Beatrix Cumberland took the stairs to the top floor of the building in Brighton where the Aviation Performance Department made its home. She went by "Bix" because her parents were Peter-Rabbit lovers and she wasn't, either of the stories or the name "Beatrix."
Bix climbed the stairs two at a time, rehearsing the blast she was going to give at the top. Derrick Zane saw her coming to his office and sat up straight in anticipation of what was to come. Preemptive-strike was his strategy du jour today, so he greeted Bix with more than just a greeting. "I gather you're here about the roster for the new airplane."
While Bix glared at him, Derrick gestured for her to sit down and started his monologue. "Please let me finish and don't say anything for a few minutes. I think I'll cover what you're here to talk about. It's best if I cover all this before you say anything, so please bear with me."
"Let's suppose a company is flight-testing a dramatic and exotic new personal airplane. Let's also suppose that company has a world-renowned flight-test group. Further, let's suppose the head test pilot for that company found out her name was second on the flight-test roster for that new airplane. Is why you're here something like that?" Bix nodded her head and remained silent.
Derrick paused and leaned forward over his desk. "Have you ever doodled?" he asked.
Startled by the odd question, Bix responded, "I beg your pardon?"
Bix started honestly, "Well, yes," and then lied diplomatically, "but never in a staff meeting."
Derrick smiled and continued, "I've actually seen some of yours and could show you some of mine. But that's not my point here." He spun around in his swivel chair, once and again, and on the third turn snatched a bound volume off the shelf on the wall. It was silvery gray, standard colour for Performance Division memoranda, at least since they moved into the current headquarters in Brighton. On the spine it had the usual boring numerical identification, 2019-08-15-PETERS-A, the same on the cover with the additional title, An Evolution of Seven Personal-Transport Machines. "Have you seen this?"
"No," Bix offered, "but I've heard about it."
Derrick went on to describe the volume now open on his desk, "A while back we hired a college student finishing his sophomore year at Harvard, in the States, majoring, of all things, in Political History. Being a young intern here just for the summer, he got the lowliest job we could fabricate, writing test schedules for jet engines. As dull as designing engine tests might be, scheduling already-designed tests was ever-so-much less exciting. Untaxed by the work before him, our intern decided to doodle in his plentiful free time." Derrick started flipping through the book before him.
"His `doodling' took the form of seven airplane-to-spaceship designs. He wrote up this memorandum with his imagination's output, but his was more than sketch lines on a napkin or on a staff-meeting outline. His doodles took the form of this 178-page discussion of his seven visions of personal transportation."
"Here is `Aero,' the first of the seven. As you well know, it's a personal, five-place transoceanic airplane, strictly subsonic, and flyable by people of relatively low skill. The amazing thing to me is that a £2-million personal jet-car could become such a financial success, but that was quite a few years after this `doodle' document. Here are drawings of Aero, views with the wings folded as a car and with the wings outstretched in its airplane mode. Here are heat flow diagrams and fuel-flow calculations for hydrogen to get from the storage tank underneath the trunk to the four engines. Oh, look, here are aerodynamic wing-shadow diagrams for the canard design. He alludes to fifth-degree and seventh-degree aerodynamic formulae that he doesn't know but figures will be needed for power curves."
Bix looked up from the book and asked, "Aren't those the Aaronson equations?"
"They would be," Derrick responded, "except that Henry Aaronson who wrote them in graduate school was entering his freshman year in high school when this was written. Oh, yes, here are Aero's internal heating and cooling diagrams, and here is the internal air pressurization system. It says here, `I don't think anybody spending the kind of time I hope to spend in an airplane should live in the typical cold and thin-air airplane environment 15 C (60 F) and 700 millibars (20 inches of mercury). Even at its highest cruise altitude of 90 millibars (21000 meters or 13 miles high), we intend for Aero to maintain 25 C (80 F) and 1100 millibars (32 inches). Besides the obvious creature-comfort factor, a physically-pampered pilot is a safer pilot.' He also diagrams the hot air flow from the engines through the fronts of the wings, front and back, to maintain warm, ice-free wings. This is just a college kid doodling about fantasy airplanes and we still make Aeros to this day and we still make a lot of money selling them."
"Here is `Bullet,' number-two on the doodle list. We still make these things too, supersonic, transoceanic airplanes for five people. There's a lot more here on fuel flow and heat removal as well as how the wing responds to turbulence. It's scary how close the final model came out to what was written in this book so many years earlier."
As Derrick flipped through to the last chapter on Gryphon he said, "Crescent, Daemon, Elephant, Feather, Gryphon. I would love to live to see Gryphon fly, seven people earth to moon in six hours. Here he has the trajectory formulae and diagrams and, oh yes, the trajectories and requirements for flying it with one and even two engines not working. You really don't want to get stuck halfway between earth and moon without enough fuel and power to get to one end or the other, and to land there."
Bix admired the work and reached out to touch it. Derrick pushed the volume her way as he flipped it open to the third chapter, "Crescent." Here was a hypersonic five-seat flying machine claimed to be "the ultimate airplane." The teenage author wrote, and Derrick read to Bix, "`While I hesitate to declare anything ultimate in the world of advancing technology, I feel a flying machine faster than Mach 20 and higher than 10 millibars (40000 meters or 25 miles high) really becomes a spaceship rather than an airplane. Crescent is a true airplane, deriving both lift and thrust from what little atmosphere exists at its upper-stratospheric altitude. So it is ultimate in classification, not in performance.' Holy smokes, Bix, this is a summer-student kid writing this!"
Crescent was presented in two forms, one hydrogen-gas powered by combustion and the other nuclear, presumably hydrogen fusion, not yet a reality in 2019. It was a three-way symmetric flying machine, no flying car here, all airplane, an egg-shaped passenger compartment tapering in the front to three small wings at two, six, and ten o'clock and flaring in the back to three larger main wings at twelve, four, and eight o'clock. There were retractable wheels from the bottom front control surface and from the lower two main wings in the back. The material that could stand flying at two-thirds of earth-orbital speed, even at one-percent air pressure, had not been invented yet, but its required characteristics were described in detail in this third chapter of the "doodling" book.
Bix turned the book around and flipped through its old pages. She looked at the aerodynamic analysis from so long ago and the wing-shadow analysis where the front winglets would create an aerodynamic shadow to reduce drag from the cabin and main wings. She noticed the complex seat, seatbelt, and harnesses so passengers would be comfortable with the acceleration and deceleration to and from twenty times the speed of sound. One could wonder who would spend £10 million on such an exotic speed craft, but Bix suspected the financial folks wondered the same thing about the £2-million Aero or the £5-million Bullet, both of which were financial successes and both of which were still creating revenue and profit for the company.
Bix also noticed a paragraph on how this prototype would likely be less stable than the others, that the reach from conventional "two-wing" airplane design to this strange three-wing symmetric craft would involve extrapolating conventional design to new areas. "I would call the new prototype `Charybdis' instead of `Crescent' until test flight has rectified whatever instabilities are found or until docile flight characteristics are confirmed." So that was why the sign on the hangar said "Charybdis" instead of "Crescent."
Bix looked up at Derrick. "So this was done by a teenager working a summer job here?"
"Oh yes," said Derrick. "Do you realize what that teenager did after he wrote that?"
Bix said, "I have some idea."
"Well, let's see. After he got his Ph.D. from Cambridge in metallurgy, he joined Performance Division in a general capacity and found a strange mix of roles in all three areas here, Design, Prototype, and Flight Test. In fact, he became our lead test pilot in time to fly Aero. He ran Design for quite a few years, did some fantastic work on his own, and attracted some of the finest talent in the world. After a brief period running Prototype, he found himself running the entire Performance Division and sitting in this office for his last decade and a bit." Derrick pointed to the office entrance. "That's his name on the door of this office, nobody has found the nerve to remove it."
