Jeremy’s War: Chapter 7 "A strange white world"

Posted on March 5, 2008

Ch.7 A STRANGE WHITE WORLD

The next three patrols were eventful in that Jeremy learned a lot, but no enemy machines came near. He discovered the anti-aircraft artillery in earnest, which seemed to him to vary enormously from one location to another. He had been told not to worry about it, and this advice he tried earnestly to follow. But sometimes it was difficult, especially when the hot, glowing, malevolent shell bursts started to creep closer as the gunners got the range and height. Then it seemed as if he had personal enemies on the ground, who wished to see Jeremy Armstrong dead. It was an unreal sensation. He had thought about being fired upon for weeks before he took off from Aix-en-Chapelle.
Now it had happened, life would never quite be the same. He had been fired upon by an enemy he would never see face to face, and it set him thinking. How did the gunners feel about their task? About him? Was it something they did in hot blood, the excitement of battle lighting their eyes? Or did it become just a dull, noisy routine, an irksome task, with ‘nothing personal’ in it?
He wondered about it, and one night in the mess, he asked the question off Baines.
"Baines, on the subject of archie… Do you reckon people could just end up firing up at us because they’re ordered to do so? Meaning, without malice as it were?"
Several heads turned, studied Jeremy, and looked at each other. Jeremy, a little flustered, found himself stammering as he tried to explain.
"I mean… if you’re banging shells up into the sky all day long, surely it just becomes boring, like anything else. Surely it becomes a routine…? With the odd success merely lifting the tedium for a short while?"
Baines put his paper down, and inquired in a mock serious tone:
"Jeremy, old fruit, how much have you been drinking?"
There was a titter. Jeremy, flushed, would have done well to drop the subject, but a certain innate stubbornness drove him to pursue his somewhat esoteric logic.
"Well… I’m just saying… I don’t think it’s possible to feel hatred all day long, every day, week in, week out. Not when you’re doing a boring job like that."
There was some restless stirring, and odd sounding coughs. Baines disappeared behind his paper again, and his voice drifted out lazily.
"Well, when they shoot your little balls off…"
There was a titter.
"… that might just color your judgment."
Jeremy dropped the subject.

The next day found them up at eleven thousand feet, patrolling the lines. It was cloudy and raining intermittently below them, with an almost unbroken layer of clouds above and below. They had taken off into a howling gale, so it had seemed to Jeremy, which reduced their ground run to a mere thirty or forty yards. Now they occasionally passed through the edges of clouds, although on the whole Owen seemed to be striving hard to fly around them. Then rain would spatter Jeremy’s windscreen, and he marveled at the spectacle of horizontal pencil lines whistling past and over the wings. The lines glistened, and some of them splattered against the curved leading edges of the wings.
There, water seemed to end up trapped, especially when the rain was heavier, and it sploshed and slopped around in a curious jelly-like substance, that changed its shape continuously, yet stubbornly remained stationary. Other parts of the wing, such as just behind the struts, also had these odd apparitions, that wriggled and changed size continuously, and Jeremy realized the swirling currents of airflow effectively trapped them.
Whilst watching this phenomenon with fascination, Jeremy was also trying hard to keep a watchful eye out, and got carried away with searching the sky. When he tried to refocus on his leader’s machine, he blinked in astonishment. The piece of sky where Owen should be was empty. He was so surprised that he looked across at what Baines thought of it. It seemed to take his brain a long time to grapple with the observation that Baines was also gone. Suddenly, his stomach lurched, his pulse started racing, and he found himself staring in open mouthed horror around the wild sky. He was alone! The repeated warnings from Owen not to lose sight, and the dire threats of what would happen if he did, rang loudly through his brain, and he started frantically searching around, and moving the aircraft from side to side to see below. A gray cloud approached him dead ahead, and he had to make a decision: over, or under. He decided to climb over, and found himself in sudden bright sunlight. Looking up, he saw the sun bursting brilliantly through a large crack, and small bits of blue sky. He redoubled his efforts to try and locate his formation, with special emphasis behind him. He knew any attack would come from the rear, and he fishtailed despairingly, craning around, hoping to find friends, and fearing to find a foe.
For one second he caught a glimpse of a machine, and he strained to get a better view and recognize it. So it was that he crashed straight into a dense cloud, peering frantically over his shoulder. He looked back in his direction of travel just in time to realize what was happening, and just too late to take effective avoiding action. The frantic left stick and rudder input threw him over in a steep bank, but then all reference disappeared. Everywhere he looked he saw only cloud and water pencil lines. It was as if he had become trapped in a strange white and gray world, which seemed to grow progressively darker…

