“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 13

October 23, 2009

The Righteous Stuff

by Jeffrey D. Waggoner

based on characters and situations in the

“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling








          The X-6 was a silver cigar-shaped tube, with a sharply-raked delta wing, a huge box below the fuselage, and tiny ruddlerlets at the wingtips. It hung from the underside of the bomber’s wing, steaming gently as the sun came up. Jack Ridley walked out of the Bell Aircraft hangar wearing the tight elastic pressure suit, carrying his heavy white helmet. He noted that the wing of the B-25 actually deflected, bending toward the ground a little. The X-6 was as light as it could be, but three sets of engines made it almost too heavy for the big plane to carry. The next generation of test plane would surely need to be mounted on top of the aircraft, or a whole new plane would have to be built to carry them.

          He walked around the plane one more time as the technicians completed disconnecting the hoses labeled LMETH and then reconnected the auxiliary power cables. One of the technicians looked up. “Ready to go, Ridley? I think this little bird is about ready for you.”

          “Yep. I reckon I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” the pilot said in his usual calm, flat Sequoyah drawl. Ridley ran his hand over the silvery skin of the scramjet. He could feel the silky smoothness through his flight glove. It didn’t feel like metal, although he knew there were metal particles of several varieties in the ceramic-carbon fiber matrix. Knowing what was in it and believing it were two different things, that was for sure. Jack Ridley was an engineer as well as a pilot he and took pride in knowing everything about the planes he flew. This plane was different, though. “You know, Larry, this baby is still just damn spooky, if you asked me. I swear it feels alive. I’m not flying this one–I’m ridin’ it, like a horse with a lot o’ spirit.”

          The technician grunted. “Whatever works, Ridley. I just know that this little one is full of JP-1, lox and liquid methane, and I hope it’s enough to keep you cool up there, buddy.”

          “No problem, man, no problem. Goin’ into town tonight?”

          The tech grunted and stood up, stretching. “Naw, not tonight. Last week, I went down to Pancho’s instead and had a couple extra beers, banged up the steamer findin’ a joshua tree on the way home. Millie’s pretty mad, and when she’s mad, you stay home for a while. Sure would like to, though. I hear the rebop band at Andy’s is blowin’ up a storm.”

          “Never liked that stuff much myself, ’cept when Bird plays with the strings and stuff.” Ridley finished his walkaround, satisfied that everything on the outside of this bird was in order as well. “I’m more of a swing band guy, myself, Sweet bands, even, sometimes. Miller toured the Pacific when I was out there, did you know that? Damn fine band, better than what he’s got now, what with all the rebopper bands stealin’ the good players!”

          “Maybeso, but I do like Dizzy and the boys. And that young Getz character, Millie thinks he’s the best.” Good luck to you, Jack. She’s a sweet little bird, and she’ll take good care of you.”

          “Thanks, Larry, but luck’s got nothin’ to do with it…hey, got any Beeman’s?”

The tech smiled at the now-ancient ritual. “Yeah, I reckon I got a stick,” he replied with a grin, as he pulled the stick of gum out of his pocket and handed it to Jack.

 Ridley climbed into the belly of the bomber as the sun made its way just over the horizon. It was still dry and clear, unusual for the high desert this late in the year. If the test wasn’t successful today, they might have to wait a couple of months, until the rains were gone and the lake bed was once again dry and hard as asphalt. “Come on, boys,” he called to the pilot and copilot, as the jet engines of the big plane wound up. “Let’s get up there and light this candle!”


          “Drop in five–four–three–two…drop and away!” Ridley heard the bomber pilot through the headphones in his helmet. He punched the button to fire the explosive bolts to detach the scramjet from the bomber, but the automatics beat him to it, as always. His stomach lurched as the plane fell away, and he put it into a gentle dive, watching the airspeed indicator.

          “Six hundred, six twenty-five, six-fifty, priming ram now.” Ridley punched the green RMJT INJ button and felt the explosion in the engine that told him the kerosene was injected into the ram and was starting to burn. At least it was supposed to start.

          “No start! Repeat, no start on the ram! Will attempt another start.” He jabbed the button again, felt more than heard the bang beneath him. There was no consistent pressure that told him he was under thrust, though, and he was starting to actually get a little concerned. I may have the righteous stuff, but it sure as hell isn’t helpin’ right now, he thought. Just run the checklist.

          “Ripley, abort the mission now. Repeat, abort now! We’ll give you a landing glide path in a minute or so.” The tower controller sounded a little more urgent than Ridley expected. Must be brass in the booth today.

          “Uh, negative on the abort, Flight, I think I can get it started if I can just get enough airspeed.” The plane was still in a dive, and Ridley brought the nose even lower, increasing his airspeed. He pushed the MPH/MACH button, and the display switched to Mach numbers. 0.88, 0.90, 0.91… He was running out of altitude, though. Let’s go, baby, fire up this time, OK?

          0.94 Mach, and the X-6 was bucking and trying to go transonic on him, as he increased his angle of dive attack in an act of desperation. Without power going supersonic was very unlikely, but he could come close, if he could just hold it steady and find the right angle of attack…there! He punched the injector button one more time and this time was rewarded with the bang-roar of the ramjet and the kick in the seat of his pants that said the damn thing stayed lit.