"I thought he was famous for being a pilot."
"Yes, he did that, too, maybe more. He settled into a rhythm where he would fly his own `missions' Sunday through Tuesday, work here Wednesday through Friday, and spend Saturday at home with his family near Amsterdam. He managed to accumulate an amazing number of flight hours. There were a lot of transoceanic dinner runs where he would grab two or three people for an overnight trip. They would jump in the Aero, fly across the Atlantic to New York City, have dinner there, and get back in time for work the next morning. There were lots of other off-the-wall trips." Derrick looked around his office, still usually referred to as "Abe's office" with his name still on the door, and continued. "He started a group of fly-for-hire pilots who flew for hire where nobody wanted to know. It was called the Wolfpack and they're still around. They called it `running ammo' and I'm sure a few gun-and-weapon deliveries were part of the package. Also getting people to places they didn't want other people to know about was a big part of the Wolfpack mystique. There are other stories with more of a comic-book flair, but they may be true as well. More recently, he was the first pilot to land an airplane atop Mount Olympus."
Bix raised an eyebrow. "Mount Olympus?"
"Well, it was Olympus Mons on Mars. It's still pretty cool."
"So you see, Bix, the decision of who was going to fly Charybdis was made a long time ago, before you started working here, before you were born even. It is not a reflection on you, your abilities, your work ethic, your attitude, or anything. You're coming in at the end of a legacy and you're still a junior member of the club. His name goes on top and it's up to him to accept or decline our invitation to fly this airplane."
"I'm counting on you to support having Abe on top of the roster for Charybdis. I was hoping you would be enthusiastic about it, but I'll settle for passive indifference. Abe has earned this one, Bix. Try to be nice about it between now and test flight next Tuesday."
Bix looked directly at Derrick. "I can do that. But isn't he old? How well does he see and hear? How good are his reflexes?"
"You know, Bix, I thought of those things as well. That's why I'm glad my best test pilot is going to be right there."
"Am I supposed to take over from the right seat?"
"Well, first of all, Abe likes the right seat, so you can have the left seat, the usual seat of command. Second, I expect your hands to be right there ready to take over if Abe falters. He may deserve first on the roster and support that, but I want that airplane test flown the way it should be done and I want you there to make sure that happens. Are you good with that?"
Bix nodded. "I probably don't have much choice, but I can accept the lead-from-behind role gracefully."
It started as quiet whispers among the older members of the Flight Test group. "Abe's coming." The rumours spread to the younger members. "Abe's coming next Tuesday." The young guys had heard about Abe but most had never actually met him. He was a legend in flight-test circles. "Abe's going to be right here next week!"
It didn't take long before the Design group got involved in the buzz. "Is Abe coming?" More whispers and gossip circulated in the hallways. "Abe's going to be here here. He ran the Design group for years." When the Prototype group heard about the upcoming visit, the buzz became more of a buzz saw, a frenzy. "When is he coming? Where's he going to be? Who can see him?"
As top dog of the pilots, Bix found the fuss frustrating. After all, wasn't she the star of the Flight Test group? Nobody made that kind of fuss about her. It's hard for a top dog to get comfortable with a bigger dog coming.
On the other hand, it's hard to look at Abe's record without a lot of respect. The seventy-five years since his design of Crescent, or Charybdis as the case may be, were more than just impressive. At various points in his career he was head of all three groups, Design, Prototype, and Flight Test, before he finally spent eleven years in charge of the entire Performance Division. He racked up 135 thousand flight hours along the way. While half of that may have been asleep with the autopilot flying, at least ten thousand of those hours were yanking and banking test-flying various designs, prototypes, airplanes, and engines.
Bix flip-flopped between the two modes about Abe, jealousy and admiration. He clearly had paid his dues, so Bix could justify his elevated status by telling herself that she might earn the same respect and awe when she was a little bit older.
One of the mouldy-old pilots was Tim Wier. He was now working in Records and Documentation, sort of a desk-job retirement for test pilots after they did their ten years flying in the danger seat. He was an admirer of Abe from his day when the two flew together a few times.
Tim took Bix aside and gave her some encouragement. He explained the mystique about Abe and pointed out that Abe had a bigger-than-life aura about him even when he was young. There were all kinds of stories being told about Abe's flying stunts. There were major press events around his designs' test flights, Aero and Bullet, both decades ago. "I was a stud pilot and I learned to fly high in Abe's shadow. There's no shame in it. It's almost like nobody would think of comparing one of him to one of us."
She looked up "Charybdis." It turns out Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey had one of his many threats a passage between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis between Sicily and Italy. Scylla was a rock on one side while Charybdis was the whirlpool on the other side, with a narrow, scary path between them. In Homer's book, Scylla made off with a few sailors when Ulysses sailed by. The whirlpool Charybdis was even scarier than the rock monster.
So why give a new-airplane prototype the name of a mythical whirlpool? That thought occurred to Bix as she went to sleep Monday night before the test flight.
The excitement on Tuesday morning was intense. The Charybdis airplane was pulled out of the hangar and the usually-cloudy English skies were perfectly clear. Everybody was outside in the warm summer air, the folks from Design, Prototype, and Flight Test were milling around behind the ropes since first light, around four o'clock in the morning. Bix showed up on the scene right at sunrise, five o'clock, slipped under the rope, and walked out to the waiting airplane.
Three-fold symmetry isn't the usual airplane design. It didn't appear in any of Abe's other designs either. The later designs, the spaceship designs, had other symmetries, seven for Feather, five for Gryphon, but neither of those were built or were likely to be built anytime soon. In a world of normal, "two-wing" airplanes, Charybdis stood out as a "three-wing" design. It's clear, egg-shaped cabin had five visible seats in it, two in front and three in back. The middle back seat folded to let people in and out through the fold-down stairs in the back. Looked at from right in front, the three winglets in front and the three large wings in the back formed a six-sided asterisk. The door with stairs in the back was still closed and the three powerful engines were still silent.
Bix slowly walked around the airplane with all kinds of thoughts. Part of her hoped she could establish her social position by being a better pilot than this legend, Abe. Part of her hoped he would be as good as they said. Besides learning cool things about flying from a greater master, it would be a true status symbol flying with him. Part of her felt it was vain and petty to worry about her social status while another part told her it was just a part of professional life. At least the test flight won't be boring, she figured, and it has to be a positive thing for me to do it with Abe. Besides, anybody with his record has to be an interesting person to fly with.
At seven o'clock an airplane appeared on final approach. It was the original prototype of Aero flying in from Holland. Since there were several automobile prototypes at that time called by colour, "the red car," "the yellow car," "the green car," and "the blue car," the silver-gray Aero prototype got the nickname "the gray car" which stuck. So now the gray car was on final approach in Brighton, a piece of aviation history right here. Was it really over six decades ago that it was test flown, also right here?
The gray car touched down, folded its wings, and drove next to the new airplane. There was room in between for a third airplane which was landing right after Abe. It was Dave Miller, also known by the nickname "Chirp," another former test pilot, flying the first prototype of Bullet, which the gossip guys had named "the purple car." This purple-car, Bullet prototype was now thirty years old and thirty years newer than the gray car. Its wings also folded and Chirp drove it in between the thirty-year-older and thirty-year-newer airplanes on the ramp. It made a great photo opportunity for the news people to have the three airplanes side by side by side.
Abe climbed out of his gray car and walked slowly over to Charybdis. He threw back his head and looked up at "his" machine. Then he turned to Chirp and said, "Thanks for coming." Dave said he was glad to be there and walked back behind the ropes.
Bix and Abe were alone with the new airplane. Abe turned to face Bix and introduced himself formally, "Ms. Cumberland, I'm Dr. Abraham Peters. Thou can call me `Abe.'" One of Abe's more-famous idiosyncracies around the Performance Division was his use of the traditional-formal second-person pronouns "thou/thee/thy" (singular) and "ye" (plural) instead of the popular "you" that has been standard English for four and a half centuries.
