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Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 3b - By the Route of the Air

The short voyages gave us a delightful foretaste of what was to come. We did them both one afternoon, and were at the hangars at five o'clock on the following morning, ready to make an early start. A fresh wind was blowing from the northeast, but the brevet moniteur, who went up for a short flight to try the air, came back with the information that it was quite calm at twenty-five hundred feet. We might start, he said, as soon as we liked.

Drew, in his joy, embraced the old woman who kept a coffee-stall at the hangars, while I danced a one-step with a mechanician. Neither of them was surprised at this procedure. They were accustomed to such emotional outbursts on the part of aviators who, by the very nature of their calling, were always in the depths of despair or on the farthest jutting peak of some mountain of delight. Our departure had been delayed, day after day, for more than a week, because of the weather. We were so eager to start that we would willingly have gone off in a blizzard.

During the week of waiting we had studied our map until we knew the location of every important road and railroad, every forest, river, canal, and creek within a radius of one hundred kilometres. We studied it at close range, on a table, and then on the floor, with the compass- points properly orientated, so that we might see all the important landmarks with the birdman's eye. We knew our course so well, that there seemed no possibility of our losing direction.

Our military papers had been given us several days before. Among these was an official- looking document to be presented to the mayor of any town or village near which we might be compelled to land. It contained an extract from the law concerning aviators, and the duty toward them of the civilian and military authorities. In another was an itemized list of the amounts which might be exacted by farmers for damage to growing crops: so much for an atterrissage in a field of sugar-beets, so much for wheat, etc. Besides these, we had a book of detailed instructions as to our duty in case of emergencies of every conceivable kind — among others, the course of action to be followed if we should be compelled to land in an enemy country. At first sight this seemed an unnecessary precaution; but we remembered the experience of one of our French comrades at B—, who started confidently off on his first cross-country flight. He lost his way and did not realize how far astray he had gone until he found him- self under fire from German anti-aircraft batteries on the Belgian front.

The most interesting paper of all was our Ordre de Service, the text of which was as follows:

It is commanded that the bearer of this Order report himself at the cities of C— and R—, by the route of the air, flying an avion Caudron, and leaving the Ecole Militaire d'Aviation at A— on the 21st of April, 1917, without passenger on board. Signed, LE CAPITAINE B— Commandant de l'Ecole.

We read this with feelings which must have been nearly akin to those of Columbus on a memorable day in 1492. when he received his clearance papers from Cadiz. "By the route of the air!" How the imagination lingered over that phrase! We had the better of Columbus there, although we had to admit that there was more glamour in the hazard of his adventure and the uncertainty of his destination.

Drew was ready first. I helped him into his fur-lined combination and strapped him to his seat. A moment later he was off. I watched him as he gathered height over the aerodrome. Then, finding that his motor was running satisfactorily, he struck out in an easterly direction, his machine growing smaller and smaller until it vanished in the early morning haze. I followed immediately afterward, and had a busy ten minutes, being buffeted this way and that, until, as the brevet moniteur had foretold, I reached quiet air at twenty-five hundred feet.

This was my first experience in passing from one air current to another. It was a unique one, for I was still a little incredulous. I had not entirely lost my old boyhood belief that the wind went all the way up.

I passed over the old cathedral town of B— at fifteen hundred metres. Many a pleasant afternoon had we spent there, walking through its narrow, crooked streets, or lounging on the banks of the canal. The cathedral too was a favorite haunt. I loved the fine spaciousness of it. Looking down on it now, it seemed no larger than a toy cathedral in a toy town, such as one sees in the shops of Paris. The streets were empty, for it was not yet seven o'clock. Strips of shadow crossed them where taller roofs cut off the sunshine. A toy train, which I could have put nicely into my fountain-pen case , was pulling into a station no larger than a wren's house. The Greeks called their gods "derisive." No doubt they realized how small they looked to them, and how insignificant this little world of affairs must have appeared from high Olympus.

There was a road, a fine straight thoroughfare converging from the left. It led almost due southwest. This was my route to C—. I followed it, climbing steadily until I was at two thousand metres. I had never flown so high before. "Over a mile!" I thought. It seemed a tremendous altitude. I could see scores of villages and fine old chateaux, and great stretches of forest, and miles upon miles of open country in checkered patterns, just beginning to show the first fresh green of the early spring crops. It looked like a world planned and laid out by the best of Santa Clauses for the eternal delight of all good children. And for untold generations only the birds have had the privilege of seeing and enjoying it from the wing. Small wonder that they sing. As for non-musical birds—well, they all sing after a fashion, and there is no doubt that crows, at least, are extremely jealous of their prerogative of flight.

