The Fighting Flying-Men
This is the first great war in which the aeroplane and air-ship have come into use. The aviator serves chiefly as an observer. He discovers how the enemy are arranging their troops and locates the big guns and trenches so that the artillery-fire may be directed to do as much destruction as the necessities of war demand. He also throws bombs to injure railways and aviation-sheds, to blow up trucks of ammunition, or to scatter cavalry by alarming the horses. Sometimes, too, he has to fight a battle in mid-air against a hostile flyer.
One day a British aviator soared high in the air, until his aeroplane was concealed by the clouds. He wished to approach the German position unseen, because the Kaiser's soldiers had mounted special guns, with their noses sticking in the air, to bring down aeroplanes. The day was warm when he set off, but at the great height he managed to reach, the air was as chilly as it is in the Arctic regions. When he thought he had travelled far enough he began to come down in spiral fashion through the raw misty cloudland. Suddenly he found himself in clear sunshine once again. Then he perceived he was not alone in these lofty regions. Right below him a German aeroplane was skimming along, its propeller buzzing loud, and the wings tilting gently from side to side, like a sea-bird's in a breeze. He at once resolved to attack the enemy.
Curving round, and dropping sideways towards his opponent, the British aviator began to shoot with his revolver. One bullet spattered on the seat beside the German, who, realizing his danger, at once ascended, so as to escape by getting out of range. Then commenced an exciting chase. On the ground German soldiers craned their necks, looking upward, while the rival airmen manoeuvred their machines to gain to advantage in position. The gunners were unable to open fire because they might strike the German machine.
The British flyer had the most skill, and was absolutely fearless; besides, his aeroplane was the speedier of the two. When he managed at length to get almost alongside his opponent, as the machines climbed upward, he discharged three rapid revolver-shots. Then he suddenly found himself in a bank of mist: he had darted into a cloud. Tilting the wings, he swung round in a wide circle; but when he got into clear air again he looked in vain for the German aeroplane. Was it escaping through the clouds above? At first he thought so. But the boom of a gun on the ground caused him to look downward. The Germans were opening fire on him. Not far away from the gunners lay a smashed aeroplane. Then he realized that he had mortally wounded his opponent, who had perished in his attempt to effect a landing. As soon as he completed the observations he had set out to make, he soared into the clouds again and returned safely to the British lines.
On another occasion a British aviator was called out to attack a German aeroplane which was hovering over the trenches and signaling the range to the enemy's artillery batteries about 5 miles distant. It soared so high that the fire of the British guns could not reach it.
This enemy's machine was a Taube, which is the German for "dove". The British aviator selected a speedy biplane, capable of flying at the rate of 80 miles an hour, and soon began to ascend.
"Now we're going to see sport," exclaimed one English soldier.
"Two to one against the gentle 'dove'," another shouted.
Everyone was keenly interested. A fight in the air was a new experience for the hardy soldiers, who were accustomed to crouch in their trenches to escape shell splinters, or to keep their rifles banging against attacks of numerous foemen.
The British machine rose with wonderful, rapidity in a wide semicircle. Now and again the German tried to get into position so as to cripple his opponent. He carried a passenger armed with a rifle. But each time the Taube darted against the rising aeroplane, the British aviator changed his course, still soaring higher and higher. Ere long a ripple of shots rang out, like the cracking of a riding-whip.
"It's getting hot now," a soldier exclaimed in a trench. "That German can sting with a vengeance."
"I say three to one against the ungentle dove," a comrade chimed in.
"How they do twist about up there," another remarked. "It makes one feel giddy to look at them. I wonder how they themselves feel."
"They haven't time to think about their feelings," a boyish-looking soldier suggested.
For a few minutes the aviators manoeuvred for position. By this time they were almost at the same height.
"Our man is doing well," said a sergeant calmly.
Shots rang out again as the two aeroplanes ran full tilt towards one another.
