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“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 15

November 2, 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

CHAPTER 15

USAF EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT TEST FACILITY

RODRIGUEZ DRY LAKE

CORUM, CALIFORNIA

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

NOVEMBER, 1952

 

Nathaniel Stoddard sat in the air-conditioned office of the head honcho, as he liked to think of him, Major General Albert Boyd, the Director of the Flight Test Facility. The Facility had no real name, since it in many official ways didn’t really exist. Stoddard assumed they were waiting for a really important pilot to get himself killed, somebody famous, and then name the place after him.

The trouble was that nobody here was famous, he thought. Probably every world flight record was broken here every week, and nobody outside of here and maybe Langley knew anything about it. The whole place was so hush-hush it didn’t even appear on any maps. There was a huge desert area marked “US Army Proving Ground,” but even with the six long runways marked on the dry lake, this facility took up less than a tenth of the area the Army declared as off-limits.

That was fine with Stoddard. It made his job–his real job–that much easier. His cover, that was something else again. He had spent the last six weeks getting up to speed on aircraft maintenance from men who didn’t even know what kind of engines they were using here! It was likely he would be discovered, his cover blown, in a day or two. That was fine with him, too. This damnfool stunt was dreamed up by the boys in the OSS in New York, and if it didn’t work out he could go home before Christmas.

General Boyd came back into the office and sat down behind the desk. A fine former test pilot himself, Boyd was much like Stoddard in that he hated to be behind a desk all day. As he started to speak, a set of jet engines wound up outside the building, across the road on the flight line, and Boyd stopped and swiveled his chair to see out the plate glass windows.

The whole building was glass, the new trend in government office buildings. Even though the air conditioning worked reasonably well right now, the high desert of California was a true test of the skill of the engineers who designed the system for this building. In December it was comfortable. Stoddard had his doubts about August. With a little luck, he would be long gone from here by then.

The engines were screaming now, and then, a flash of a white shape between the hangars across the road. Stoddard had no idea what was taking off. It moved so fast even on the ground that he barely saw it at all.

“-9, doing speed runs out on the desert today. Testing the new afterburners. Mach two-five level, one point two on climb. Let’s see the Snakes beat that–supersonic on climb!” Boyd was obviously excited about the plane, and seemed genuinely excited about all the tests going on. “You know, Nate, this is a dream come true for someone like me, except that they won’t let me fly any more. At least, nothing that goes two point five Mach!” He leaned back and chuckled. “I hate it, and I bitch, and I get nowhere. Still, this is where it’s happening, and I’d sure hate to be anywhere else.”

“I understand, sir. It must be exciting for you. For me, it’s somewhat disconcerting. I’m sure my cover will be blown inside of forty-eight hours.” Stoddard’s horse face looked more disconsolate than usual.

It was not enough to spoil Boyd’s mood. “Cheer up, son. It could be worse. You could be in Japan.”

Stoddard had to agree with that. Japan was still a mess, recovering from political upheaval, the nuclear bombings of the war and related radiation deaths, and constant infiltration and sabotage by the Draka’s Asian spies. Even MacArthur had given up in disgust. There was word the new governor would be General Patton, and it was just possible there would need to be another bloodbath before the situation settled down.

Boyd continued, “You obviously wouldn’t work out as an engine maintenance man. I don’t even know how those engines are put together, anymore! I’m going to assign you to one of my best pilots, to be sort of his personal secretary. He’s an engineer besides, damn fine one. And he’s been flying all the really secret stuff. He may just be the first man into space, if he’s careful and lucky. His name’s Jack Ridley, and I’ve already let him know what we’re up to. You’ll like him, I think. He’s a real personable sort.”

“Thank you, sir. This might just work, if no one questions me for any length of time. Ridley might help a lot with that.”

Boyd stood, and Stoddard stood in return. They shook hands, and Boyd called to his secretary to give Stoddard directions as to where he might find Jack Ridley. Stoddard headed out of the building, turned left and walked about a half mile north to the Pacific Aircraft hangars.

