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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
There were probably worse cigars for Katie to have started on than Hajenius Sumatras, but it was highly unlikely. Cigars made from tobacco cultivated in the Dutch East Indies tend to be much hotter smokes than those rolled from American or Caribbean leaf.
Unfortunately, they were the only cigars to be had in Iso at the moment, (Half of the island of New Guinea being Dutch, they were the easiest ones to come by.)
It was also an extremely unwise TIME for her to take up cigar smoking. The next day was one that would eclipse all others since her arrival in importance...and getting sick the night before would certainly not be the best course of action.
Unfortunately, neither would be spending the night without sleep. As if the tension weren’t bad enough, the jungle pests seemed to have chosen this particular evening to launch an all-out assault on Katie MacArran’s choicest cuts. To make matters worse, the nearly microscopic buffalo flies, against which even mosquito netting wasn’t effective, seemed to be leading the charge.
And so Katie finally broke and lit up the cigar Drigo had given her.
Inexperienced as she was, Katie almost gave up and threw it out the window when on the seventh attempt, the stogie still refused to light. Only when she had drawn her arm back and was preparing to let fly did she remember that she had to clip it first.
She would later describe the experience of smoking her first cigar in Gold From Hell:
“Horses aren’t supposed to be able to puke...but that night I either gave lie to that statement or proved that there’s some non-equine blood in my veins...because I must have tossed up every meal I’d eaten for the past year. Meanwhile, my eyes got so bloodshot, I could actually SEE my vision turning red. More than anything, I wanted to go outside, dig an eight-foot hole, and bury that stogie like a curse...and THEN fly straight to Hollandia and burn down the factory where it was made.”
“Except...the flies were finally laying off a little.”
When Katie awoke, early the next morning, her vision was a little bleary and her mouth felt as if it was lined with sandpaper...but otherwise, her head seemed okay. (a fact she attributed to having finally managed to fall asleep.)
Hefting herself out of bed, Katie took note of the cigar stub in the bucket next to the bedside table.
She could not remember having smoked the whole thing.
Going to the closet, Katie opened the bamboo door, and removed her flight suit from its hangar, making sure to give it good shakeout first. (In New Guinea, awakening to find that new tenants had taken up residence in your clothing during the night was far from an uncommon occurrence.) As she flapped the tunic in the air, the pungent odor of camphor was enough make her nauseous all over again, but it was also unavoidable. As the pinto mare had found out early on in her Iso sojourn, the only way to ensure that her clothes weren’t turned into cargo-netting on a regular basis was to practically fumigate her closets each week.
Katie’s flying suit consisted of a simple tunic in tropical white, a silk scarf, doubled over at the throat, and a pair of buff breeches with brown field boots. The ensemble was completed by a dark leather flight helmet, and a pair of well-worn gloves tucked into her belt.
The last two items she donned were intended neither for comfort, nor for style. The first was a belt holster containing a Smith and Wesson .38 Special with a six-inch barrel. As both Shang and Drigo had taught her, Katie checked first to make sure that the weapon was loaded and second, to make sure that the safety was on. Then she buckled the holster around her waist, and slid the pistol home, suppressing a grimace as she fastened the snap. It didn’t bother her now, but when she squeezed into the cockpit, the butt of the ‘38 always jabbed her in the side.
The second item resembled nothing more than an ordinary walking stick...and it was anything but. This was Katie’s Shikome Zue...the fine cane-sword she had purchased in Kyoto several years before. Except now, instead of using it as a walking stick, Katie wore it slung across the shoulder by way of a sling attached to a pair of leather thongs, wrapped tightly around the scabbard. In the past two months it had become as much her symbol of authority as the weapon she carried for fursonal protection.
Katie MacArran was not yet proficient with either her Shikome-Zue or with the .38, but under the tutelage of Shang Li-Sung and to a lesser degree, Drigo, she had considerably improved her skills with both weapons since she’d first begun to carry them.
When she came out the front door, Hsing, the Chinese pony who served as her housemaid greeted her with a small bow. Drigo Chavez was also there, but Shang Li-Sung was not. The red panda had other business to attend to this morning.
“Buenos Dias, Senorita Duchessa.” said the coati, making a short bow of his own.
“Morning, Drigo.” she said, motioning towards the small table, on the verandah. Being as it was early morning the insects had not yet made their changing of the guard, and for a while at least, the air would be free of pests. “Care to join me for breakfast?”
Per usual, Drigo helped Katie with her chair before seating himself, not out of respect for her rank, but for her gender. Raised in the Latino tradition of deference to ‘the fairer sex,’ it was a habit the coati could not break. (and one to which Katie never objected.)
