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The Cult Aloft

A Ffynche History


Aeronautic Adventure

Part III.  Wings Of Darkness: A return to the true faith

By the late 19th century, ballooning was already passé for inventors. They sought the thrill of speed through the air, and an ability to go somewhere -- anywhere -- but downwind.


Young Merlin Marlowe eventually persuaded his father Alphonsus to invest in winged flight in 1898. But progress was dreadful. 

The Flagrant Ffynche never even hopped off the ground. 

The FF Mk 73 design was the last of the series

The Knickersman Kitty series managed only a handful of 10-yard glides

In June 1911, Cult investors gathered for the company annual meeting and found Merlin in some despair. He finally confessed to his father’s break with Cult faith over the requirement for Indiscernibility in Levitation, and that the inventors’ search for lewdness and absurdity in design may have led them both astray.


Elders patiently explained that although balloons could be seen, it was almost certain they were in fact falling during any period they were actually being watched. It was simply the difficulty that spectators faced in maintaining a sustained upwards gaze that allowed balloons to rise again when they were no longer under visual scrutiny.


Further proof lay in the fact that balloon-flights typically only occurred long after crowds had gone home -- from boredom over endless launch problems and 'the wrong kind of wind'.


The old men suggested that the new winged aircraft should be tested at night, when they couldn’t be seen. Even the pilot could have no lamp or torch. 

Navigation would have to be conducted by sound and smell alone, and if the pilot had to open his eyes, his head must be fixed forward or upward, with no risk of a side-glance at any part of the flying machine.


With this fresh insight, Merlin worked on a redesign ready for a decent darkness during the long nights of November. He had one special advantage when it came to the new principles of navigation. The Marlowe family’s long-standing interest in sound detection and recording would come to the fore, and their fascination with fungi could help with a novel form of instrument design -- olfactory navigation.

The patented 'NasoNav' system, now powered by orgone lasers, remains in use by Cult aircraft to this day

On the day of the maiden night flight, the loyal and courageous test pilot, Lester Jock-Toggle bought lightweight cold-weather clothing, including, by sweet irony, several sets of silk ladies underwear.


As an additional precaution against inadvertent discernation, he also acquired aviator’s goggles, and carefully painted the glass with a thick coat of black paint to ensure maximum Indiscernment.

Lester had spent many hours visiting local villages, woods and any large open fields, gathering leaf-mould and topsoil, carefully bagged by location. Mycological cultures were then developed in small vials, arranged geographically on two boards that could be swung in place under the pilot’s nose.

Sonic trumpets were to be clamped on Lester’s head, pointing towards earth. The height above any terrestrial sounds might be grasped by their volume, and when there was silence he could let out yells, and try to judge elevation by the echo delay.

Lester was to bring a carrier pigeon aboard, on which he could write the olfactory co-ordinates of his landing or crash site. If his landing was successful, he would send a message to that effect -- and then follow his nose again to the pub. 

The new Cult Owl Mk 1 took its first successful flight on the 29th November, 1911.


The runway in Mill Field was cleared by dusk, while a blind-folded Lester practiced the routines he had to perform solely by memory and olfaction.

Lester the Tester: note the black-out goggles and damn fine nose

A large sonic saucer mounted on the roof of the Lion tracked the sound of CultOwl’s engine. The instrument was left in its final position after the engine stopped, to serve as the bearing for search parties should neither pigeon or Lester arrive within two hours.

The Lion’s Sonic Saucer remained in use for night flight tracking until 1956

Marlowe demonstrates the echo altimeter many years later

The engine was fired up at 9.30pm that famous moonless day. Merlin and a few Cult elders traced their way in the darkness to a safe location, following a rope laid out earlier. Lester opened the throttle, and the bumping and creaking of the machine could be heard alongside the whine of the engine.

CultOwl Mk1 on the afternoon before its maiden flight. The 'NasoNav' boards are swung back for ease of re-fueling

Lester’s logbook states that he counted 37 seconds for his take-off. On the ground, Merlin’s small group heard a yell of joy, and the noise of the engine receding in the direction of Wethersfield. There was enough fuel for a 15-minute flight, and when he finally arrived at the Lion, Lester was unable to leave for three days due to a surfeit of congratulatory beers.


Lester had landed the aircraft on high flat land near Wethersfield, where it remained several days before he returned to sobriety and a thick layer of night-time cloud.

Reports of the aircraft reached the national newspapers, and thus came to the notice of the Ministry of Defence, who were unaware of a flying club in the area.


Brigadier-General Sir David Hunderson-Henderson, of the Committee of Imperial Defence, visited the landing site within a couple of days, and was pleased to have identified a suitable topography for an airfield, but was apparently baffled when he eventually met the aircraft’s creator, Merlin Marlowe.

Hunderson-Henderson wrote in a classified memo at the time, but released only in 2011: 'I am unable to recommend Mr Marlowe’s aero-club for inclusion in the Royal Flying Corps. The man lacks the discipline required for national service, and has theories of flight incompatible with modern military know-how.


'He claims his machine flies only at night, and uses a navigation system based on the smell of mushrooms. This man should not be introduced to any of our young fliers under any circumstances. I have informed S.I.S. of the potential risks of subversive activities by this group.


'I did however find a suitable site for an airdrome in Wethersfield -- our surveyors are checking it out.'

Brigadier-General Sir David Hunderson-Henderson

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