THE LURKER IN THE CLOUDS
A Short Story by
Lewis B. Smith
The story I am about to relate is so fantastical in its substance and unbelievable in its details that the only defense I can make of it is that every word is true to the best of my recollection. A perusal of my squadron’s records will confirm the loss of my wingmen on that awful day, although their deaths were attributed to enemy action in the official report. Not even Major Sullivan would have been believed if he had reported the true circumstances of the demise of Lieutenants Spalding and Richardson to the world. I know that if my own eyes had not witnessed the horror, I would never have believed it either.
It was the summer of 1918, and the Great War was in its final year, although most of us thought that it would drag on into the next spring. The Germans were retreating, but slowly and doggedly, and American losses were mounting as our doughboys were finally thrown into the bloody meat grinder that had consumed a generation of European youth. I had volunteered for the French air service in 1917, hoping to join the famous Lafayette Escadrille, but then America declared war just as I earned my pilot’s wings. I was eager to switch over to the U.S. Army Air Corps and serve under my own flag, but as soon as my transfer was complete, I was sent back to the states to train new pilots in the hot skies over Texas, and it had taken me the better part of a year to finally return to the Western Front.
My squadron, the 98th Aero, was stationed at a small airfield just south of the Meuse-Argonne front, near the village of Depardieu. Given my flying experience and length of service, I was promoted to Captain right away and given charge of a flight – even though I had never actually engaged the enemy in the air. Major Sullivan recognized my lack of combat experience and ordered me to join his flight for the first few missions, until I had seen some action and would be ready to engage the enemy.
The famous Red Devil, von Richthofen, was dead, but his colorful Flying Circus of Fokkers was stationed opposite us, and the battles in the sky were desperate as their colorful biplanes dropped from the clouds to engage us. I barely avoided death in my first dogfight, diving desperately for friendly territory with guns jammed and a D-VII clinging to my tail, peppering my Spad with machine gun fire. He gave up the chase when a hundred machine guns on the ground opened up at him, and I managed to land my tattered craft safely. Indeed, our whole patrol came back alive from that mission, although Dirk Jergensen was so badly injured by machine gun fire that he wound up going home.
On my next mission, I gave a better account of myself, diving in behind a candy-striped German Albatros D-V and shredding its wings with bullets. As the pilot tried to bank away, his top wing crumpled like a collapsing tent, and he spiraled into the muddy trenches far below – my first aerial kill! We celebrated in the squadron’s cantina that night, but our joy was marred by the loss of Lieutenant Carl Eubanks, who had just joined us three days earlier. A white Fokker with a red spinner on its prop had sent him down in flames.
It was about this time that we got a rather curious intelligence report that proved to be a presage to the horror we encountered next week. Captain Shanks, our intel officer, was giving us a briefing the next morning before our dawn patrol. After the war, he left the service and returned to Cincinnati, and we have not spoken since Armistice Day. But I still vividly recall what he told us that morning, and Major Sullivan confirmed my memories when we last spoke.
After recounting the number and strength of the squadrons that the Hun was committing to our front, Shanks paused a moment, then presented a drawing of an aircraft like none we had seen. Its wings were swept back and recurved, like those of a monstrous bird, and in front of the fuselage a long, pointed steel spike protruded.
“This aircraft may be a new German high-altitude fighter,” he said. “We have no photographs yet, but a patrol from the 94th Aero encountered this aircraft last week about sixty miles from here. It was horrendously fast and the two Spad-13’s were unable to intercept it. They reported that it dove from the clouds and attacked a British FE 2b that was photographing the German trench lines. As near as they could tell, it used the long projecting spike to shear through the wings and destroy the aeroplane without ever firing a bullet. They tried to engage the enemy flier, but the craft immediately began climbing and disappeared into the clouds above them.”
“It looks like a big old gooney bird!” said ‘Tex’ Larkin, the squadron’s other Captain.
“It is the most bird-like craft since the old Rumpler Taubes at the beginning of the war,” said Shanks. “In fact, this leads to a part of the report that has raised a lot of eyebrows at HQ. You see, even though they were a half mile off, both pilots said, as far as they could see, this aircraft had no propeller. They also said that its wings appeared to move.”