As was her acknowledged right, Katie MacArran owned the largest house in the Iso valley. It was the prototypical jungle dwelling, a foundation of raised stilts, a thatched roof that curved upwards at either end, a frame fashioned from heavy, hardwood timbers, and walls constructed of fronds interwoven with bamboo. It had undergone considerable renovation since her arrival, and would shortly undergo even more. As present however, the furnishings were Spartan at best.
Soon, hopefully, all that was going to change.
Still a bit queasy from the effects of the cigar, Katie ate only sparingly. A few bites of oatcake and alfalfa cubes, and sips of strong, sweet coffee. It was the beginning of a pattern the piebald mare would follow whenever a flight was in the offing; a light meal before she took off, and then something more substantial later.
Drigo, on the other hoof, ate heartily. As well he might. This was a big day for him...for all of them, in fact.
It was clear in Iso that morning, with only a light mist covering the valley floor. From the direction of the cargo pad, Katie could here the sharp, staccato cry of Shang, putting the ground grew through their paces one final time.
“You okay, Senorita?” Drigo asked her at one point, “If you don’t mind my saying so, your eyes look kinda red.”
With a weary sigh, Katie explained how her resistance to tobacco had finally broken the night before.
“Have them send out some Filipino cigars with the next load, if you’re gonna keep smoking ‘em.” the coati suggested, “They’re still not as good as what you get back in the States or Mexico, but they’re a LOT easier to take than those Hajenius yiffers.”
“I’ll remember that, Drigo.” She told him, “Thanks.”
Finishing up, Katie and Drigo rose from the table, just as Hsing reappeared to clear the dishes.
When they got to the cargo pad, they found the ground-crew standing in their assigned sections, each of which was designated by a square of white ash marked with a Chinese character.
There also was a muscular, slightly stocky red-panda there waiting for them, dressed as usual in khaki and sporting two pistols under his arms and a Chinese sword across his back. This was Shang Li-Sung, Iso Mining and Extraction’s head of security, chief overseer, and resident what-have you.
Standing beside Shang was bespectacled feline who resembled a cross between a small snow-leopard and an oversized, gray-tabby house-cat.
In point of fact, Tu Wa-Fong was actually what was known as a fishing cat...and he had really no business on the cargo pad this morning. Katie however, would have been loathe to exclude him. This feline was worth his weight in gold...no, worth the Republic’s weight in gold. It was Tu who had built the new Iso Valley runway...and it was he who was now in charge of the ongoing construction work at Clarinet Rock, a hundred yards away.
Before Katie had taken off for Iso in her Lockheed Air Express, both Ray Parer and Drigo Chavez had repeatedly tried to assure her, “Don’t let the looks of that bridge fool you.” “She’s a lot more steady than y’ might think.”
Indeed, when Katie had made her approach to the new runway, by rights she should have veered off the moment she saw what was spanning the river; it looked about as substantial as a house of jackstraws.
But Katie MacArran’s eye was anything but untrained, and what had stunned her about the woven, interlocking patterns of bamboo that made up the bridge was not their apparent flimsiness, but their familiarity.
The bridge had been built using almost the exact same geodetic pattern that had been employed in the construction of the Republic.
Almost immediately upon landing, Katie had sought out the bridge’s designer. With Shang acting as interpreter, she had queried him at length about his construction methods...and had been astonished to discover that it was a traditional Chinese building technique, one that dated back more than a thousand years.
“Bro-THER,” she later confided to Drigo, with a wry snicker, “I don’t know if I should tell Dr. Wallis about this or not. I just hate to see a grown elk cry.”
Of what would soon be even greater interest to Katie was when the fishing cat told her that the method was also widely used as construction scaffolding for large buildings, and that it was so strong, it could even withstand the force of a typhoon.
“And it’s true,” said Shang, after he had finished interpreting. “I’ve seen it for myself.”
It was not until two days later, when Katie happened to glance over her shoulder at Clarinet Rock that the idea struck her. Tu’s geodetic construction techniques did not just approximate the inner frame of the Republic. They also bore an uncanny resemblance to the wire frame buttress that had supported the airship’s mooring mast in Montreal.
At once, Katie had summoned Tu and Shang to her house, where she had shown them photographs of the R-100 docked in Montreal and asked if the fishing cat could contrive a similar set of supports for Clarinet rock. Tu had instantly recognized what she had in mind, and responded in the affirmative, but with the caution that the work could not proceed quickly -- not unless she wanted it to proceed with a great deal of risk.
