Bouncing High Above the World
This science fiction short story by Jim Cline is also available as a free eBook from Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/38614248/Bouncing-High-Above-the-World-20101002-Scribd
Bouncing High Above the World
A science fiction short story by Jim Cline
The rain during this July 2011 at the little Ephrata airport was discouraging to George's Civil Air Patrol aspirations. The rains increasing over the past six years seemed impossible; this airport runway was built during WWII because it was historically an area where there was always sunshine, other than 15 days a year during the winter when there was fog or snow. But there never was rain here; the weather patterns always went around this area. And had remained that way up until a few years back. Up until recently, it could always be counted on as an emergency landing field no matter what the weather was like elsewhere in the country. But this rain now was putting a real damper on his own hopes to go out on a glider flight today, in the middle of the summer.
There had been a break in the rainy weather, a week before, however; and he had gone out on a ride in one of the gliders based there at the little desert airport. And as they had been coming back in for the landing, he had noticed something odd on the ground. Now that this current training flight had gotten rained out, he resolved to make use of the time. He got his uncle Jerry to bring along a metal detector, and they would go look at the odd patch of ground, located off the end of the runway and to one side of it.
It was less apparent down here on the ground. But from the air, it was a clear large rectangular shape, a difference in the vegetation types growing there. The rains have been getting things to grow in this desert in a way perhaps never before happening, since the vast flood plain had been left behind after the last of the Ice Age Missoula floods that had rolled rocks big and small past through here all the way from Montana into the Pacific Ocean far beyond at the Oregon coast, starting in the glacier lake dam breaks that happened over there in Missoula.
The ground here was all like a vast dry river bottom, round tumbled rocks with some sand filled in between them. And little but lichens had lived here for the previous ten thousand years. But some sagebrush and other wind-blown seeded vegetation had been growing here for several years now, in this strangely intense rain. And yet there was this rectangular patch which had much less vegetation on it than the surrounding desert. Why was that, they wondered. It was not an area cleared during the construction of the runway, as it was not continuous with that cleared area.
The metal detector indicator quickly began registering the presence of metal down underground in that area. The shape of it was long, like the long rectangle; yet it had some lesser indications off to the side of the long metal shape, both at one end and in the middle. "It looks like an airplane," George exclaimed, "but with most of its wings broken off" And two tail fins. But why bury it here?
Jerry got permission from the airport operator to do some digging there, since it was not where it would interfere with any airport traffic, since this part of the runway had long been decommissioned, as its direction was toward the growing town. So Jerry brought in a bobcat backhoe, and carefully began scooping out the rectangular pattern in the desert vegetation.
Starting at the end which had the smaller side projections of metal as registered by the metal detector, he had dug only a foot down when he encountered two pieces of metal, which appeared to be the top of a pair of an airplane's vertical tail fins. More carefully he dug further down and found the stabilizer; it indeed was an aluminum aircraft. What a strange way to dispose of an old wreck, they thought. And what kind of plane was it anyway, shaped like that? Continuing to dig, they found a very long fuselage that ended in a quite pointed nose; the cockpit was only a couple small windows blended in with the sleek torpedo shape craft. More digging revealed the wings; but they found the ends were not broken off, they had been built that way, short, wide, and the leading edge swept back. Short stubby yet wide wings. It did not look like any aircraft that they had ever seen. Was it a spaceship from some other planet, George began to wonder. Were there little green Martians inside?
George was eager to go tell the sheriff and the rest of the local Civil Air Patrol group about the discovery. But Jerry was being oddly slow about agreeing to that. Jerry was being thoughtful; too thoughtful.
Then the two sat down on the edge of the hole that they had dug, looking at the exposed parts of the strange vehicle, and Jerry began to tell George a story. "Back in WWII there was a militant group here in America who had carefully made plans for when WWII progressed further along, when America would be invaded as soon as Europe was under control by the Germans and the Japanese were ruling the Pacific. Part of that plan was to use this remote airfield, which could always be counted on being available for visual landings no matter what weather, as part of their own plans. Some of that group were hands at the ranch, back then."