My biplane was flying Itself. I had nothing to do other than to give occasional attention to the revolution counter, altimetre, and speed- dial. The motor was running with perfect regularity. The propeller was turning over at twelve hundred revolutions per minute without the slightest fluctuation. Flying is the simplest thing in the world, I thought. Why doesn't every one travel by route of the air? If people knew the joy of it, the exhilaration of it, aviation schools would be overwhelmed with applicants. Biplanes of the Farman and Voisin type would make excellent family cars, quite safe for women to drive. Mothers, busy with household affairs, could tell their children to "run out and fly" a Caudron such as I was driving, and feel not the slightest anxiety about them. I remembered an imaginative drawing I had once seen of aerial activity in 1950. Even house pets were granted the privilege of traveling by the air route. The artist was not far wrong except in his date. He should have put it at 1925. On a fine April morning there seemed no limit to the realization of such interesting possibilities.

I had no more than started on my southwest course, as it seemed to me, when I saw the spires and the red-roofed houses of C—, and, a kilometre or so from the outskirts, the barracks and hangars of the aviation school where I was to make the first landing. I reduced the gas, and, with the motor purring gently, began a long, gradual descent. It was interesting to watch the change in the appearance of the country beneath me as I lost height. Checkerboard patterns of brown and green grew larger and larger. Shining threads of silver became rivers and canals, tiny green shrubs became trees, individual aspects of houses emerged. Soon I could see people going about the streets and laundry-maids hanging out the family washing in the back gardens. I even came low enough to witness a minor household tragedy — a mother vigorously spanking a small boy. Hearing the whir of my motor, she stopped in the midst of the process, whereupon the youngster very naturally took advantage of his opportunity to cut and run for it. Drew doubted my veracity when I told him about this. He called me an aerial eavesdropper and said that I ought to be ashamed to go buzzing over towns at such low altitudes, frightening housemaids, disorganizing domestic penal institutions, and generally disturbing the privacy of respectable French citizens. But I was unrepentant, for I knew that one small boy in France was thinking of me with joy. To have escaped maternal justice with the assistance of an aviator would be an event of glorious memory to him. How vastly more worth while such a method of escape, and how jubilant Tom Sawyer would have been over such an opportunity when his horrified warning, "Look behind you, aunt!" had lost efficacy.

Drew had been waiting a quarter of an hour, and came rushing out to meet me as I taxied across the field. We shook hands as though we had not seen each other for years. We could not have been more surprised and delighted if we had met on another planet after long and hopeless wanderings in space.

While I superintended the replenishing of my fuel and oil tanks he walked excitedly up and down in front of the hangars. He was an odd-looking sight in his flying clothes, with a pair of Meyrowitz goggles set back on his head, like another set of eyes, gazing at the sky with an air of wide astonishment. He paid no attention to my critical comments, but started thinking aloud as soon as I rejoined him.

"It was lonely! Yes, by Jove! that was it. A glorious thing, one's isolation up there; but it was too profound to be pleasant. A relief to get down again, to hear people talk, to feel the solid earth under one's feet. How did it impress you ? "

This was like Drew. I felt ashamed of the lightness of my own thoughts, but I had to tell him of my speculations upon after-the-war developments in aviation: nurses flying Voisins, with the cars filled with babies; old men having after-dinner naps in twenty-three- metre Nieuports, fitted, for safety, with Sperry gyroscopes; family parties taking comfortable outings in gigantic biplanes of the R-6 type; mothers, as of old, gazing apprehensively at speed-dials, cautioning fathers about "driving too fast," and all of the rest.

Drew looked at me reprovingly, to be sure, but he felt the need, just as I did, of an outlet to his feelings, and so he turned to this kind of comic relief with the most delightful reluctance. He quickly lost his reserve , and in the imaginative spree which followed we went far beyond the last outposts of absurdity. We laughed over our own wit until our faces were tired. However, I will not be explicit about our folly. It might not be so amusing from a critical point of view.

After our papers had been viseed at the office of the commandant, we hurried back to our machines, eager to be away again. We were to make our second landing at R—. It was about seventy kilometres distant and almost due north. The mere name of the town was an invitation. Somewhere, in one of the novels of William J. Locke, may be found this bit of dialogue: —

"But, master," said I, "there is, after all, color in words. Don't you remember how delighted you were with the name of a little town we passed through on the way to Orleans? R—? You were haunted by it and said it was like the purple note of an organ.."