“You mean it was damaged somehow?” asked Mike Spalding, one of our young lieutenants.
“No,” said Shanks. “I mean that this airplane was flapping its wings like a bird.”
“There is no such aircraft in the world!” said Major Sullivan. “Non-fixed wings have been shown repeatedly to lack lift.”
“It is possible their eyes deceived them,” said Shanks. “But it is also possible that the Germans are working on an entirely new air propulsion system. Never let the fog of war make you forget just how clever our enemy can be. The Germans are superb engineers, and they may have simply come up with a radical new design that actually works. One thing is certain – this thing appeared to fly faster and climb quicker than any aeroplane we have!”
With that he moved on to an analysis of our proposed use of close air support in the upcoming offensive, and the curious incident of the new German high altitude fighter was filed away for future reference. The next few days were almost non-stop action; we strafed German trenches, intercepted reconnaissance aircraft, and engaged the Flying Circus on three separate occasions. In one of these dogfights I registered my second kill, bringing down one of the new Fokker D-7’s with a lucky shot that killed the pilot at nearly three hundred yards’ range.
Then heavy rain showers moved in and soaked the field for the next two days, suspending all air patrols. The trenches turned into rivers, and no-man’s land became a foul swamp of dead bodies and circular ponds where shell holes had once scarred the landscape. Very late the third afternoon, the rain stopped, and the clouds cleared just before sunset. I stood beside Major Sullivan and scanned the skies.
“Back to work tomorrow, eh?” I said.
“Looks like the Boche beat us to it,” he said, pointing to my left. I could barely make out the forms of three German bombers or reconnaissance aircraft far above our heads. I snagged a pair of binoculars from the anti-aircraft station that guarded our field.
Even with their aid, I could not really tell the make or model of the distant craft – I could barely discern the tiny Iron Crosses on their wings. There was still some haze aloft, and they seemed to shimmer in and out of existence as I tracked them.
Suddenly the three aircraft scattered, diving frantically. I caught a blur of something pursuing them, but then the haze obscured all three aeroplanes. One by one, though, each of them appeared, tumbling from the sky, wings shattered and one of them trailing smoke and flames. Again I caught the blurred image of a fourth plane rocketing back up into the clouds.
“Looks like one of our chaps just added to his score,” I said.
“Indeed,” the major replied. “Somebody managed to get his bus a little higher than mine has ever gone! Those Krauts were at least twenty thousand feet up, and it looked like he swooped down on them out of nowhere!”
I saw a parachute slowly wafting down from the site of the aerial battle, and I felt a twinge of jealousy. For whatever reason, the powers that be had decreed that, while balloon observers were allowed parachutes, aeroplane pilots were not. The Germans allowed all aviators to use them, and as we had just witnessed, they could save a pilot’s life in a tough spot. Regardless, though, this German’s war was over – he was wafting down to land well within the American lines.
Before dawn the next day, we gathered in the tent for an intel briefing. Captain Shanks was ready as always, his uniform neatly pressed. Many of the pilots believed that he had undergone some extreme conditioning that left him without any need to sleep, for none of us had ever seen him do so.
“Your mechanics have been doing some adjustments on the carburetors of your Spads, hoping to get better performance at high altitudes,” he said. “We know that the Germans are going be coming over around 0800 hours, hoping to bomb the main supply depot some ten miles west of Depardieu,” he said. “Your orders are to climb as high as your engines will take you and circle there, waiting for them to come below. Your patrol route will consist of an elliptical pattern from the depot to our field, and then to the front. You shouldn’t have to wait too long for the enemy to arrive. Then bounce down out of the clouds and give them what for!”
We swilled down the foul French coffee that the cooks had prepared, donned our jackets and scarves, and settled into the cockpit. It was a warm summer morning, but at twenty thousand feet, the air would be frigid and we would be glad of the fleece-lined flight jackets. One by one, the Hispano-Suiza engines of our Spad-13’s roared to life, and we taxied down the grassy field one by one and took off.