* * *

Owen, with Baines behind him, watched Jeremy from a distance, closing as fast as he could, which was not very quickly. They had been cruising along at quite a lick when he had seen the lone two seater Rumpler, which looked as if it was returning from a photographic sortie. He had stalked it steadily for ten minutes, whilst trying to spot escort cover above, if indeed there was one. Once he thought he had seen a wing, but when he had blinked, it had gone from view. Nonetheless, he had waited his chance, until the Rumpler had flown below a very large black cloud. Knowing any top cover would be unsighted for at least several minutes, he pounced. He rocked his wings, pointed at the Rumpler, and was comfortably established in the dive, before he discovered Jeremy was not with them. Glancing back up he was just in time to see Jeremy’s lone SE5 sailing on serenely in a straight line, before it disappeared from sight.
Swearing furiously, he had broken off the attack, but by the time they had regained height, they were half a mile behind.
Now the chase was on, and a grim faced Owen mouthed furious thoughts across the divide.

* * *

Jeremy knew he had been in a screaming left turn, and after a moment’s horror, during which strange things were happening, he decided to roll out of the turn. For a glorious second, the hope entered him that he could fly the aircraft by instinct, pretending he could still see the ground below. But by the time he had imagined he was level again, the strange sensations were only getting worse.
The noise… everything sounded too loud. At the same time he was being thrown over hard against the left side of the cockpit. What was most puzzling though was the way everything seemed to have stopped. It was as if he was not traveling forward at all, but stationary in the sky.
The absurd thought crossed his mind that maybe he could just unstrap himself and climb out.
The noise of the wind was now louder than he had ever heard it before, and at the same time the cloud was getting ever more dark. The thought registered that he was diving, and he pulled back on the stick. Momentarily, this seemed to bring a respite, and the airspeed indicator needle, which had been wound hard against the upper stop, started to unwind. But within seconds it was hard up against the stop again. He eased forward on the stick, but it made no difference. The strange forces acting on his body had been building up, and now he felt pressed into his seat. He tried moving the stick left a bit, but it seemed to make no difference.
The noise was now incredible, and he was quite sure he had never heard anything so loud before. The invisible hand also pressed on him with a force he had never dreamed possible. His flying suit rattled ferociously, and his face hurt. Wonder spread in his heart:
Am I going to die?
He didn’t want to, but the sheer inevitability of his predicament produced a strange calm behind the madly staring eyes and the gritted teeth.

He still somehow assumed that the ground was below him. When therefore something appeared between his two left wing tips, he found it hard to decipher what it was. It was a brown and grey cloud, which was revolving in a horrible manner. How it could do that puzzled him greatly, and for what seemed a long time he stared at it, aware that everything else was still dark and clammy.
The inspiration that the brown and grey cloud might be the ground registered slowly. From there, the next step tripped along more quickly. He was in a screaming spiral dive, with the ground coming up quickly.
With horizon references now becoming slowly available once more, his visual flying instincts took over, and he rolled the wings level, and started pulling out of the dive. The invisible hand upon him now pressed with truly stunning force, and something flew back off the top wing, disappearing from view over his shoulder. A horrified glance up at the wing showed it moving, and torn fabric rippling in the wind blast. Still he pulled back on the stick. He had no choice. The mental picture flashed through his mind of the wings folding back and coming off…

