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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
She first learned of it while working on an experiment in the Purdue University Aeronautics lab. In the course of building the Rapid Century, Katie had discovered, quite by accident, that for some reason oversized wheel-pants actually tended to create less drag than smaller ones...and she was determined to find out why.
“Heard the latest?” said Rob White, the marmot, to Gabby LeBoule, the ferret, as the pair of them passed by the pinto mare’s work-table, “Three Army guys just made it from the mainland to Hawaii in a Fokker Trimotor -- so whoever wins the Dole Derby won’t be the first to pull it off.”
“Heh, that ol’ boy Dole’s race is in some trouble now, yeah?” answered Gabby in his slow, Louisiana drawl, “First Lindy tells him, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, and now this’.”
“Still,” said Rob, his voice turning wistful, “A first prize of 35,000 smackers? Whoa... what I could do with THAT.”
“Uh...’scuse me, guys?” said Katie, swivelling around in her chair, “But what’s the Dole Derby?”
The Dole Derby was the brainchild of pineapple tycoon, James B. Dole; a proposed air race from Oakland California to the Hawaiian Islands. Katie’s next question was, “Where’s the Hawaiian Islands?”
Had this inquiry been posed a couple of decades later, Rob and Gabby most likely would have responded by exchanging some VERY painful looks...but this was almost 15 years before Pearl Harbor, a time when most Americans had never heard of Hawaii, much less did they know it’s location.
So the two underclass furs began to fill her in on the details of the Hawaiian Islands and the Dole Derby.
The Hawaiian archipelago was 2400 miles southwest of the starting point; all planes were required to carry an extra 15 percent fuel-load, first prize was a princely $35,000, and second place was good for $10,000 -- then the largest air-race purses that had ever been offered.
By the time they had finished, Katie’s mind was made up...she HAD to enter that race. Not for the money...because she ‘just wanted to’ as she later put it.
She was also determined to compete in the Dole Derby in a plane of her own design…
But wanting to enter the Dole Derby and actually entering it were two different things. Her application was duly submitted, and just as duly rejected. It was the first time Katie’s gender came into play against her and it provoked a not unexpected reaction. She might be one of the few entrants familiar with instrument flying, she might be part of an even smaller elite...those who knew a thing or two about aerial navigation, (thanks to her experiences aboard the Norge,) she might even be the ONLY contestant to have actually piloted a plane in an air-race before.
But she was still a female.
“If you wish, you may travel as a passenger on one of the race-planes.” the letter of rejection told her, in what seemed to Katie like a smug tone of voice, “Miss Mildred Doran will traveling to Hawaii aboard a plane named after her. Perhaps, if you were to petition...”
That was a far as Katie got before reducing the letter to a golf-ball.
What made it doubly frustrating was that she had already sold the both the Rapid Century, (for a tidy profit) and the Verville (for a small loss) and used the funds to begin work on her new race-plane. Furthermore, her new aircraft had now become her postgraduate project...when meant her degree was now hanging in the balance. When one of the undergrads tentatively suggested that she could always hire another pilot to fly her plane, Katie responded with a diatribe that would have instantly gotten her expelled had a professor been standing within earshot.
She was going to enter her plane in the Dole Derby, and she was GOING to fly it herself, and that was that.
The answer came in the form of an article buried in the back pages of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. (By now, Katie was devouring every scrap of information about Hawaii that she could get her hooves on.) It seemed the Lockheed Aircraft Company, of Los Angeles California, was planning to enter the prototype of it’s highly touted new aircraft, the Lockheed Vega in the Dole Derby, and a bidding war for the sponsorship had broken out. On the one hoof was newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst and on the other, his bitter rivals, the Pulitzer brothers.
Katie immediately boarded the first train to California. William Hearst, it so happened, was a huge airship afficionado. After the Norge flight, his New York Journal had asked her to write an account of her experiences on the expedition. Katie had happily complied and the result had been well received.
So, maybe...just maybe...
Katie was under no illusions that Hearst would remember her or even know who she was. Did her father know every detail of what went on in his distilleries? Furthermore, she had no appointment. The odds that Hearst would see her or even accept a message from her were slim in the extreme. What she was counting on was Hearst’s known admiration for boldness and disdain for red-tape. And in this case, her instincts served her well. When she arrived at the Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California and presented her bona fides to the gate-guard, it swung open almost at once.
