CHAPTER XVIII. AIRCRAFT AND NAVAL OPERATIONS

When once the flying machine had indicated its possibilities in connection with land operations it was only natural that endeavours should be made to adapt it to the more rigorous requirements of the naval service. But the conditions are so vastly dissimilar that only a meagre measure of success has been recorded. Bomb-throwing from aloft upon the decks of battleships appeals vividly to the popular imagination, and the widespread destruction which may be caused by dropping such an agent down the funnel of a vessel into the boiler-room is a favourite theme among writers of fiction and artists. But hitting such an objective while it is tearing at high speed through the water, from a height of several thousand feet is a vastly different task from throwing sticks and balls at an Aunt Sally on terra firma: the target is so small and elusive.

Practically it is impossible to employ the flying machine, whether it be a dirigible or an aeroplane, in this field. Many factors militate against such an application. In the first place there is a very wide difference between dry land and a stretch of water as an area over which to manoeuvre. So far as the land is concerned descent is practicable at any time and almost anywhere. But an attempt to descend upon the open sea even when the latter is as calm as the proverbial mill-pond is fraught with considerable danger. The air-currents immediately above the water differ radically from those prevailing above the surface of the land. Solar radiation also plays a very vital part. In fact the dirigible dare not venture to make such a landing even if it be provided with floats. The chances are a thousand to one that the cars will become water-logged, rendering re-ascent a matter of extreme difficulty, if not absolutely impossible. On the other hand, the aeroplane when equipped with floats, is able to alight upon the water, and to rest thereon for a time. It may even take in a new supply of fuel if the elements be propitious, and may be able to re-ascend, but the occasions are rare when such operations can be carried out successfully.

In operations over water the airman is confronted with one serious danger - the risk of losing his bearings and his way. For instance, many attempts have been made to cross the North Sea by aeroplane, but only one has proved successful so far. The intrepid aviator did succeed in passing from the shore of Britain to the coast of Scandinavia. Many people suppose that because an airman is equipped with a compass he must be able to find his way, but this is a fallacy. The aviator is in the same plight as a mariner who is compelled from circumstances to rely upon his compass alone, and who is debarred by inclement weather from deciding his precise position by taking the sun. A ship ploughing the waters has to contend against the action of cross currents, the speed of which varies considerably, as well as adverse winds. Unless absolute correction for these influences can be made the ship will wander considerably from its course. The airman is placed in a worse position. He has no means of determining the direction and velocity of the currents prevailing in the atmosphere, and his compass cannot give him any help in this connection, because it merely indicates direction.

Unless the airman has some means of determining his position, such as landmarks, he fails to realise the fact that he is drifting, or, even if he becomes aware of this fact, it is by no means a simple straightforward matter for him to make adequate allowance for the factor. Side-drift is the aviator's greatest enemy. It cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy. If the compass were an infallible guide the airman would be able to complete a given journey in dense fog just as easily as in clear weather. It is the action of the cross currents and the unconscious drift which render movement in the air during fog as impracticable with safety as manoeuvring through the water under similar conditions. More than one bold and skilful aviator has essayed the crossing of the English Channel and, being overtaken by fog, has failed to make the opposite coast. His compass has given him the proper direction, but the side-drift has proved his undoing, with the result that he has missed his objective.

The fickle character of the winds over the water, especially over such expanses as the North Sea, constitutes another and seriously adverse factor. Storms, squalls, gales, and, in winter, blizzards, spring up with magical suddenness, and are so severe that no aircraft could hope to live in them. But such visitations are more to be dreaded by the lighter-than-air than by the heavier-than-air machines. The former offers a considerable area of resistance to the tempest and is caught up by the whirlwind before the pilot fully grasps the significant chance of the natural phenomenon. Once a dirigible is swept out of the hands of its pilot its doom is sealed.

On the other hand, the speed attainable by the aeroplane constitutes its safety. It can run before the wind, and meantime can climb steadily and rapidly to a higher altitude, until at last it enters a contrary wind or even a tolerably quiescent atmosphere. Even if it encounters the tempest head on there is no immediate danger if the aviator keep cool. This fact has been established times out of number and the airman has been sufficiently skilful and quick-witted to succeed in frustrating the destructive tactics of his natural enemy.