Bix returned the introduction, "You can call me `Bix,' please, anything but `Beatrix.' I look forward to flying with you this morning. Let's take a look at our airplane."
With Bix in tow, Abe walked over to Charybdis, slowly as one would expect of somebody in his mid-nineties. He ran his fingers along the front and rear turbine blades of the lower engines and said, with a smile, "Did thou check the top engine? If they followed my design, there's a ladder in the stairs door. Could thou open it for me?"
Bix opened the door and stopped the stairs from coming all the way down. She slid out the ladder, unfolded it, leaned it against the back of the airplane, and climbed up to inspect the top engine herself. She ran her fingers along the turbine blades in the back and walked around to the front of the engine along the top of the clear egg to check out the turbine blades there. Then she came around, climbed back down, and put the ladder away. She felt a bond with this old, bold pilot in doing this.
It took Abe about an hour to inspect every aspect of Charybdis, winglets and wings, control surfaces, and landing gear. He climbed the stairs and settled into the right seat with Bix climbing behind him. It was quarter to nine, fifteen minutes to scheduled test flight.
Abe reached out and shut off the radios, not just transmit-off but completely off. "I don't know what they're recording of this `historic moment,' but I just want a word or two, test pilot to test pilot. I appreciate thee giving me this moment in the record books, but the hard, cold reality is I'm ninety-four years old. I don't see that well, I don't hear that well, and I have to figure my reflexes aren't what they were. I really think I can fly this thing, no doubt about that, but I would prefer being embarrassed to being extinguished if I'm wrong. Please keep thy hands close to the controls and be ready in case I mess this up. Things can happen fast." Then he flipped the radio on and called International AirSpace Control. "AirSpace, Prototype Charybdis."
A voice came back on the speaker, crystal clear and familiar to Abe. "Charybdis, AirSpace." Then the introductions began, "Charybdis, AirSpace, this is Reykjavík, this is Joe."
Abe responded, "Joe, Charybdis, this is Abe. We're ready to roll." Then he explained to Bix, "Joe's no spring chicken either. He was my AirSpace controller for the gray car and the purple car, that's Aero and Bullet. Thou probably already know that." Back on the air, "Joe, I have Bix with me. I expect she'll be doing a lot of the flying today." Bix wasn't sure what Abe meant by it, but she decided not to worry about it and to concentrate on the airplane instead, as was her job.
She looked at the control wheel and the rudder bar that Abe had designed instead of foot pedals for Aero and Bullet. She looked at the three throttle controls in between the two seats and noticed the center one was higher for the top engine. There was a left-right control on the top throttle for exhaust venting left and right, so the airplane could roll with only engines and no control-surface input. This was another Abe innovation made popular in Aero and Bullet, the idea that engines only should control an airplane, or at least be able to control it. The array of sixty-degree wing angles was not a comfortable view for Bix. She figured she was just used to two-wing airplanes and that she would have to get used to a three-wing flying machine.
Three engines started with a low-pitch "voop" sound, one, two, three, "voop," "voop," "voop." They were almost silent from inside the egg. A holographic heads-up display appeared with all kinds of high-technology information on it, stuff that wasn't available seventy-five years ago. Abe announced his intentions and taxied Charybdis to the active runway for takeoff.
There was an old humour song from America, "The moment had come, I swallowed my gum." This was clearly a gum-swallowing moment for everybody, most so for Bix in the left seat. The formality of "cleared for takeoff" from Joe became "Go for it, Abe," and they started rolling along the runway with the thrust of three powerful, nuclear engines.
Abe's hands were quite busy. In addition to his right hand on the control wheel and rudder bars, his left fingers were busy on the throttles balancing the engines. "They're not as even as I hoped," Abe said as they accelerated. The front of the airplane broke ground, it lurched to one side, Abe corrected it, it started nosing up a bit, then pitched down, and straightened out. Abe was correcting vigourously and Bix was following with her hands. As she was anticipating taking control from Abe, the climb path straightened out nicely.
Abe climbed out over the water to the south of Brighton and stopped at 700 millibars (3000 meters, two miles high). He looked at the thrust meters on the display and said, "Look at that. We're doing 1000 kilometers an hour, that's 600 miles per hour, on fifty kilowatts, sixty-five horsepower. That's the power of a Piper Cub going about eighty miles per hour. We're more than a bit more efficient. The Design guys did their job on that one."
Then Abe started his test routine, right turn, left turn, right climbing turn, left climbing turn, right descending turn, left descending turn, straight-ahead stall, then a pause to collect his thoughts. Abe continued his routine, roll right, roll left, spin right, spin left, and snap roll right. Then he stopped exercising the airplane and flew it level for a while, north, back to Brighton.
Abe came into the airport and lined up to land his airplane. With some quick movement in both hands, he landed smoothly. The second takeoff was smooth, far less exciting than the first. Abe flew it around and landed it, again smoothly. Abe's third takeoff was also smooth and Abe headed south. All of this was done without any comment from either pilot. Bix watched eagerly but patiently.
After five minutes of straight-and-level flight that seemed like an eternity to Bix, he gestured to offer her the controls and she accepted. He finally spoke, "Look out, it's twitchy." If there's one way to get a hot-headed, big-ego test pilot upset, then giving her a condescending warning is clearly it. Bix was momentarily enraged, but calmed down quickly to get to work flying Charybdis.
Bix took her wheel in her left hand and put her right three fingers on the throttle levers. The airplane flew smoothly for a few seconds, the nose pitched up, Bix pushed forward, and then the nose went steeply down. Bix started to pull and felt Abe's finger holding the wheel on his side from going further up. She followed his lead and let the wheel stay where Abe wanted it. The airplane leveled out and Bix was able to control it, but it wasn't easy. It felt like she was riding a bronco. Charybdis was aptly named, wanting to swirl one way or the other all the time. Bix found herself covered in sweat very quickly as she struggled to keep this airplane flying smoothly. She eased the airplane northward back to Brighton.
As they neared the airport they had left, Abe asked the question. "Want to land it?" The answer was obvious, in the negative, Bix didn't want to do anything anymore, but she wasn't going to give in to fear. Actually, it was more about ego and pride, she wasn't going "to wuss out" in front of everybody. Abe offered, "Make thy own decision. Nobody knows who's flying this thing and I'm happy to testify, under oath if thou prefer, that thou flew this thing from our first takeoff."
Bix looked at Abe and they smiled at each other. "I can do this," she said, "but please keep your hands near." Charybdis was a fast-flying airplane even at its slow speeds, so its approach speed was 280 kilometers per hour, 175 miles per hour, and the ground was approaching faster than Bix was comfortable with. She sweated her way down a long final approach to the runway and got the airplane down without any bouncing or wobbling. "I can do another," she said as Abe nodded his approval. She did her first takeoff in Charybdis, smooth and sweet, and landed it again. After her second takeoff and third landing, with an audible sigh of relief, Bix taxied Charybdis back next to Aero and Bullet on the ramp and turned off the three engines one by one, "voop," "voop," "voop." She was seriously drenched in her own sweat and Abe wasn't exactly dry, either.
The two members of the triumphant crew of Charybdis walked down the stairs in the back, Bix first, then Abe. There was a steady applause and Abe maintained his position behind Bix and let her take her bows. She felt a bit funny smiling and waving, but figured she could always apologize later for being a ham.
Bix walked over to Tim, the older test pilot with the desk job, and away from Charybdis and Abe and all the fuss. The two of them walked away from the airport, but not toward the office. After a few minutes, Tim asked, "What happened up there?"
Bix snapped back, "Isn't it obvious?"