“You’ll have to leave the taxi here.” The cougar watching the gate-house told her. “There will be someone here to take you up momentarily.”
As the daughter of an English aristocrat and the granddaughter of an American tycoon, Katie MacArran was used to ostentatious displays of wealth. Nonetheless, the Hearst Castle almost bowled her over; she had never seen anything like it. At first glance, it appeared to be the absolute zenith of vulgarity; a gaudy admixture of Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Provencal, and Mission architecture -- all piled high with gingerbread. But by the time the small, open golf cart reached the main house, Katie had formed an entirely different opinion. This was the domicile of a fur who played strictly by his own rules and didn’t care at all what others thought of him.
In short, William Randolph Hearst was someone she had better NOT antagonize.
She was brought to meet him, not inside the house but beside the outdoor swimming pool, a tiled, azure expanse the size of a small lake, surrounded by Greek statuary. As she approached, she saw Hearst standing poolside in a dark blue robe, engaged in conversation with a similarly clad pine-marten who looked vaguely familiar to her. As he turned to go, the mustelid donned a pair of sunglasses, and she realized with a start that he was film star, Harold Lloyd.
As Lloyd passed by her, nodding a cursory hello, she saw Hearst plop himself into an oversized chaise lounge and beckon her over with a crooked finger. As he did this, the air seemed to become very still. Yes, this fur WAS the master of his domain
William Randolph Hearst was golden bear by species, with the rotund frame common to all ursines, and a long, hatchet face, which most definitely was not.
“Mr. Hearst,” said Katie, offering a hoof, “Thank you for agreeing to see me on practically no notice.” She suddenly felt terribly underdressed in her plain, white tennis outfit.
“Well,” the publisher replied, lowering his sunglasses to peer at her over the top rim. “You just happened to catch me on fairly idle weekend, Miss MacArran. Not much in the news right now.” There was absolutely no inflection in his voice, no betrayal of emotion, nothing at all.
“Why don’t you have a seat?” he said, motioning to the chaise next to his.
Katie sat and smoothed her skirts over, waiting. This was Hearst’s castle, and it was his next move.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asked her, “Some lemonade perhaps?”
“Uh, that’d be fine.” she said, biting back on her nervousness. Hearst reached over to the table beside him and rang a small silver bell. Presently, a white-coated jackal appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Yes, Mr. Hearst?”
“Bring us a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses will you, Morris?” said the newspaper magnate.
“Yes, sir.” said the jackal, and disappeared as silently as he had arrived.
“And while we’re waiting,” said Hearst, removing his glasses and looking at her, “Why don’t you tell me what brings you here, Miss MacArran?”
Something in his tone told Katie she had better get right to the point.
“Mr. Hearst...I’m here to ask you to consider sponsoring my plane instead of The Golden Eagle in the Dole Derby.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” said the bear, nodding as if to indicate that she’d just confirmed what he’d already guessed. “All right. In that case, I have three questions for you, Miss MacArran. First of all, what makes your plane a better choice for this race than the Lockheed Vega? Especially when every air publication in the country is raving about the Vega’s potential.”
“Because Mr. Hearst,” she answered immediately, “The Vega was built as a city-to-city airliner, for use within the continental United States. It was never intended to be able to fly all the way to Hawaii, so it’s going to have to undergo some serious modifications for the trip. My plane, on the other hand, IS being built especially for the Dole Derby. As a matter of fact, it’s one of only two planes in the race being built with the idea of being able to fly from Oakland to Hawaii, non-stop...and it’s the only one being built by someone with any kind of a firm knowledge of Aeronautics.”
“I see,” said Hearst, still revealing nothing, “And what, exactly, are you doing towards that end, Miss MacArran?”
It was here that Katie’s knack for translating technical jargon into plain English arrived to help her.
“First of all, it’ll use the new Pratt and Whitney Wasp engine instead of the Wright Whirlwind. More powerful, but it doesn’t use a lot more fuel. And my plane will be the only one to employ both an engine cowling and wheel-pants, which none of the others will have. That’ll add a little more weight, but it’ll also make my plane more streamlined. And streamlining is the only way there is to make a plane go faster AND use less fuel at the same time.”
