The seaplane ploughed through the water, throwing up a deluge of spray, but soddenly refused to leave the surface. I throttled back, and tried to turn downwind, but it was hopeless. Every time I loosed the full blast of the slipstream on to the rudder to swing the tail round, the off wing tipped into the surface, and the seaplane began to capsize. Drifting back was the only alternative. I was mildly surprised that she drifted so slowly with the wind driving her back. What did it matter? How crude was this struggle with all the superb beauty of nature around? I sat on the leading edge of a wing root, one arm on a bracing wire, and sat absorbed in the exquisite beauty of the sparkle and dazzle of the wavelets tossing their crests in little showers of spray. A piece of coral would appear at my feet, and I would slowly lift my eyes to follow the intricate clump of dark brown and purple while it receded, growing less distinct until it disappeared for good as I thought, only to be reflected again in distorted form by a wave surface.
The pounding roar of surf broke into my trance. The seaplane was nearly on the reef, where the surf breakers thundered on the coral, charging it in lines of seething white. I slipped off my seat and swung the propeller, then clambered back into the cockpit. The seaplane thrashed its way across the lagoon, and I feared for the engine running so long at full throttle under strain. The beach loomed ahead, and I switched off. The beach was spotlessly clean, washed yellow below high-water mark, bleached white by the sun above. The two mountains had doffed their heads of cloud; that must be an omen that I should leave, for they nearly always brooded in cloud.
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I reached up and opened the top tank cock. The wind blew the stream of petrol, and it pattered on the taut wing surface. I also began siphoning petrol from the back tank to lessen the load. I saw one of the luscious island oranges under the cockpit seat, fished it out, and let it drop into the sea from my finger and thumb. Another? No, no, not food yet! But I jettisoned thirty-five pounds’ weight of petrol, which left me nine hours’ fuel. I sat on the cockpit edge, legs dangling over the water, watching the breakers appear larger as the seaplane drifted to the reef. This time I tried rocking the seaplane on to her bow waves, at each rock mounting a little higher, as I could tell by the lessened drag. I jumped her off the water, but it was no good, back she sank again. I determined to go on dumping gear and petrol until the plane did leave. I opened the cock again. Gower and Roley, who had been chasing me in a dinghy from one side of the lagoon to the other, at last caught me up. Gower stepped aboard, and suggested that I leave my kit of spare parts behind. I agreed reluctantly. After disturbing the tightly packed cockpit, there was some trouble in restowing the pigeon hutch. I let Gower do it; he was there, and after all, I felt indolent. I had only eight hours’ fuel left, which would not be enough if I met an adverse wind.
I changed my tactics, keeping the seaplane down until she had long outrun the distance usually sufficient. Off? Yes! No, touched again. I held her down for another cable’s length. Now, back with the stick. Would she hold off? Yes-no-yes. She was off. It had been a horrible take-off, but I determined to stay up. The seaplane had no flying speed, and I had little control over it; it was quite unresponsive. Slowly it righted, and lurched heavily. I pushed the stick hard over, and it righted to an even keel. Suddenly the port wing was struck down by an air bump, and the seaplane seemed to collapse on its side. I struck the control-stick hard over. It had no bite, and the ailerons flopped. The seaplane continued its slither to the sea. ‘That’s the finish of it!’ I thought. My anxiety ceased and I felt resigned. Then the wings seemed to cushion on a layer of air a few inches from the water, and the seaplane slowly righted. Only the slots hanging out like tongues of dead-beat dogs gave me the least control. The wall of palms ahead blocked my path, and it was impossible to turn right or left. The only chance was to keep down in the thicker surface air to gain enough speed to jump the palms. They rushed at me. Every nerve rebelled, urging me to rise now. But too soon meant certain destruction. At the last moment I jumped the seaplane as high as possible. I knew that the jump would lose me all the flying speed gained; and I knew that the seaplane must drop after the jump. Could it get flying speed before striking the trees? The foliage came up at me, but suddenly a strong gust of wind reached the plane. I could see its blast spread on the tree-tops; it gave the wings lift, and the controls grip. It saved us.
Then I had the saddle to mount. I dared not turn. The slots were still out, and the seaplane laboured heavily up the slope. I thought that the engine must be defective, but a glance at the revolution indicator showed it reading 1,800 (the uncontrollability must have been partly due to the rush of water in the float as the seaplane changed tilt). But once over the saddle the downwash of air helped; the slots quavered, then shut. I had control at last.
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