"Actually, no, nothing was obvious except a well-flown test. The airplane looked a little wobbly on its first takeoff, but then you two had things looking under control. You flew away, came back, landed three times, flew away, and landed three more times. All of it looked fine from here, maybe better than fine."
"No, it wasn't fine, not for me anyway. I couldn't fly that machine." Bix shook her head. "He was rolling it, spinning it, and he even snap-rolled it and I couldn't even get it straight and level without his help. I'm good at what I do, I think I'm the best at what I do, and I couldn't even test-fly an airplane, barely able to land and take off again, and he did a snap roll in it out over the water before he turned back."
Tim looked at her puzzled. "A snap roll?"
"Yeah, he did a snap roll. What's the big deal?"
"One snap roll?"
Bix was getting more annoyed at this interchange. "Yes," she shouted, "one snap roll, a lot more than I could do."
"A snap roll to the right?"
"Not another one to the left?"
"No. Why don't you believe me?"
Tim looked at Bix again. "Abe has a routine that he followed, `forever and always' as he says it. Right and left turns, right and left climbing turns, ordinary stall, right and left spin, right and left snap, and then the good stuff."
"What good stuff? What I saw was pretty good, a whole lot better than I could do," Bix pouted.
Tim's eyes lit up. "No, you don't get it. You didn't see him do any of his now-famous kick turns, shoulder rolls, or pirouettes. He didn't even do the second snap roll, the one to the left. Something happened in that first snap roll that scared the shit out of Abe. And, let me tell you, Bix, he doesn't scare easy. I'd love to know what happened up there, but I'm glad I was here on the ground if Abe was agitated."
Tim tried to comfort the now-fragile ego of the young test pilot. "Bix, whatever happened up there was still in a stratospheric level of flying ability. That airplane had to be impossibly hard to fly if you were struggling. Please don't walk away from this thinking you failed, or let anybody down, or are anything less than you were a week ago before all this started. This is a strange world of leading edge, bleeding edge, over the edge aviation technology that takes the best the best of us can do, and sometimes takes a little more. That's why you wear parachutes and that's why they pay us `the big bucks' as the Americans say."
Abe and Derrick caught Bix and Tim as they were walking back. Abe said, "Can the four of us meet upstairs?" So they all walked to the office Abe used for his last eleven years in Performance Division and Derrick currently occupied, the head-honcho, big-enchilada office with the huge corner windows and glass wall viewing the top floor.
Abe walked into the office first and, without asking anybody's permission, went around the desk and sat in the seat of power behind it. Derrick looked a little puzzled. Abe said, "That's still my name on the door, this is my office, at least for today, so this is my chair, and I have a few points to make before the celebration begins. Can ye close the door please?
"Out there is celebration, even a big cake with a runway on it and a model of my Charybdis airplane. I don't want to take anything away from your joy out there, but there are few things to say in here first. I'd like to get this stuff out of the way.
"First, does anybody have any problem with the Design area? Did they design and create a good airplane? Did they do their mathematical homework with the flight equations? Are we all good on their work?"
Derrick sat up straight and said, "Yes, I'm happy with their work."
"Good," said Abe. "So what about Prototype? Did they build a good airplane? Were finish and control characteristics taken into account? Were their wind-tunnel tests okay, were vibration analysis done, and did they run all three engines thoroughly in the test cell? Are we all good on their work?
Derrick sat up a little straighter and repeated, "Yes, I'm happy with their work."
"I don't have to ask about Flight Test." While Bix and Tim started to squirm, Abe looked directly at Bix. "I'm utterly satisfied with the pilot who sat beside me. She was utterly competent and handled herself to my satisfaction." Bix felt a little bit vindicated and appreciated the praise. "So Design created an airplane that Prototype built and tested and Flight Test was ready to fly. We're all in agreement on that.
"Now I'm going to take you all to a parallel universe. It's exactly the same as this one until four o'clock this morning when an old man who hasn't worked here in two dozen years got the sniffles and a pounding sinus headache and decided not to fly the prototype today. I figure Bix would have put Peter Nyad in the right seat because he's a good, young pilot and he's good at the kinds of manoeuvres Bix doesn't really like to do. Yes, I really read the reports I still get from Performance. What else am I going to do with my spare time at my age? At five this morning the two of them walk out to Charybdis, all aglow about their upcoming test flight."
Abe picked up the trash can and held it in the air. "They lower the stairs and get into the airplane just like we did and they taxi to the runway just like we did. The airplane lifts off the ground, just like we did, cuts left and turns up just like we did, and then it noses down hard, just like we did. Bix, here, can thou hold this?" He tossed the trash can to Bix who caught it easily.
"When the nose hits the runway, there is a collective gasp. Nuclear engines don't make a fireball, so there's a horrible scraping sound and there's a collection of bent metal and broken Lexanite with about 110 liters of guts and bones brightened red with ten liters of fresh blood." Bix realized why Abe gave her the trash can.
"Derrick realizes he better call the families of Bix and Peter before they see the crash on the news while Tim is frantic trying to figure out what to say when he calls me to tell me what just happened to my very-dear prototype airplane. Ye're all running around like headless chickens." That's when Bix leaned over and vomited into the trash can.
Abe turned serious, even put on his Nasty Look. "Design created and Prototype built and pre-tested an airplane that Flight couldn't fly, and nobody figured that out until a ninety-four year old pilot who hasn't worked here in almost a quarter century saved you from worse than disgrace. Design did their job, Prototype did theirs, and Flight Test did theirs. Yet the result was clearly unacceptable. So what happened?"
"I'll tell thee what happened, Derrick. I sat in this chair for eleven years. Like Yertle the Turtle, I was king of all I could see." Abe gestured out the internal window to the offices and desks of the Performance Division. "Look out there at all those happy, hardworking people scurrying around conceiving, designing, making, and testing engines, fuel systems, and wing designs, also fast cars and high-flying airplanes. We even did a couple of boat designs in my day." Then he turned and gestured out the window facing outside. "Look out there at the airport, the runway, and the prototypes. Over there are the nitrogen hangars where the old airplanes live. And I was king of all this, all I could see."
"Thou know the best part. I'm going to tell Bix and Tim the dirty little secret of being head honcho of Performance Division. Ninety-nine days out of a hundred, there isn't a damned thing to do. I didn't even come to work Mondays and Tuesdays, spent those days flying all over the world, running guns and sucking up to high-paying passengers in the gray car, and I still didn't have much to do. Good people run things themselves and good managers run what little is left by themselves, so all the big-shot here has to do is look good in meetings. I hope I haven't blown thy cover, Derrick, but that's the way it was and I figure that's still the way it is." Deep breath, long pause, and Abe swiveled the chair around and pulled out another bound volume from the shelf, not too far from his famous memorandum from 2019.
"Until it isn't and there really is something to do." He dropped the book on the table and a cloud of dust emerged from it. The binder had 2033-01-12-PETERS-A on it and the cover said just Issues Around Charybdis. "I wrote this in 2033, six months after Aero had its test flight. Did anybody read this before ye designed, built, and flew this airplane?" All were silent. "I didn't think so."
"This was written after Aaronson published his flight equations. More importantly, I had my doctorate when I wrote it, I test-flew the gray car six months earlier, and I knew quite a bit more about airplane design than as a teenager." He opened the book. "Here are the Aaronson equations for a canard, and here are the conditions, nearly-straight flat wings in the shadow of a straight-flat-wing canard, hardly the sixty-degree angle found in Charybdis. Ye have to go back to the differential equations, I said here, and I suggested going back not just to Aaronson's form but all the way back to the sines and cosines and arctangents his equations come from."