“Mmm-hmmm” said Hearst, “And...oh, here’s our lemonade. Thank you, Morris.”
The jackal poured two glasses and vanished once again.
He poured, took a sip, and Katie did the same.
“This is really good.” she said, and meant it. Lemonade had been a favorite summertime cooler back in Boulder.
“Yes, it is.” said Hearst, “And why you, Miss MacArran? What makes you a better choice than Jack Frost?” Jack Frost was the Golden Eagle’s designated pilot.
Katie was ready for that one.
“Jack Frost is a fine aviator sir, but he doesn’t know instrument flying. I do. I learned how to fly on instruments for the King’s Cup Race. Britain can get socked in by fog very quickly as I’m sure you’re aware. Also, I’m sure you remember that I learned something about aerial navigation during the Norge expedition.”
Hearst took another sip of his lemonade. “Yes...a pretty rudimentary education, if I may say so.”
“That’s still more than almost any of the other pilots know about the subject.” Katie countered, smiling, “including Frost.”
“Mmmm, hmmm.” said Hearst, still revealing nothing. “And now, last but not least, Miss MacArran...why me?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
Hearst swivelled in his chaise and sat up. Now, his eyes were boring into hers.
“Your family isn’t exactly bankrupt, Miss MacArran, and from what I hear, neither are you. You can easily afford to enter the Dole Derby with, or without the Hearst Newspapers’ backing. So, why are you here, asking ME to sponsor you?”
Katie took a deep breath. What should she say?
She sighed and gave it to him straight up, no chaser.
“Because I already tried, Mr. Hearst, and my application was rejected on the grounds of my gender. But if you were to sponsor me, I’m almost certain James Dole would change his mind. He’s got enough problems right now without offending a fur as powerful as you.”
For the first time since her arrival, Hearst’s stony facade cracked. He slapped a palm into his knee and laughed. It lasted only for a second, but it was genuine and hearty.
“Well never let it be said that you lack candor, Miss MacArran. Hmmm, but I didn’t know Dole had rejected your entry because of your gender. Yes...that is unexpected.” He stroked his chin, looking thoughtful.
“You’re thinking of the publicity angle?” Katie asked him, taking a chance.
“Yes.” said the bear, looking up at her again, “Weighing the positives against the negatives. If I make Dole accept you as a competitor in his race and you win, that’s a big feather in the Hearst Newspapers’ cap. But if I make him take you on and you’re lost at sea...well, you can imagine how that would make me look.”
Katie crossed her fingers and took the brutally honest route.
“Well, Mr. Hearst...I’m not going to promise you that won’t happen. And anyone who does is either a liar or an idiot. This is an air race over 2400 miles of open ocean to what’s basically a speck surrounded by nothing but open water. The nearest land to Hawaii is the Spontoon Island archipelago...more than 1000 miles away. Am I sure I can find Hawaii? No...and I don’t want to be sure. The worst mistake I can make right now is to take for granted that I can find it...the way a few of the other entrants are doing, I might add.”
There, she’d said it. He would either take offense at her directness or he would not.
“All right, Miss MacArran,” he said, “You’ve been frank with me, now I’ll be frank with you. First of all, it’s not me who’s trying to sponsor a plane in the Dole Derby, it’s my son, George. And quite honestly, I’m beginning to wish he’d never gotten involved with this venture. Lindbergh won’t go near it, those two Army pilots have already beaten everyone to the punch, and just yesterday, two other entrants were killed when their plane went down in Florida. If it were anybody but those damfool Pulitzers trying to outbid us on the Golden Eagle, I’d have pulled out a long time ago.”
“Well sir,” said Katie, “All I can say is that I’ve made my case as best as I can. Anything else and I’d just be repeating myself.”
“Yes, you have.” Hearst nodded, and then rose. “I’ll be seeing George on Monday, and I’ll put your proposal to him then. In the meantime, you’re welcome to stay here overnight before you head back.”
“Said the spider to the fly,” Katie thought, but did not say. What she did say was, “That’d be wonderful Mr. Hearst...except my bags are still at my hotel in Santa Maria.”
“No problem,” said Hearst, airily, “I’ll send someone to get them.”