“I understand.” said Katie speaking through Shang, “Just take it at your own pace. We won’t be needing it until we’re ready to start shipping cargo out of here as well as bring it in.”
As things had turned out, the work had proceeded much more quickly than either Tu or Katie had envisioned. Already, the scaffolding was a stretching halfway up the rocky spire..
“Good morning, Your Grace.” Shang told her as she approached, raising a fist clasped in a paw, the traditional Chinese greeting to a superior. He then swept an arm backwards at the assembled ground crew. “I hope you will forgive the poor condition of our assembled company on such a fine day.”
Actually, the ground crew was drawn up so neatly, they could have passed for a parade company of Marines. Every fur in the cadres looked both fit and alert. In fact, they didn’t even need to be here yet; there would be nothing for them to do for quite some time.
Katie did not point this out to Shang, however. Having finally begun to grasp an understanding Chinese manners, she knew it would cost the red panda dearly in terms of face if she did. So instead, she told him, “I thank you for your concern, Shang Li-Sung, but I assure you that it is most unwarranted. To my eyes, your crew appears to exceptionally proficient this fine morning, and I have no doubts that they will perform their duties with great dispatch.”
She waited until he finished translating, and then added for the crew’s benefit, in such Mandarin as she had acquired, “I know...you will work very correctly.”
No cheer erupted at her words, and Katie did not expect any. That was also not the Chinese way.
“I thank you for your high words of praise, Your Grace.” said Shang, nodding slightly in further deference, “And though I feel they are undeserved, I assure you that all here will do their utmost when the hour arrives.”
“I have no doubt.” said Katie, nodding back. “And now, is my aircraft ready for flight?” This was a wholly unnecessary question. She had already gone over it with Drigo. But since it had been Shang who had been in charge of the preparations, it was only right that she let him tell her so as well.
“Your aircraft stands ready and waiting.” he said, and turned slightly to indicate the bright red machine at the far end of the cargo pad.
Neither one of them had referred to it as an airplane, because it was NOT an airplane. Oh, it had the fuselage and propellor of an airplane all right. And in that regard, it bore something of a resemblance to a stubby Spirit of St. Louis. But the wings that sprung from the lower edge of the fuselage were perhaps three feet in length if that, and the horizontal stabilizer had been lengthened to the point where it now resembled the business end of an oversized canoe paddle. Ditto for the vertical stabilizer, which extended almost halfway up the fuselage to the cockpit. Most curious of all, was the quartet of long, thin, rotary blades, mounted atop the fuselage like a parasol.
The aircraft was an AVRO 620 Autogyro, and it had come into Katie’s possession via a route that was at once circuitous and ironic.
It had begun shortly after her arrival in Iso, when the announcement had finally been made in The Daily Observer that Umberto Nobile was to be the new captain of the Republic. The reaction from Lord Casterley had been both predictable and considerable...and the British Public were none too pleased with this turn of events, either. Many felt that Katie had betrayed their trust.
However, the next day it turned out that Katie had not simply been waiting until she was on the other side of the world to make the announcement. There was another reason. In that day’s edition of The Daily Observer, the paper dropped an even bigger bombshell; that the interests recently sold by Lord Casterley in his third newspaper, the Daily Mirror ( which, for all practical purposes meant the paper itself. ) had just been acquired by none other than Catherine MacArran, the 14th Duchess of Strathdern.
After that, everyone was too busy laughing at Lord Casterley to be particularly angry with Her Grace, the Duchess of Strathdern. The feline was unable to show his face in public for a week.
It had taken every ounce of skill on the part of Eamon Mack to pull it off, but the Irish Setter had performed masterfully, setting up a front company to make the purchase without arousing even the slightest suspicion on the part of either Casterley or his managers. In this he had been helped considerably by the fact that NO one expected Katie to make a move on the Mirror at the same time she was trying to put the International Dirigible Company together.
In the event, Katie had not ordered the acquisition of the Mirror merely to spite His Lordship. It made good journalistic and financial sense as well. Now, George Stafford could produce both an evening and a morning paper...and the two editions could compliment each other.
As for the AVRO autogyro, that had been one of the assets acquired along with the Mirror; the paper had employed it as a promotional gimmick. ( Not an altogether uncommon use for autogyros in the 1930s. ) As soon as Katie had learned of it’s existence, she had immediately ordered for the autogyro to be repainted in bright scarlet and packed for shipping to New Guinea. It just so happened that there was problem she’d been trying to figure out for quite a while, one for which this aircraft might be just the solution.
