Western Mail (Perth, Australia) Saturday, October 15, 1910
This article is titled: THE PORT DARWIN PIRATE.
(By Will Lawson.)
The Airline Company's Astra hummed along through the upper reaches of the atmosphere. She was one of the fast mail and passenger ships, one of the "high-rollers" of the line, for fast traffic always roars high above the slower goods and local passenger trade.
She was a thousand-ton airship, and the wheels of her gyroscope, which enabled her huge bulk to be almost immune to the pull of gravitation, were large and heavy, and the speed of their spinning, sent up a thin note of sound. Her decks were spacious. Night had spread her mantle over sea and land, and the starlight shone upon passengers pacing the decks, impatient for the vessel's arrival at Perth, her destination. The long-run from San Francisco, though accomplished at the speed of 100 air-knots an hour, had tired them-the slow easy roll of the airship made them long for solid earth beneath their feet once more. Beneath them, the hazy airs of the lower strata hid the view, but a fierce white glare from a lighthouse threw a reflection on the mistiness.
"We are just approaching Brisbane," the captain of the Astra was saying. "That is Cape Moreton light! They've learned the French idea of lighting the coast at last. Good for airlines, too."
"The steamers seem very clow," a passenger said. "Are they really needed?"
"For cargo only, the captain replied. "It doesn't pay to send heavy goods by us yet, though We could carry them."
A girl who listened laughed at a thought that occurred to her. "There really won't be much use for the sea soon, and then we'll have it for its beauty alone."
"In a way, that is right," the captain answered. "But the airline will always feel safer with water beneath to drop into on emergency. This ship will float just like a steamer if need be, and even if our gyroscope gear breaks down, we'll fly for 12 hours, and then slowly sink."
The type of airship of which the Astra was a specimen was the invention of an engineer who had been in a wrecked Brennan mono-rail train, which, when rounding a curve at a high rate of speed, became suddenly immune to the laws of gravitation, rising to a height of 20 feet before falling. The engineer observed that before rising, an extraordinary edge had taken place on the curve, and correctly surmised that when the gyroscope passed beyond 45 degrees of inclination, its effect became vertical instead-of horizontal. His airship had two gyroscopes set at angles of 50 degrees, and at almost right angles to one another.
In the same metallic frame was a petrol engine, and a dynamo and each gyroscope were driven at a speed of 5,000 revolutions per minute. The ship and her sisters were built in the shape of a swallow and were popularly known as Rollers, because of the habit of rocking steadily from side to side when traveling fast. For stability a small pull of gravitation was permitted, the immense fans and propellers performing the final task of raising and propelling the machines.
A nervous fat man fussed up to the captain.
"I say, captain, when do we get to Perth?"
"In 10 hours, easy running,"
"But what about the pirate the wireless is chattering about?"
"Oh!" laughed the captain. "He won't see the way we go."
Beneath the vessel's keel a thin steel wire 100 yards long streamed far down, trailing astern. Through it came the news of the world as the Astra sped through the night, and news had come of the presence between Adelaide and Perth of the Port Darwin Pirate, in a light and powerful airship. Ahead of the Astra a huge blue-grey land of clouds hung, terrible and threatening to the layman's eye. The boatswain's whistle shrilled, "Spread cloud awnings."
In a twinkling, sailors had sprung to the awnings and spread them over the frames: and stanchions shutting out the stars. Right into the heart of the cloud-bank, the Astra headed. Just as the airship was about to enter the fog a vivid headlight streamed from its heart, and the Astra's helmsman spun his helm over and sounded the vibrator. In reply, a deep throbbing sound, more felt than heard, came from the other airship as she slewed past at a 40-knot speed.
"The Aviator for Frisco and Montreals. Must have been put out of his course to run us so close. "Then the wireless began to talk. The operator presently took this message, which had come in code from the Aviator.
"Look out for the Port Darwin Pirate, south of the McDonnell Range."
Meantime the Astra had run into a dense fog. The awnings dripped moisture, and such passengers as still stayed on deck were clustered about the electric glow lamps. It was some time after midnight, that the look-out reported an airship to the northward.
The captain said to his chief:-"Turn on the resisters half-power."
A handle turned; a bell sounded deep in the bull and a faint blue light made the thinning cloud-bank brighter. It came from the hull itself, the result of an invention of a student of Marconi waves and the resister was an electric condition which, once it encircled a dynamo or other electric appliance, kept that engine immune from any outside electric, influence. In a few minutes the stranger was within half a mile.
"Heave up that wire."