A new kind of aircraft, a rocket plane, would be launched from Germany to the upper atmosphere and coast around the planet bouncing along the upper atmosphere, dropping a bomb somewhere in the world along the way, and return to Germany for another bomb run after the 3.7 hour flight. But some target sites flight paths in the world would not allow a direct return to Germany, so this landing field was to be captured by the militants and used for those aircraft landings; and then those aircraft would be taken by rail over to the Seattle and shipped back to Germany for reuse, while the rest of the world was being pounded into submission by those rocket bombers so high they were invisible.
And the militants had received a secret message, telling them to get the field ready, in case of need if an aircraft was not able to make it back to Germany, even though this was not yet when such flights were expected to be routine; it was to be a test flight with many unknowns. So be ready anyway, just in case.
And indeed a rocket bomber had landed here; the pilot, Werner, had come to live at the ranch and had become friends with him, and liked to tell stories. He had thought the stories were just fantasy; but now looking into this pit with the rocket bomber right there, it looked like the stories were true after all.
Werner's favorite story that he would tell Jerry and the other kids at the ranch, went like this:
One July morning in 1944 Werner showed up at the airbase in Germany, feeling both excited and apprehensive, for today was to be the first short test flight of the new experimental rocket bomber aircraft. He was to be the very first person to fly it; the mission was to be a full rocket booster launch along the long ramp track, then launch with only a quarter of the bomber's fuel onboard; he was to then glide it around in a circle, coming back to land at the airfield. This would prove out many of the flight systems, enough for the first flight test of a radically new vehicle.
But entering the briefing room, he noticed faces were more tense than usual. The confident, proud air that was normal at this advanced aircraft facility, had now largely faded into looks of uncertainty yet solid determination. Off in the distance, there were sounds of antiaircraft guns shooting, and big thumps as the American bombers were hitting targets now reaching within 10 miles of here. It looked like they too would soon be hit; and so they had decided to make this first test flight count, their chance to show that they could attack anywhere in the world with impunity; this might force the Allies to hesitate in their invasion of Germany. As their best test pilot, Werner was going to fly a full mission this first test flight. With a full load of fuel and a bomb aboard.
Werner asked to know a little more about was expected of him; he had been ready for a daring rocket launch and make a short circle back to land here; the strange looking vehicle had never been in the air before. Something new also to do?
An hour later he found himself strapped inside the cockpit. He could hardly see out of the tiny cockpit windows in front, although there were windows at his feet too, which now only showed the launch glide rail. He had noticed the huge long cylinder fastened on the back of this aircraft as he entered the aircraft; the long tube was almost as long as his vehicle and clearly was a rocket booster. The aircraft's fuel tanks were being topped off with kerosene and liquid oxygen even as they hurriedly packed him into the cockpit and gave him a set of plans, and handed him an astrolabe that would be used along with the clock and compass already in the instrument panel.
They explained that this time he would not be using the astrolabe from a ship at sea, but from an altitude high above the clouds. They had only this one chance to fly this aircraft, and so its whole design mission would have to be tested this first time. He would be coming back here to land at this runway in 3.7 hours if all went well; in the meantime he was to be rocket launched to the fringes of the upper atmosphere, where he would fly the aircraft to skip across the upper atmosphere like a flat rock across a pond, going completely around the planet and landing back here. Along the way he would drop a bomb on Sydney, Australia, sending a message to the world to surrender to Germany, who could now attack any city in the world just as easily, with no defense possible.
Although those American bombers were continuing to get closer, which could become a big problem.
The flight crew packed in a lunch and a thermos of hot coffee; they had thought it better to not have eaten before the launch, due to the uncertainty of the physiological effects of the rocket launch. No one had ever flown a rocket before, not to mention one that would reach above the atmosphere and travel all the way around the planet before touching back down on the ground. Werner had the mixed feelings that this was far more of a dangerous test flight than he was prepared to take, along with eagerness to achieve even more than any man had done before, a rocket ride to the fringes of space. He was instructed to set the astrolabe down on the floor, then to rest as flat against the seat as possible, and just relax until the engine shut off.
