Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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 Chapter 8

The Walrus

Joseph Smith came out of his office to greet Viv and Liz, and introduce them to Oswald Crosley and Henry Harper. He then wished them luck and urged them to be cautious.

     Crosley looked about seventeen, but, since he had been a test pilot for a year, Viv realized that he must be older. Tall and thin with uncoordinated looking arms and legs, he seemed unlike any pilot Viv had seen. But he had been recommended by Mutt Summers.

     The designer, Harper, turned out to be the assistant to Joseph Smith’s assistant. An unremarkable looking man, evidently in his late twenties, he spoke with a peculiar Scottish accent. But, of course, that was a good sign. Many of the greatest engineers had been Scots. He was, in fact, bursting with ideas.

     They were conducted to a little room dominated by a large design table which Viv took to be Harper’s lair. There were a number of dirty cups and saucers spread around, and only three chairs until Crosley borrowed one from another room. Once they were seated, Harper began, “We want to turn these little shagbats into demon sub hunters, and there are two main possibilities.”

For a moment, he seemed, as if framed by a blackboard, about to give a lecture. But, then, he began stuttering, or, as the English said, ‘stammering.’ Viv suddenly realized that he was under pressure to satisfy two young American ladies who happened to be the emissaries of the great Bolsky, if not the even greater Sikorsky. Liz was always good in that sort of situation, and she immediately said, “Before we begin, could we have a bit of tea?”

Everyone smiled and laughed, and Crosley got up, promising to ‘promote’ some.

     When he was gone, Harper started up in a more casual way, saying, “The usual thing seems to be to depth charge subs. But we’re rather doubtful about that.”

One problem was that a Walrus could carry only two depth charges, and the depth setting couldn’t be changed during flight. Harper explained,

“They’d pretty well have to be set shallow, which would be effective only if the aircraft surprises the sub, and drops them just as it submerges.”

Viv suspected that he hadn’t been informed of the plan to land on top of a submerged sub and track it with sonar. However, sonar or not, convoy escorts would have to be called in to actually destroy the sub. She replied, “Making the sub dive would be an accomplishment in itself. Its low submerged speed would probably keep it from getting into position to attack the ships.”

“Right. And it would do no harm to drop at least one charge to make an impression on the U-boat captain. We would want him to stay down for a while.”

He was, at this point, speaking easily. When Crosley came back with the tea tray, Harper said, “Tell the ladies about our discovery, Ozzie.”

Crosley was like a teen-ager with his first car as he explained,

“There’s an American thirty-seven millimeter aircraft cannon which we can mount on the Walrus. It weighs an affordable two hundred and thirteen pounds, fires a hundred and fifty rounds a minute and has a muzzle velocity of two thousand feet per second.”

He obviously had the facts memorized, and Viv, to whom they didn’t mean a great deal, registered enthusiasm. Crosley continued, “The very best thing is that, in addition to the high explosive shell, it fires an armor-piercing one that penetrates one inch of armor at five hundred yards. U-boats are designed to withstand water pressure, but they effectively don’t have any armor at all.”

Liz asked, “How much damage could that do?”

Harper answered, demonstrating with his thumb and forefinger the more than one inch diameter of the shell.

“If you put a few holes that size in a U-boat, it won’t be able to dive for any length of time. The water would be coming through at great pressure and quantity, and the hole could be plugged only from the outside. As the water accumulated faster than it could be pumped out, the sub would have to surface.”

Viv finished, “And then the plane could put more holes in it.”

Viv wondered if Ivan and Sikorsky had thought of arming the Walrus in this way. Liz asked, “Could we mount two of those cannon and double the number of holes?”

“Yes. We were thinking of mounting them right behind the cockpit with the barrels extending over it.”

“That’s a good aiming position.”

“Yes. Moreover, the recoil of the guns wouldn’t much affect the attitude of the plane.”

Viv retreated, for a moment, into her imagination. The English wouldn’t let her in a Spitfire. But she could wangle her way on to a converted merchant ship with a Walrus. Seeing the sub from altitude, she would open the throttle and dive for a position directly behind it. Then, even if it were already partly under water, she would blast holes in the conning tower. Harper was saying,

 “The whole question is whether we can, in fact, catch U-boats on the surface.”

There followed a pause to calculate. Harper had a large slide rule, and he assumed that the aircraft, flying at five thousand fleet, would be likely to spot a sub from a distance of three miles. Viv questioned that, “I haven’t done a lot of flying over water, but we usually spotted ships by the smoke, and U-boats don’t produce hardly any, do they?”

“No. If your brother-in-law were here, we could ask him. But I’ve talked with some Fleet Air Arm pilots and observers. Apart from being smokeless, submarine hulls are hard to make out. However, they make quite distinctive white wakes in any kind of moderate sea. That’s what we’re assuming.”

Viv had actually noticed stretches of ocean with wakes showing white, and was at least partly convinced. Harper continued, “The Walrus would be cruising slowly with the engine throttled back, so it wouldn’t be making much noise, and it would only be a tiny speck in the sky. If the sub does see it and dives, it would be a close thing. The sub might get down in the ninety seconds it would take the aircraft to get into firing position.”

“So it all depends on who keeps a better watch.”

“Most assuredly! If the aircraft can get closer before it’s sighted, the sub would be riddled. It probably couldn’t be sunk, but, not being able to submerge, it’d be easy prey for an escort vessel.”

There was then a pause in which Harper looked from Viv to Liz, and back again, before saying,  “If you approve the basic idea, we can work things out.”

That was why he had been so nervous. Would they approve his plan? Viv looked at Liz, who asked, “Are we allowed to make decisions?”

“We damn well ought to be. Let’s approve and tell Ivan afterwards.”

