As they docked, it amazed Viv that such a large ship could be accommodated in the narrow body of water at Southampton. Moreover, from their usual position on the boat deck, the ship seemed to entirely overwhelm the modest city lying far below them.
Things were a lot more relaxed than they had been in New York. However, it would have upset Barbara deeply if her stepdaughters hadn’t been properly dressed for their arrival in Britain. Viv, trailing behind the others, practiced simpering as she took little bitty twisty steps in her high heels.
All sorts of people, including the taxi driver, seemed to like Barbara’s Virginia accent, and it was quick work to get her settled at the hotel. It was still only mid-morning when Viv and Liz were off to the Supermarine works in another taxi.
They were expected, and were greeted, much more effusively than Viv had expected, by the chief designer, Joseph Smith, and the chief test pilot, Joe ‘Mutt’ Summers. If she had not known otherwise, she would have taken the bald middle-aged Mr. Smith to be a banker in his pin-striped suit, not to mention his grave expression and his accountant’s eyes. Mr. Summers hardly looked the daredevil that a test pilot had to be. He was humorous, bigger and older than Viv had expected, and someone who might turn out to be an avid gardener.
Viv knew both men to be in heartfelt mourning for Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, who had died of cancer only three months previously. Smith had been his assistant, and, of course, was under great implicit pressure to prove himself a worthy successor to the great man. Summers never knew when the next crazy new experimental aircraft would kill him, but both men managed to act as if they were hosts at a tea party, the tea for which was soon produced.
In the small world of aviation, both of their hosts knew, not only Ivan and Eye-Eye, but Liz’ new father-in-law. The initial conversation was thus almost that of a family reunion. Both men also knew about Viv’s operations in Spain, and Viv had to explain, yet again, that the Bf109c she had shot down hadn’t had the DB 601 engine. After being accused of false modesty, she was asked about the Russian I-16s she had flown.
“They’re strong and fast with reasonable maneuverability and climb, but it’s hard to see, even straight ahead, over the big radial engine.”
Summers said, “I saw one of their fighters at the Paris Air Show a while back. A decent design, but shocking workmanship. When they drilled a hole in the wrong place in the skin, they drilled more until they got it right, leaving the other holes unfilled.”
“That’s Russia. Lots of passion and excitement without much control. The I-16 feels like a wild animal, shaking and jumping all over the sky when you’re trying to shoot.”
“It’s a wonder you shot down those four aircraft.”
“You have to get so close that you can’t miss.”
At that, Smith and Summers looked at one another and laughed.
Mr. Smith asked Liz, “Are you inclined to follow your sister in these sorts of activities?”
Liz deprecated her own abilities, not mentioning mathematics at all. But she did say that she might like to engage in some of the English sporting activities. When riding was mentioned, she replied, “Unfortunately, I’m allergic to horses. But I played shuffleboard on the ship.”
This was intended, and taken, as a joke. Smith and Summers didn’t try to hide their curiosity about the new daughter-in-law of their old friend, but, of course, anyone would be happy to have Liz brought into their circle.
It was when the conversation turned to the Walrus that Mitchell inevitably came to be discussed. Smith said, “This job was a bit of a vacation for Reg, the only aircraft he designed that wasn’t meant to test the limits of performance. He accordingly turned more of it over to me than he would otherwise have done.”
Summers said, “It was interesting nonetheless. The challenge was to produce the largest aircraft that had ever been catapulted from a cruiser. The result was a maze of stressing wires, and the accidental by-product is a flying boat that can perform aerobatic maneuvers.”
“You mean loops?”
“Surprisingly so. Apart from that, Reg and Joe produced a pretty little aircraft that practically flies itself. But, as always, Reg found faults. We had to make all sorts of modifications.”
Smith said, “Reg wasn’t always the easiest man to work for.”
Viv replied, “I understand he didn’t like the name ‘spitfire’.”
“Quite so. He said it was the sort of bloody silly name he would have expected them to produce.”
Summers said, “Joe’s much easier to work for. I try not to take advantage of his good nature.”
“And I try to design aircraft whose wings won’t fall off when Mutt tries to fly them.”
Viv, catching the spirit, replied, “Since the Walrus has two wings, we can afford to lose the upper one.”
It seemed that they were about to go to a hangar to look at their plane when Smith hesitated. “We’ve been sworn to secrecy in all sorts of ways, but we’ve inferred a few things for ourselves. Are both of you fully informed?”
Viv replied, “We weren’t trusted. We were told just to learn the aircraft thoroughly. We’d be delighted to know what you think.”
The men were amused, and Smith said, “We were told none of this, but we think your father and Sikorsky want a submarine hunting aircraft that can be catapulted from, and landed on, a modified merchant ship. It also seems that they’ve chosen the Walrus for its ability to operate from rough water.”