As it happened, Katie’s fears turned out to be groundless. Never once during the course of her stay did Hearst even hint at making an untoward suggestion. And when she retired to her room that night, she retired completely alone. In fact, Katie discovered much to her surprise that in an offhand kind of way she sort of liked William Randolph Hearst. It was hard not to admire his tough, take-charge attitude and once their business discussion was over, he displayed the kind of sardonic sense of humor she especially appreciated.
One week later, back home again in West Lafayette Indiana, Katie’s new race plane was rolled out of it’s hangar and onto the runway for the first time.
It was a considerably different aircraft than the Rapid Century. For one thing, instead of being a low-winged plane, this aircraft possessed high, gull wings with an open cockpit mounted just behind them. This design, Katie felt, would not be quite as fast as a low-winged model, but it would have considerably longer range.) In addition, her new plane had a considerably longer wingspan that it’s predecessor; she would later learn it had the longest of any plane in the race. That would make it a little more difficult to get airborne, but this was where the new Wasp engine would come into play...and once it was up, it would be able to fly longer while using less fuel. About the only thing Katie’s Dole Derby plane had in common with the Rapid Century was in it’s geodetic fuselage...which was still longer and more tapered than the other plane’s had been.
As predicted, Katie’s new plane was a bit harder to get off the ground than the Rapid Century...but not nearly as difficult as she had expected, and once airborne, she flew like a dream....not able to make quick turns but, Katie reasoned, who needed that when you had 2400 miles of ocean in which to alter course? Besides that, the new plane was also faster than Katie had expected...but didn’t gulp fuel.
No sooner had Katie put her plane back in the hangar, than one of her undergrad assistants, an armadillo named Ted Walsey, came hurrying inside, out of breath..
“Miss MacArran? Sorry to rush in on y’all, but there’s this Hearst fella calling you long distance on th’ office phone.”
Katie bolted for the door as fast as she could.
“Mr, Hearst?” she gasped, grabbing the receiver, out of breath, “It’s Katie MacArran.”
The Hearst on the other end of the line turned out not to be William Randolph, but his son, George...every bit the serious businessfur his father was.
“Miss MacArran?” he said, by way of greeting, “before I give you a decision about sponsoring you in the Dole Derby, I have a question of my own. Just how far from completion is this plane of yours?”
Katie laughed and said, “About thirty minutes ago, Mr. Hearst. She just completed her maiden flight.”
“And...?” came the voice from the other end.
“And the foal is beautiful.” Katie answered laughing again.
George Hearst did not respond in kind
“All right then...In that case, I have two conditions. First, the San Francisco Examiner gets exclusive rights to publish your story.”
“Yes, of course.” Katie answered, nodding into the receiver. It was no less than she had expected.
“And second,” said Hearst, “I will not sponsor a solo flight. You are to find and employ the services of an experienced navigator for this race.”
Katie’s ears went back and her nose wrinkled. ANOTHER damn misogynist.
“Mr. Hearst...” she started to say, but the publisher cut her off.
“That’s the same arrangement I had with Jack Frost...and I won’t change my mind. This is the only way I’ll agree to sponsor you Miss MacArran. Take it or leave it.”
Katie took it....and then Hearst told her:
“All right...we’ll make the announcement of the change of sponsorship in the Examiner tomorrow morning. What’s the name of your plane again?”
Actually Katie’s new plane didn’t HAVE a name yet. Groping like a rag-picker for a serviceable appellation, she just blurted out the first thing that popped into her head.
“The Boilermaker Special.”
This was greeted by a brief silence, then a confused inquiry.
“The Boilermaker Special? What kind of a...? Oh, wait...you’re a grad-student at Purdue, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir,” she said, “That’s where she was built, too.”
“All right then.” said Hearst, approval seeping into his voice, “The Boilermaker Special. Actually, that has kind of a nice ring to it.”
And then his voice shifted clear across the spectrum. “But now, let me be very clear about something, Miss MacArran...and I’m only going to say it once. DON’T make me sorry for changing my mind about sponsoring the Golden Eagle. Is that understood?”
Katie swallowed hard and said “Yes sir.” Then, after she hung up, strode immediately back into the hangar and began working on expanding the cockpit to add a second seat and a navigator’s compartment.