Viv was sure that she would be able to hit something as big as a submarine conning tower from a steady gun platform like the Walrus. She asked only, “What sort of anti-aircraft fire would we be facing?”

Harper replied, “U-boats have only one AA gun, probably a twenty millimeter. We thought of also mounting a brace of three oh three machine guns on the Walrus, and they should make quick work of the gun crew.”

“It looks as if we need to practice.”

     Smith had gotten them flying suits that fitted quite well, radio equipment, and various other things. The practice was to begin, not with the Walrus they had bought, but with an older one with a Vickers K gun on the forward cockpit. They went down to a hangar to look at it, and pointing to the gun, Harper said, “This weapon would be virtually useless in the standard mounting. It’s a cramped awkward position, and the gun has a terrible grip. When fired, it practically jumps out of one’s hands. However, we bolted it in place to fire directly forward, and rigged a firing button for the pilot to press.”

The result was that it was possible to strafe a target on the ground or water, as with a fighter plane, and they were to practice on a small rowboat towed fifty yards behind a power boat. Since they didn’t want their practice to be observed, the target was already out in the channel south of the Isle of Wight.

     Viv took it for granted that she would be the first to try things. She was, after all, the older sister. Without saying anything, Liz jumped into the rear cockpit as Viv and the pilot, Ozzie, climbed to the main one. This time, Viv was ready for the Walrus’ little oddities as she took off.

     Ozzie was taking bearings on various landmarks in order to work out the course to take them to the target. In fact, it took some ten minutes of circling before they spotted the motorboat. The target, whatever it was, was visible by its splashing as it was pulled through the waves at some twenty miles an hour. Viv, pretending that it was a surfaced submarine, banked sharply to port and went down in a sixty degree dive. Then, pulling out at two hundred feet, she banked left again and raced up to the target, only a few feet above the water.

     The firing button had been placed on the right side of the wheel, and it only fired single shots. They had also put a rudimentary gunsight on the cowling in front of the windscreen, but Viv didn’t think it was correctly positioned and looked only at the gun. At a distance of no more than fifty yards, she fired at what turned out to be a long rowboat.

     It was hard to see whether the shot hit, but Viv and Ozzie both thought that it had. Viv said, “Even at twice the range we’re going to get hits with whatever armament we have.”

“Yes. You’re obviously a very good shot, but the average pilot could get hits by just getting close.”

Out of curiosity, Viv landed near the motor boat which had stopped to examine the rowboat. When they taxied up, a crewman shouted, “A bullet shattered the main rowing seat. I don’t know where it might finally have lodged.”

     Viv called back to Liz to see if she wanted a try. Liz replied,

“I’m warm and dry back here, and I want to stay that way.”

    The take-off in the rough water was slightly more difficult than the one Viv had experienced from the front cockpit the previous time out. This time, the top of a wave was thrown back over the windscreen, drenching both Viv and Ozzie. When they finally got off, she asked him if the cockpits ever had roofs. He replied, “l think they can be fitted. No one ever seems to use one.”

     Henry Harper was waiting for them, and was pleased with the result. Then, seeing how wet Viv was, he said, “I’ve been wondering if we could do something to improve rough water take-offs.”

Ozzie replied, “It always seems to be the wave that we skim without quite lifting that drops us solidly into the next one.”

“We could replace the Bristol Pegasus engine with a Merlin. The latest mark is going into the fighters, but we have some leftover Merlin C’s. Two hundred and ten more horsepower for about two hundred and thirty pounds of extra weight.”

Viv, still dripping, asked, “Would that make it lift sooner?”

“With flying boats you never know. The extra weight makes it sit a little lower in the water, which would slow it down very slightly. And, of course, the weight would militate against lifting. But the extra power might lift it off that last wave.”

Liz said, “When we were growing up, Ivan was always cursing over some problem like that.”

Harper replied, “It is the curse of flying boat people. You have to deal with both air and water.”

Viv asked, “How hard would it be to change engines?”

“It would take a lot of structural work to replace a radial engine with a liquid-cooled one.”

Viv replied, “We’d better wait on that. Reliability is everything at this stage, and we don’t want any surprises. Besides, we may not have much time.”

     When they got back to the hotel, there was an air letter from Henry addressed to all three of them. That was Henry at his tactful best, making it clear that he was informing all of them equally. Barbara apologized, “I was so anxious, I couldn’t wait for you to open it. It’s fairly encouraging.”

Viv was particularly relieved that Ivan made no objection to hiring the extra household help. Henry had, in fact, already hired two, a young man and woman, ‘recent college graduates who would be in great demand, but for the depression.’ According to Henry, it had never occurred to Ivan that anyone would write a history of aviation, but he was pleased enough to consent to be interviewed for the project. Two more young people were to be hired. Liz commented,  “It sounds as if Henry has made Ivan part of the project.”

Barbara replied, “Considering what he’s accomplished in the field, he naturally would be. And it may settle him down. The trouble is that Sikorsky is there, staying at the house.”

Viv said, “Henry says they’re working together on a project, and, from what we’ve been able to gather, it’s an entirely reasonable one. We’re working on it ourselves over at Supermarine.”

“Well, I guess so.”

“Ivan’s entered a creative phase. That’s good.”

     Later, when they were alone, Viv said to Liz, “It is a little scary to think what those two might be up to.”

“Could they practice sonar with the float plane in the lake, or somewhere else?”

“There are old wrecked ships on the bottom all along the coast there. My guess is that they’d start by detecting rocks on the lake bottom, and then work up to the wrecks.”

“When they’re satisfied, we’ll hear a big ‘Eureka’ from Ivan.”

“And, then, he’ll be over here. Possibly without warning.”


Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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