* * *

Owen, still mouthing obscenities, and hurtling them as mental missiles, closed the gap slowly, but they were coming up from below and behind. They passed through some thin, scudding clouds, and he wished his charge would see them. It seemed to him at least the bloody kid was trying, as he could see he was fish tailing…
"This way, you imbecile!"
Yes, he could see the head moving around vigorously. The kid was trying. Another minute…
Beside him, Baines rocked his wings, and pointed upwards.
Owen stared hard in the approximate direction, but could see nothing. With all the cloud cover about, and the myriad places to hide, that worried him. He searched fast and furiously, and wondered if Baines had spotted the Rumpler’s top cover coming down.
When he looked back at Jeremy, he noticed a large gray cloud dead ahead of him. Surely the kid had seen it.
Ah. He was staring straight at them now. He must have observed them. Thank goodness. Better late than never.
Maybe there was time to have another go at the Rumpler.
He searched the sky above and behind quickly, and then looked back ahead. He was just in time to see Jeremy’s machine start to bank steep left, and then disappear in cloud. Owen gasped, and searched the cloud bank. It stretched out on both sides, and reached down to almost ground level. When a few seconds later, Jeremy had not reappeared, Owen groaned. Fearing the worst, he glanced at Baines, raising his left hand palm upwards in a helpless gesture. In reply, Baines shook his head slowly.

* * *

Even after he had leveled off, his whole body trembling uncontrollably, Jeremy was horrified at the speed he was traveling at.
The airspeed indicator only seemed to wind back slowly, but now another sensation manifested itself. A strange buffeting, that reminded him of Kershaw’s lessons on slow flying. But… he had plenty of speed.
Looking anxiously at the top wing, Jeremy noticed that the four cabane struts, that stretched from the fuselage up to the center section of the top wing, seemed to be vibrating oddly. Looking more closely, he could see it was only the front two. Daylight could be seen at the top of the starboard one, and he realized it had broken away from its support, and was sticking up uselessly.
The engine was also emitting a strangely metallic, high speed tapping noise, that was getting worse. Somewhere, he remembered, he had heard that engines could overspeed in a steep dive if the throttle was not retarded. He had not touched the throttle, which was still almost wide open. He retarded it slowly, and the horrible rapid tapping changed to a slower beat that was nonetheless just as ominous. On top of everything else, he found that the buffeting was getting worse, and the aircraft kept wanting to dive. He needed both hands on the stick, pulling hard back, to hold it level. Even then, he was slowly descending.
His mind was now past feeling any more terror, and he slowly – wearily – started to look around for a place to land.

* * *

Owen sighed deeply, and calculated his fuel.
What a war! Now what…?
The chances were that the little innocent would either spin out of the bottom of the cloud, well disorientated, and crash into the ground. Or he would enter a spiral dive, with every probability of exceeding the maximum safe speed, and breaking up the airplane. Either way the lad would almost certainly be killed.
He debated giving up. Casting an eye around him, he winced to himself, knowing only too well that all the drifting cloud cover available was ideal ‘ambush country’.
If only basic training could include flying in cloud!
Some of the old aviators had experimented with weights, hanging on strings, suspended beneath the instrument panel. He had tried it himself, with some results. It had given him more confidence when diving into cloud to escape, or when using cloud to creep upon a foe. But the real answer lay in the new turn and slip indicators, of which he had managed to wangle one. But the RFC seemed strangely slow in waking up to the importance of distributing these goodies and promoting their use.
And now…
He decided to descend and have a search below. Cautiously, continually scanning the sky, they descended below cloud, and searched in all directions. He found his eye also roving the ground for sign of smoke or wreckage.
Nothing. He gave up. They were going home. Another new pilot lost. It was sickening and futile.
Damn this war anyway…