Liz replied, “My new husband has flown one, and liked it. Since it can be catapulted from cruisers, I guess it could be from any fairly large ship.”
“As far as landing goes, the average tanker could have the bridge reduced, the funnel led off to the side, and a landing deck put on top.”
“Then, Liz and I should practice some landings with wheels in short spaces.”
“Yes. However it’s launched, we envision the Walrus finding a U-boat, attacking it with depth charges set shallow, and, at the least, making it dive. The Walrus would then land and track the submarine while calling for a destroyer to come up and attack it.”
“How would it track the sub underwater?”
“With ASDIC, as you say, SONAR.”
“I didn’t know it could be put on an aircraft.”
“The operative part has to be under water, but it could be put on the end of a boom which is pushed down from the Walrus as it taxies. This actually mirrors an idea I worked on a few years ago, but didn’t have time to pursue further.”
“Liz and I certainly haven’t heard anything like this from Ivan. But we wouldn’t have.”
Summers broke in, “Our suspicions were somewhat confirmed by the list of modifications we’re supposed to make. A slightly enlarged upper wing, attachment points for rockets to assist take-off in rough water, and an electrical system far beyond anything needed for an ordinary Walrus.”
“All that sounds rather like Ivan and Eye-Eye, but we won’t say anything. Should we pretend not to know when we’re eventually told?”
Smith said, “When one or the other of them gets here, I’ll simply say that this is what we assumed their intention to be. Of course, it might turn out to be something altogether different.”
Summers then took them downstairs to a large hangar to see the new Walrus.
It looked just as Viv had expected, and Summers offered, “We can take her up now if you’d like.”
Since she and Liz were both in dresses, Viv made a gesture down at her clothing. Summers replied, “I’m sure we can find flying kit for you.”
The Walrus had its wheels down, and was sitting on a float that sloped down to the water. Before getting in Summers said, “This is a standard aircraft, and doesn’t qualify as a test flight. But it seems you’ll be doing some of that.”
He then recounted something that had happened when he was testing an early version of the Vickers Wellington. “It’s a fairly heavy twin-engined bomber, so I wasn’t expecting much out of the ordinary. But it suddenly did a snap roll. My seat harness broke, and I was pitched out through the glazed roof by the centrifugal force. Fortunately, I had a parachute. They also raised my salary afterwards.”
“We’re already supported by our father, and I’m not sure he’d raise our allowances for something like that. I see you have parachutes for us there.”
“A good thing at all times. Particularly if we do some aerobatics.”
Although Viv had been used to seaplanes and small flying boats since early childhood, the Walrus was a more substantial ‘boat’ than most of them. They had to climb up on a ladder to the main cockpit and step over the windows into the seats. The forward cockpit could be reached through the fuselage, and Summers conducted Liz there, belting her in very carefully. He then put Viv in the left-hand pilot’s seat, taking the right seat himself.
It was quite a roomy cockpit, more like the pilot house of a boat than an aircraft. Even the Bolsky float plane had a compact cockpit with a curved windshield and curved surfaces throughout. This cockpit was rectilinear with all kinds of pipes and devices attached to the wall, and a large flat vertical windshield. There was no streamlining whatever, but the intention had evidently been to provide good vision for scouting.
Also boat-like was the provision of a tray which the co-pilot could pull out and work out navigation problems on a chart. Everything was designed for comfort, which might be quite welcome after fruitlessly searching for submarines for some four hours.
A mechanic came up to start the engine with a battery cart, and Summers explained, “Our battery isn’t charged, but we’ll have the capability of starting ourselves, particularly on the water. That isn’t standard for a Walrus.”
“Ivan asked for that?”
“Yes. It’s one of the things that tipped us off.”
“Why is that?”
“Imagine the Walrus following the submerged sub with ASDIC. The engine might stall at low speed, and one would want to be able to start it again quickly.”
“Before the sub can surface and destroy the Walrus?”
“That sounds more like Eye-Eye than Ivan. The meticulous consideration of all possibilities.”
“Reg was also like that.”
Just then, the pusher engine suspended above them between the wings started with quite a roar. The chocks were pulled from the wheels, and they rolled, with increasing speed, into the water. Summers gestured for Viv to take control while he cranked up the wheels. The wheels were on legs that folded sideways up to the lower wing. The design was simple and foolproof, but took a lot of cranking. The tail wheel, with its own little float, remained in the water and acted as a rudder, synchronized with the air foil rudder above it. Unlike a little float plane, which handled like an airplane momentarily balanced on its pontoons, the Walrus handled like a boat.
