The Righteous Stuff
by Jeffrey D. Waggoner
based on characters and situations in the
“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling
ODENATHUS FLIGHT TESTING FACILITY
DOMINATION OF THE DRAKA
Jaeger had been briefed, to an extent, on how the plane’s rocket motor actually worked. The oxidizer was a highly concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide; the fuel was a combination of methyl alcohol and an agent that helped to promote the combustion between the fuel and the oxygen produced when the hydrogen peroxide was catalyzed. As the hydrogen peroxide came in contact with the catalyst, it was converted to superheated steam and oxygen. The methyl alcohol was ignited in the oxygen rich atmosphere. The engine ran extremely hot – about 1300 degrees centigrade. Jaeger was more than a little concerned about having this flame sitting at his back, but he was somewhat fascinated by the idea of riding a rocket, even a small one.
He knew that the small craft was extremely maneuverable. He’d seen what it could do in combat when it had shot down his own plane and those of several of his friends. Still, it was somewhat disconcerting that it had no horizontal stabilizer. There was a rudder and there was the triangular wing; but it seemed as if the plane would be more than a little unstable. Jaeger knew that it wasn’t, thought, when in the hands of a skilled pilot – like the girl who had shot him down in Austria.
It didn’t even have any landing gear! It sat on a small cradle with two wheels, its tail supported only by a short skid. It was expected that it would land on its belly, on soft grass. The Odenathus test facility had no grass of any kind, unless you counted the stiff scrub that pushed its way up through the desert floor around a few of the buildings. Jaeger wasn’t quite sure while the plane was going the land. It certainly wasn’t going the land on the runway.
This particular model was painted in various shades of green, gray, and tan. The one that had shot him down in Austria had been painted mottled white and light gray in a winter camouflage pattern. He knew they were only a few that had been built as production models, before the factories were bombed; this one looked like it was in relatively good repair. There were only a few small dings, scratches, and dents – the kind of usual scrapes found find when transporting aircraft from place to place. Jaeger was certainly unsure at this point what he was going to be expected to do with this plane, but he assumed that if he wanted to keep his skin he should find out everything he could about it. He unlocked the canopy and slid it back, peering into the very small cockpit.
It was easy to see why the pilot who shot him down had been a petite female. He wasn’t sure if there was really room inside for him. Instrumentation was minimal. There was some sort of artificial horizon, an altimeter, a couple of fuel gauges marked in German that didn’t look very accurate, an air speed indicator, and controls for the radio. There was no throttle because the engine was either on or off, and generally it was always left on. Apparently the Germans had not been quite sure if it could be restarted in flight. On the nose of the plane there was a tiny propeller, no more than twenty centimeters across, that drove the generator for the electrical system. Since there was no landing gear there was no need for controls for wheels up or wheels down, and there were no navigational aids since the plane could venture only a few kilometers from its airfield. It was controlled with a stick and rudder pedals like planes from fifty years before. There was a control that seemed to be for some sort of flap arrangement on the wings. There was also a red button on top of the control stick for the gun. Jaeger had never learned enough German to really read any of the markings on the controls, but he expected that before he would be asked fly it those markings would be repainted. All in all, it was a very simple aircraft – just one that could fly at a thousand kilometers an hour.
Not that Jaeger expected that he would be asked to flight this plane in anything that simulated a combat situation. He expected that it was to be used more to test the rocket engine than to test the aircraft itself. He hadn’t ever concerned himself very much with propulsion; he knew as much as he needed to about most kinds of aircraft engines and what they could be expected to do, but he never found himself terribly devoted to the concept of exotic new power plants. Some pilots tried to learn everything they could about new aircraft design, and over the past few years found themselves increasingly frustrated by the inability to keep up. Jaeger was smart enough to learn everything he needed to learn, but he knew he often had gaps in his background. But this was different – a rocket engine required no air to run, and therefore it could be used at a much higher altitude than conventional jet airplane engines. He wanted to learn everything he could!
One of the things that Jaeger and his friends had discussed from time to time was how to achieve higher altitudes. They quickly came to the conclusion that if you didn’t have to drag of all of the fuel and all the airframe with you the whole way, you could achieve much higher speeds and, therefore, much higher altitudes. If this plane was carried, perhaps, under the wing of heavy bomber, it could be carried to a reasonably high altitude and released. Assuming it was possible the start the rocket motor in the air, while flying at maybe five hundred kilometers per hour, it might be possible to break the sound barrier with a tiny plane like this!