We were haunted by it, too, for we were going to that very town. We would see it long before our arrival — a cluster of quaint old houses lying in the midst of pleasant fields, with roads curving toward it from the north and south, as though they were glad to pass through so delightful a place. Drew was for taking a leisurely route to the eastward, so that we might look at some villages which lay some distance off our course. I wanted to fly by compass in a direct line, without following my map very closely. We had planned to fly together, and were the more eager to do this because of an argument we had had about the relative speed of our machines. He was certain that his was the faster. I knew that, with mine, I could fly circles around him. As we were not able to agree on the course, we decided to postpone the race until we started on the homeward journey. Therefore, after we had passed over the town, he waved his hand, bent off to the northeast, and was soon out of sight.

I kept straight on, climbing steadily, until I was again at five thousand feet. As before, my motor was running perfectly and I had plenty of leisure to enjoy the always new sensation of flight and to watch the wide expanse of magnificent country as it moved slowly past. I let my mind lie fallow, and every now and then I would find it hauling out fragments of old memories which I had forgotten that I possessed.

I recalled, for the first time in many years, my earliest interpretations of the meanings of all the phenomena of the heavens. Two old janitor saints had charge of the floor of the skies. One of them was a jolly old man who liked boys, and always kept the sky swept clean and blue. The other took a sour delight in shirking his duties, so that it might rain and spoil all our fun. Perhaps it was Drew's sense of loneliness and helplessness so far from earth, which made me think of winds and clouds in friendly human terms. However that may be, these reveries, hardly worthy of a military air- man, were abruptly broken into.

All at once, I realized that, while my biplane was headed due north, I was drifting north and west. This seemed strange. I puzzled over it for some time, and then, brilliantly, in the manner of the novice, deduced the reason: wind. I was being blown off my course, all the while comfortably certain that I was flying in a direct line toward R—. Our moniteurs had often cautioned us against being comfortably certain about anything while in the air. It was our duty to be uncomfortably alert. Wind! I wonder how many times we had been told to keep it in mind at all times, whether on the ground or in the air? And here was I forgetting the existence of wind on the very first occasion. The speed of my machine and the current of air from the propeller had deceived me into thinking that I was driving dead into whatever breeze there was at that altitude. I discovered that it was blowing out of the east, therefore I headed a quarter into it, to overcome the drift, and looked for landmarks.

I had not long to search. Wisps of mist obstructed the view, and within ten minutes a bank of solid cloud cut it off completely. I had only a vague notion of my location with reference to my course, but I could not persuade myself to come down just then. To be flying in the full splendor of bright April sunshine, knowing that all the earth was in shadow, gave me a feeling of exhilaration. For there is no sensation like that of flight, no isolation so complete as that of the airman who has above him only the blue sky, and below, a level floor of pure white cloud, stretching in an unbroken expanse toward every horizon. And so I kept my machine headed northeast, that I might regain the ground lost before I discovered the drift northwest. I had made a rough calculation of the time required to cover the seventy kilometres to R— at the speed at which I was traveling. The rest I left to Chance, the godfather of all adventurers.

He took the initiative, as he so frequently does with aviators who, in moments of calm weather, are inclined to forget that they are still children of earth. The floor of dazzling white cloud was broken and tumbled into heaped-up masses which came drifting by at various altitudes. They were scattered at first and offered splendid opportunities for aerial steeplechasing. Then, almost before I was aware of it, they surrounded me on all sides. For a few minutes I avoided them by flying in curves and circles in rapidly vanishing pools of blue sky. I feared to take my first plunge into a cloud, for I knew, by report, what an alarming experience it is to the new pilot.

The wind was no longer blowing steadily out of the east. It came in gusts from all points of the compass. I made a hasty revision of my opinion as to the calm and tranquil joys of aviation, thinking what fools men are who willingly leave the good green earth and trust themselves to all the winds of heaven in a frail box of cloth-covered sticks.

The last clear space grew smaller and smaller. I searched for an outlet, but the clouds closed in and in a moment I was hopelessly lost in a blanket of cold drenching mist.

I could hardly see the outlines of my machine and had no idea of my position with reference to the earth. In the excitement of this new adventure I forgot the speed-dial, and it was not until I heard the air screaming through the wires that I remembered it. The indicator had leaped up fifty kilometres an hour above safety speed, and I realized that I must be traveling earthward at a terrific pace. The manner of the descent became clear at the same moment. As I rolled out of the cloud-bank, I saw the earth jauntily tilted up on one rim, looking like a gigantic enlargement of a page out of Peter Newell's " Slant Book." I expected to see dogs and dishpans, baby carriages and ash-barrels roll out of every house in France, and go clattering off into space.


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