"Here's the deal. The wing shadow of the front canard-like assembly is fine super-sonic, but has two nasty unstable nodes in sub-sonic flight. The main wings live comfortably in the soft, stable area between the two messy nodes, right? Except that maybe those nodes aren't exactly where we thought, maybe those nodes are a little forward or a little aft, maybe they create vortices right around the main wings in back, and maybe somebody should make sure that the intuition of a Harvard sophomore majoring in Political History checks out. I said that here in this second paper, the one nobody, apparently, bothered to read, the one that's dusty from sixty years of sitting on my shelf. Maybe, Derrick, Design needed a little push beyond what worked well for all the other, more conventional airplanes."
"Oh, yes, engine test. We know combustion engines, hydrogen burners and all that. We don't know nuclear yet and how it responds, more importantly, the response characteristics. All three engines were tested, yes, one at a time, but did anybody put all three engines in the test cell and run them up together? They didn't track and that kept Bix and me very busy up there, distracted at times we really didn't want to be distracted. The main-airplane vibration modes were clearly well tested, but I wasn't happy with the dynamic stability, the sort of things we can test in the wind tunnel but nobody bothers anymore. It says right here that these things have to be tested because this airplane is so different."
"An airliner flies from 250 to 1000 kilometers per hour, so it has a four-to-one speed range. We're building a machine that flies from 250 to 20 thousand. That's an 80-fold range. Allow for the compression from air density, an airliner has a two-to-one range while Crescent has an eight-to-one range. That's a lot to ask and that's why the design is so aggressively different. Those differences have to be respected and," Abe slapped the opened-book pages, "I told you so right here."
"Bix, I'm not through." She wiped her face and looked at Abe. "Thou flew the simulator with the flight characteristics thou got from Design and Prototype, right?" She nodded. "I spent nine hours over here in the simulator last week, in the middle of the night, flying the flight equations in here!" Abe pounded the book again and another cloud of dust rose, dramatic emphasis to his point. "They were there in the computer to be flown, or was it enough for thee to believe in Design and Proto and the Easter Bunny? It's thy ass up there, so why weren't thou better prepared? More importantly, why wasn't the head of Performance getting on thy case to fly every possible configuration. I was ready for Charybdis because I flew all the predictive versions right here in the simulator, even the bad ones, even the silly ones. I was ready for the whirlpool while ye were complacent." This last was aimed at both Derrick and Bix with both arms pointing at them for emphasis.
"So, Derrick, it's time to man up and earn this seat. We're going to leave this office with smiles on our faces, and with that mess wiped off, Bix, ready to party, ready to celebrate, enjoying our success. We dodged a bullet (or maybe an `Aero') and we're going to learn from it, right?"
Bix and Derrick and Tim just sat there. Abe repeated, "We're going to learn from it, right?"
All three nodded their heads.
"Oh, one more thing," said Abe. "I want that prototype destroyed, or at least totally disabled." Every prototype in company history was lovingly preserved in hangars, with oxygen pumped out and nitrogen pumped in so they wouldn't rust or corrode, so Abe wanting to dismantle a prototype seemed strange. "Any other car or airplane in there can be driven or flown, but this thing will kill the next pilot who tries to fly it. I want it disabled so nobody will think of trying to fly it."
Derrick asked, "What would you have us do?"
"Ye could pull the guts out of the engines, I suppose, maybe pull the flight-control cables out, too. I'd love to have it as a piece of history, just as it is, but, really, nobody flies it. It's a death-trap, and not the funny, comic-book type, but a real, live, kill-people death-trap. Get it disabled now."
The party was a lot of fun. Bix, Derrick, and Tim managed to get into the swing of the thing without feeling morose, embarrassed, or guilty. After all, the division did get through the test flight unscathed, at least with Abe's help, and the Crescent project was going to move forward.
Still, Bix was confused and cried herself to sleep that night.
Bix felt there was some unfinished business and she asked Tim about it the next morning.
"What are you looking for, Bix?"
"I'm not sure, Tim. I feel there's something more here, some kind of `Abe club' around here that I'm not a member of. Does flying with Abe count, or is there something more?"
"Well, I suppose I can tell you a little more about Abe and the whole flying-with-Abe thing." Tim furrowed his brow for a second. "Back in the day, gosh, listen to me, I sound like an old man already. Back in my day, there were various circles around Abe. The innermost circle was a community of two friends from childhood. One died young from a disease and the other passed away five years ago at age eighty-nine. They were friends since they were both four. The last friend was Peter Weingard, a surgeon in real life, but his AirSpace name was `Pencil.'"
"The next circle is the old Wolfpack. Along with his now-famous airplane designs, he also wrote a plan for some kind of `freedom fighting.' I think it was his plan to remove immigration barriers so people in oppressed places could get to less-oppressed places. The Wolfpack grew out of that effort and it's still around, although he hasn't been involved running anything in it for a long time. Chirp was part of that and I'm told he still runs things. Those guys could fly like nobody else and they went places that were truly dangerous. I never got the details, but I heard these were places where trespassing pilots were shot down. The term Abe used for that kind of flying was, `where they keep score.' Flying where somebody dies when two pilots see each other in the sky was `keeping score' in Abe's lingo and `wet missions' were planned flights to those places. Sounds kind of like an old spy movie, doesn't it?"
"I don't know how much of this was real, I'm not sure it matters, but Abe had a routine he taught younger pilots. It's a terrible, scary routine and we walked away feeling like worms with our faces in the dirt, like we didn't know anything about aviation. It isn't just that Abe was better, there was a whole world of aviation we weren't ready for."
Bix chimed in, "A better world?"
Tim went on. "Yeah, maybe a better world, but clearly another world. You've managed to get terribly far without being a part of it. Part of me wonders how I would live without being part of it and part of me is envious of you living outside of it.
"You see, Bix, it's also a darker world. Behind the wet missions of the Wolfpack, running ammunition and supplies into Rwanda and sneaking across hostile places at night with all the instruments off, which I do, maybe once or twice a month, there's a deeper, darker presence behind it. I enjoy being a part of something outside the system, maybe I'm more American than English in that, but there are forces behind there that I hope are for good. Chirp knows a lot more about them than I do."
"You make it sound like some kind of spy-novel adventure."
"It really does sound that way, doesn't it? And all you have do to get your feet wet is to fly with Abe tomorrow morning. I believe in what we are, dark or whatever, spy-novel or whatever, and I'd like you to be part of what we are. Wouldn't it be cool flying Crescent on real missions?
"Look, Bix, you don't have to decide anything just because you fly some hard manoeuvres with Abe tomorrow morning, but the temptation will be there. You can already yank and bank with the best of them, but there's a situational awareness (How's `situational awareness' for a technical sounding term for knowing where you are?) you get flying Abe's way. And once you have that, well, it's not that big a leap for doing stuff for people who want to be outside the system."
Bix asked the obvious question. "How do you know Abe will fly with me?"
"Because I asked him and he said, `Yes.' You can go up in your Aero or take the gray car. He asked me to sit with you for the combat practice in separate airplanes. Pencil used to do that, when he was alive, and he saved my life a few times. You won't believe what Abe can do as an opponent, even when he isn't trying to kill you, when it isn't `keeping score.'"
Bix smiled and nodded. Then she stopped smiling, stood up, and said, "Okay, I'll do it."
Bix didn't sleep well that night, not knowing what could possibly be coming, a mix of eagerness, anticipation, and fear. It's hard for a top dog to get comfortable with bigger dogs.
She was out there at four o'clock, first light in Brighton in July, and met Abe at the gray car. He opened the left door and she climbed in. He got in the right seat and, wordless, they taxied out to the runway and took off south over the ocean as the clouds were just turning red in the east. Abe turned his head to the ruby red sky on the left as the airplane flew and looked at Bix.
Then, still wordless, the lesson begin. Abe did and Bix copied. It started easy, right turn, straight again, left turn, straight again, climbing right turn, straight, climbing left turn, straight, straight stall, roll right, roll left, spin right, spin left, right snap roll, left snap roll. When she didn't do it perfect, really perfectly, he simply repeated the manoeuvre and she got the idea. The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős once said, "Elementary does not mean easy," and it applied here. Simple moves had to be done with simply-expert precision.