 

Pacific Aircraft, the result of a pending merger between Bell and Consolidated Aircraft, had moved their headquarters and manufacturing plants to San Diego a couple of months before. The old Bell Aircraft facilities in upstate New York were too far from any flight test fields that were being used for any of their new designs, and California was the place to be. The complex of hangars here was used for final assembly, and for maintenance of test aircraft. There was also a low, single-story building next to the hangars made of cement block, with small windows mounted high. It didn’t look very imposing for the place where such amazing things were being done. The hangars, six of them, were painted white. The letters “PACIFIC” had recently been painted on them in red, but the paint was already peeling. Stoddard walked past the first three hangars to the white single-story building, which had a low sign out front that said “Operations.”

Inside, the air conditioners were noisy and the air was humid, remarkable in the desert. A tired-looking secretary in her late twenties looked up from her desk.

“I’m here to see Jack Ridley. General Boyd sent me.” Stoddard told the secretary. She nodded, not even speaking, picked up a phone and pressed a single button.

“He’s here.” She spoke quietly, then put the phone down and smiled at Stoddard. She still looked tired. “He’s expecting you. He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Major? I’m Jack Ridley.” Ridley came around the corner from the corridor and put out his hand. Stoddard was surprised how short Ridley was. He was about his age, and tanned leathery from the desert sun. From the briefing materials Stoddard had read, he knew that Ridley had been out here since just after the end of the war. Ace in the war, flying P-42s against Japan. Eight definite kills, two maybes. Somehow he also managed to pick up a degree in aeronautical engineering and another in mathematics. “Glad you could come while I’m still around. Gotta go to Langley for a few days, leavin’ tomorrow. Come on down to my office, and we’ll talk.” Ridley had the Oklahoma drawl of his youth, and Stoddard wouldn’t have been surprised if he exaggerated it for effect. Langley, he thought. Oh…he means the one in the tidewater country of Virginia, where they test airplanes. The other one is supposed to be secret, even from these people.

Ridley’s office was a little bigger than a closet, and had no desk, just a drafting board and mountains of paper. He apologized for the mess and swept a pile of blueprints off a chair, motioning to Stoddard to sit. There were blueprints taped to one wall, a development sequence chart to the other. At least Ridley had one of the small windows, half taken up by a wheezing window air conditioning unit. Through the window Stoddard could see the flight line, with two silver dart shapes on the concrete. They were a couple of hangars away, maybe two hundred yards; one had three technicians looking it over, with inspection hatches open. A couple of carts of equipment were sitting next to the plane. The other plane was sitting alone, without a technician within fifty yards. Security nightmare, thought Stoddard. They think no one wants to come out here and bother them, that they’re safe. “Let’s go outside, Jack,” said Stoddard suddenly. “I’d rather see what’s going on right away.”

Ridley looked surprised, but agreed. “Well, okay, if you want to. I hoped I could give you some background first…”

“Let’s do that on the way. What’s the newest plane out here?”

 

The two men walked past the first dart shape, the one with the technicians working on it. Ridley stopped about twenty feet away, and waved at the techs. “This is the X-7. It’s a testbed for the second-generation scramjet–that’s supersonic ramjet—the engine that Dornberger’s boys have been having so much trouble with. I flew the X-6, with the first generation scram, ten times in the past year. It eats fuel like a bandit, and still is really touchy on the controls, but we went over Mach 4 with it, consistently, flight after flight.” He shook his head. “This little beast is designed to be mostly engine, so it won’t be able to land back here unless we fly it a long ways away hung on the bomber, then drop it and shoot back to Corum.”

“It looks like it’s all engine,” Stoddard remarked as he walked around the plane.

“Practically so. The whole underbelly is a part of the engine, really. It’s really hard to maintain the supersonic airflow through the engine. I flamed the ’6 out a half a dozen times before Ehricke figured out the airflow was dropping subsonic way too early. The design of the plane won’t do it, so they had to start over. Back in the late Forties they thought they had it figured out, but it took years to get it right. The computers say this design will handle really high airflow speeds—the engine will work until the airframe melts.” He chuckled. “That’s what we like to hear. Like there’s not enough to worry about with the plane already.”

