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Laurence Davidson




‘The Mothership’

A look into the future

The Mothership

Chapter One

The contract called for a massive 125ft long telescope; a 115ft diameter giant satellite dish with its complicated array of ancillary support equipment,  and a ready-assembled 85ft telecom mast for long-range VHF aviation use, plus micro-wave link for the Sabah Talikom Department, weighing 225 tons in all; to be transported in its entirety from Coventry in the West Midlands of England, to  its destination on a semi-prepared base near the summit of Mount Kinabalu, in the Malaysian state of Sabah (North Borneo) - the highest peak in South East Asia at 13,455ft.

It was the first major operation of its kind for the Hugo Eckener, production  name MS-01. MS being the initials of Skycraft 2000's President Maurice Shipley. She was the prototype of the great 'Motherships' (as they were later  affectionately known) and the first of the new-age monster airships to undertake  such a task. The parent company's Falcon 900 was seconded to 'puddle-jump' ahead  as she wended her majestic way Borneo as a back-up support. It was early March  and a drizzly morning as MS-01 negotiated her way southeastwards from her base at Jurby in the northwest corner of the Isle of Man. As she floated over the Wallasey VOR the Controllers at Manchester, unused as they were to having such a leviathan under their jurisdiction, went a bit overboard in their transmissions  to traffic to avoid the area; totally unnecessary really considering the low altitude of 3,500ft she cruised at was considerably below normal airline operations.

The Commander of the flight was Ned Braithwaite; an ex-supertanker Captain  who had long since left the mercantile marine for a shore-based job, due to the long weary months afloat, shuttling between the Gulf and Rotterdam, with few  breaks on home leave. The difficult decision to leave an otherwise secure and  highly paid position was, in the main, motivated by his enforced separation from the settled home life that both he and his long-suffering wife Sally yearned  for.

She had tried living aboard with him, along with the other officers  and their wives, but the novelty soon wore off. Before long it had drifted into  an endless round of coffee mornings, petty squabbles and crushing boredom, as life in most confined surroundings tends to become for those uninitiated in the  art of self-discipline. In the end, with the inevitable but as yet unspoken  'your job or me' ultimatum looming before him, Ned took the plunge and resigned  from the service.

Having just turned forty-three; with few prospects outside of the merchant marine, and no shore jobs as yet available to match his qualifications, he sat at home and pondered his situation. Too young to retire, even though his adequate savings and investments could have supported it, yet too old to start  afresh into a new career... what to do?

His one passion apart from the sea was his love of flying; a pastime that he readily indulged in at the Bodmin Flying Club in his beloved Cornwall whenever the opportunity presented itself during home leave. Having attained his PPL years ago, and spent long hours at sea studying for his professional pilots  licence by correspondence course, he decided to sit the exams; take the flying tests and hopefully land a job with a third level operator based not too far from home. The exams he'd previously sat for his Master's Certificate years ago stood him in good stead, despite the time lapse, as they bore many similarities  to each other. For this reason he chose to bypass the ordinary Commercial  Licence and go straight for the top flying qualification of all - the UK Airline  Transport Pilot's Licence, otherwise known as the ATPL.

He was poignantly aware that as a latecomer into the world of aviation the prospect of his gaining a senior position as a captain was minimal to say the  least; age and lack of experience dictating the odds. He would probably be into his late fifties before such a chance came his way. He didn't relish the thought  meanwhile of having to play second fiddle to someone else after his many years in command at sea. However, undaunted by his uncertain future, he persevered and  eventually, after a re-sit in the exam room (having gained a partial at his first attempt), plus a re-test at the dreaded initial Instrument Rating, he finally held the coveted green ATPL sans I/R in his hand. Where to go from here  he thought?

A couple of interviews proved unfruitful. One fly-by-night operator wanted him to pay for his own type endorsement on a Short's 360 with zilch chance of a command in the foreseeable future, and a salary just about commensurate with a  deckhand 2nd-class in the service he had just left. The major airlines weren't interested either - they all wanted younger blood, preferably with academic qualifications bearing little relationship to the task in hand. Having left Grammar School at the age of 16 with a GCE to join the merchant marine he simply  didn't even make the bottom rung of the ladder in that respect. Then one morning as he glanced through the ads of the Western Morning News he spotted the notice that was to become his passport to the future.

The advert called for 'suitably qualified personnel with the right potential to be trained as airship pilots'. The basic requirements were an ICAO-recognised  ATPL with Instrument Rating and a background of command responsibilities in one  of the services - nautical experience being a distinct advantage. He had absolutely no idea about airships, and apart from the Skyship 600 he had seen  swanning around adorned with bright lights over Bristol once; had no idea that  they still existed. What the nautical experience had to do with it was a complete mystery! Nothing ventured nothing gained; he immediately faxed-off his CV to Skycraft 2000 at Jurby in the Isle of Man and ten days later, somewhat to his surprise, he was called for an interview.

In the gigantic hangar recently erected on the site of the old wartime airfield of Jurby, up on the northwest corner of the island, he caught his first  glimpse of the MS-01 airship as it gradually took shape. He was used to large  vessels, having spent nearly 25 years afloat on supertankers of various sizes, but the sheer immensity of this monstrous structure towering above him made him  gasp in awe! Standing beneath the lofty skeletal framework, as yet to be covered  with the high-strength Kevlar and fibreglass cladding: straining his head backwards gazing up at the gaping jaws of the 110-foot wide wind-tunnel opening, gave him a distinct crick in the neck.

The huge hangar itself was impressive enough; built mainly of concrete and steel it was 285ft high. To withstand the considerable stresses imposed by the  high winds that occasionally sweep the exposed northern part of the island, the  sides of the gigantic structure were built-up and angled-off with the company  offices on the outside, whose inner windows overlooked the interior of the  hangar. Every person working on the framework of the great airship; or anybody  for that matter, employee or visitor, who stood the risk of falling from the  dizzy heights; was obliged to wear a harness attached to hanging cables from  pulley-runs in the roof for safety.

Ned's interview went well and within a week of returning back to his home  town of Truro he received a phone call from the Company's 'Personnel Director'  (thank goodness they didn't call him the Executive Director of Human Resources  or some such title), to inform him that his application had been successful and  to report for duty on the following Monday at 9amâ€| Sally elected to remain in Truro until he was sure that he would make the grade and stay on.

Days after the indoctrination processes had been completed, he was on his way  to Germany to be trained as an airship pilot under contract to an advertising  company based in Hamburg. The company in question was already operating a couple of the Skycraft 2000's earlier models, the SS-500's, in aerial advertising.

Six months later, after numerous exams and flight tests, he gained his licence - ATPL/LTA (Lighter-than-air). His fascination with this new experience  of not flying but 'floating' around the skies of Germany (especially at night)  knew no bounds. It was a small craft as airships go and somewhat sluggish in response to input from the controls, but he soon mastered the vagaries of it.  Apart from a couple of embarrassing misjudgements on landing (where he once very  nearly wrecked the mooring mast), he soon became quite adept at handling the  unwieldy beast. He revelled in the feeling of being in command again (on the few  occasions his instructor allowed), and felt comfortably at home in guiding it in for landings even in quite unstable conditions.


REVIEW: This has been written by someone who obviously has a good knowledge of nautical  and aeronautical matters. The protagonist, dissatisfied with life at sea and its effect on his marriage, has become an airship pilot. He is embarking on a trip  to Borneo as commander of a huge airship carrying a telescope to Borneo. So far  so good, but perhaps the author could indicate even at this early stage where we're headed story-wise. An introductory summary would certainly help.

Oslo, Norway