Then Abe started the manoeuvres he made popular decades ago and had Bix repeat them. She was familiar with them, one at a time, in isolation. Abe hit her with them rapid fire, with no time in between to think. These manoeuvres rely on the multiple, strong engines of the Aero and its prototype, the gray car they were flying this morning.
Even without its wings, Aero is a very nice, high-performance car. Its nine-liter, hydrogen-burning, internal-combustion, Wankel engine produces a megawatt (1320 horsepower) delivered nicely through a six-speed transmission to all four of its tyres. In fact, the car by itself is sold as the Model Four and its prototype, the yellow car, is kept in the nitrogen hangars. It's a whole lot of fun to drive, too.
The aviation side of Aero, its real purpose, its raisin d'etre, is a pair of wings and four small, strong jet engines, also hydrogen burners. The engines produce enough static thrust for 2.5 g-forces forward and 1.5 g-forces in reverse, more than enough for a comfortable hover pointed straight up or down. The high wings and engine tuck into the sides behind the back seat for driving and fold out with the engines for flight along with small wings and control surfaces in front. This design with the main wings in the back is called a "canard." The top engines are mounted on the wings while the bottom engines live on the sides of the car.
Abe's idea of flying tends to revolve around engine power. The control surfaces of ailerons and elevators take a back seat to using differential thrust among the engines to control the airplane. The bottom two engines are angled so Aero can roll left by pushing the bottom right throttle or right by pushing the bottom left throttle. Up thrust is achieved by increasing the bottom thrust or powering down the top engines. Watching Abe fly is all about his nimble fingers on the center throttles with little happening with the aerodynamic controls on the wheel in front of him. His manoeuvres are all about using engine thrust to control the airplane in unusual ways, typically well-suited for combat, "keeping score."
First he did "kick turns" where the airplane is turned around 180-degrees and flown backwards while the forward-thrusting engines reverse its direction. In his early days, the turn around was done by a hard press to the foot-pedal rudders, but Aero accomplishes it with a short, outward-engine thrust. Flying an airplane backwards is very hard, like driving a car in reverse at high speed, but after five or six seconds of high-power thrust, the airplane is flying forward again in the opposite direction. A kick turn gives the pilot a good view of whoever is following him and a chance to get a shot at him.
Then he did "shoulder rolls," kind of a cross between a negative-G loop and a roll with an axis of rotation 45-degrees offset. The airplane noses down sideways, tucks upside down, and comes up facing anywhere from 30 degrees to 120 degrees off of its original path. Shoulder rolls are not recommended for people who get airsick easily.
Finally, Abe did "pirouettes," pulling the airplane straight up into a hover, using the high-thrust engines to keep the airplane aloft, and then using the bottom two engines to rotate left and right for a good look around.
As soon as Bix was getting comfortable with the lessons, Abe raised the tempo and the standards. Bix was getting exhausted and frustrated, but she kept at it. There really wasn't anywhere to go from the cockpit anyway, so she figured she would just keep trying. After an hour, Abe headed back to the airport. Neither of them said a word.
Bix walked out of the gray car completely wet with sweat, and then Abe left his gray-car airplane. It dawned on her as she walked away that she should be all excited about flying the gray car, the very first prototype of the Aero, an airplane that has been all over the world in the hands of the world's most-capable pilot. Folks said Abe put 106 thousand hours on the gray car, lots of trans-oceanic trips.
She had done these manoeuvres many times, many thousands of times actually, but never with this degree of precision expected from her and never at such a fast tempo. She was used to allegro and this was presto.
The next morning they took Bix's Aero, sixty years newer but not much different. Abe opened the left door for Bix and she sat down, both still wordless as he got into the right side.
Instead he pointed Bix's airplane straight up in the air and let it drift down slowly to the pavement. Aero has three pieces sort-of poking out the back of the wings and the bottom so the airplane could rest on its tail. Abe said that was so the airplane could get into small spaces, helicopter style, but it certainly isn't a pleasure to deplane from an airplane parked pointing straight up on its tail feathers. Abe set the airplane down on its backside at the airport. The two of them set on their backs with their feet in the air staring at the sky for a moment.
Then Abe lifted the airplane a little bit into the air and started tapping on the three resting points in sequence. It started slowly, ...tap... ...tap... ...tap..., and then it got quicker and quicker, tap tap tap tap tap, and even faster, tappity tappity tappity tappity tap. Then he brought the airplane back into its hover and gestured to Bix to replay his three-legged tap dance.
Terrified, Bix took the throttles, nothing to do with the control wheel under these conditions, and shakily maintained the hover. She realized that Abe was almost-certainly too old to turn his head to look back down at the pavement, and then realized she wouldn't be able to turn her head and back in time not to mess up her airplane badly. So she let it down slowly until one leg touched, tap. Then she shifted the thrust and the next leg touched, more of a scrape than a tap, then the third, more of a clunk. Tap, tap, clunk, tap, scrape, tap, scrape, clunk, tap, tap, tap. After a few dozen of these minor bounces, Bix started to get the hang if it, around and around and around.
Bix remembered something she was taught about learning to do something hard. She said aloud, "Learn the motion first, then learn the rhythm." Abe nodded as she struggled with the task at hand. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Abe motioned with his hand to go the other way. Bix stopped the tapping, hovered for a moment, and slowly and carefully tapped, clunked, and scraped in the reverse direction. A minute or two found her comfortable tap-tap-tapping again. She reversed to the first direction, stopped, and reversed again. Abe grinned ear to ear and said his first word in two days, in a monotone, "aww-reet." Then they both looked at each other, grinned like children, and shouted together, "AWW-REET!" Then Abe added, "Very nice, now climb out and land," which Bix was happy to do.
The third morning started like the first two and then Abe had Bix handle his idea of "unusual attitudes." When normal pilots do unusual attitudes in their training, the airplane is still flying, just in a strange attitude and direction. Abe's idea is to have the airplane going one way, pointed some other way, and spinning yet a third way. Typically he had the airplane moving slowly enough that it would be falling rather than flying. That meant Bix had to power out of her unusual attitudes with engines rather than flight surfaces, no flying her way out of it. One might think a top test pilot would be used to that sort of thing, but Abe's exercises were a little more extreme than anybody else's. As soon as Bix extricated herself from one set of gyrations Abe put her in another, no rests, no let-ups. At the end, like the day before, they both looked at each other, grinned like children, and shouted together, "AWW-REET!" Then Abe added, "Very nice, now fly home and land," which Bix was happy to do.
The fourth morning Tim was there to meet Abe and Bix. Abe said to Tim, "You know the drill. No more Pencil, he's gone, so it's thou. I think the world of thee, but I'm still uncomfortable. There are three rules."
Tim cut in,
"Rule One: both of our asses are in this airplane and it won't be a happy story if we dunk it in the ocean.
Rule Two: as soon I feel any doubt about my ability to take control and to keep the airplane dry, I call the chase.
Rule Three: better one minute early than one second late."
Bix looked at the two older pilots with growing unease during their brief conversation.
They went up, Abe in one airplane and Bix flying the other with Tim in the right seat. The direction was follow Abe and try to get a shot at Abe before he gets a shot at you. "Don't worry," said Tim, "we're not `keeping score.'" It didn't reassure anybody—Bix was still worried.
Bix pointed up towards Abe who turned sharply left. Bix followed and Abe turned a brief right and more left. Again Bix followed, more turns, more following. Finally, she was this close to having Abe right in front of her when Abe pulled briefly up. As she started to pull, Tim called out, "Let go and look up!"