Stoddard looked thoughtful. “How do you control something that goes that fast? It seems to me that the control surfaces are too small. Not like the flaps and stuff on a regular plane.”

“At 4,000 miles an hour, it doesn’t take much to turn one of these! The X-6 over-controlled because the linkage was hydraulically-controlled. It felt like it was boosted too much, and they never did get it fixed. This thing has a “fly-by-wire” system, which means the movements of the stick just send electrical signals to the computer. It does all the work. Next, they say they can put the computer in the loop to help control the plane, smooth out all the little wiggles humans put in.” He chuckled and shook his head again. “Sure. But those wiggles helped keep me alive more than once. You gotta feel what she’s doin’, you know?”

They walked over to the second plane. This one was larger than it appeared from the office, but looked a lot like the big brother of the X-7. Ridley waved at it. “This one scares me—even me! It’s officially called the X-7a, because it really is just a bigger, two-place version of the X-7. That worries me, because you can’t just scale up an airplane design—if you could, you could grow grasshoppers the size of locomotives. This stuff”—he walked over and ran his hand over the wing—“is the most amazing material I’ve ever seen. Nobody has ever given me a good story on how it was invented. It’s sort of a cermet, you know what that is?”

Stoddard grunted. “Sort of.”

“Anyway, it’s not like any other cermet I’ve seen, and I’ve seen most of ’em. This stuff doesn’t get hot. The X-6 was the first plane to have it, and I hopped out onto the wing after flyin’ Mach four and it wasn’t even warm! Nobody knows how strong it really is, either. You can’t cut it; it’s forged somehow, into pieces exactly the right size and shape. The good thing is they can make two as cheap as one, so we have spare parts. We just don’t break any!”

“Look, Ridley, you know I’m here to deal with security issues…”

“I know, I know. And it’s just sittin’ here. You can’t tell anything by lookin’ at the plane, and you for sure can’t saw off a piece of this stuff. The extra castings are in San Diego, at the Pacific factory. I suppose you could take pictures—the design is dictated by the airflows, so if anyone had a good computer, they could probably model the same thing.”

Stoddard stopped him. “No, they can’t. Our intelligence says that the Snakes are working on the same kind of things we are. They don’t have our computer technology yet, as far as we can tell. You guys model these airframes in the computer somehow, right?”

“Sure. We have about six different airflow simulators…”

“Well, the Snakes built the biggest nuclear reactor farm in the world on the Dnieper River. We think they built a wind tunnel there, maybe they can get over 4,000 miles per hour out of it. I can’t imagine it! But they have a big military base on the Black Sea, and it would be the perfect place to do the kind of stuff you do here.” He waved his hand around. “After the war, not too many people were left there, you know. It’s a lot like here, in fact. Anyway, they could learn a lot from a few pictures here. As far as San Diego, I’ll make a few calls.”

“Good. That’s the key, really. Without this miracle stuff, we could never build these planes. We were hitting a real brick wall until last spring, when they made this breakthrough. You know, for all I know, this stuff could come from outer space!”

Stoddard let that comment pass. “So when does this one go up?”

“We’re waiting for a new plane to carry it. It’s too big for conventional bombers. The XB-60 will be ready in a month or so. It’s the only supersonic bomber we have, though I don’t know what we need one for. Curtiss­–Convair is building that baby. Lowest bidder, don’tcha know. It’s a big mother, though, ’way over-designed for carrying bombs to Snakeland. Takes too much fuel to make it there and back. I think it’s the orbital carrier, but nobody tells me much.”

“Orbital carrier?”

“Yeah, the plane that will lift the first orbital spaceplane. Miracle stuff or not, we can’t carry enough methane, or hydrogen, for that matter, for a real orbital mission. If we can get a ramjet-scramjet-rocket hybrid working, we can fly it to orbit. It just can’t take off from the ground by itself. The ‘blue sky boys’ are talking about antimatter…” He drifted off, looking at the horizon.