* * *

Struggling and jockeying fiercely with the controls, Jeremy found he had little scope for map reading.
He was well lost, and concentrating only on heading west.
Below him was rough terrain, which seemed to offer little hope of a successful landing. His brain was functioning, but a terrible weariness prevailed. The odds against him seemed ridiculous.
He felt numbed with shock, but still reacted with a jump to the silhouette that suddenly appeared alongside.
Staring wild eyed, he recognized a Sopwith Pup, the pilot studying his aircraft. Pennants flying from the wing struts indicated a formation leader, and another aircraft beyond the Pup showed he was not alone.
Jeremy, briefly taking one hand off the stick, pointed to the damaged top wing, and the now sadly sagging cabane strut.
Hey guys! I’ve got a bit of a problem…

The Sopwith pilot nodded, and sweeping ahead, made an unmistakable ‘follow me’ sign. This Jeremy was more than happy to do, and a feeling of immense gratitude flooded through him. A quick look to his right showed another aircraft alongside there, a concerned looking pilot glancing across. A brief wave from the stranger seemed to be meant as encouragement, but Jeremy had no time to wave back. The engine now seemed to be making terminal mechanical noises, and vast amounts of foul smelling oil were streaming back along the fuselage. He was also unable to maintain height, and was slowly descending all the time. A fact that the Sopwith Pup pilots all seemed to appreciate, as they continually adjusted their heights and speeds to his. They crossed a large river that Jeremy had never seen before, and he felt ever more grateful to his kind escorts.
An eternity seemed to pass, and Jeremy was now down to no more than five hundred feet above the ground. A sudden wing rocking from the leader attracted his attention, and he followed the direction of the outstretched arm. At first he failed to recognize it, but then he spotted an airfield, and his relief made him want to scream.
He raised his thumb to the leader, and received an answering gesture of the arm urging him on. With that the Sopwith roared up out of sight, and Jeremy grasped that they were letting him in first and giving him plenty of room.
He dived for the field, noting the layout, and men moving outside the hangars. Rain was now coming down steadily, and judging from the trees, the wind was blowing as much of a gale as before. He crossed a road at a hundred feet, rocking in the turbulence, and for the first time started to feel he was nearly safe…

* * *

Squadron leader Matherson, in the lead Sopwith Pup, could hardly believe his eyes as he closed on the lone SE5.
The fabric ripping off the centre section, the unnatural angle at which a cabane strut dangled, and something odd about the inclination of the top wing, revealed immediately the severity of the pilot’s plight. It seemed a miracle the machine was flying at all.
As he closed the gap, he wondered at the effect on the dynamic stability of the aircraft, and he was not surprised to see the elevators at a crazy angle for straight and level flight. He wondered about the stresses on the structure and the control cables. It was imperative that this machine be landed as soon as possible. The nearest airfield was his own, but the heading the pilot was on would not take him there. Matherson flew alongside, realizing grimly as he did so that the SE5 was staggering along only just above the stall speed. A black oily slick spreading back from the engine told its own story, and Matherson again marveled that the machine was still flying. The pilot was under severe strain, understandably, and seemed to nearly jump out of his skin when he spotted the Sopwith. But he followed readily enough. Whatever fight he had been in, at least he was uninjured. They were ten minutes from the field, and Matherson took odds on the machine getting that far. He decided on odds of three to one against, and mentally wagered a fiver.
It was a job adjusting his speed to the SE5’s, and he had to continually readjust his height, as the stricken pilot obviously had limited power.
Slowly, slowly, they descended. He wondered what his own three pilots were thinking. Doubtless there would be much tongue wagging that night.

It was a relief to wave the guy on, and to climb up out of the way. Although normally everybody just picked their own bit of grass, and piled in together, he decided against it this time. With all that damage, there was no way of knowing which way the SE5 would shoot off once on the ground. He might well lose directional control.
Besides, it would be interesting watching. That upper wing was going to stop flying pretty abruptly. Then what?