Bix looked up at the ocean above her. She was so caught up in catching Abe she didn't even realize she was upside-down. She gasped and righted her airplane as Abe slipped by beneath her.
A second chance, even with Bix aware of the threat, had the same outcome, and so did a third and fourth. The temptation to chase was irresistible and Abe had a seemingly-magic ability to get his opponents disoriented like this. There were stories about what happened to those opponents over Africa, South America, and even parts of Asia when Abe didn't want to be followed and was "keeping score."
The fifth and sixth chases had Bix aware of her orientation, but hopelessly out-manoeuvered and caught with easy shot opportunities.
Number seven was different. She chased Abe energetically and when she reached the point where she was supposed to pull up into the water. She lifted her head and looked at the ocean, mostly to reassure Tim, and then yanked hard enough to a downward loop that missed the water and faced her airplane directly at Abe's. "Bang!" she shouted into the radio microphone, "clean shot at you."
Abe's response was shouting, "Aww-reet!" over the radio.
Number eight she almost had him and then lost in a close chase, number nine Bix won in a close chase, and number ten she avoided the water but lost the dogfight.
Afterward, on the ground, Tim had to ask, "Did Pencil have any close calls?"
Abe said, "One pass ended up close enough to dunk one engine and extinguish it in the water, but it never got worse than that."
Tim said, "Does it get worse than that with everybody walking away at the end?"
"Not really I suppose. Thou did fine today, both of you did fine today. Actually, Bix did better than fine. I'm very happy with you." Bix was beside herself with pride and joy.
They called it "C-2" to avoid the issue of whether it was the second Charybdis or the first Crescent. Design solved the differential equations for the controls from first principles and used data from the previous test flight in their analyses. The control surfaces were now longer and tapered. Prototype did transverse wind-tunnel tests as well as straight-on and ran the engines together to make sure they tracked well. Bix spent dozens of hours in the simulator with the version of Crescent from the original studies, the version of Charybdis that Abe had made decades ago, and a new version developed with the results of the earlier test. Everybody went along with Abe's earlier rants, some more willingly than others, but the end result was an airplane Abe would have been proud of then and now.
Test flight day came, the crowds were out and about, Abe and Bix climbed in after a lengthy pre-flight inspection as before, and the gum-swallowing moment came at nine o'clock as planned. They smiled at each other and at the various cameras.
"AirSpace, Prototype Charlie-Two."
A voice came back on the speaker, crystal clear and familiar to Abe. "Charlie-Two, AirSpace." Then the introductions began again, "Charlie-Two, AirSpace, this is Reykjavík, this is Joe."
"Joe, Charlie-Two, this is Bix. I have Abe with me."
Takeoff was smooth and sweet, south over the ocean, a few minutes straight and level, and the regular routine started, left turn, straight again, climbing right turn, straight, climbing left turn, straight, straight stall, roll right, roll left, spin right, spin left, right snap roll, left snap roll.
Then the real stuff begin, kick turns, shoulder rolls, even a couple of pirouettes, before turning back to the airport. After three landings and takeoffs, C-2 turned back over the water, Bix turned to Abe and said, "Does thou want to fly it?"
"Are thou making fun of me? That's my thing, not thine."
"Do you want to fly this airplane?" she asked.
Abe nodded, said, "Yes," and took the controls for the first time. He turned back and did his three landings.
Bix said, "I'd love to see you do some of your pilot stuff."
"You want me to show off?"
Bix looked straight at him and said, "You bet I do!"
So Abe went over the airport and did a blizzard of aerobatics, all his fancy manoeuvres for an eager audience below. While he was flying this bizarre new airplane backwards at 400 kilometers per hour in his kick turns and whirling around doing his shoulder rolls and pirouettes amid snap rolls and hammerhead stalls, Abe was joking around with Bix and telling stories. There were hesitations where he was concentrating on something, but he was comfortable and casual during the airshow the test flight had turned into.
As he was tucking, turning, tumbling, and twisting, Abe kept telling stories and Bix realized a common thread. These were all happy, fun flying stories, trips to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, and to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. There were breakfasts in Yellowknife and dinners in Perth. Another common thread was these were all stories of long ago, fifty, sixty, and seventy years ago, about older pilots Abe looked up to as a young man in his twenties and thirties. All of this was an atmosphere of unfettered joy, celebration of being alive and being in the sky in airplanes. This was a celebration in Abe's world of the early days of the Wolfpack and some people who had been born as long as 150 years ago in the 1940s. These were people who flew airplanes that ran on gasoline and kerosene. His same-age, lifelong friend Pencil came up frequently along with an older flier called "Cicero" born in 1943.
A somber thought did cross Bix's mind, however. These were stories of men and women who were long gone. It is said, in some old-testament interpretations, that we live on only as long as somebody remembers us. These were stories of people long gone being told, probably for the last time. It was the fantastic flying that brought these memories forward. At ninety-four, Abe was likely not to be doing this sort of thing again and not to be telling more stories about these people he admired. Bix sadly realized she was witness to their last living memories, the end of their old-testament lives in recollection.
In addition to ice-cream-and-cookies, happy-time stories in Dubai and Durban, Bix figured there were some liver-and-onions, not-so-happy stories Abe wasn't telling about trips to Benghazi, Lusaka, and Kampala, dark stories about night flights, "wet missions" running guns in places where they "kept score." Rather than dwell on these negatives, Bix went back to soaking in the joy in the flying and the story telling.
The people on the ground watching the spectacular show had no idea Abe was celebrating his life and his experiences telling stories of long-ago flying adventures.
Then Abe got serious and quiet as he hovered and eased slowly down with C-2 facing straight up.
Like Aero, Crescent had three resting points on its backside. "Are you doing to do a tap dance with our only prototype, our very-expensive prototype?" Abe answered by doing it, one-two-three-one-two-three, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap on the runway. Bix noticed Abe's fingers were moving on the throttles quite differently than the engines were actually running, in some kind of altered-phase relationship. Abe had learned the spool-up and spool-down of these engines and was applying throttle early enough before he needed engine thrust so that it all worked out. His previously-jocular face was deadly serious as he sweated through his tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap dance.
When he turned briefly to Bix during this ground-tapping sequence she just looked at him amazed. He said, "Don't tell anybody I spent three hours practicing the manoeuvres and another six hours in the simulator practicing this chicken dance in case I would get a chance to do it. I'd like to preserve an illusion of spontaneity." He went on, "Please be really sure about this in the simulator before trying it in this airplane. This is a hard thing to do with these engines." After all that amazing stuff she had just seen, Bix couldn't help thinking Abe said this was hard. Wow!
Then he climbed out and pushed all three throttles hard for about one second, and the three very-strong engines produced 20 g-forces or maybe a little more. Bix found the experience quite uncomfortable for that second, like her insides were trying to get out, she gasped and screamed for a moment, and she asked Abe the secret for dealing with the pain. "The secret, my dear Bix, is not minding that it hurts." He flew once around the airport with everybody watching and landed C-2.
Before they got out of the airplane, Abe turned his head left and looked at Bix. "Now we have a job to do. Actually, it's thy job we have to do, but I want to make sure we have our story straight. We had fun today, great time and all that, but we're supposed to be test pilots, I in a former life, thou today, so let's get off our collective high horses and do that job."
Bix nodded and waited.
Abe continued. "Elevator, up and down, thou know all about it. How did it feel?"
Bix said, "There was kind of something happening between 350 and 400. It was okay before, it was okay after, but something changed."
"Yes, it did. It was right at 360 kilometers per hour, a change in the flight characteristics, a different personality. Did you notice the same thing in yaw? Thou should as it's the same surfaces doing the same thing, with the symmetric design."
"I don't know," said Bix.
"Okay, then, you have something to try in the next sub-sonic test. What about roll? Notice anything interesting in roll?"
"There was no abrupt change."