“Blue sky boys. Antimatter. Pulp-novel stuff?”

“Nope, not really. They say it will take a while, and a heck of a lot of energy, but it’s possible. A teaspoon would take that baby to the moon.” Ridley smiled, as he waved toward the plane. “But you need someplace to keep it. That’s the trick. Room-temperature superconductors, magnetic bottles, stuff like that. The Blue Sky Boys are working on it.”

“Who are they?” Stoddard looked puzzled now. He thought that was just a nickname, but now it sounded sort of official.

“Officially, the ‘Advanced Research Projects Agency.’ Sometimes one of them comes out here and briefs Dornberger and Ehricke. Ehricke talks too much. I can’t believe he was a very good Nazi. Anyway, they do all kinds of crazy stuff. They say they’re mapping the next twenty years in space. We had this guy in here a couple of weeks ago, a squid name of Heinlein, a Captain, real stuffed shirt looked like to me. All spit-and-polish, not like us out here. Scared holy hell out of the Germans, too. I don’t know what he told them. Ehricke was real quiet about that one.” They walked off toward the sixth hangar. Unlike the others, the hangar doors were closed.

“I’ve heard of ARPA. They’re based out of Langley, I think. A friend of mine used to work with them. He’s not able to talk about it, but he’s hinted that he had some great stories to tell.”

“I don’t doubt it. I might find out tomorrow, when I go to get briefed. I want you to see this; if there’s anything to protect around here, this is it.” Ridley took out his keys from his pocket, selected two, and unlocked both locks on the passage doors. He opened the door and flipped on the light switches inside.

 

The hangar was filled with a single aircraft, painted gleaming white. Stoddard let his eyes adjust for a moment. The plane barely looked like it would fly. It didn’t even have wings, not really; just small fins on the ends of a big, triangular–shaped box. The box was curved and streamlined, and looked like it was moving even while it was standing still. Instead of landing gear, the plane sat on three large support jacks. The two men walked inside the hangar and Ridley carefully locked the door behind him.

“This one we don’t want the Draka to see. It won’t ever fly, not under its own power. It’s a mockup, mostly plywood over an aluminum frame. It’ll either be the X-11 or X-14, depends on how long it takes to build.”

The plane was easily twice the length of the other test planes Stoddard had seen; maybe ninety to a hundred feet long. The mockup had no markings on it, no tail number, no nothing. It was covered in featureless white paint. It somehow made it look even larger. Stoddard figured it was almost the size of a medium–sized airliner. “Why the numbers?” he asked.

“The numbers up to eleven are taken. Twelve is some kind of unmanned missile, being tested on the California coast. It’s supposed to be smart enough to fly down the street on its own and take out a building. I’ll believe that when I see it.” Ridley turned to him and smiled. “And no self-respecting pilot would fly number 13, no way.”

“So why is the mockup out here?”

“Remember that big bomber they promised? Somehow, this thing is supposed to sit on top of the wing, which is one big triangle, okay? Then the bomber takes off and flies around, to see if it’s stable enough with the mockup on top. The computers say so, but nobody every really knows until we take it out and try it.” Ridley waved up at the ship and continued. “What makes this important to you is that it is a major jump in airframe design. The wind tunnel the Draka built is nothing compared to the computer time that went into the design of this thing. If it works, we’ll be years ahead of them. Even fuzzy pictures could save them months, if not years, of design experimentation. I’ve been griping about the security here for weeks. Hell, that’s probably why you’re assigned to me, to try to keep me happier and shut me up. The pilots don’t worry because they can’t fly it, and the brass think a couple of locks is enough. Dornberger is worried, but they just figure that’s his Nazi paranoia at work.”

Ridley headed for the door, unlocking it and shutting off the lights. “So that’s the crazy stuff. Otherwise, we just fly planes faster than anyone else, and every year, about a dozen of us or more get killed by them. Any questions?”

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