Swiftly the steel wire that streamed below was hauled up into a drum. "Resisters full power," came the order.
Now, all around, above and below the airship was wrapped in a blue light that quivered and trembled. The stranger's vibrator roared. The chief officer said :
"That's the Pirate. Know her call." The Pirate had swung about till she ran side by side with the Astra, and a quarter of a mile distant. Suddenly from her hull a green light leaped, awful and ugly, in the direction of the Astra.
"Trying to lock our motors. Well, he will find a new chip like this a tough nut to crack."
The captain chuckled. But he was thinking hard and he knew what a dreadful accident might happen if the Pirate should succeed in locking the gyroscope motors. The huge wheels, suddenly stopped, would fly asunder and smash the ship to pieces, so he said,
"Tell Mr. Furniss to shut off his power from the gyros. Let'em spin for a while."
The thin thrill note of the driven gyros dropped a tone as the power was shut off. Green light after green light tore through the iridescent glow about the Astra, but still her propellers spun to the drive of the motors.
"Seems to have no effect," the Chief said. "But I heard he stopped the Aria last trip and she's as good as us in her engine-room."
Before the captain could reply a stunning scarlet glare stabbed through the surrounding glow. There came a shock from the engine-room, and the driving of the propellers ceased.
"Got us," the captain swore. The sudden clamping of whirling armatures held in a grip of reversed magnets was like a steamer striking a sandy bar, and it brought the passengers enemy on deck. The red glare dazzled. The Pirate swept nearer and soon a voice hailed.
"Ahoy! Turn off your resisters, and we'll shut off the red."
The blue glow faded. Then the scarlet went off in a snap of relief. In its place, the green sparkled. But the captain of the Astra was a man of adventure and resource. He had not surrendered yet.
"How do you make our position?" he asked his Chief.
"Well, with the sweep southward we made,to avoid his nibs there, we're about two miles offshore in the Bight."
"Right. Send Mr. Furniss here."
Furniss came swiftly. "I want you to stop your gyros as soon as you can. How quickly can you stop them?"
"In twenty minutes."
"Must be done in ten. Put on all your brakes hard, and when they're stopped, stand by to start'em again."
To the Pirate, he hailed.
"Hurry up. We're sinking."
As he spoke, from below came a sound as of heavy blows, and the Astra began to sink. Thud, thud, every time the strong brakes were applied the heavy wheels beat their anger. The ship was settling. Faster and faster she fell through the air, one thousand tons of dead weight being hauled down to Mother Earth according to the laws that existed since ever earth began. It made the men on her decks ill. The Pirate, taken unawares, was unable to follow. But he sent the red light flaring down in impotence.
When the downward rush had become awful, the cry of the motors re-starting the gyroscopes was hard; they were beyond the range of the Pirate's light. Slowly, very slowly, the downward motion checked. The sea lay close beneath.
"Can't stop before we hit it, but we won't make much, splash."
The captain called on all the power to the gyroscopes. The propeller remained still. Like a wide, silver carpet the sea rose, it seemed and struck the Astra a cruel, silent blow. The shock made her quiver and leap, then settle to rise and bounce like a ball. And high in the air rose white columns of water and spray, that poured over the decks in cataracts. When the Astra finally came to rest she was within half a mile of a small island and a mile from an old tramp steamer that was plowing her way east. The Astra's captain rang the power into her propellers steel-bladed and built on the pattern of Ericcsin's original marine propeller. The ship of the air turned her head towards the west and ran out of the bay to the great marvel of the crew of the tramp, who had never before seen so large an airship in the ocean. But the captain of the tramp showed his appreciation of the spectacle by pulling his whistle-cord and sending a hoarse hoot across the waters. The Astra's vibrator throbbed in answer.
Her gyroscopes and propellers were working at full power again. She rose like a huge, white swan, her propellers kicking up the foam as they lifted into the air and leaped into their highest speed. In the grey dawn, she sailed again into the higher reaches of the air.
As she neared Perth, she passed the Company's new man-o-war armed with dreadful electric guns, speeding east. Her wireless came:
"Aviator reports Port Darwin Pirate. Have you seen him?"
The Astra gave the cruiser information, in particular warning her of the scarlets rays. To a passenger, who asked a question, the captain said:
"No, the Pirate won't hurt her, He'd better get out of her way, for she's got a new color a purple streak that will wipe out all the crimsons in the world it's all a battle of color now, sir, color and the powers the colors represent."
And the Astra six days out. from San Francisco, dipped down to her berth on Perth Water, where a throng of airships lay.