"There's going to be a collision," a soldier gasped excitedly.
But hardly had he spoken when the British machine dipped sideways, and curved as smartly to the left as a sea-gull sliding round on an air-current.
Snap-snap-snap! More firing. For a moment the Taube lurched and seemed to be in difficulties. Then it began to climb steadily. The British machine did likewise. As they rose, high in the air, both aeroplanes grew smaller and smaller.
"Now, now, don't get out of sight up there and spoil the show," growled a soldier with so sad a voice that his companions laughed heartily.
A few minutes went past, and again shots were heard. Up and down, up and down, and round this way and that the opposing aeroplanes were steered to win the advantage of position. But at length the British aviator rose well above his opponent. It seemed as if his machine had leaped upward with a giant bound, like an acrobat at a circus. Then the Taube was seen to tilt perilously to one side; it appeared to falter, like a bewildered bird, and then it dropped swiftly, planing to the ground. The sound of shots, which had been fired a few seconds previously, dropped down through the still air, and the soldiers realized that the enemy had been beaten.
They raised a cheer as the British machine darted away back behind the trenches. Its work had been accomplished. When the Taube landed it was found that the steersman and passenger were wounded. They were at once conveyed to hospital, while their machine was tugged off to the British sheds to do service in future against the gunners who had been so greatly helped by it.
"The show is now ended, gentlemen," cried a merry English soldier. "You will like the gentle dove much better next time you see it fly."
More thrilling, however, than even an air fight was the feat accomplished at a dizzy height by a British artificer who displayed great daring and courage in repairing damage done to an air-ship. If the story had appeared in a work of fiction it would have been regarded as impossible. But it happens to be true.
The British air-ship had gone aloft to conduct important scouting operations over the enemy's lines. It rose beautifully until its cigar-shaped envelope looked no bigger than a toy against the masses of drifting white cloud. The sunshine glistened on its sides, which sometimes shone like polished silver.
There was a strong breeze in the upper air, and the stately vessel moved slowly against it, and then swung round, tilting like a tacking yacht.
"How beautifully it answers the helm!" exclaimed a spectator.
With the wind in its favour the air-ship headed towards the German lines. It was far beyond the reach of artillery, and raced along at a swift rate of speed. The work that its navigator and crew set out to do was satisfactorily carried out. Rough plans were made and photographs taken; besides, signals were sent to the British lines to assist the artillery-men who were bombarding the enemy's position.
Then the air-ship swung round in graceful fashion, and came beating up against the wind towards its starting-place. Like a steamer struggling with a strong tide, it moved slowly. But gradually it came nearer and nearer, dropping the while, to escape the full force of the air-current, until it was no more than 2500 feet above the surface of the ground. It passed over the British trenches, and was making its way inland to the shed, a few miles distant. Then it suddenly faltered, and rocked from side to side.
The spectators became greatly alarmed. It was evident something had gone wrong. The tapering body of the vessel remained intact; it had not, therefore, sprung a leak. Had the helm been injured? No; it seemed to be all right. Officers peered through their field-glasses, and, as the bows of the hesitating vessel swung round, one exclaimed: "The propeller has been injured. How unfortunate!"
"Will they be able to get down safely?" another asked anxiously.
"Oh yes!" answered the first speaker; "but they cannot select the landing-place. There's a stiff breeze up there, and I'm afraid it will blow them into Germany."
"What a pity!" his friend exclaimed.
Up in the air-ship there was considerable excitement when the accident happened. The great steel propeller had snapped asunder. One of the blades then flew backward and struck the envelope with such force that the vessel quivered from end to end. Everyone on board was thrown down, and, as the cabin floor tilted and dipped violently, it seemed as if all was over. Regaining their feet, the crew began to make hurried observations to find out exactly what damage had been sustained. Ere long it was discovered, to the surprise and joy of everyone, that the envelope was not leaking. The vessel remained "airworthy", just as a crippled steamer is seaworthy so long as it answers the helm and keeps afloat. With careful attention it still remained possible to come down safely in open country.
