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5 October 2006

The adventures of Ensign Halli Amura, RINS

Chapter One

© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer

RINS Air Arm Base
Seathl, Rain Island
April 20, 1937:

        Oh, crap . . .
        The pilot pulled back on the stick as the biplane dove at the runway too fast and at too steep an angle for anything approaching a safe landing.  The Consolidated PT-3 was a solid and dependable aircraft that made an excellent trainer, but even it was hard-pressed to absolve a pilot of every mistake that was made.
        In a driving rain (“You have to learn to land in all kinds of weather,” their instructor kept saying) the wheels just barely touched the runway as the nose of the plane came up, up, then hovered there as air spilled over the wings.  The nose abruptly dipped and the plane dove.
        Luckily it didn’t have too far to fall, but as the propeller dug into the muddy runway the plane’s momentum carried the rest of the airframe forward.  The trainer came to rest on its back, the engine sputtering and dying as ground crew and the other pilot trainees came running to help the pilot.
        The first person there was a lean hound with the single one-inch stripe of a lieutenant on the shoulders of his flight suit.  He pulled up short and dropped to all fours as he said, “Amura!  You okay?”
        “Just my pride’s hurt,” Halli Amura growled as she started to extricate herself from the cockpit.  The rabbit doe wriggled out from under the plane and two other trainees helped her to her feet, one solicitously brushing mud from her back.  She pulled off her flight helmet and shook her mop of dark-brown headfur loose, then scowled at the plane. 
        “Just your pride,” Lieutenant Samuels repeated.  The instructor eyed her up and down critically as he asked, “Do you know what you did wrong, Ensign?”
        The Spontoonie pilot straightened.  “Yes, sir.  I came in too steeply and too fast,” she said, ignoring the rain that was soaking into her fur.  “I should have gone around rather than try to land my aircraft.”  Her ears, usually standing up and adding several more inches to her height, drooped as she added, “I was in a hurry to get down.”
        “Instead you executed a near-perfect noseover,” Samuels said.  “And if the plane had stalled lower?”
        “It would have crushed the landing gear, sir.”
        The lieutenant nodded, then gestured for the rest of the class to gather around.  “Let this be a lesson, people,” he said over the steadily-increasing downpour.  “Don’t take chances with your plane.  If you need to go around, then do so.  Amura gets ten demerit points for her mistake,” and he saw the rabbit droop a bit further, “so you know what that means.”
        Several of the students nodded and they all, Halli included, moved to help the ground crew right the biplane.  Aside from a broken propeller and mud in the engine, it appeared to be undamaged.  However, a thorough inspection would be needed to rule out any flaws caused by the impact.  The plane’s tail was lifted and it was wheeled into the hangar.
        As soon as the wheels were chocked, Halli sighed.  She’d seen what happened to students who messed up on landing, so she didn’t struggle as she was seized by the rest of her class.  They picked her up, flipped her, and carried her upside-down back out in the rain to a nearby drainage canal.
        As they paused on the lip of the canal, Samuels said, “Okay, Amura.  Say it.”  It had been his idea, inspired – so he said – by the need to punish people for mistakes that didn’t require fines or corporal punishment.
        Of course, this was only half of the punishment.  The other half was to treat the other fourteen pilots in the class to beer at the air base’s pub.
        The rabbit gritted her teeth and recited over the sound of the rain:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice;
Let your ears be attentive
To my cry for mercy.”
        As soon as she said the last word of the psalm, the other students threw her in.  When she emerged, spluttering and shaking the water from her ears and headfur, Samuels called out, “Now, don’t do it again.  One of you help her out,” he said to another student as he turned and walked back to the hangar.
        A feline extended her paw and Halli grabbed at it, careful not to lose her balance and drag both of them back into the canal.  “Bad luck,” Katrina Demjanjuk said as she stepped back.  “But that’s your first landing accident, Halli.  You’ll pass, along with the rest of us.”
        “I know, Trina,” Halli said as the two walked across the rainswept field.  “It just makes me mad to make mistakes.  I love flying, and I’d be miserable if I couldn’t.”
        Trina nodded, teeth gleaming as she smiled.  “Do you have enough to buy a round?”
        Halli nodded.  She’d only had to buy drinks for the class once before, after scoring lowest in an exam during ground school.  Like the other Spontoonies in her class, she was thrifty and saved her money. 