Now, Katie stashed her shikome-zue in the passenger compartment and, with the help of Rodrigo Chavez, climbed into the cockpit, fastened her seatbelts, adjusted her scarf, and then buckled on her flight helmet.
“Okay,” she called, “clear the runway!.”
Shang repeated her words in Mandarin, and the ground crew immediately pulled back to the edge of the cargo pad...which was actually much too short to have passed for a real runway in any sense of the word.
But, in this case, it didn’t need to.
“Buenos Fortunas, Senorita Duchessa,” said Drigo, hastily reaching up to shake her hoof, and then scampering quickly away to join the others. Though not particularly afraid of airplanes, he had already confessed to Katie, “That thing ( the autogyro ) scares the livin’ crap outta me.”
Katie reached forward and pressed the starter button. The engine coughed twice, and then growled into life.
As the forward propellor began to gather speed, the overhead blades also began to turn, compelled by the backwash of the drive prop. Slowly, slowly, Katie built the revs. Unknown to most furs, an autogyro took much longer to crank up for take-off than a conventional aircraft. It was one of the big reasons why they had never really caught on. ( That, and the fact that they tended to consume av-gas with all the moderation of a bum let loose in a winery. )
Katie reached up and lowered her flight goggles, waved to the miners and gave them the thumbs up.
Then she dropped the tail flaps, and punched the throttle.
The autogyro shot forward perhaps twenty feet and then lifted into the air, rising almost vertically, as if borne aloft by a giant, invisible paw. Katie circled the camp once, waved again, and then turned north, up the Iso valley.
All in all, it had been a decent take-off...much better than the first time she’d tried to fly the AVRO -- an experience that had left the aircraft with a cracked wheel strut, and Katie with a pair of bruised ribs and an even more badly bruised ego. Like so many other pilots before her, she had blandly assumed that her hours in the cockpit of so many fixed-wing aircraft were all the experience she needed to pilot an autogyro. But unlike many lesser pilots, she had refused to give up, even though she would have to learn to fly her new aircraft the hard way, by trial and error. (Experienced autogyro instructors weren’t exactly plentiful Papua.)
Even in a fixed wing plane, flying the New Guinea back-country was a tricky proposition at best. In an autogyro, particularly one with a novice pilot at the stick, it was downright reckless. The Papuan highlands were home to mercurial wind currents that might blow this way one moment and that way the next. It was not at all uncommon in the canyons of New Guinea for one day’s updraft to be the next day’s downdraft. (Ironically, it was these very winds that had necessitated the pinto mare’s flight in the first place.)
Yet, even with these difficulties, Katie would not have been anywhere else in the world at this moment. Flying through the Iso valley, with walls of emerald vegetation on either side of her, she experienced a euphoria that words could not describe. Here she was, flying through a valley that few civilized eyes had ever seen, her mane unfurling in the wind and the rotor-wash.
These musings promptly ceased when the first, unexpected side-draft struck the AVRO. Without warning, the cliff on her right was rushing towards the aircraft, ready to squash it like a dumdum fly. Katie gritted her teeth and pulled sideways on the stick. The autogyro refused to correct course, the wall was still coming at her. More than anything, she wanted to pull hard on the stick...but somehow she stopped herself. That was one thing you NEVER did in an autogyro, not unless you wanted to drop from the sky like a rock.
Closer and closer the canyon wall came...while Katie forced herself to keep easing on the controls. The rotor blades were now only feet away from the cliff. If they touched it, she was dead.
Then, with perhaps 30 inches to spare, the autogyro corrected course and began to move back to the center of the canyon...while Katie vowed that she would never allow herself to become distracted like that again.
At the confluence of the Iso and Ramu rivers, she banked right, following the Ramu towards Nadzab and then on to Lae, the largest settlement on Papua’s northeastern coast. Here, the winds were not as treacherous as they had been along the Iso, but Katie remained alert. She’d already had one close call too many.
Passing over Nadzab, she saw several of the locals looking up at her in astonishment...but only a few. This was not her first time flying the AVRO over the settlement.
But in another few hours, if all went well...they would have a much more fantastic sight to stare at
She crossed her fingers, offering up silent prayer that all WOULD go well.
When she landed at Lae, Ray Parer was not there to greet her, owing to a commitment he could not break. But his brother, Kevin was...and judging by his slight smile, it looked as if the news was good. (A smile like that on Kevin Parer’s face, at least with Katie around, was the equivalent of anyone else whooping in triumph.)