It took her almost a week of telegrams and transatlantic phone-calls to locate him; Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, the Norwegian Elkhound who had been the Norge’s navigational officer...but when she did and put the proposition to him, he accepted it right away. Even so, Katie remained uneasy. Hjalmar’s specialty was the arctic, not the tropics. Would he be able to do the job of getting them to Hawaii?
The first inkling of an answer to that question came the minute Hjalmar arrived in Indiana. Even before unpacking his bags, he was over at the library, poring over every nautical chart of the Pacific they had...and making Katie join him. He gave her reading assignments every night and drilled her constantly in the use of a sextant, compass, and chronometer.
Not that Katie was forgetting who was in charge. Every time she took the Boilermaker Special for a flight, she insisted upon Hjalmar riding along.
For all the constant grind, there was never any tension between them. For example, when Katie landed after taking Hjalmar for his first flight in the Boilermaker Special, she immediately asked him for his verdict on the navigator’s compartment. Were there any changes he thought needed to be made?
The elkhound took his pipe from his mouth and nodded.
“A little bit cramped in there, ya shoor, but otherwise it’s perfect...and did you really build this plane yourself? She’s an excellent design, Katie. You’re to be congratulated.”
Together, they flew to Wright Field, Ohio to interview the pair of Army pilots who had made that first successful flight to Hawaii, both of them taking copious notes.
When they returned to Indiana, an angry telegram was waiting from James Dole, one in which Katie was referred to as, among other things, ‘scheming’, ‘conniving’, ‘under-hooved’, and in which she was accused of playing ‘dirty pool’.
It then went on to tell her, in one short, clipped sentence, that her entry in The Dole Derby had been accepted.
“But you’ll start dead-last.” the telegram concluded. Katie didn’t care. She had gotten in.
Next it was time to see what the Boilermaker Special could really do. In a series of test flights, Katie and Hjalmar flew her first from Purdue to Miami, Florida. From there, they flew across the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville Texas and from Brownsville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Then, from San Juan, they flew north towards the British Protectorate of Bermuda, a notoriously difficult island to locate, surrounded by nothing but expanses of open sea. Finally, to test the Special’s endurance capabilities, they made a nonstop flight from Bermuda to Los Angeles, where they were met by both Hearsts and a gaggle of their reporters. It was the first time either one of them had actually seen Katie’s aircraft close up, and their ruling was more than favorable.
“Glad I listened to you, dad.” George Hearst was overheard to say. “She’s a real beauty.”
“Yes, she is.” his father replied, with wink, “And the plane’s not bad either.”
But then William Randolph Hearst took Katie aside and became very serious.
“There’s a situation you need to be aware of Miss MacArran.”
That situation was a war of words that had broken out between the Hearsts and the Pulitzers over their respective entries. Typically, it had been William Randolph Hearst who had fired the opening shot, declaring that he had withdrawn his bid to sponsor the Golden Eagle on the grounds that, “Any project the Pulitzers are backing is one I DON’T want to underwrite.”
From there, it had quickly degenerated to a name-calling match, with both publishers loudly predicting that the other’s plane would never make it to Hawaii.
But then the Pulitzers had found out about the rejection of Katie’s original entry, and how Hearst had persuaded James Dole to change his mind...AND how furious James Dole was over “having my paw forced in MY race.”
They also found out about Katie’s overnight stay at the Hearst Castle, and in an editorial printed in the St, Louis Post-Dispatch, Ralph Pulitzer suggested that she had used her ‘feminine wiles’ to secure William Randolph Hearst’s sponsorship. In 1920's parlance, that was all but an open accusation that she had garnered his backing in exchange for sexual favors.
Katie’s ears vanished instantly when Hearst told her about it.
“Mr. Hearst,” she said, trembling all over, “I want you to know that I am Goddam incensed over this.”
“Not as much as I am.” the golden bear answered with an angry snarl, “After I read that editorial, I called Ralph personally to complain. ‘Even your father never hit that far below the belt.’ I told him...and he just sneered, ‘I’d say YOU’RE the one who was hitting below the belt, William.’ Then he hung up on me.”
“What do you want me to say to your reporters about it?” Katie asked him, more angry than ever, “Just name it, and it’s done.”