He watched the SE5 descend towards the field, and settled back to watch. Behind him, the rest of his flight craned their necks over the sides as well.
He watched even more closely, and then stared in stunned disbelief.
He blasphemed violently, and realized there was nothing he could do.
It was too late…

* * *

The oil had smeared Jeremy’s goggles badly. But it was only when he was approaching the landing that he appreciated how much his vision was obscured. He tore them off, and redoubled his efforts to see his way about on the strange airfield. The slipstream stung his eyes, and they filled with tears. It took him a second or two to blink them away, and by that time he was down to fifty feet.
He was over the field now, and closed the throttle fully. But he seemed to be traveling awfully fast. His gaze darted in and out, from the airspeed indicator to the grass blurring by. Odd. A quick look at the hangars seemed to confirm his impression that he was covering the ground at a great deal of knots. Really odd. Maybe the airspeed indicator was faulty. But that didn’t make sense. He had staggered back with difficulty, and the speedo had seemed okay then. And he had been unwilling to pick up too much speed in the dive out of respect for his tortured upper wing.

So… what the dickens!??

His brain whirled. No doubt about it, he was traveling like a banshee, at ten feet off the ground. He could tell by patches of mud, wheel tracks, bare patches…
Looking ahead, a big hedge on the other side of the airfield was coming up. There was still some distance to go, but… He had to land! He eased forwards on the stick, and the machine obligingly sank towards the ground. It touched down, rattled and vibrated terrifyingly for a second, and then bounced twenty feet in the air! The hedge was now approaching very fast indeed, and Jeremy’s battered brain could take no more.
He froze for precious seconds, watching the hedge hurtle towards him.

No! NO! NOOOO!!

There was no way he was going to descend again, land, and trundle to a stop. He had to go around and try again!
With despairing questions in his mind on the health of his engine, he rammed open the throttle. It was far too much for his exhausted Hispano-Suiza, and a colossal crash accompanied by a hard thump announced catastrophic failure of the crankshaft bearings. Something shiny and long in shape departed the engine cowling, spinning rapidly, and a panel blew away backwards.
Jeremy noticed all this in passing. His immediate problem was that he was at fifteen feet, with no forward thrust, nowhere to go, and descending rapidly.
His mind stagnated completely, and with a staggeringly loud series of crashes, his aircraft plowed its way through most of the hedge. The tail rose up vertically, hesitated on the point of falling over forwards, and then sank back most of the way down.

A minute later, a distraught Jeremy Armstrong, bruised, battered, and covered in mud, watched the first of a formation of four Sopwith Pups glide over the top of his wreck, round out, and come effortlessly to a halt in an astonishingly short ground run.
Wrapping his flying coat closer around himself against the biting cold of the seemingly gale force wind, Jeremy groaned out loud, and the picture of a furious McAllister came to his mind.
He renewed his groaning, and almost wished he were dead.
He soon would be.
Instead of facing into wind, he had landed the wrong way.

Downwind…

F.M.


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3 responses to Jeremy’s War: Chapter 7 "A strange white world"

  1. "Well… I’m just saying… I don’t think it’s possible to feel hatred all day long, every day, week in, week out. Not when you’re doing a boring job like that."
    There was some restless stirring, and odd sounding coughs. Baines disappeared behind his paper again, and his voice drifted out lazily.
    "Well, when they shoot your little balls off…"
    There was a titter.
    "… that might just color your judgment."
    Jeremy dropped the subject.

    Once again we see your quiet dipping into the philosophy and morality of war.

    With despairing questions in his mind on the health of his engine, he rammed open the throttle. It was far too much for his exhausted Hispano-Suiza, and a colossal crash accompanied by a hard thump announced catastrophic failure of the crankshaft bearings. Something shiny and long in shape departed the engine cowling, spinning rapidly, and a panel blew away backwards.

    Reads a bit like a movie. I can see it in my mind.

  2. Oh man, Jeremy wrecked two planes in less than 2 weeks. He is just like me, completely clueless, only I would have gone through like 5, gotten out of a wreck, and stood around looking dazed and when someone tried to talk to me I’d forget how to talk

  3. "…and when someone tried to talk to me I’d forget how to talk"

    That could be a blessing some days, Nicole!

    (just kidding….)

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