A quick radio check made, comfortably resting in the unusually plush cockpit seat, then a roar of the rocket booster ignition and he was slammed hard back into the seat that no longer felt soft. It was mere seconds until the end of the kilometer-long ramp had been past, and he pulled the stick back, so the ten ton rocket bomber tilted up at a 30 degree angle as the booster continued to shove hard; then it stopped, detached, and the big rocket engines on his plane ignited, their kerosene and liquid oxygen powerfully providing thrust that slammed him even harder into the back of his seat, crushing him, he was fading out....
He came to, with a strange feeling, quite the opposite of the crushing of the past few minutes. And the silence was just as different. The sky above was not blue anymore, but black as night; but looking down through the windows at his feet, he could see ground through the patchy clouds far below; so it actually was still daylight. He reached down and picked up the astrolabe, and to his surprise it seemed to be light weight as if made of wood instead of brass. He took a position fix on the stars, comparing the time and compass reading, and marked his position on the map; he was high over north Africa.
He examined the flight profile for this part; he had been told about this as part of a future flight test, but it was not to have been this first flight, as of when he got up this morning. But he was one of the best fighter pilots, and his competency had gotten him this first glamorous flight, although obviously gotten him a lot more too. He tilted the stick down a little bit; the aircraft was very slow to respond in this very thin air; but only a little movement of the ailerons was specified, otherwise they would become a source of drag, and he had a long way to go. All the way around the planet, in fact, to get him back home in time for dinner. His careful precision had served him well in battle as a fighter pilot, and yet this was a different kind of sport for sure.
Watching the time, he then pulled the stick back a bit and began to pull up from his first bounce in the upper atmosphere. Then he could relax a bit, nothing much was happening after his second fix on the astrolabe; he was on course, and the thermos of hot coffee and lunch were looking very welcome. The cockpit was only partially pressurized to about 15,000 feet equivalent, so he could only take a long sip of hot coffee and take a bite of food, before putting his mask back on to provide adequate oxygen to breathe.
The world below had turned all white. There apparently was a massive worldwide storm going on down there; the German weather service had not been able to learn enough about worldwide conditions before the launch; but no matter, it was launch then or maybe never. And the worst was happening down there; he could even see a circular area off in the distance, a hurricane as he had imagined they would look like from far above. But it did not reach up here, where all was calm except for the changing weight sensation as the plane very slowly bounced skipping across the upper atmosphere high over the Indian Ocean.
An hour and a half into the flight the astrolabe indicated that he was passing over the eastern coast of Australia, but all he could see down there was the white of clouds. He could also see the terminator where all vanished into darkness down there; he hoped the clouds would go away so he could see the lights of Sydney as he made his bomb drop.
Another quick sip of coffee and a bit of food, then it was time to make another position fix on the stars. It was about five minutes before he needed to do the bomb release. He strained to see the city lights down there but could see nothing except darkness; stars shone above him, however. He used the astrolabe to make another position fix, marking it on the map; he was right over Sydney, it indicated, but he could see nothing down there. He waited a few moments longer, intensely looking for the city, but it was hidden below the clouds. He pulled the bomb release lever, and felt a slight shudder, then he closed the bomb bay doors again, and the ride became smooth again. He made another position fix checking with the time, but he was not as far along as he ought to have been at this point. Normally a series of ever higher and farther test flights would have refined these figures, so he was not too surprised that all was not going perfectly according to estimated plans. What was clear to him at this point, was that he did not have enough kinetic energy and altitude to make it back to the airfield in Germany; instead, the projection was a wet landing in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. And he doubted that this thing would float, even with empty fuel tanks.
The backup plan was to make a landing on the west coast of the North American continent. An airfield known to never be obscured by clouds this time of year, and was in a remote area where German operators had secretly been preparing for landing of many such rocket bombers after Japan had taken the Pacific and had attacked Seattle, establishing ownership of the state of Washington in America. But that had not happened yet; the war in the Pacific was still raging, and only a few sympathizers were prepared to be at the airfield at this point. Better than a watery ending, he decided, so he banked the rocket bomber to head a bit more northward.