Kev, as he was known locally, was a slightly taller than his brother, with a heavier build and darker, almost black fur. And every time Katie encountered him, he invariably met her with all the warmth of motor-cop writing out a citation.
“Hello Kev.” she said, as she took off her helmet and began to climb out over the side, “Any word yet?”
“We’ve got her on radio, loud and clear.” the Brumby answered, offering not the slightest help to here in getting down. “She’s just entered the Vitiaz strait.”
Katie clapped her hooves and hissed in satisfaction, “Yes!”
Kevin Parer just nodded and said nothing.
She had never been able to figure out why The Battler’s brother didn’t much care for her. Certainly she was never high-hoofed with him, no more than she was with anyone else. Was it jealousy of Ray, perhaps? No, not that either. Kevin and Ray Parer couldn’t be closer if they were Siamese twins.
So why did Kev’s moods with her always run between tepid and frigid?
Well, whatever the reason, she didn’t have time to dwell on it now....especially not now.
“Can you do me a big favor?” she said, corking a thumb over her shoulder at the autogyro, “and have the boys top off the tank for me?”
Kev just waved to the pair of pangolins standing near the edge of the airstrip, and pointed at the AVRO. Then he walked away without looking at her again.
Katie spent the next hour and a half, lounging in the shade of the autogyro’s stubby lower wing, munching on custard apples, and occasionally looking out over the Huon gulf through a pair of Zeiss binoculars. God-dammit! Where was...?
At the far end of the airfield, a group of natives commenced to chatter rapidly amongst themselves, and jab their fingers to the Southeast. Katie swung the lenses in that direction, and saw what looked like a giant silver umbrella, viewed from the top.
Except umbrellas didn’t have gondolas mounted beneath them.
...or engine pods.
The custard-apple arced into the nearby brush as Katie kicked out the wheel chocks and began to haul herself back into the cockpit. With the engine still partially warm, it chugged quickly to life, and then she was up and off again, making a beeline for the approaching Republic.
Because the dirigible was on a closing course, Katie quickly caught up with her. Circling once around the airship, she pulled up abreast of the gondola, making sure to keep her distance. Wouldn’t do to get too close and risk having the AVRO’s rotors tear open the dirigible’s gas envelope. She could just imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail, “Duchess of Strathdern Dies of Untreatable Stupidity.”
She turned and waved to the Republic, saw several of the crew waving back enthusiastically – including a ginger tabby-cat in a snow-white, peaked cap, unmistakable as Captain Umberto Nobile.
Katie would have loved to hail the airship via radio...except the autogyro didn’t have one, and with good reason. It was tricky enough to fly already, without THAT for an added distraction. It occurred to her then that they could have fitted the passenger compartment with a radio, and let someone else keep contact while she concentrated on flying.
Dammit, why was there ALWAYS something you didn’t think about when you should have?
Well, they’d just have make that alteration for the next time. This time, Katie touched up on the throttles and swung ahead of the Republic, leading the way as the airship continued her approach to Lae, flying at an average speed of 50 mph.
Shortly after the airship had entered dry-dock for her refit, one of the first things Katie and Captain Nobile had agreed upon was to have her fly ahead of the Republic in a pilot plane when the dirigible arrived in New Guinea and began her journey inland. Not only would the scout plane be able to guide the way, but any sudden movement of the aircraft would give Nobile advance warning of a treacherous wind current....which was why they had also decided that the pilot plane should be painted bright red -- for greater visibility against the heavy green of Papua.
There was just one problem: In order to negotiate New Guinea’s eastern highlands, the Republic would have to travel at a velocity that was much slower than the stall speed of the Fortuna...or of any other aircraft for that matter. It was a problem that had cost Katie much sleep and caused her several headaches.
Until she had heard about the small ‘fringe benefit’ that had come with her acquisition of the Daily Mirror. Correction: To make it into Iso, the Republic would have to fly slower than the stall speed of any FIXED-wing aircraft.
When the dirigible passed over Lae, there was no ensuing panic. The locals had been well warned of her imminent arrival, and no one could be seen dashing for cover below. What Katie noted instead was that almost every resident of the settlement was standing stock-still and gazing upwards with jaws so slack, that even from almost 1500 feet up, she could still make out the black holes of their open mouths..
This was also something not unexpected, not hardly as Katie herself would have put it. No picture, no description could do justice to the size and scale of an airship. Only when someone encountered one in furson did they truly comprehend how HUGE they were. The Republic, for example, was longer than two football fields, with a baseball diamond thrown in for good measure...and she was taller than a ten-story building.
