That’s a good story. Knowing his mistakes in the flight says a lot for Jacques. I hope to hear more from him.
    I have a question and I do not know where to post it. I have been an enthusiastic reader of the Ring Of Fire books since 2001 and while there have been some great stories, like this one, about the development of flight in balloons, airships, and airplanes, there have been no stories about sailplanes. They were building sailplanes out of wood and canvas in the late 1920’s that could stay up for hours long before the modern high performance composite planes of today. I could see a story based on a r/c glider enthusiast in town with a unbuilt plane kit, and go from there. I know there are forums to post what may seem a silly question, I just do not know where. Can anyone direct me to the appropriate place? Thank you

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