        At the door to the hangar she paused and removed her boots, letting the water pour out of them before putting them back on and rejoining the rest of the class.  Samuels looked up as she and Trina drew close and said, “Now that we’re all here, we’ll get back to the barracks and get cleaned up.  We have another half-day in the flight simulators before the final exams and your true solo flights.”  A couple in the class groaned, while others looked pleased that their final flights (the one that actually counted toward their final grade) were fast approaching.  Success meant graduation, failure meant starting flight school over again.
        Halli spent a little more time in the shower than was normal for her, letting the heat penetrate her fur and warm her skin.  Finally she shut off the water and toweled off before walking back out into the barracks’ sleeping area to get dressed. 
        The barracks was laid out identically to the one she had been housed in when she first came to Rain Island; a single large room, with male and female sleeping quarters separated by a chest-high wall.  There had been the usual number of catcalls and admiring glances thrown her way from the men (and, it must be admitted, a few women) but Halli was Spontoonie.  She had grown up walking around in her fur most of the time, and had gotten used to having Euros gawking at her.
        She got dressed in the standard dark blue jumpsuit that the RINS used as a duty uniform.  While tying her boots her long ears twitched and she turned to see one of the male ensigns looking at her from his side of the wall.  “What is it, Robbie?”
        Robert Lyons shrugged.  “Just wanted to know if I could buy you a drink when we go out after supper, Halli.”  Lyons was a rabbit from an outlying island in the Anarchcracy, lean, rangy and almost too tall to fit in a fighter cockpit.  He was quite attractive, and never got grabby.
        Points in his favor.  Halli smiled and said, “I’d like that, Robbie.  Of course, I’m buying you a drink,” and both of them started to laugh.
        The mess hall was crowded when they arrived and hung their raincoats and hats up on pegs in the foyer.  Halli collected a bowl of hot vegetable stew, some biscuits and a mug of beer before taking her seat.  Trina sat beside her and asked, “Still holding Robbie at arm’s length, huh?”
        The rabbit nodded, swallowed her mouthful of stew and replied, “You know we can’t afford much in the way of distractions, not while we’re training.  Although,” she mused, “he is good-looking.  So what about you?  Still making eyes at Zimmerman?”
        The feline blushed, her nosepad and ears turning a shade of red that complemented her orange tabby fur.  “He’s so handsome,” she sighed.  Zimmerman was of American extraction, a Maine coon cat with long fur that he constantly fought to keep trimmed and an expansively bushy tail.  His given name was in Tlingit, so it was easier to use his last name.
        The two young women giggled and whispered back and forth, indulging in a bit of what one of their instructors had termed ‘girl talk’ before finishing their meals.
        The pub was called ‘The Crater’ for some reason; the Portuguese proprietor, Paolo, had flown in the Great War for the Allies, and had moved to Rain Island soon thereafter.  He never said why he named it that, and no amount of liquor or questioning could loosen his tongue.  The canine served drinks, occasionally cooked meals for top-scoring pilots, and kept a small shrine called a ‘Calvary’ set outside a short distance from the door.  Some pilots would stop to pray there before going up on training flights.
        After walking through the chill rain from the mess hall, The Crater was an island of warmth and light.  Heads turned as Halli walked in and Lt. Samuels yelled, “Make way for the one who’s buying!”  All of the students cheered and gravitated to the bar as Paolo beamed and started putting foaming mugs of ale on the counter.
        Halli paid for the group and accepted a mug of her own, then went and took a seat by one of the three billiard tables.  She looked up, then started to stand as Samuels approached.
        He motioned for her to stop and she sat back down.  “At ease, Halli,” he said, “we’re not on duty now.”  He sat and took a deep swallow of his beer, then smacked his lips and said, “What you did was a pretty boneheaded stunt, but you realize the mistake.”
        “I won’t – “ she saw the look in his eyes “ – I’ll try not to repeat it, sir.”
        The hound nodded, a pleased look on his muzzle.  “Good.  I have confidence that you and all the others will graduate, Halli.  You have a good aptitude for flying, but you need to stop trying so hard.”  He took another drink and added, “Trying too hard causes mistakes, and one day you won’t be able to walk away from your plane.” 
        Standing up Samuels made a show of stretching and said loudly, “Well, I’m going home.  Don’t drink too much, or we’ll see how well you all fly while hung over.”  His statement was met with cheers and a few taunts as he put his empty mug down, put on his raincoat and left the bar.
        Halli watched him go, then sipped at the dark ale.  A spirited game of eight ball was starting up at a nearby table, and she watched for a few moments as she drank.  At one point she saw Trina talking with Zimmerman, and the rabbit smiled.
        Watching them made her think of home and her home village on South Island.  She hadn’t had any really ‘steady’ boyfriends, despite many offers.  Draining her mug of beer, she settled the bill with Paolo and went back to the barracks to write home to her parents.