The long bounces across the upper atmosphere gave him little to do in between position fixes, and his mind began to drift toward other things. He would not be here in this desperate situation, if he had just continued on with his youthful dream of becoming a Catholic Priest. What a different life it would be now, if he had not been attracted to that call for daring pilots to fly fighter aircraft to defend the Homeland. He would be doing Mass this Sunday morning, respected by all those people out there. Instead he was alone up here where no one knew he existed, and gravity was insisting he return to far down below.
Three hours into the mission and he was south of the Hawaiian Islands, per his latest position fix with the astrolabe; the sun was coming up and it was still showing just white down there, the storm was covering nearly the whole planet, he decided. He had made his last and rather short bounce, and was now in a long glide down toward the clouds; this was a heavy glider and he had but one shot at a nice landing. The clouds were still covering everything down there, as he strained to see a break in the clouds; then there it was, the sight of an area of bare ground; he could see railroad tracks. Following them he saw a long runway in the desert floor; he made a complete circle, and came in fast over a low hill, then he was touching down on the runway. Too fast; his brakes failed before the end of the runway and then he was in the dirt off to the side and beyond the end of the runway; then he was stopped.
He had finished his mission, once again. Never mind that it was not exactly as planned; a fighter pilot always had to respond to the situation that was found. And bring his aircraft back to the ground safely. Taking his mask off, Werner had another slurp of coffee and the last of the meal, then opened the hatch. A couple of cars were headed his way, along with a digging machine.
He was given some civilian clothes to put on; they tossed his flight suit back into the cockpit and closed its hatch, even as the ground crew was busy bulldozing a deep trench in front of the aircraft. It was hot here in July 1944 but the crew worked hard, and soon the bulldozer towed the rocket bomber down into the trench, and then was shoving dirt back in over it. They quickly leveled the area off, making it look fairly like the rest of the bleak desert; then they headed back up along the runway, heading onto a side road where they parked the bulldozer at its normal site, and the rest of them headed off to a ranch. This airfield was still listed as a military airfield, although not staffed. It was available for emergency landings in all weather; but the war was going in the Allies favor; it did not look like there was going to be any takeover of this area by the Axis Powers anytime soon, so they needed to stay inconspicuous.
But as the years went by, Werner became integrated into the little community and made friends with the local boys at the ranch. He liked to entertain the boys with stories of far away people with different customs and everything. And one of his favorite stories was a fantasy about someone who had flown a rocket bomber from Germany over Australia to land in America, wasn't that a good story. Jerry had been one of those boys who listened to those fascinating adventure stories, and was determined to become a pilot someday when he grew up, so much fun.
George listened with fascination as Jerry related the story, as he stared at the partially uncovered sleek metal hulk down in the trench. "But you said that was in 1944; but no one rode a rocket up to the edge of space until the 1960's, such as the Project Mercury flight of Alan Shepherd. This does not make sense."
Jerry looked thoughtful, still looking at the dusty shape below being slowly washed off by the rain, as he sat on the edge of the trench they had dug. "This was the only prototype of the vehicle that had been built, so there were no more to be captured at the end of the war. Besides, most likely the facility was bombed into ruins, and just assumed to be another factory building V-1 buzz bombs. And Werner dared not tell that he was an enemy combatant, to be made into a prisoner of war; he liked it here. He even eventually became a priest at the local church. No way would he ruin his good life here by telling about the presence of this rocket bomber he had flown to land here, not exactly intentionally. But when Werner had downed a couple of mugs of beer, he would like to tell stories around the campfire. No wonder they seemed so real to me.”
Authors footnote: A description of the author's receiving of an old 1952 book on the Rocket Bomber can be found at http://www.escalatorhi.com/JimDabblingH/historicaltidbits.html then click on the "WWII Rocketplane" link to bring up the first page of the item, which has several scanned pages from the book as samples. The cover image of this sci fi story is derived from images of parts of that book.
And it has more recently been pointed out to me that there has been a more recent book published on the vehicle, published in 2002, which can be seen at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0764315498