1637 – The Polish Maelstrom – Snippet 36

Chapter 14

Kelly Aviation Hanger

Grantville International Airport, State of Thuringia-Franconia

“Damn, that’s a beautiful plane, if I say so myself.” Looking up at the Kelly Wasp flying three thousand feet above them, Bob Kelly–the plane’s designer as well as the owner of the firm that had made it–was smiling widely.

Standing next to him, also looking up, was one of Kelly Aviation’s employees, Keenan Murphy. Keenan was the company’s chief mechanic but he also handled whatever other jobs his boss came up with up–short of janitorial work, anyway, where he drew the line. Bob Kelly ran his company in what could charitably be called a haphazard manner and some critics might call a slapdash one. His chief up-time rival in the aircraft designing and manufacturing business, Hal Smith, once characterized Kelly’s management philosophy as chaos theory.

Keenan was smiling also, but he wasn’t smiling widely and there was some strain to the smile.

Keenan was worried. The test pilot who was flying the Wasp on its maiden flight was Lannie Yost. The two men had known each other since the first grade and had become good friends over the years. And like all of Lannie’s friends–not to mention family–Keenan was known to say, “Yeah, Lannie likes to knock ’em down.”

As the years passed, though–it had gotten worse since the Ring of Fire–Keenan had eventually been forced to admit (to himself only) that his friend was an alcoholic. Not just a heavy drinker, but an outright alky. A juicer; a boozer; a lush. Keenan wouldn’t have gone so far as to call Lannie a wino, but that was just because Lannie didn’t like wine. His tastes ran to bourbon and beer.

Lannie always knocked down a couple of drinks before a test flight. Keenan hadn’t worried about it in the past because the crowd he ran with were all pretty heavy drinkers–including him. West Virginia working class culture didn’t run toward touchy-feelie psychology, so no one he knew spent a lot of time fretting over the mental problems discussed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. None of them had ever heard of the book, in fact.

But Lannie’s drinking had gotten heavier and heavier. Keenan was pretty sure that was the pattern for alcoholics. He knew that this morning Lannie had knocked down three drinks instead of his usual two–and they hadn’t been two beers, either. He’d started with two shots of bourbon–no, two swigs of bourbon from a pint flask. Could have been three shots. With a beer chaser.

You wouldn’t have known it from the way Lannie swaggered out to the plane and climbed into the cockpit, though. He hadn’t staggered; hadn’t shown any physical signs of inebriation. In times past, Keenan had been reassured by his friend’s steadiness even when drinking. He hadn’t hesitated to let Lannie drive him home after a night of carousing, before the Ring of Fire. Why should he? Lannie had only gotten into one car accident in his life and that had been a fender-bender where the other driver was at fault.

Keenan had been chewing on the problem all morning. Finally, he decided he had to say something.

“Hey, boss, maybe we should cut the flight short this time.”

“Why?” Kelly asked, without taking his eyes off the plane. The Wasp was now some distance to the west, starting to make a turn to come back toward the airfield. Kelly had told Yost not to fly too far off, and the pilot was following his instructions. Well… Maybe he was stretching them some. But you couldn’t really expect test pilots to be slavishly obedient. That was just not the nature of the breed.

“Well. Lannie might be a little tipsy this morning.”

Kelly puffed out his lips. He was well aware of Lannie’s drinking habits, but he’d always chosen to overlook them. Yeah, sure, the guy drank a lot of liquor. But he still functioned okay, didn’t he?

Kennan wouldn’t let it go. “He had more than he usually does, Bob. I’m a little concerned.”

Kelly sighed. “Look, let’s not worry about it now. I’ll talk to Lannie after he lands. For one thing, I don’t want to distract him with a radio call.”

Keenan didn’t–quite–roll his eyes. The Wasp was designed to be a fighter plane, which meant radio communication was considered an integral part of its activity. If a pilot couldn’t handle the “distraction” of a radio call while he was flying, what was he doing piloting the plane in the first place?

He started to say something but Kelly held out his hand in a shushing gesture. “Not now, Keenan. He’s approaching his first dive and I need to concentrate.”

Kennan looked back up at the plane. In truth, it was a beautiful aircraft. Bob Kelley had designed it after the British De Havilland Mosquito of World War II fame. Like the Mosquito, it was made almost entirely of wood. It was a shoulder-wing monoplane with two engines mounted on the wings. Below the pilot’s cockpit, mounted atop the fuselage, was a somewhat bulbous nose that in the original British plane would have a clear window and a bombardier’s seat. In Kelly’s smaller version, that nose had a machine gun mounted in it. The gunner would ride next to the pilot in a tandem seat arrangement and operate the weapon from that position.  But, if the gun jammed, he could squeeze himself down into the nose to fix whatever the problem might be.

The big problem Kelly had faced was crude and simple. The De Havilland Mosquito had been powered by 1200 horsepower engines–that was 1200 per engine–which gave the Mosquito a top speed of around four hundred miles per hour. The engines Kelly had been able to obtain had a tenth that much power. Together, the two engines gave him less than 250 horsepower. Because of the size of the aircraft, that had required very light construction and a large wing area. Even then, the Wasp’s top speed was only about one hundred miles per hour and its cruising speed was around eighty mph.

Yes, it was a beautiful plane. But it wasn’t the sturdiest plane you could imagine, either. That was why Bob had cautioned Lannie not to try any really fancy acrobatics until they had a better sense of how well the plane performed. This was a test flight, so they had the machine gun and its ammunition on board but not the gunner himself. Instead, they’d strapped one hundred and sixty pounds of sandbags in the gunner’s seat to provide the needed weight.

Above, Lannie started his first dive. It was fairly shallow and he didn’t push the plane’s theoretical limits.

“See?” Bob said. “He’s taking it easy, just like I told him.”

Seeing that the worried expression was still on his mechanic’s face, Bob shook his head. “Look, Keenan, I know Lannie’s a borderline alcoholic.”

Borderline, my ass. But Keenan didn’t say it out loud.