The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Seven

Episode 349: The Seventh Flying Cloud Christmas Special

British Post airship

They'd made it back to Broome without dipping too far into their reserves. Now the Flying Cloud was receiving some much-needed resupply. The adventurers took advantage of this time to relax and exchange stories at the bungalow Captain Sanders had let near the shore -- one advantage of commercial service was something known as an 'expense account'.

"That was a rather remarkable series of events," marveled the skipper, after all the tales had been told.

"It was also reasonably productive," Everett observed. "We may not have completed our official mission, but we did manage to destroy a secret military installation belonging to potential foes of the Empire. This was some reward for our efforts."

"Do you think there will be any fuss about letting those American gangsters escape?"

"We were not specifically ordered to apprehend them," said Everett. "We were only instructed to put an end to their piracy. This we did."

"By suggesting they head back to the States and throwing in plunder from George Channel's clandestine railway depot to sweeten the terms of their departure," Miss Perkins said tartly.

"Perhaps," said Everett, "but one must judge an operation by the results it achieves rather than the methods involved."

"What about Miss Kim?" asked MacKiernan. "We never did manage to find the lady."

"I imagine she'll reappear eventually," said Everett. "We will hope she doesn't prove as troublesome as the mysterious Natasha."

"Life is much simpler in the commercial service," said Captain Sanders. "Are things always this complicated in the Royal Navy?"

"Only when Captain Everett is involved!" said Clarice and Emily.

Everett glanced at two young women and gave a rueful smile. He had to admit there might be some truth to their observation.

Sanders chuckled. "This reminds me of an event from my early days as an airship captain."

Clarice and Emily brightened at the prospect of another story. "Do tell!"

The skipper took a sip from his drink, set it aside, and leaned back in his chair to reflect. "This happened in Carlisle, shortly after the Peace," he began. "Back then, I was flying for the Royal Mail..."

Like many commercial captains, I got my start in the postal service. The Mail needs airmen, it's a good way to gain experience, and the passengers don't complain very often. We flew the old Junior Shorts Class in those days. They handled like logs, they drank down fuel like a sailor on holiday, and their cargo capacity was nothing to write home about, but they were good for a solid day's work... as long as the day didn't involve anything urgent.

Unfortunately, this particular day did. It was Christmas Eve, and should have been a holiday, but some of our patrons needed to ship cargoes at the last minute. The course schedule seemed straightforward enough -- a chain of deliveries, picking up cargo at one station to carry to the next -- and it was a chance for flight pay, so my crew and I volunteered.

Our schedule began with a flight to a hamlet named Bellingham, in southern Scotland, to pick up a dozen border collies. The place was too bucolic to have a mooring mast, but we arrived in the morning, before the wind picked up, and some stalwart lads from the village came out to take our handling lines and hold the ship in position while we loaded our cargo.

This was a bit of trouble. Border collies are famous for their loyalty, bravery, and intelligence -- there was one in the North Country that could understand a vocabulary of two hundred words, solve basic algebra problems, and operate simple farm machinery -- but they're active and energetic animals that don't take well to being confined in travel cages. We could barely hear the engines over the noise of their barking, and one dog escaped to run along the keel passage. He gave my crew quite a chase before they cornered him in the tail cone.

As you can imagine, we were glad to reach our destination: a small seaport named Hartlepool on the North Sea coast. The recipient turned out to be a ropeworks near the Jackson Docks. This came as something of a surprise to us. It was an even greater surprise to the manager.

"Whatever would we want these sheepdogs for?" he asked. "We were expecting a load of cordage!"

"Your name is right here on the bill of lading," I told him.

"There must have been a mistake," he replied. "But there's no time to sort this out now. We'll board those dogs for you while you deliver this cargo of nets."

You might think nets would be more tractable than dogs, but as the manager had hinted, this shipment had been packed in a hurry, and bits of netting kept coming free at the damnedest moments. We had a devil of a time keeping them free of the machinery, and we almost hoisted some stevedores aboard along with the pallet of cargo. At last we got everything squared away and headed to the next place on our itinerary.