Their first task was to get rid of the broken propeller. The engine-room artificer set to work at once, and managed to accomplish this without much difficulty.
"We are drifting back to the German lines," one of the crew remarked dolefully. "I suppose we are all going to be made prisoners."
They did not like the prospect. After reaching the British position again it was "hard lines" to have to return helplessly to the enemy.
Then everyone was greatly astonished to learn that the artificer proposed to fit on a spare propeller.
"How can he do that without descending?" asked one of the crew.
"Look where he must go—out on that thin 'jibboom' of ours," another remarked.
"It is an impossible task," commented the first speaker.
But the artificer was ready to attempt what seemed to be impossible and had certainly never been done before. The stanchion on which the broken propeller had swung was 15 feet long and less than 3 inches in thickness. It was quite an acrobatic feat to attempt, with the support obtained from the "rigging", to go along it, especially at the dizzy height of 2500 feet. Here was a test indeed for British, pluck and skill.
On the ground the anxious spectators, peering through field-glasses, were greatly amazed to witness a human figure moving out on that almost invisible rod of steel. What was happening? Was it possible that anything could be done in mid-air to prevent the air-ship falling into the hands of the enemy? No one believed it was.
The great vessel swayed gently, cleverly steered without doubt, but drifting steadily towards the German position.
"How long can it keep afloat?" asked an officer.
"For a good many hours yet: till to-morrow, if necessary," answered a friend.
"They're going to fit on the spare propeller," a third exclaimed gleefully. "The Germans won't capture our air-ship after all."
"Think of what you're saying," remarked the first speaker. "How can such difficult work be carried out at that height?"
The air-ship had moved round, and the officers could not follow what was happening. But the German spectators did. They were equally amazed to see a workman doing his utmost to fit on a propeller on the crippled air-ship; they could hardly believe their eyes. It seemed as if the artificer was a magician.
Onward drifted the great vessel through the air. As it passed over the British trenches the war-hardened soldiers peered upwards with wonder. Word passed from mouth to mouth that the little dot suspended, as it seemed, in front of the vessel was an artificer at work. Exclamations of wonder were heard on every side.
For two and a half hours the air-ship drifted helplessly away, until it looked like a boy's kite from the British position.
"It's gone for ever!" a khaki-clad soldier muttered.
"I wonder if that artificer is still alive," a friend remarked. "Plucky chap he is—or," he added softly, "was."
To the men in the air-ship who watched the artificer at work the minutes seemed long as hours. They feared greatly for the safety of the daring workman. But his coolness constantly reassured them. So much was he absorbed in his work that he did not seem to realize his peril. He endured the terrible strain with matchless courage, and when at length his task was finished he did not display any haste to return to safety. He proceeded coolly to test the propeller by swinging it round in half-turns to the left and to the right; then, satisfied he had done his work soundly and well, he turned round to make his way back to the cabin. Perspiration dripped from his forehead and almost blinded him. His face was pale and drawn. For a moment he was seen to hesitate. But he recovered and moved towards his friends. Strong arms were stretched out to support him. Every heart was thankful that his life was spared. When he reached the cabin the brave and heroic artificer staggered and suddenly collapsed in a faint. But he soon recovered and received a stimulant; then he listened intently to the loud buzzing of the propeller.
"It's running sweet!" he murmured. A smile lingered on his lips. He was satisfied. He had done his duty.
The propeller worked splendidly. Once again the air-ship swung round against the wind in a long semicircle; then it headed homeward, beating up triumphantly against the invisible air-waves, like one of Nelson's old ships tacking up the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay.
British soldiers cheered and waved their caps in the trenches below. Officers and men alike, who had witnessed what had taken place, were elated with triumphant joy. Many a hand was held out to congratulate the artificer when the landing was safely effected and he stepped once again on firm earth.