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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
They called her ‘Mad Nadiya’, but never to her face.
Not out of any fear of being sent to the Gulag...out of fear that Captain Nadiya Zhorkin, Red Air Force, Heroine of The Soviet Union, would put out their lights if she heard.
Nadiya Zhorkin was a Russian sable, a bouncy, energetic mustelid, with sultry eyes, fine, black hair, and a body that ran slightly towards the plump, but in a Rubenesque way that oddly accentuated her attractiveness. She might almost have been described as ‘cuddly’ were it not for her whirlwind temperament. It was said of Nadiya Zhorkin that she could drink like whirlpool, fight like a tornado, and yiff like a hurricane.
That was also something never voiced within her earshot.
At the moment, she was standing on a windswept runway, just outside of Moscow, delivering a speech to the phalanx of Red Air Force furs standing to attention before her, and to the small grandstand filled with Soviet dignitaries stationed just behind them.
And to the fur seated behind THEM, ensconced on a raised dais, as was his undisputed right. He was a compact tiger from Russian Georgia; Josef Stalin, the undisputed master of the Soviet Union.
That was what was in front of Nadiya Zhorkin. Behind her was an aircraft that looked like an overgrown sailplane, an effect only heightened by it’s vermilion wings and tail. Indeed, the aircraft’s single engine seemed almost to have been added as an afterthought.
It was one of two enormous Tupolev ANT-25 bombers; the one known as Stalinskiy Marshrut, or Stalin’s Route, the same aircraft that the previous year had completed a spectacular flight over the pole from Moscow, touching down near Portland, Oregon. Not long thereafter, a second ANT-25 had made it all the way from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
The ANT-25 was also not...repeat NOT the aircraft that had Andrei Tupolev had developed from the blueprints of the American plane, the Boilermaker Special, that he had purchased the previous decade...and anyone who said so faced an immediate loss of livelihood -- if they were lucky.
Nadiya was dressed for the occasion in what could never have been mistaken for a dress uniform of the Red Air Force, clunky, felt-lined boots, baggy trousers, a thick, woolen sweater, a leather coat, all of it topped by a touring cap. Essentially, it was the same outfit her predecessors, Valery Chkalov and Mikhail Gromov had worn on THEIR polar flights. Only the medals pinned to the front of Nadiya’s coat did anything to suggest her military rank. And even then it wasn’t much of an oddity. Soviet military furs wore their medals everywhere, even into battle. When Nadiya Zhorkin had first learned of Hermann Goering’s passion for sporting medals everywhere he went, she had sarcastically remarked, “Welllll, then...who would have thought that Goering was a Soviet Officer at heart?”
It was partially due to her habit of making such brash remarks that Nadiya had been given her nickname. No one could ever figure out how she’d managed to avoid the gulag, much less kept her rank and her flying status with a mouth like that. Behind her back, it was alleged that she was secretly yiffing some high level apparatchnik in the NKVD...perhaps even Lavrenty Beria. Some even dared to whisper that she occasionally serviced Stalin himself.
Certainly that was the only explanation for the fact that out of all eligible candidates, it had been Nadya Zhorkin who’d been selected to fly for the Soviet Union in the upcoming Schneider-Cup competition.
AND to pilot the plane that would take her there...via a route over the north pole, non-stop.
Like so many other airborne ventures, this one had evolved rather than been mapped out in advance. Shortly after the Stalin’s Route and it’s successor had completed their epochal flights, the Soviets had tried again, this time with a different plane, a four-engine ANT-4, which their most famous aviator, Sigismund Levanevsky, the ‘Lindbergh of Russia,’ had hoped to fly from Moscow to New York, via Fairbanks, Alaska.
300 miles beyond The Pole, the ANT-4 had transmitted a coded message that it was experiencing engine trouble. Moments later, a second message was received, indicating that the ANT-4 was about to make an emergency landing.
That message ended abruptly in mid-transmission...and the ANT-4 was never seen or heard from again.
Determined to recoup some of Russia’s lost face, Josef Stalin had immediately decreed that the ANT-25, Stalin’s Route must be dispatched on an even more trailblazing flight the following year.
“I don’t care where to...but it had better be to a destination that will make the world sit up and notice of the Soviet Union.” the Soviet dictator had warned. Several plans had been forwarded and rejected. That the flight must pass over the pole was obvious...but where should be the final destination? New York? Nyet. Chicago? Nyet. Mexico City? Who CARED?
Then, someone remembered the Dole Derby of ten years before. What about Hawaii? Nyet...too far.
“Well, what about Spontoon island, then? That’s within the Stalin’s Route’s range...barely, to be sure, but it’s there.”
“Spontoon Island? Sookin sin, are you crazy, or only drunk? That’s even worse than Mexico City. Whoever has heard of Spontoon Island?”
“Everyone, yubna mat! It’s only where the biggest international air race of the year is held. If we make our flight while that is happening, the world cannot help but pay attention.”