Glancing sideways and to the left, Katie could make out another aircraft, approaching from the north. She recognized it at once as the ‘Pat’, one of Guinea Airways’ Junkers G31 cargo-planes. For a moment, she felt her throat tighten, but the big tri-motor just pulled up alongside the Republic at a respectable distance, then moved ahead and turned away, back towards the Lae airfield. As it passed by the autogyro, Katie saw the pilot waggle his wings in a friendly greeting..
She was not fooled by this gesture. The glum, envious looks on the pilot and co-pilot’s faces had been as evident as if they’d been etched in flourescent colors, and the pinto mare allowed herself a little smile of vindication. The cargo capacity of a G31 was three-and-a- half tons, and the aircraft could not handle objects more than five cubic feet in area.
The Republic, by contrast, could carry THIRTY-FIVE tons of freight, and her two story cargo-hold could accommodate anything up to the size of a railroad car.
“THAT’LL teach you to try and keep me out.” she neighed softly at the departing Junkers.
When the Republic reached Nadzab, this time there WAS a minor panic, but mercifully nothing on the scale of what the Graf Zeppelin had set off in Siberia. Though a number of residents promptly fled indoors, there was no property damage, and no injuries that Katie could see.
Well, she had tried to give them fair warning. Hopefully, the authorities would see it the same way if any complaints were to follow.
Leaving Nadzab behind, Katie led the Republic westward, up the Ramu river. Now with no further habitation before them until they reached the Iso Mine, the pace slowed considerably.
When they made the turn up the Iso Valley, it slackened even more. Again and again, the autogyro was jounced and bounced in every direction imaginable by the sudden, unexpected wind drafts of the Papuan highlands. But, as Katie would later learn, every time it happened, Captain Nobile was able to adjust the Republic’s course in time to compensate.
It was working...their idea was working. But they still had to reach the mining camp, and it seemed to Katie that their journey was proceeding at the breakneck pace of two snails on morphine.
Then, finally, there it was...the distinctive spire of clarinet rock. At the sight of it, Katie whinnied in triumph. Soon, however, she was muttering angrily under her breath. Dammit, WHY wasn’t the damn thing getting any closer?!
Seconds passed, moments crawled, as little by little, more and more of the Iso mining settlement became visible; the bridge, the houses, the wood and bamboo stockade-fence, and finally, the gray square of the cargo pad. Now, she pulled the autogyro up and away from the Republic. From here on in, it would be Umberto Nobile’s show.
Katie would later recount her impressions of the Republic’s first cargo drop at Iso in Gold From Hell, but she would always consider Captain Nobile’s description of the enterprise to be the superior one.
From the log of the airship Republic:
I see the pad before us, the ground crew at the perimeter waiting like chess-pieces in their perfect, ordered squares. I give the order to Gualtiero ( Executive office Walter Speake ) to vent gas in order to begin our descent. He turns the wheel and there is nothing...but before I can give the order to increase venting, I feel the lightness in my feet. Though it cannot be seen, I know La Repubblica has begun her descent.
“Five degrees down on the planes.” I call, “Aft engines, ahead one-half speed...port and starboard engines, all stop.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” comes the reply. La Repubblica slows as her port and starboard engines come to a halt. Ten seconds later, the increased speed of the aft engines takes up the slack, and her nose begins to tilt downward, as the ground now rises visibly to meet us Steady...Steady Must not level off too soon. We are on course for the cargo pad. The altimeter drops to 721 feet....640 feet...592....537...511...
At 500 feet I call out, “Level on all planes! Increase gas venting by one half.
La Repubblica levels out at we drop down to 300 feet. I can feel the sweat stinging my eyes. ( In this humidity, even a cat perspires. ) I reach for the speaking tube once again:
“Reduce power on aft engines to one quarter! Port and Starboard engines, stand ready!”
“Aye Aye, sir.”
“All lines, stand by for my orders! Lower gondola skid!”
Behind me, two members of the crew are turning the winch. The skid mounted beneath the gondola drops into position. I reach for the speaking tube that leads to the hold.
“Bridge to cargo hold....Open freight doors and stand by to lower cargo into drop position.”
“Aye Aye, sir.” comes the reply.
“Skid deployed!” says Gualtiero. “All lines ready at your command, Captain.”
Were all the engines running, I should not be able to feel the vibration as the cargo doors slide apart. Their construction is just that superb. And as if I had any doubts as to this, almost immediately, at least much sooner than I could have imagined, I hear the voice of bosun Peavey through the tube.
“Doors open captain. Ready on your orders to lower away.”