This proved to be Dumfries, an old market town on the banks of the River Nith. I believe it was a royal burgh back in the time of William the Lion, but now there was little to distinguish it from any other small town in the Border Counties. It seemed a strange place to deliver nets, since the only visible industry was sheep farming, and the consignee was perplexed by our cargo.

"What are we supposed to do with all this fishing gear?" he demanded. "What we need here are sheepdogs. But we'll sort this out after we get these sheep aboard."

My chief rigger and I glanced at each other. "Sheep?" he asked.

"You lads claim you'll deliver anything. Sheep is part of `anything'."

"Right," he admitted.

I've hauled many cargoes in my career, but those sheep were among the worst. There was no way to crate them individually, so we had to bring them aboard in pens. This played havoc with trim, and I must say, all that `baaing' got old after awhile. There was also an issue of hygiene. Sheep may be clean animals, but we still had to deal with `drainage', and we never did get rid of all those droppings.

The destination turned out to be Stranraer. This is a picturesque fishing village on the shores of Loch Ryan in the southwest of Scotland. It was the home of Sir John Ross, the famous polar explorer. It also houses some noteworthy examples of late medieval architecture, such as the Castle of St John, but shepherds were noteworthy by their absence.

By now, I was beginning to have doubts about our delivery schedule, and the recipient seemed equally dubious when we lowered the hoist. "I'm a fisherman!'" he exclaimed. "What do I need these sheep for? I won't accept this shipment, but I will get Angus to watch over the animals while you deliver this load of fish."

The fish were, if anything, even worse than the sheep. They may not have been quite as noisy, but the smell was remarkable, and you don't know the meaning of the word `terror' until you're walking along the keel passage and slip on a herring. We made the flight at full power, hoping the slipstream would draw off some of the smell. This hope proved unfounded, but we did reach our next destination ahead of schedule. This was a textile mill in Hawick, some distance northwest of Newcastle on Tyne. It didn't seem the sort of place that would seem to have any urgent need for fish, and the manager was perplexed by our shipment.

"What am I supposed to do with fish?" he demanded. "You can't shear them and run their scales through a spinning wheel."

"No," I sighed, "I rather imagine you can't."

The man shook his head and gestured toward a row of crates. "I won't sign the order bill," he announced, "but will make out a temporary receipt and store the shipment for you so you can load these spools of twine."

Our final destination was a fish processing plant in Irvine, on the Firth of Clyde. This was once a prosperous port -- I believe Nobel had an explosives plant there during Queen Victoria's reign. It's fallen on hard times since then because of competition from Glasgow, but it's still home to several fish processing plants.

Our delivery was addressed to one of these. The fellows didn't seem entirely pleased to receive an assortment of cordage, but Scots are a stoic lot, used to dealing with life's vicissitudes. They agreed to find a place for the crates while we took aboard a load of dog biscuits.

"Sir" my head rigger remarked, after we'd swung these aboard, "I believe I detect something of a pattern here."

"So do I," I sighed. "Someone in the Carlisle office must have shuffled the consigner and consignee information when they drew up our route."

"What should we do?"

I glanced at our map of the Border Counties, checked the wind forecast, and studied the ballast board. We might face a bit of a challenge, but it never does to admit these things. "We'll carry this dog food to Bellingham, nip over to Hartlepool to pick up the sheepdogs, deliver them to Dumfries, recover the nets, fly these to Stranraer, bring the sheep back aboard, and transport those to Hawick where we'll load the fish for delivery here."

"Can we possibly manage?" he asked when I paused for breath.

"If we're quick about it, we can be home in time for our Christmas Eve dinner."

By the time Sanders finished his tale, even Miss Perkins was chuckling.

"Do things like that really happen in the Mail Service?" asked Clarice and Emily.

"More often than you might imagine," said Sanders, "but they are not widely advertised."

"Did you ever determine who was responsible for the slipup?"

The skipper smiled and shook his head. "I suppose we could have. But it was Christmas Season, and surely this is a time for forgiveness."

Delivery route

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you from the crew of His Majesty's Airship, the Flying Cloud! We hope you look back with joy upon the year that was and forward with anticipation to the year that is to come. The Royal Navy Airship Service will be on vacation for two weeks while our heroes (and heroines) relax on the beach. Season Eight will begin on 11-Jan-2016. We look forward to seeing you...

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