After getting clear of the docks, Viv spotted a clear stretch of water into the wind and opened the throttle. The Bristol six hundred and eighty horsepower engine responded with a good surge, at which point Viv had the feeling of piloting a speedboat. The Walrus was much heavier than the Bolsky float-plane, and required a longer run. Morover, as it picked up speed, it felt like a very large speedboat going dangerously fast and creating a huge wake. They passed closer to a small boat than Vic would have liked, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Instead of a joy stick, as in an I-16, the control column, moving only forward and backward, had a wheel. Since the aircraft tended to list to the left under full power and bury the wing float on that side, she had been instructed to turn the wheel all the way to the right.
It seemed as if they would go on accelerating forever, shrouded in spray with the hull slapping the little waves, but the plane suddenly lifted. Viv quickly straightened the wheel and went into a slow climbing turn. They then flew south, over the Isle of Wight, to the English Channel.
It seemed to Viv that they were going sideways almost as fast as forward, and Summers explained, “We’ve got a thirty knot breeze on the starboard beam, and our air speed is only triple that.”
As Viv turned toward the wind, it amused her that it was necessary to do such a thing.
Summers, with a questioning look, then described a loop with his hand.
Viv went into a moderately steep dive, piling up speed, and then pulled back strongly on the control column. With its light wing-loading, the little ship bounced up quickly, carrying momentum to the top, and was over on its back. It was then a simple matter to complete the loop and regain level flight. After some more maneuvers at medium altitude, Viv suggested a landing. Summers nodded, and she recalled the instructions.
Although the channel didn’t have as large swells as the open Atlantic, it was still rough. It was important to land on the top of a wave and bounce to at least the next one before settling into a trough. Otherwise, Liz, up forward, would be half submerged. As they descended, Summers said, “Because it’s designed to be catapulted, there are so many wires bracing this aircraft that it’s remarkably strong. No need to worry about hitting a wave.”
There was, indeed, quite an impact at the first wave. By the third one they were water-borne, going fast down the back of the wave. It looked as if they would bury in the next one, but the nose rose quickly. As they taxied through the seas, she remarked,
“The top of one wave came almost over the bow. Liz must be drenched.”
“I should have put her in the after cockpit.”
“She likes excitement. She won’t mind.”
“What did you think?”
“The aircraft is easy to fly and control, much more solid than a little floatplane, and a world apart from an I-16.”
“I thought you’d enjoy it.”
It was now Liz’ turn. Viv could have taken the rear gunner’s seat, but it didn’t seem sporting. Liz was dripping, but happy, as they exchanged seats. The bow cockpit was round with a primitive little seat, and Liz made sure that Viv was well secured.
It was quite an exposed position, but Viv did have confidence in Liz as a pilot. There was nothing like learning at the age of twelve, and they had later done aerobatics in a little biplane, legalized themselves, and gotten licenses.
As they began their run, up and down over the waves with increasing speed, Viv ducked down to avoid the cold spray, but then got most of a wave right on top of her. It looked as if they were going to fly off the top of the next wave, but didn’t have quite enough speed. There was then a jarring crash which shook Viv, but didn’t seem to cause any damage. Two waves further on, they finally lifted.
Liz did sharper turns that Viv had done, and put the Walrus through its paces. No doubt, thought Viv, she was trying to show Mr. Summers something. Indeed, she herself might be part of the desired audience. Thankfully, Liz didn’t do a bunt, a downwards outside in loop which would have chucked Viv out, but for the restraints. It was good to have a sister who didn’t push that part of the envelope. On the other hand, there was now a lot of water in the bilges. If Liz did a loop, the water would come the other way. It might be that Liz just didn’t want to get doused again.
Back at the dock, towels were found for Viv and Liz. When Summers apologized for the unclean state of the towels, Liz responded, “That’s all right. We grew up with towels that were used for wiping down aircraft and engines.”
Summers looked as if he wasn’t sure whether she was joking, and Viv assured him that she wasn’t.
After they were reasonably dry and dressed, they reported favorably on the flight to Smith. Viv concluded, “I guess the next thing would be dropping pretend depth charges on pretend U-boats.”
“I’ll get some dummy depth charges, or something equivalent. For a target, we can have a fast motorboat tow something.”
“We’ll also pretend we’re being shot at, and practice some evasion.”
“Just like Spain, I see. We might as well put a gun in the front cockpit, so that the one who isn’t flying can shoot at the target.”
“You aren’t afraid that we’d hit the towing motorboat?”
“I don’t think that would happen.”
There was then a meaningful pause, and Smith continued, “Your father’s paying us very generously, and the money matters because it enables us to do other things, particularly with regard to Spitfire modifications. However, Mutt and I are really supposed to put all our effort into those improvements. The next time you come, if it’s all right with you, I’ll introduce you to a couple of young men who’ll work with you on the further modifications to the Walrus that your father wants.”
“Certainly. You have to get ready for the Bf109s with the DB engines.”
“Yes. I only hope we can in time.”
But, then, Smith and Summers perked up and bid them goodbye.
As they left, it seemed to Viv that they had, at least, demonstrated their competence.