April 30, 1937:

        The day had started out overcast, with a few clouds threatening to turn the landing field into a soggy morass by lunchtime.  After a few hours, though, the clouds had departed and the sun shone on the broad grassy strip as the flight students prepared for their final solo flights.
        Under the watchful eyes of two senior officers, Halli did a careful preflight inspection of her PT-3.  After checking to make sure that the plane wouldn’t fly apart in midair, she signaled to the ground crew and they helped her push the plane out of the hangar and onto the strip.
        The biplane had an electric starter, so after waving the ground crew clear and strapping in securely Halli started the plane’s radial engine.  She fitted her goggles into place over her eyes as the propeller’s backwash started ruffling the exposed fur on her face.  The aircraft seemed eager to get aloft, straining against the wooden chocks.  Halli looked at the instructors, one of whom nodded.  She gave a curt salute and gestured to the ground crew.
        The chocks were whisked away and the plane started moving; she lined it up on the runway, keeping an eye on the windsock hanging from its pole.  Good; almost no wind, and what there was of it was at her back.  She advanced the throttle and headed down the strip.
        The drill required her to have the wheels off the ground by the time she reached a certain marker.  The plane’s tail was already off the ground as the scenery swept by on either side of her, so she started to pull back on the stick.  The wheels cleared the ground together without so much as a bounce, and she sighed in relief as she climbed to the test altitude of three hundred feet.
        The checklist described all of the maneuvers she would have to do, concluding with an Immelman turn executed from five hundred feet.  Halli put the plane into a tight spiral to gain the required altitude, then lined up on the runway.
        A slight push forward on the stick, then pull up; the plane dipped, then rose in a sweeping curve until it was upside down and pointing in the opposite direction.  Her body straining against the straps, she then pushed the stick over, and the PT-3 rolled upright.  Despite herself, she grinned as she completed the roll exactly as required.
        She swung the plane around and lined up on the runway, bringing the altitude down slowly until she felt the wheels touch the ground.  The plane bounced once, as if unwilling to leave the free air so soon, then settled down.
        Halli taxied the plane to a stop in front of the hangar, obeying the signals waved to her by the ground crew.  One of the examiners walked up to her as she shut off the engine and removed her goggles.  “Well done, Ensign Amura,” the commander said.  “You pass.”
        “Thank you, ma’am,” Halli said cheerfully as she unstrapped herself and climbed out of the plane.  She had passed her final flight test, and now she was ready to see just where she would be posted.