I wipe my brow again. My God, the humidity of this place. I feel as if I should be exhaling ferns with every breath. Yet, for all the moisture in the air, my throat feels as parched as cracked, dried mud...but I dare not reach for the water bottle. I dare not even think about it.
Now comes the most critical part of the landing, the moment of truth. Here is where the venture either succeeds or fails...and where I, Umberto Nobile, either restore my good name or damn my reputation forever. I should feel terror, a great weight upon my shoulders, but instead I feel only a firm resolve
And a sharp, burning itch on my arm, where a biting fly has alighted to feed. I slap at him, but he is too quick.
We are over the edge of the cargo pad. I must force myself not to give the order yet. The cargo bay, a good hundred feet aft of the gondola, has not yet cleared. Our altitude is now 180 feet. I can seen the white line bisecting the pad. Not yet...not yet...when it is no longer visible. I see it moving towards us. It is about to touch the lower edge of the forward windscreen.
“Aft engines, stop! Forward engines, port and starboard pods, reverse for braking! All lines, let go!”
La Repubblica shivers as she comes to a halt, and the lines snake earthward., each one becoming taut as it is seized by the ground handlers. I give the order to lower the cargo for release. I can hear the meshing of the gears and feel the slight tremor as it lowers away. Shall I give the order to vent more gas? No...better too slow a descent than one too fast. But what if there is a sudden air current?
That is a chance I shall just have to take.
We are 50 feet above the earth now. The furs on the ground are no longer toy soldiers, but dolls now. I can hear their chanting as they haul in on the lines, “Hai-YI! Hai-YI!”. Saint Peter, but they have such discipline and energy. Even the Arditi are not so well honed.
The voice hails me again from the speaking tube leading to the hold:
“Cargo bay to bridge. Cargo in position and ready for release.”
Before I can respond, the tube is taken by Gualtiero, “Very well.” he says. A good fur, he knows I must concentrate on watching our altitude.
We continue to drop, the rate is maddening. If the dear Lord decides against me when I pass from this earth, I believe I shall never reach Hell...only descend there for all eternity, as I descend to the cargo pad now.
The gondola is now ten feet above the ground. I can make out the faces of the line handlers and the crew chiefs. The Chinese, I must confess, look all alike to me, except for their species, but there is Shang Li-Chung (Shang Li-Sung) and there is Signor Chavez, looking as tense as a sprinter at the starting blocks.
I understand exactly how he feels.
The last ten feet are the most frustrating of all...but then, the light bump at the skid touches the cargo pad.
We are down.
The crew lets out a hearty cheer. I wave and shout, “Silencio! Outside the gondola, Rodrigo Chavez does the same and Shang repeats the order in Chinese..
Now, more moments of tense waiting. We must vent more gas...just enough gas. Not enough and the ship will rise too rapidly...too much and La Repubblica will lose buoyancy and not lift straight into the air. All is silence, the engines not running. No one speaks, no one seems to breathe. The ground crew is still as a diorama.
Now, I feel the slight, almost imperturbable shift of La Repubblica. I give the order, “Cease gas venting!”
The venting stops. A second passes; it takes an hour.
“All crewmates, to your stations!” I shout, “Stand by for cargo release! Ten degrees up on the planes. Cargo bay and all engine pods, report readiness!”
One by one, the voices answer through the speaking tubes, the cargo release mechanism is ready, all engines are ready for my command. I look over my shoulder through the gondola’s rear windows, something I should have done already. The cargo itself is suspended perhaps four feet above the ground. Not as close I should wish, but good enough for a first drop.
I grab the megaphone from it’s clip beside the helm, and slide open a window.
“Ahoy, Signor Chavez!” I shout, and for the first time a sense of elation fills me. I must banish it...not until we are safely away.
Someone gives La Coati a megaphone of his own
“Hola La Republica y Capitan Nobile!” he hails us back, grinning. (But I can see the tension still remaining on his face.) “Bienvenidos a Iso!”
“Grazi!” I reply, leaning partways out the window, “We are ready for cargo release, Signor. At your signal, I shall begin the count.
“Si!” he replies, and then turns and says something to Shang, who now takes the megaphone, and shouts something in Chinese to the ground crew. I hear the word “Quattro.” repeated several times, and then the crew replies in unison, “Quattro!”
Now, Signor Chavez unwinds the red flag...waves it once...then drops it.
I begin the count.
I should probably count in English, but I know the crew understands. It occurs to me then that somehow this Shang-Li KNEW I was going to make the count in Italian. How could he have known that?
In a single, fluid movement, all of the handlers let go the lines. I feel La Repubblica shift slightly, but she remains upright, just the same.