          “We have ram function, Flight! Increasing attitude,” Ripley muttered into his microphone as he fought to bring the plane’s nose up. The ram was roaring and the nose was trying to pitch down, but the hydraulics helped him ever so slowly bring the nose back up. Finally he was in level flight, and gave himself the satisfaction of checking the altimeter. The display read 22,000 feet, which was better than he expected, after all the dive time he had used up in trying to start the ram.

          Suddenly the ride smoothed out. The familiar supersonic control feel was a tremendous relief. The plane was just barely capable of enough lift to maintain control at subsonic speeds, even without the usual transonic turbulence. Once past the sound barrier, the increase in speed was tremendous. Ridley was thrust back into the seat as the ramjet blazed into the sky.

          “Flight, coming up on two point zero Mach…two point zero and climbing. She’s flying smooth as glass, now. Tell Dornberger so far, so good.” The acceleration was powerful now, as the ram increased efficiency as the air density decreased. The ram’s design was optimized for speeds above Mach 3, and Ridley was surprised how quickly the plane was reaching that point.

          “We’re receiving good data, Jack. Increase angle of attack to six degrees.” The flight controller sounded much more calm than he did earlier. Ridley also noted that nothing more was said about aborting the flight. He figured he wouldn’t hear any more about it unless he screwed the pooch on this one. Independent decisions by pilots weren’t completely outlawed yet. He glanced at the machmeter­—just over Mach 3.5.

          “Roger, six degrees. Coming up on Mach four, boys.” Ridley pulled back on the controller stick, watching the meter. He was over 50,000 feet now, and the ram was getting more efficient all the time.

          “Affirmative, Jack. Coming up on scram prestart,” the flight controller responded.

          “Mach four point zero. Initiating scram prestart now.” Ridley pressed the SCR INJ button, and could feel more than hear the whine of the liquid methane pumps as they filled the cooling baffles surrounding the boxlike experimental scramjet engine enclosure. Without the methane for cooling, even the demonic material this airframe was made of would melt down. The pilot watched the temperature indicators, waiting for the numbers to turn green and tell him it was safe to attempt to fire the scramjet.

          “Making the turn over the ocean. Scramjet in ten seconds.” Ridley banked left in a wide arc. In case of problems, the scramjet testing would be done over the Pacific. There goes my chance at surviving this crash, he thought. No way to land this baby now.

          “Three, two, one…scram start.” The world was a single button, marked SCR INIT. Ridley took as deep a breath as he could, then stabbed the button. As it changed to red, a tremendous roar, a sound that made the ram’s sound disappear, screamed through his helmet. The acceleration was so sudden it threw him back into the seat.

          “Whoa! That was some kick, boys! Mach four point five, and increasing! The scram is running fine! Level flight at sixty thousand. Cutting out the ram now!” Ridley leaned forward against the acceleration and tapped the RMJT CUT button. The RP-1 supply was cut off to the ramjet almost immediately, and Jack could feel the Gs drop off somewhat.

          “The ram’s off, Flight. I can feel a difference, but the scramjet is running so hard, it could pick up the slack in no time. I’m only at 55 per cent on the scram throttle, and we’re at mach five point zero now.”

          “Time to try the turn, Jack. Turn to one-eighty degrees as soon as you can.”

          “Affirmative, Flight, turning to one-eighty degrees.” Ridley ever-so-gently kicked the controller to the left and the plane responded immediately, slamming his helmet into the canopy. He shook his head, but gently. Turning at three thousand knots! I must be nuts! “The controls are definitely a little touchy, flight. There’s a slight tendency to overcontrol.” “Slight tendency,” hell! Almost put her into a spin.

          “How’s your methane level, Jack?” the flight controller asked.

          “Hmm…about fifty-six per cent, looks like. When do you want me to start turning back, Flight?” Jack could see Baja California on his left and figured it was about time to head home.

          “About now, Ridley. The California ED stations show you clearly. They say you’re at six point three Mach right now! Looks like a new record, man!”

          “Got you, Flight, I’m gonna make this turn as gentle as I can. This is one high-performance airchine, boys!” He tapped the controller as lightly as he could, with the palm of his right hand, bracing with his left for the slap that he expected as the rudderlets tried to turn the plane.

          Damn! The ’chine almost skidded sideways in the turn! Ridley didn’t smack his head this time, because he was ready for the jolt, but it was still so quick, and so severe, he hoped he could do this one more time safely. “Uh, Flight, how about if I dial this down a bit? The controls are a little touchy, you know?”

          The controller sounded concerned. “Just a minute, Jack…let me check with the engineers.” The plane was over land again, and moving fast. Normally at high altitudes you would have to watch a specific landmark for a while to really get an impression of your speed. At this speed you could see the terrain move below you!

          What’s going on down there? “Flight, do you have a revision for me? I’m gonna be in Texas in a couple of minutes!”

          “Here you go, Jack. Decrease throttle to forty percent, then start the turn to ten degrees.”