And so, Spontoon Island it was.
But then, even as the Stalin’s Route was being prepared for it’s flight, another event occurred.
In combat with the German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters in Spain, and with the Japanese Mitsubishi ‘Clyde’ fighters over Mongolia, the Polikarpov I-16 Rata, the mainstay of the Red Air Force, had turned out to be woefully inadequate to the task. That the top Soviet fighter plane could find itself outclassed on not one, but TWO fronts was a situation totally unacceptable to both Stalin and to Stavka, the Soviet General Staff. And so a decree had gone forth to the Soviet Aircraft designers. Build a fighter that could hold it’s own with the German and Japanese machines...and do it quickly.
The results of this declaration-cum-ultimatum were predictable; One aircraft, the Mig-3 turned out to be the trickiest plane to fly this side of the Gee-Bee. It’s rival, the Lavoshkin LaGG, was known informally as ‘the varnished coffin’ by the pilots of the Red Air Force.
Then, one night in a Moscow watering hole, one of the assistants working on the LaGG, a Borzoi named Grigori Tolinkov bumped into a member of the Mig-3 Design team, Yevgeny Velznev, a Saiga antelope. Neither one was supposed to discuss the design of their aircraft with anyone outside their of respective design houses...but both were feeling depressed at the moment. And the vodka was flowing freely.
“The trouble with the Mig.” Grigori confessed, “is that it’s a fast plane all right...even faster than that damned Messerschmitt, but it’s just about impossible to fly -- unless you ‘fly’ it every second it’s in the air. It’s airframe is simply too short and light for the engine.”
“Da,” said Yevgeny, nodding sympathetically, “We have exactly the opposite problem with the LaGG. It’s frame is much too long and heavy...for it’s...”
His words trailed off into empty air...and the two sophomore Russian aircraft designers just stared at each other for a long moment.
Then they grabbed their hats and coats and rushed for the door, each one doing a fast draw for his slide-rule.
Three month later, the VeT-1 fighter-plane prototype made it’s first flight...and if it wasn’t quite the equal of the Messerschmitt or Spitfire, it was more than a match for the Mitsubishi Clyde -- and certainly better than any of the other Soviet designs submitted thus far.
And Stalin was pleased. Here at last, he felt, were some Red aircraft designers with a little initiative.
“But can you do better?” the Georgian tiger asked them, at a meeting in the Kremlin. “Can you have this plane able to take on the Fascist fighter aircraft?” It was one of those Stalinist questions that was really a thinly-disguised order.
“Da, comrade Stalin.” said Grigori Tolinkov, the spokesfur of the two, “We...both of us are of the opinion, that the design of the VeT-1 may be greatly improved by the building of a seaplane variant to be entered in the Schneider-Cup competition next August. This is how the British developed their new Spitfire plane, as you might recall.”
Stalin puffed on his pipe for a second, looking pensive.
Finally he looked up.
“Will you win?”
Grigori swallowed hard and crossed his fingers
“It is not a question of winning, Comrade Stalin,” he said, “It is a question of improving the performance of the VeT-1. If losing to the Fascists’ race-planes today gives us the means to defeat their fighter planes tomorrow, it is a trade-off that I think we should willingly accept.”
The Soviet Dictator’s face revealed nothing as he walked over to where Grigori and Yevgeny were standing. Then, he put a paw on the Borzoi’s shoulder, smiled that tigerish smile of his, and spoke to the other furs in the room..
“You know, I like a fur who is both farsighted in his thinking and not afraid to make small sacrifices. Very well, comrades Tolinkov and Velznev, I approved of your plan to build a Schneider-Cup racer from the VeT-1.”
But if Stalin was willing to send the VeT-1 to the Schneider merely to improve it’s performance, there were others in the Kremlin not nearly so inspired by the prospect. A poor showing by the new Red Air Force fighter prototype would certainly detract from the achievement of the ANT-25's flight to Spontoon Island.
Then, over cups of tea at the Soviet Air Ministry, an idea was suggested by one Colonel Ivan Khuzhkin, an Orlov trotter horse, and an air group commander on the Mongolian Front...preparing to return to combat duty after surgery to remove a small tumor of the guttural pouch.
“Why do we not have the same flier pilot both the Stalin’s Route AND our Schneider Cup racer?” he suggested, “To do such a thing, even if we are not victorious in the seaplane race, would be a great achievement in and of itself.”
The other officers regarded each other for a second, then one of them, an old deer-buck named General Valentin Tcheniloy, addressed the equine.
“That would be a brilliant idea, Ivan Petrovich...except for one thing. It is outside the realm of possibility we can ORDER any pilot to take on this mission and hope to have it succeed. This can only be an entirely voluntary assignment, or it must only end in failure.”
