The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 309: Airman Fleming's Wild Ride

Fleming's glider in a storm

Fleming held the controls lightly, ready to react to the first sign of lift. He was not as confident as he'd pretended aboard the Flying Cloud, for this flight was considerably more ambitious than any he'd attempted in competition. It was one thing to fly down some familiar valley in the Blue Mountains, where thermals were easy to find and there were plenty of suitable landing fields. It was quite another to push into the unknown, in weak conditions, over hostile terrain.

Seconds crawled past while he did his best to ignore the steadily shrinking number on his altimeter. This stretch of coast was a maze of estuaries and swamps, with no safe places to land. If he was forced down here, he'd be in serious trouble. At last the variometer needle edged upwards. He counted to three, then eased the stick left, pressed on the rudder bar, and began to circle. The reading twitched back and forth as he adjusted his bank angle, searching for the center of the thermal. Then he'd found the core and the ground was falling away.

The airman began to relax. The sea breeze was filling in, as he'd predicted aboard ship, colliding with the stable air mass over the land to create a corridor of lift that ran parallel to the coast. Soon he was back in the familiar routine of soaring flight: climbing to the top of each thermal, then leaving it in search of another farther west.

He searched the land below for settlements, but there were few to be seen. Not many people lived in this part of Australia. The coast was noted for its navigational hazards, and had little to offer except mud and low-grade pearls. To the south, the land grew increasingly dry until it merged into the great barren waste that filled most of continent. Why would anyone build a resort here? he wondered. There's no telling what those toffs will do.

As morning wore on, the thermals grew stronger, which translated into faster progress. By noon, Fleming had covered more than a dozen miles, and his earlier insecurity had given way to a certain confidence. Unfortunately, the sea breeze front he was following seemed to be moving inland. When he looked ahead, he could see a line of clouds forming to his left. He adjusted course to intercept them. It was an annoying deviation from his intended route, but there was no help for it -- soaring pilots had little choice but to follow the lift.

Three hours later, Fleming was miles to the south, wondering if he could possibly make it back to the coast. To the north, rain was slanting down from the curtain of clouds that had moved in from the sea. As he watched, the sky grew darker as the rainclouds merged and spread. Then he saw what he'd dreaded: a great wall of dust spreading across the northern horizon. The storm had spawned a gust front that was sweeping south to blast his tiny glider from the sky.

Could he land before it reached him? Perhaps, but if it hit while he was on his landing approach, the consequences could be disastrous. His best chance was to try to outrun it. He banked away from the approaching menace, gripped the control stick tightly, and braced himself for what was to come.

Seconds later the variometer needle slammed against its peg as some great fist of air shoved his glider upwards. A second blow flipped the craft onto its side. He jammed the stick to the left to bring the wings back level, only to be thrown the other way.

For next several long minutes, land and sky whirled around Fleming in a blur. He had no meaningful control over his course and speed. It was all he could do to keep his glider from tumbling. He sensed that he was losing altitude. What he'd do when this ran out he couldn't imagine. He couldn't possibly land in turbulence like this. It would swat him to the ground like a bug.

Then, miraculously, the air was smooth again. Somehow he'd managed to escape the monster. He turned south again, pushed the stick forward, dove to pick up speed, and prayed he could stay clear. The ground below grew closer. Soon he could make out individual gum trees, a dry stream bed, a broad flat stretch of hardpan that seemed clear of obstructions. He steered for the latter, flew a short base leg, turned into the wind, and let the glider settle onto its landing skid -- this was no time for refinements such as landing on his feet. It hit with a jolt, slid with rattle, and came to rest against a stand of bushes.

As soon as his craft stopped moving, Fleming leapt from the cockpit and seized the glider's nose to keep it from blowing away when the wind hit. He needn't have bothered. When it arrived, it was little more than a zephyr, its fury spent during the long trip from the coast. He watched it stir the dust, then stood to take stock of his surroundings.

There was little to take stock of. He seemed to have arrived in the absolute middle of nowhere. Outback, Back of Beyond, Back 'o Bourke, Beyond the Black Stump: none of these names really did justice to the desolation that covered most of the Australian continent. Dry brown dirt stretched in every direction as far as he could see. A few listless-looking gum trees dotted the plain as if wishing they were somewhere else. Some wind-sculpted rocks completed this picture of an empty wasteland.

What should he do now, he wondered? There was certainly no rush to decide. One thing he'd learned during his years of competition flying was that after you landed, you had plenty of time to think -- often more time than you could possibly want. He shrugged, unfastened the nose cover and began to break down his glider. He might have a long walk ahead, but things were unlikely to get worse.

Fleming had just finished folding up his wing and was rummaging around the cockpit for a canteen of water when he heard the unmistakable sound of hoof beats. He looked around for the source, and spotted a buckboard approaching from the east, drawn by a particularly stoic-looking horse. The rig seemed entirely out of place in these surroundings -- a misplaced touch of the domestic world in the middle of a desert. That's odd, he thought, what could anyone be doing way out here?

As the vehicle drew closer, he saw that the driver was a slender blonde woman, wearing a light summer dress that must have been quite demure when she was younger and shorter. She looked familiar. His eyes widened as he recognized Abigail, daughter of the ranchers he'd met near Darwin the year before.

"Fleming," she cried in delight, "I thought that might be you in the glider! What are you doing here?"

Next week: Banda Brothers...

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