          “Roger, Flight, throttle to forty…now waiting for the airspeed to decrease. Uh, Flight, what’s my airspeed for the turn?”

          Another pause. “Jack, we’re not quite sure where your lower airspeed limit is before the scramjet flames out.  We think you can keep it going at Mach three, but below that is anybody’s guess.”

          “I’m at three point five now, and slowing. Decreasing throttle to thirty per cent.” Ridley knew he couldn’t keep this up forever. If the scramjet flamed out too soon, he would run out of altitude on the glide before he got to the runway. “I’m making the turn now, guys!”

          That turn was ’way more controllable, Jack thought. He was trying to find landmarks through the small quartz windows. I wish I could pitch the nose down. Can’t see a thing.

          “Any idea where I am, Flight? Havin’ a little trouble with visibility.” Ridley kept his voice on the level. Can’t overshoot the runway. Or the state of California!

          “You’re about four hundred miles south of us, Jack. Make a turn to three fifty-five degrees as soon as you can, and we’ll talk you in. We’ll want you to cut the scram off in about fifteen seconds.”

          “Roger, three fifty-five. Cutting throttle to twenty per cent.”

          Bang. Ridley was thrown into the straps of his restraint harness, and his neck cracked as his helmet was thrown forward. Jack shook himself, then checked the instrument panel. The scram must have flamed out, at Mach 3.2. That’s not good!

          “Jack! Your airspeed is dropping too fast! What happened?”

          “The scram is out, Flight. Better start workin’ up that data.” Ridley punched the SCR CUT button, just in case the methane flow hadn’t automatically stopped.

          “Can you restart the ram?”

          “Flight…remember the problems we had before? I think I’ll let this baby glide in. Let’s have some numbers!”

          Yet another pause. Can’t these guys get this going? How many brains does it take? Jack didn’t know. He was riding in the world’s fastest glider, but it wasn’t a very good glider. It was designed to be powered above Mach one, and yet it was rushed into testing before the designers and engineers found a good way to bring the ramjet back online at high speeds. You could start it around Mach one, but to start it in the air, at over Mach two, was considered impossible.

          Ridley knew there were at least ten guys in the control tower. Probably they were all yelling at once, right about now. He’d been there himself when all hell had broken loose, and this was one of those times. The engineers were great at analyzing data about the engine after the flight was over, but they weren’t really trained to respond in an emergency. This should have been a contingency plan. Why did we dismiss the possibility of the scram flaming out early?

          “Jack, we have some numbers for you. Here they are…” The flight controller gave him the data for the experimental autopilot. Yet another part of the test, the autopilot has been tested on previous flights, but not at such a high speed and not in an emergency.

          Ridley pushed the ACCEPT button on the autopilot and the nose came up a little as the computer took over. The plane banked to the right, then to the left. Ridley kept his hand lightly on the controller, still looking for landmarks. All of the desert looked the same from up here.

          “Hey Jack, how you doin’?” a familiar voice drawled over the radio.

          “Captain Kincheloe, how you doin’?” Jack mimicked him. Iven Kincheloe was one of the best test pilots out there, but he wasn’t scheduled to fly chase today. He was much farther away from the base than he would have been unless he took off before the flameout even occurred.. Good old Iven, Jack thought. Just the guy to watch your back, even if he was a little too perfect.

          “Just flyin’ around son, and thought I’d look in on you. The ’chine is lookin’ real good, from here.”

          “Good to know that. The computer’s doin’ all the work now. I’m just enjoyin’ the ride.”

          The regular chase planes picked up the two as they dropped below Mach one, and the four planes came into the lake bed runway as smoothly as any other landing. As they touched down, the twenty-five engineers and flight controllers in the tower exploded into cheers. They were crammed almost elbow to elbow, and all of them had been necessary to calculate the numbers that brought the X-6 back in safely.

          “Tank you, gentlemen,” Dornberger said as he dismissed them, his German accent more evident than usual. “Your help today was vital to de success of de mission. I salute you for your excellent work under pressure. Tomorrow ve vill analyze de scramjet fault.” He stumped out of the room and down the stairs. As the door closed, one engineer muttered to another, “Damn. A ‘tanks’ from Dornberger. This must have been more serious than I thought!”

          On the runway, Ridley climbed out of the cockpit and dropped to the ground. Kincheloe met him next to the plane, which was still radiating heat from its composite skin.

          “You had us worried for a minute, Jack. That engine was not supposed to cut out like that. All the wind tunnel and computer testing…”

          “Don’t I know it,” Jack interrupted. “There’s an airflow problem, that’s a fact. She kicked a little hard when she cut out.” He smiled at the blond pilot. “But, hey, that’s why we’re test pilots, right?” He slapped Kincheloe on the back, laughing.

          Dornberger watched the two men walk back to the hangar, shaking his head. “De tink de live forever,” he muttered to himself. “De tink dey are invincible. If dey didn’t, ve vould be in big trouble right now.” Still shaking his head, he went back to his office. He didn’t have to understand them, just give them planes to fly, faster and faster planes. 

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