Our crew moves swiftly, ready to take in the lines when we start to rise. The last three seconds of the count go like centuries.
“Release Cargo!” Gualtiero shouts into the tube. There is a sound like rolling thunder, and La Repulica shudders as if jabbed with an electric prod. The cargo falls to the pad with a deep thud, but nothing is broken that I can hear. But now, freed suddenly from the weigh, La Repubblica seems to leap into the sky. We are rising fast...much too fast by the stern.
“Drop one ton ballast, forward tanks!” I shout, “Planes down, thirty degrees! All engines ahead, one third!”
We begin to level off...but we are rising even faster. Vent more gas? No, we still retain buoyancy... and my feline intuition tells me this is only the ‘springboard effect’.
The earth below shrinks rapidly. But I can feel our ascent slowing. The canyon widens quickly as we rise. Buno!
“Level on the planes! All engines stop!” I call. The pods fall silent, but we continue to move forward The canyon narrows ahead of us. I turn and shout once more.
Starboard engine, ahead one-third! Port engine, back one-third! Control planes, twenty degrees, left angle! Execute!”
The engines come to life. La Repubblica begins to come about. The canyon wall is closing upon us. Will we have space enough to make the turn? And what of the tail cone? I cannot see her...no one can. I can only pray to the Sainted Virgin that I have made the right decision and that the tail cone will clear the canyon wall.
Closer, closer the wall before us comes. A stone’s throw now, it seems. I can imagine the nose, only inches away from the cliffs. Any second now, the horrible screech as the envelope tears asunder against the rocks, the girders twisting into fantastic shapes.
But now, the canyon wall pulls back from us...the entrance to the valley begins to swing into view. I order the engines stopped, then all ahead, one quarter power. Before us, La Duchessa takes position in the autogyro to guide us back to Lae. We have succeeded...but I shall not yet call our voyage successful. Only when we are once more safely docked in Manila, will I allow myself that luxury.
And within the week, we shall have to make this journey once again. But with experience and the grace of Almighty God we shall soon become more proficient, and what was this time, a harrowing experience shall in future become only a routine flight.
TIDC Airship, La Repubblica.
On course for home, over the Bismarck Sea.
July 22, 1931.
Katie would later describe Nobile’s actions during the Republic’s first cargo-drop in Iso as, “the most masterful handling of an airship I’ve ever witnessed. She never came within 50 yards of the canyon wall, when Captain Nobile brought her about. If ever I had even the slightest doubts that he was the best choice to command the Republic, on that day, they were laid to rest forever.”
She would also later learn that the ginger tabby harbored similar sentiments regarding her handling of the autogyro.
It was late afternoon, when Katie finally returned to Iso. As she taxied to a halt on the landing strip, she saw Striper McKenna, Shang, and Drigo there waiting for her, along with a small group of miners. The memory she would always take away from that moment was the sight of Drigo Chavez, “jumping up and down like a kit.”
“One load!” He cried, pointing backwards at the cargo pad with so excitedly, it seemed as if his finger might go shooting away like a skyrocket, “We got all that shit in ONE load!”
“Course we did, Drigo.” said Katie, smiling wearily, “Didn’t I tell you it’d work?” She unbuckled her seat belt and flight helmet, then reached into the passenger seat for her shikome-zue. “Listen, can a couple of you boys help me down from here? My legs are feeling kinda rubbery after two trips back and forth to Lae in this machine.”
That turned out to be considerable understatement; overcooked spaghetti would have been more appropriate description of Katie’s legs. When Shang and Striper helped her out of the cockpit, it was only the fact of her cane-sword that stopped the pinto mare from collapsing in a heap. Not until they were halfway to the cargo pad was she was finally able to walk unsupported, and even then it was with slow, halting steps.
“Whyn’t you go back to the house, and take a load off, Y’Grace ?” offered Striper McKenna, with a sympathetic nod. “We can handle the rest from here.”
“Si.” concurred Drigo Chavez, “I’d say you done more’n enough for one day, Senorita Duchessa.”
Katie brushed them off at once. “I’ll knock off when everyone else does, boys.” she said, in a voice that brooked no argument. “Now lets go see about getting that dredge ready to move.”
“Si, Senorita.” said Drigo immediately, and then shook his head in elated disbelief once more. “ONE yiffin’ load....”
Now, for the first time since returning, Katie allowed herself a look of satisfaction.
“And this is only the beginning, Drigo.” she reminded the coati, clapping him heartily on the shoulder, “Only the beginning...”