“Nothing.” said Hearst, smiling and laying a paw on her shoulder, “You really want to make Ralph sorry he wrote that editorial? Beat the Golden Eagle to Hawaii.”
Towards that end, Katie and Hjalmar took ship in Oakland three days later for a sea voyage to Hawaii, during which they took compass, chronometer and sextant readings, every hour on the hour, night and day. During the course of that voyage, in fact ever since Hjalmar’s arrival, their relationship remained entirely professional. Hjalmar, a canine in his forties, was happily married, and had brought his wife Anna with him to America. And she with him now, on board the ship
When they arrived in Oahu, the first thing they did was check into their respective hotel rooms and fall instantly asleep.
After breakfast the following morning, they drove up the Nuuanu Valley to take a look at Wheeler field, where the planes would come in for a landing. Their next task was to find a plane of their own to rent for a survey flight around the islands. Easier said than done. Almost every hangar they approached either didn’t rent planes or didn’t rent them to females. Finally, they adopted the expedient of having Hjalmar rent the plane...and even then, the best they could do was an old Dornier Libelle II flying boat that looked as if it had been cobbled together from mostly spare parts...and at higher price than they probably could have bought it for.
“If we win the race, it should just about cover our costs.” Hjalmar joked as they lifted off...to which Katie replied, sourly.
“What the Hell do you mean ‘OUR’ expenses, Fido? I’m payin’ for everything, remember?”
It was Katie’s first experience piloting a seaplane, and though it took some getting used to, she soon had it down pat. They began with a flight around the Oahu, then a flew to Kawaii, and finally the Big Island of Hawaii, memorizing every landmark.
After that, there was nothing much for them to do. It would be several days until the next ship departed for the mainland. So, Katie decided to do a little shopping. At a flea market near the Lunalilo School in Honolulu, she discovered a vendor selling curious artifacts, woven lattice-works of bamboo and copra fiber that looked like skewed Maltese crosses. They reminded her of the Ojo De Dios she had seen in several Tucson homes during her flight from the Spanish Influenza many years before.
“What are those?” she asked the vendor, a heavyset, snub-nosed, Hawaiian mongoose with several missing teeth..
“They called mattangs, Miss.” he answered, handing her one.
“I see,” she said, examining it casually, “What are they used for? Good luck charms?”
The Hawaiian’s grin became even broader.
“No. Miss. It’s what the old Polynesian saila’s used as navigation charts.”
Katie’s ears immediately stood up straight.
“Navigation chart? How’s it work?”
“Like this.” said the mongoose, taking the mattang from her and turning it over. “Now you see the shell inna center? That’s an island...Tahiti...an’ those sticks set all ‘round it are different kindsa wave shapes. You see, the old Polynesions figga’d out the waves radiate out from diffa’nt islands in diffa’nt wave shapes...so by lookin’ at the shapes of waves, they could tell where they were inna ocean.”
“Really?” said Katie, thoroughly fascinated.
“Yeah, Missie.” the vendor answered, “Dere’s an ol legend about dis one ol’ boy who was completely blind but could tell where an outrigga was just by dipping his paw in de watta.”
“Wow.” said Katie, “Just by the shapes of waves...that’s really amazing. Have you got one for Hawaii? I mean a really good one?”
“Sure,” said the mongoose, picking one of the larger ones off the table. “That’s the best sella’ I got. Two dolla, for that one.”
“Okay,” said Katie, reaching into her purse, “And can you teach me how to use it?”
The Hawaiian threw back his shoulders and roared with laughter.
“You plannin’ on paddlin’ to Hawaii from somewhere, Miss?”
“No,” said Katie, evenly, “I’m planning on FLYING to Hawaii -- in the Dole Derby next month.”
The mongoose stopped laughing and stared with wide eyes.
“Sweet mama. You really serious. No, I can’t teach you how you use it...but my uncle Ha’ola, he can.”
Uncle Ha’ola turned out to be almost the dead opposite of his beefy nephew...as dry and brown as an old tobacco leaf, and twice as thin. And if his manner was more plodding than Hjalmar’s, his passion for his craft burned no less brightly.