Climbing in a tight spiral, we rose higher and higher into the sky. I had gotten up to twenty thousand feet, barely, once or twice before – it was not a pleasant place to be; the air was thin and freezing cold so high up – but the engine, which should have been laboring by that point, was still roaring at full throttle. So the four of us – myself, Major Sullivan, and Lieutenants Richardson and Spalding – climbed for another four spirals, reaching the impressive altitude of 22,000 feet. I was gasping for breath and stomping my feet against the floorboards of the cockpit to keep some feeling in my rapidly numbing toes. All four of us scanned the skies below us, watching for German bombers approaching from the east.
So intent were we on our quarry that none of us saw death approaching from above. Despite the warning, we truly did not believe that the Germans had a fighter that could climb to our current altitude, much less be circling high over our heads.
It was a momentary dimming of the sun that got my attention. For a fraction of a second something came between me and the light, and I glanced upward quickly. It took me a moment to process what I was seeing, and in that moment it was upon us.
It was no bird – let me be clear about that! Birds do not have claws on their wings, nor do they have tails. Tail feathers, perhaps, but this horror had a ten-foot long, scaly serpentine tail trailing in the sky behind it, with a kite-like flap of skin a yard across at the end of it. Full sixty feet its wings spanned the sky, almost twice as wide a span as that of our aircraft. Its head was the stuff of nightmares, long and narrow and pointed fore and aft, with a fierce beak that opened to reveal a hideous, toothy maw. The wings were translucent, like those of a bat. Moving at a speed that was twice as fast as our sturdy bibplanes, it swept between us and snatched Lieutenant Spalding right out of the cockpit of his Spad. It zoomed past me, carrying him aloft, and as I watched in horror the monstrous creature tossed his screaming form into the air and then caught him and swallowed him whole, like a gull swallowing a minnow. Spalding’s aeroplane slowly rolled over and plunged towards the ground, and the three of us followed suit. No aircraft on either side could keep up with a Spad 13 in a power dive, and we hoped to reach safety before the winged demon could strike us again.
No such luck! The monster outdove our planes easily, boring in on Lieutenant Donald Richardson’s Spad. The giant beak stabbed at him, but he wrenched the stick hard right and spun out of its reach. The great beast let out a ghastly shriek, and snagged the wings of his aeroplane in its talons. I heard the struts pop and snap as the top wing tore off, and the great flying beast released them in frustration, lunging after the rest of the plane and its pilot, which were now plummeting to earth like a rock.
It was then that I realized that the creature was diving straight in front of me. I centered its body in my gunsights and ripped back on the trigger, sending a hail of bullets into its midsection. Whatever it was, its corporeal nature was betrayed by the gouts of blood and bits of skin that flew from its hide as my bullets struck home. It gave that ghastly shriek again, and banked its mighty wings, turning towards me. I snap rolled to elude its talons, and my burst of fire had hurt the great creature badly enough that I was able to evade it. I jerked back on the stick, hoping to come around behind it again. The monster followed me with its evil, red-rimmed eyes and twisted its wings in flight to intercept me.
At that moment a second burst of fire from Major Sullivan’s guns hit the monster, and it staggered visibly in the air. For a fleeting second, I had that hateful head with its toothy maw in my gunsights, and I let fly another burst. The mouth opened and that horrific shriek sounded one more time as the bullets tore through its skull. Then the great wings folded and the monster fell to its death.
What it was I do not know. A hideous survivor of some prehistoric age, disturbed from its slumber by the guns of war? Or – and this thought is the reason I have not set foot in a single aircraft since the war ended – was it a natural resident of our highest skies? Do others like it lurk far above the earth, waiting to prey on those who intrude there? I do not know, nor do I care to. Allied intelligence burned the creature’s body, and all reference to it was censored from the official reports. Sullivan and I were told to forget all that we had seen. If only I could! But the memory of the flying monstrosity that we encountered in the skies over the Western Front is engraved in my memory from now until the day I die.