Jaeger shook his head slowly. The plane certainly didn’t look like it could withstand the “wall of air” that was to be found at supersonic speeds. If it was possible for this plane to break the speed of sound, it was just as likely that it would disintegrate around him. No, he would really need to be convinced by the engineers and the scientists that this was possible before he put his life on the line – especially just for the cause of science!
Jaeger slid the canopy back and locked it once again and hunched down to look underneath the plane, but there wasn’t much more to see. It seemed to be primarily built of aluminum, hopefully with a steel structure inside, and fortunately it wasn’t built partially out of wood, as many German aircraft were at this time. Many production German aircraft had plywood in the fuselage or on the wings because there was too little steel and aluminum available in wartime. Apparently the German engineers were just as nervous as he was about the effects of high speeds on their new invention. Jaeger stood up and tapped lightly on the wing with his knuckles. He was rewarded with sort of hollow ringing thud which, will not feeling exactly substantial, at least didn’t sound like there was plywood underneath.
Jaeger watched the sky with binoculars as the German rocket plane climbed. It was being flown by Sam Forsythe, a friend of Gus’ who was one of the smallest pilots. At just over 165 centimeters, Sam was barely tall enough to have qualified for pilot training. It had always been assumed for ages that brute strength was necessary for a pilot. In other wars that might have been true, but hydraulic control systems had changed all that. At that point, it came down to reflexes, eyesight and keeping a cool head. Samantha Forsythe was one of the best. She also weighed under under forty-five kilos and right now was drilling a hole in the sky at about 650 kilometers an hour.
“By the White Christ that thing is fast,” Jaeger remarked to the other pilots watching. Casey Witherspoon, a big, redheaded, bony man who would never fit in the rocket’s cockpit looked downcast.
“Ah sho’ly would like to feel that,” Casey whispered. There were a couple of snickers. He glared at the other pilots. “The plane, you assholes, the plane!”
Jaeger patted him on the shoulder. “We know, Casey.” Forsythe had been completely uninterested in the other pilots, socially, since arriving in Syria in the previous March. It wasn’t long before the rumor circulated that she was not terribly interested in men at all. No one had gotten far enough with her to confirm or deny the rumor. She was extremely professional, to a fault, actually, and never became “one of the boys,” even for a moment.
Suddenly there was a pop from the sky. All the pilots looked up again, and saw white smoke pouring from the left side of the aircraft. There was no longer any exhaust from the rocket engine visible, and as they watched Forsythe banked to the left. It was obvious she was trying to glide back to the desert runway for a landing. She was only about three hundred meters high, and sliding down the left wing as she banked. She was running out of altitude quickly.
“Pull up, dammit, pull up!” Casey muttered as the plane continued the turn. “Ah think she’s havin’control problems, not just the engine flameout.”
The plane continued in the bank, turning through the point where the nose would have been pointed at the runway. It was still nose-down and diving, probably at over 600 KPH. In a few seconds it was over. The plane spiraled into the low hills just past the runway and was lost from sight. There was no explosion, but a whump could be heard by all the pilots standing on the taxiway.
“Shee-it,” said Jaeger. “Shee-it.”
An engineer from the Technical Directorate was running the briefing for the pilots and flight crews in one of the hangars. The doors were open behind the folding wooden chairs to bring in what little cool air the desert allowed.
“We are reasonably sure we know what caused Centurion Forsythe’s problems. We can blame it on poor materials used by the Germans in fabricating the fuel tanks. The tanks are steel with a plastic lining. Without the lining the steel would catalyze the hydrogen peroxide, turning it into steam and oxygen.”
“In the case of this flight, the fuel tank developed a hairline crack. The crack literally was no wider than that, but since the plane was accelerating at a high angle of attack the fuel was forced down toward the crack. The fuel was already under pressure as it was being fed to the engine, of course. The fuel forced through the crack began to catalyze, which then allowed the oxygen and alcohol to mix in the interior of the airframe. Apparently the water that was a byproduct of the reaction was insufficient to stop the fire that subsequently started in the electrical wiring channel, and that was what you saw. The Germans did not use fireproof wiring or conduit, and there were other flammable materials in the space. With the oxygen being poured in through the crack the fire spread rapidly, and the crack increased in size. Smoke filled the cockpit in a very short period of time. The Germans also did not pressurize the cockpit, as you know, or the smoke could have been forced out. They were short on materials and time, and knew the plane had a relatively low operational ceiling. We believe Centurion Forsythe was dead before she hit the ground.”
He cleared his throat, then gestured behind him. “We still have one more aircraft. We will make closer inspections of the tanks, and will attempt to replace wiring where we can. However, all of you must understand that this vehicle was not built by the standards of our own people, and therefore, despite the design and technology present in it, it is a dangerous and primitive thing. Good luck!”