“And where,” asked General Boris Leventov, a gnarled black rat, “should we find a pilot crazy enough to fly 6000 miles over the pole without rest...and THEN climb into the cockpit of a Schneider-Cup racer, an untried aircraft no less, and go shooting around a closed circuit course at more than 300 miles per hour?”
“Permit me to tell you a story...” said Colonel Khuzhkin, settling back in his chair with a broad smile.
Just before the Colonel had left Mongolia, one of his deputies, Major Mikhail Beznov, commander of the 75th fighter squadron had been forced down behind Japanese lines in his Polikarpov I-16 fighter plane.
“As it so happened, a Japanese patrol saw him come down, and immediately rushed towards the scene of his landing. Now, I need not tell you comrades, what would have happened to Major Beznov had he been captured. We are all familiar with the way the Japanese Imperial Army treats prisoners of war, especially ranking officers.”
This was greeted by a series of grunts and nods from around the room.
“But then,” said Colonel Khuzhkin, “just as the Japanese were preparing to close in, and the Major was drawing his pistol to kill himself, another I-16 came swooping out of the sky, making an almost perfect landing close by his position, despite the uneven terrain. The major climbed quickly on board, and the other pilot flew him out of danger through a hail of ground fire, somehow managing the rescue with the Major sitting on her lap...and Major Beznov is a polar bear, by the way.”
Almost everyone laughed, and several officers applauded.
“Oh, but that is not all.” said Colonel Khuzhkin, lifting a hoof for silence. “On their way back to base, the pilot spotted a squadron of Japanese bombers on their way to attack our fuel depot near Changkufeng. One of them, it so happened, was straggling with a damaged engine, and so, with Major Beznov still sitting on her lap -- and loudly protesting I should say, she attacked the bomber and shot it down.”
The entire room roared with laughter. Colonel Khuzhkin waited until it had begun to subside, and then delivered his punchline:
“And she then patted Comrade Beznov on the shoulder and, with a perfectly straight face, asked of him, ‘You will confirm my kill, Comrade Major?’.”
Now the room exploded into HYSTERICS. Several officers almost fell out of their seats, and even crusty old General Leventov was seen to double over in a fit guffaws.
“Bogemoi!”cried General Tcheniloy , wiping his eyes when the hilarity finally began to dissipate, “I take it all back, Comrade Colonel Khuzhkin. You are absolutely correct. What is the name of this intrepid pilot?”
Captain Nadiya Zhorkin had fairly jumped at the opportunity when it was presented to her...and when Josef Stalin heard the story of the rescue of Major Beznov, AND that Major Zhorkin spoke excellent English, he quickly approved her as the pilot of both the Stalin’s Route and the VeT-2 Schneider-Cup Racer.
Now, here she was, delivering her farewell speech before boarding the ANT-25.
It was the usual ‘All-Praise-To-Comrade-Stalin-And-Mother-Russia’ type of address, with a few words thrown in to honor the memory of Sigismund Levanevsky. None of the words were her own; they had been prepared for her in advance by some low-ranking political commissar. Nadiya didn’t mind. She was a pilot, not an orator.
Finishing up, she and her copilot and navigator, respectively a flying-squirrel named Georgy Petranko and a Siberian Husky named Dimitri Meldenny, were treated to a round of paw-shakes by none other than Comrade Stalin himself. Despite the rumors, this was the first time Nadiya had ever met the Soviet Dictator in furson, and as the tiger took hold of her paw, she felt a chill rippling up her spine. She had heard that Stalin exuded raw power, everyone in Russia knew that. But this was the first time that she had ever experienced it for herself.
After they had climbed aboard the Stalin’s Route, Nadiya turned to her crewmates in the cramped cockpit and delivered another address, this one very different than the speech she had given to the party-drones outside.
“There is much that I could say, comrades.” she said, standing solemnly, though slightly bent over, in front the ANT-25's windscreen. “I could remind you that the prestige of the Soviet Republic accompanies us on this journey...but I will not. I could remind you that this plane carries the name of Comrade Stalin himself...but I will not. I could remind you that we are about to engage in an unprecedented undertaking...but I will not. I could remind you...”
Someone began to pound on the Tupolev’s underside
“What is going on up there? Why have you not started the engine?”
Nadiya Zhorkin responded to this with her usual measure of tact.
“Get the yiff away from my plane, turdhead! Before I come out there, and kick your apparatchnik ass!”
The voice disappeared, and Nadiya resumed her speech:
“I could remind you that the eyes of the world are upon us...but I will not. No, instead I think I will remind you that during race-week on Spontoon island, the drinks flow as freely as water, the parties never end, and there are beautiful females everywhere...and speaking as female myself, I can assure you that if there is one thing a non-flying femme can never resist, it is a dashing aviator.”
She paused for effect, then added, “But if we crash into the Arctic or the Pacific on our way to Spontoon Island, neither one of you will get to enjoy ANY of that. Now, to your stations, comrades, and let us be off.”