"Was it solid?"
"What do you mean?"
Abe lectured a bit. "Elevator was solid right down to minimum speed, all the way down to 200, wasn't it? Was the roll solid? And how did these feel when we got up to near-sonic speeds, around 1000?"
"I found myself struggling a bit with roll at low airspeeds, both seemed firm up to our maximum speed, but I thought elevator was getting a bit stiff."
Abe went on. "If it's stiff at one thousand, then think what it's going to be at ten thousand. That's something to tell the super-sonic testers. So roll got squishy when slow, another good thing to tell them. Were the engines even and firm? Did they control nicely? Did they perform as expected in differential thrust as well as in unison?"
"Yes, yes, and yes," said Bix. "I guess I have some paperwork to do."
"Okay, we get out, we take our bows, and then get thy ass over there," Abe pointed to the office building, "and write those reports, not later, but now. Write not just the technical specifics, but any impressions or feelings that crossed thy mind. That's why they hired thee instead of using a robot to fly this thing." Abe got out first down the stairs in the back and walked away from the airplane. He was followed by Bix who folded the stairs back up before she walked away.
There was more celebration, more cake, and Derrick was happy to surrender his office chair to Abe for the festivities. Once she spent her hour writing up the flight, Bix joined the party. She felt wonderful about herself and her new relationship with Abe.
She bumped into Tim who eased her into a corner where nobody else was listening and said to her, "You're off to a good start in a lot of ways."
Rather than answer him, Bix pursued her own curiosity. "I think you're a secret sleeper here. You're a much better pilot and have a much more active role in this than your `desk job' status at the company leads me to believe. What aren't you telling me?"
"I keep a low profile," said Tim. "I hide in plain sight behind my sit-at-a-desk job and nobody here thinks I fly very much. Actually I fly a lot and a lot of that flying isn't easy."
Bix scrunched her face, "Hard flying as in `wet missions' where they `keep score'?"
"Without the sarcasm, yes, really. You flew a lot of hours last year, but I managed to log more than you did, lots of long flights for night missions, very dark stuff, and nobody bothers to notice little old Tim, the old guy over there."
"Bix, I think you should sample the bold, dark, heroic side of flying and consider the Wolfpack. You can always change your mind, but I'd like you to give hard flying six months and hanging out with the Wolfpack a couple of years. I see you doubting me and thinking, `Why now?' Well, I'll tell you why now."
Tim raised his fist near his own face. "First," he raised his thumb, "there's the issue that you're the one who test flew Abe's Crescent. That's a big deal in our world. Abe himself flew the first two, Aero and Bullet. Abe's Abe, he's different and special and he doesn't really count. We don't compare a pilot who isn't Abe with a pilot who is Abe. So you're the only one who has test-flown one of Abe's airplanes. That counts for plenty."
"Second, you flew Charybdis." Tim's index finger joined his thumb pointing up. "Flying that terrible airplane is a big deal. That airplane scared Abe."
Bix countered, "Abe did most of the flying."
"Abe doesn't count. Didn't he gave you the controls to Charybdis? Besides, you landed that beast three times, as I recall. The engines are gutted now so nobody else will fly it for very good reasons. Being the pilot who flew the whirlpool Charybdis counts plenty."
"Let's see now, what was number three? Oh, yes, I remember, you flew with Abe, you got the Abe treatment, you're the last and the youngest, and you probably always will be." The third finger went up. "He's ninety-four and those sessions with you took a lot out of him. I doubt he'll do it again."
Bix asked, "I have to wonder, why did he do it this time?"
"After he flew with you, he said there was something there that he felt needed some of his tough-love treatment. `She could be one of mine,' he said."
Tim pointed to a nearby screen and said, "Picture, please." The image showed Bix posing next to C-2 with Abe clearly walking away. "Fourth, last and best reason."
Bix looked at the picture and said, "I wanted to ask about that. Every other flight Abe is utterly courteous, even obsequious, opening and closing the doors behind me, and this time he just walked away leaving me alone to close up the airplane. All the other times he was a perfect gentleman."
Tim cocked his head. "Gentleman has nothing to do with it. What role did he play in all those other flights?"
Bix just looked at Tim, puzzled.
"Abe was in charge, he was the captain, it was his flight. This time he wanted to make it crystal clear that he was a passenger, maybe a co-pilot, but the pilot in command was going to stay with the airplane while he could just stroll away and be done with it."
"You know, Bix, there's a decent-sized fan club out there. They follow Abe, wear the same shirts he wears, imitate his mannerisms, and see anything they can about him. As you can imagine, the last ten years have not been kind to them. Abe hasn't been very active, so they follow the Wolfpack, but they're still hungry for anything about Abe Peters."
"So here it is, what they've all been waiting for, what we've been waiting for in the Wolfpack, Abe coming out of retirement for one last great big fling flying Crescent. Check it out, this picture got eight million hits in an hour. And I would bet 90% of those people got the message that this is your flight. Nothing Abe could say would say that as well as this."
Bix just stared at the picture and looked back at Tim.
"The Wolfpack guys will fly with you, in fact they'll jockey for position, arrange their schedules, for a chance to fly with you. I think you should take the opportunity to fly with us."
"I also think you should fly. Once supersonic tests pan out, and I think they will, you should fly this thing like it's your personal plaything. That's why we have test pilots, Bix. Figure 15 minutes for setup, takeoff, landing, et cetera. That means Calgary is 45 minutes from here, across the ocean and over Canada, and there's a 24-hour Tim Horton's at the airport with big windows facing east over the airport, so a late-lunch flight from here means you get to see the sunrise. Lunch in Sal Verde, or Capetown if you feel like going further. Fiji is 75 minutes from England, halfway around this planet, and you can go there for breakfast at dinnertime! Do it, do a lot of it, do it again and again, find out how profligate you can be in the sky. That's what it's all about!"
Abe walked up to Bix and said, "Two things. First, I changed my mind. If it pleases thee to impersonate and to imitate me with the sincerest form of flattery, then please go ahead. I would be honoured to have my second-person quirk that I started as a joke eighty years ago in high school carried forward in thy capable hands. Thou certainly have earned it."
Bix smiled and waited for the rest.
"Second, I'd like to thank thee."
Bix looked at him. "For what?"
"For reminding me how much I like being who I am. For reminding me how much I like not just flying but how much I like flying with really good pilots and taking myself and them to our limits. I'm not ever going to be as good as I once was, but this week of flying tells me, like the old joke, maybe I can be once as good as I ever was. Or something like that. I like being Abe Peters and I like being around the pilots and people who like being around Abe Peters. Maybe it's a show, maybe it's a façade, or maybe it's who I really am, but it's who I've been for so long I wouldn't know the difference. I thank thee for bringing all that joy back to me and sharing it with me.
"Flying with thee has been an absolute joy for me. At my age, I may not have another student, and I can pretty-well count on not having another Bix Cumberland."
Abe stood up very straight and as tall as he could. He faced Bix directly. "I'll take my leave of thee. Maybe we'll meet again, maybe not. Maybe thou will find my path is a good path for thee, maybe not. Maybe there will be some other path more fulfilling for thee as the twenty-second century dawns in a few years."
Bix stood as tall as she could as she faced Abe back.
Abe continued. "So let us savor these last few days, probably the last real adventure for an old man who has been flying airplanes for a very long time. I thank thee for sharing it with me."
Bix replied, "The honour has been mine. A doorway is open to me and I'm curious where it goes. I'm more than a little frightened, too. Being a better test pilot is much more than I have been, but I realize there's a great deal more to be than that. Seeing a new world so close to where I've been and so different tells me there may be many other worlds I have yet to learn about. May the coming years bring both of us good fortune and I hope we'll meet again." She turned away quickly to walk away, and to hide the tears on her face.
23:19:59 Mountain Standard Time (MST).
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