“I no can teach you eve’ything about how to use mattang in three days, Katie...so I just show you basics, an’ show you much as I can bout’ how to use mattang to find Hawa’ii if you coming in from No’west.”
Katie didn’t get back to the hotel until late, and when she arrived, she found Hjalmar in an agitated state.
“Where you been all this time?” he demanded, “Missus and I were gettin’ worried about’cha.”
Katie held up the mattang and explained what she’d been up to. She expected Hjalmar to groan, or at least give her a condescending look, but the elkhound just nodded. “Ya-shoor...good idea, Katie. Can’t hurt to have every back-up we can find.” And then he must have seen her expression, because he smiled, and added, “Oh, don’t look so surprised. I’m Norsk, remember? ‘Bout the time those Polynesians were findin’ Hawaii usin’ wave shapes, MY ancestors were findin’ Iceland, usin’ ravens to help ‘em navigate.”
When race day finally arrived, all of William Randolph Hearst’s misgivings about the venture seemed to be wholly justified.
Two of the race-planes were disqualified even before take-off, one when it’s instruments malfunctioned, the other when the judges discovered that it’s fuel capacity had been calculated in overland rather than nautical miles...which meant it would run out approximately 200 miles short of Oahu.
“Didn’t anyone but us use their heads in gettin’ ready for this thing?” Katie remarked disgustedly to George Hearst. It was a hazy day, with the visibility getting worse by the second, and she was eager to be off. Her father and grandfather were also there, and from the looks they were giving her, it was clear that neither one of them was sweet on the idea of her participating in this contest.
Over on her right, she could see the only other female in the race, Mildred Doran, a sloe-eyed flying squirrel-femme, who would be traveling as a passenger in the bi-plane bearing her name.
Katie had to admit, she was dressed for the occasion...in a tailor-made approximation of a Lafayette Escadrille uniform, complete with tie and Sam Browne belt. “Mildred’s fearless.” someone had said of her in an interview.
“Yeah, ‘fearless’ spelled, S-T-U-P-I-D.” Katie now thought as she gave the race plane, Miss Doran, a long-distance look-see. Of all the planes entered in the race, this one looked the least airworthy; about as durable in appearance as a kit’s balsa-wood toy. Katie suspected that if it hadn’t been for a femme’s presence on the passenger list, this plane would have already been disqualified
Finally, just before 10 AM, the first racer, the Oklahoma, lifted off from Oakland Municipal Airport.
And promptly set down again with engine trouble.
Then the second plane, the El Encanto, began to taxi down the runway.
And flipped over before it could get airborne.
Then it was the Pabco Pacific Flyer’s turn.
The Flyer stalled and crashed before clearing the airport perimeter.
The Dole Derby had hardly begun and it was already turning into a Keystone Kops featurette.
The next plane to take off was The Golden Eagle, the first entry to stay in the air.
( Much to the annoyance of both Hearsts, Katie noted, with a mixture of both foreboding and amusement. )
Of the nine planes that took off for Hawaii that day, only five managed to successfully clear the runway. The last of these was the Boilermaker Special.
Once they were out of sight of land, Katie and Hjalmar settled into a fairly standard routine, keeping an eye on their instruments, watching the fuel consumption and keeping the Special on course for Hawaii. For the first few hundred miles, there would be no worries; unless they experienced a complete engine failure, they could easily turn back if the need arose. Things would finally begin to get hairy when they were at the 1200 mile halfway mark...and then they would really get dramatic once the Special used up half its fuel supply...passing the so-called point-of-no-return.
But once they made it to within 600 miles of Hawaii, assuming they had ample fuel and the engine kept working, and nothing else went wrong, they would be able to home in on Wheeler Field using a navigational radio beacon. ( The Special was one of only three planes in the race equipped for this purpose. )
The trick was that they had to find the beacon first...in 2400 miles of empty ocean.
Until then, it was compass, and sextant, and chronometer -- and dead reckoning.
And boredom. Risky flight or not, it was hard to keep your mind sharp with nothing but a never-changing vista of sea and sky in front of you, and nothing to do but hold course, hold course, hold course. At one point, Katie looked at her watch and saw that it was 3:30. When she looked again, two hours later, it was 3:35. Before long, she was not only welcoming it when Hjalmar called for a course correction, she was hoping for it, then praying for it. When night finally fell, that provided a brief respite. Between bites of carrot and sips of triple-strength coffee, ( and holding the Special on course, etc ) Katie could marvel at endless canopy of stars overhead. Never had they looked so bright or so distinct, not even on clear nights, high up in the Rockies.
But soon, even this diversion lost it’s luster...and Katie was wishing for something, anything to break the monotony.
Shortly after the sun came up, she received a stark reminder about being careful what you wish for, lest your desire be granted. Hjalmar emerged from the navigator’s compartment with a grim expression on his face.
“We got a broken chronometer, looks like Katie.”
Katie had not slept in almost 20 hours, but all at once she was fully alert. If they lost the chronometer, they would be unable to determine their longitude.
“You sure, Hjalmar?” she asked, silly question but all she could think of.
“Ya shoor, I’m sure.” said the elkhound, “S’stopped dead in it’s tracks.”
Katie bit down on her rising panic.
“All right,” she said, “What’s our next move?”
“I can keep watchin’ the compass and shootin’ the sun...keep us pointed more or less in the right direction...hope we pick up that radio beacon.” he said, “But I won’t lie to ya, Miss MacArran. Chances are we’re not gonna find anythin’ but empty ocean.”
“All right,” said Katie, a strange calm settling over her.
And on they flew.
In the end, it was the coffee...the black, bitter, espresso-strength java that Katie had been slugging down all night, trying to keep alert. Caffeine has a way of focusing the brain on trivialities. In her case, she began to concentrate on the waves below. What amazing patterns they made. She felt that she could look for hours.
She turned and called over her shoulder.
“Hjalmar? I’ve got an idea. Bring me the mattang.”
“Ehh, why not?” he said, passing it up to her with weary grin. “S’ good an idea as any, ya betcha.”
Katie dropped the Boilermaker Special down to 500 feet above the ocean, and began to study the mattang closely.
Then, she altered course, 4 degrees to the southwest.
Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen did not protest her decision.
For the next few hours, Katie needed no diversion to keep her mind focused. There was more than enough between flying the plane and keeping her eye on the wave patterns.
Then, at 10:30 AM, Pacific time, exactly 24 hours after they had taken wing in Oakland, Hjalmar emerged from the navigator’s compartment with a big smile on his face.
“We got the radio-beacon, Katie.” he said.
Katie responded with a triumphant whinny that quickly became a yawn.
They were out of danger...but the day’s drama wasn’t quite over yet. As the Boilermaker Special rounded Kamuku point on Oahu’s north side, and entered the Nuuanu valley for the final approach to Wheeler Field, Katie spotted another aircraft far ahead in the distance -- an aircraft shining like polished brass in the rays of the late-morning sun
The Golden Eagle.
Without a second’s hesitation, Katie opened up the throttles and poured it on. A minute later, she saw the other pilot do the same.
It was going to be close. The Eagle had a huge lead on the Special, but it’s Wright Whirlwind engine was no match for the Special’s Pratt and Whitney Wasp...or the fact that Katie’s plane was a racer, through and through, while the Eagle was a modified airliner.
As they were coming within sight of the Schofield Barracks, Katie MacArran’s plane swept into the lead, beating the Golden Eagle across the finish line by a scant 120 seconds -- to almost dead silence. There was no crowd of onlookers...almost no one there at all..
It was only when Katie had taxied to a halt that she discovered why. There, sitting smugly off to one side of the runway was another entry, the Woolaroc, a Travel Air 5000 that had been piloted by Hollywood stuntfur, Art Goebel.
( She would later learn that he had beaten her to Oahu by a good two hours. )
Then she saw that the aircraft she had just bested was not the Golden Eagle. In fact, about the only thing it had in common with the Eagle was in it’s bright coloration, and even then it was canary yellow, not gold.. The third-place finisher was a Breese-Wilde monoplane called the Aloha, piloted by Martin Jensen.
As for the Golden Eagle, she was never seen again.
Dornier Libelle II:
Lockheed Vega, ‘Golden Eagle’
(Note the absence of cowling and wheel coverings on this early model)
Breese-Wilde Monoplane, ‘Aloha'
Travel-Air 5000 ‘Oklahoma' -- sister ship of the ‘Woolaroc'