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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
It had either been Providence or a one of fate’s cruel jokes, depending on your point of view.
“We made up our mind early on to fit the Little Engine with the Quadrant propellor.” Katie was telling Major Jack Finlayson, “That was a given. But before we could do that, we needed to decide on an engine first.”
They had exited the hangar, and were seated on the edge of the dock with their legs dangling over the water like a couple of high-school sweethearts. It was an image both Katie and Major Finlayson would have found ironic in the extreme had they been able to see it from the outside their own point of view.
In fact, that almost might have been possible. Behind and over her shoulder, Katie could hear the faint click of cameras as the photographers went about their business inside the hangar. One of them could easily snap a picture of her and the Major on the way out....except Katie would never allow it. The gossip columnists could go look for their fodder elsewhere.
Jack Finlayson had not been bothered by the arrival of the photographers. No stranger himself to air-race game, he knew a good promotional photo when he saw it. One of the most famous air-race photograph pictures of all time had been the one of the Gee Bee R.1, following her 1932 Thompson victory with himself at the controls. In that picture, the R.1 had been shown parading before a wildly cheering grandstand with a flower garland draped around it’s fuselage, in front of the cockpit.
Then, there had been the picture of the mechanics making their final preparations on one of the Supermarine S.6 racers, the night before the ‘29 Schneider. Here, the composition of light and shadow had been so perfect, it might almost have been an oil painting. In the photo, the S.6 had shown as a dark outline, framed in the halo of a spotlight on it’s other side. And there, standing off to the side, paws in his pockets and with a resolute look on his face, had been Reginald Mitchell. Katie MacArran had been in that photograph, too...though her face had not been visible, and the rest of her barely so. ( She was on the other side of the plane, making final adjustments on the wing-float bracing wires. )
So she knew Finalyson would not begrudge her such a perfect photo opportunity...certainly not when he had more important things to be upset about at the moment.
“Go on.” he told her, tossing a stone he had found into the water.
“Well, as I already told you,” Katie said, “that search turned out to be one damn frustrating exercise. Finally I just decided to shelve it for a while, and see how the Quadrant propellor would work.” She shrugged and tossed a pebble of her own, “Trouble was, it was only geared for the Merlin engine. So I said, ‘let’s go ahead and put a Merlin in the Little Engine, run it first with a Trident and then with the Quadrant...see if that new prop really makes any difference.”
Finalyson’s eyes widened inside his black mask, giving him something of the appearance of a character in a minstrel show.
“You...changed the entire engine, just to check a PROPELLOR?”
Katie shrugged again.
“Wasn’t hard...we’d just pulled the Allison out anyway, and the Merlin was a good if not perfect fit in for the engine mounts. And it was still less work, and less expense than trying to retool the Quadrant prop’s gearing to fit a different engine, especially if things turned out that it didn’t really help all that much.”
“Mmmm,” said Finlayson in a noncommittal voice, turning and looking out over the water. She was right, of course; Katie could tell that he knew she was right....but in his present mood, the raccoon wasn’t about to give ground on anything.
“So,” she said, “we put in the Merlin, first with the standard three-bladed prop, and I took her up for a test flight.” Without warning, she took the Major by the arm. He almost fell in the water, but then turned and looked straight at her.
“And holy crow, Major.”she said, her excitement growing with every word she spoke, “You wouldn’t believe the improvement in my little girl’s performance; it was as if she were a completely different airplane. Her speed, her quickness, her handling, her rate of climb, her stability on take-off and landing, even her range...all of it went straight through the roof.”
Finlayson frowned, but he didn’t pull away.
“It made THAT much of a difference?” he queried, his skepticism on par with a state trooper listening to an errant motorist’s explanation.
“I’m telling you,” said Katie, letting go of his arm, “Ever watch a Popeye cartoon and see what happens when he chows down his spinach? THAT’S what changing to a Merlin did for the Little Engine.” she could not suppress a grin, “And that was with a three-bladed prop, 89 octane av-gas, and a single-stage supercharger...so imagine what she can do now.”
The raccoon started to reply, but Katie stood up, pointing backwards at the hangar.
“You want a pursuit plane that can beat the Me-109, Major? Well, right now you’ve got the prototype for one that can whale the tar out of not only the 109, but the NEXT generation of Nazi pursuit planes. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the Little Engine has the potential to develop into the best all around pursuit aircraft in the world.”
That was enough to get Finlayson on his feet as well.
“Really, Miss MacArran...” he started to say, but was interrupted by a voice hailing the pinto mare from the side door of the hangar. It was one of the photogs, a pika in a slouch hat..
“Yer Grace? We’re all done here.”
Katie cupped her hooves to her mouth.
“Fine, boys. Get the film to the darkroom, and have Drake Hackett meet you there. If any of those pics turn out well, I want them on their way to the Mirror and Observer immediately.”
“Right-o, Yer Grace,” said the pika, and then came out the door with Shang and an Abert squirrel following close behind.
“Sorry,” she said, turning to the raccoon again, not the slightest bit abashed. “What were you saying?”
“What I was ABOUT to say, Miss MacArran.” the raccoon replied, his voice coming out in a long, exasperated breath, “is what I said before. The Army Air Corps will never, under any circumstances, accept a pursuit plane design that calls for the use of a liquid-cooled British engine...no matter how well it performs.” Katie started to speak, but he raised a paw, “I know...I know. But that’s just the way it is. I’m sorry.”
He turned and began to walk away.
Katie didn’t know whom she more wanted to throw off the pier...herself or Jack Finlayson. Dammit, he was going to bail out on her without ever even seeing the Little Engine race? She remembered the story of what had happened the first time the raccoon had seen the Gee-Bee R.1...and found his actions today even more impossible to believe
Finlayson had been in Cleveland, making his final preparations to compete in the 1932 Thompson Trophy when the landing gear on his Laird Super Solution had failed to deploy, forcing him to pancake in, and damaging his plane beyond any hope of competing that year.
But then, a telegram had arrived for the raccoon from Springfield Massachusetts. It came from the Granville Brothers Aircraft Works, the builder of the Gee-Bee. Their pilot, Russell Boardman, who had been scheduled to fly the R.1 in the Thompson had been injured in a crash. Would Jack Finlayson be interested in taking his place?
WOULD he? The raccoon had practically run to the railroad station, and caught the next train to Boston. And when he’d arrived in Springfield, he had taken one look at new Gee-Bee, with it’s monstrous engine, hogshead fuselage, and almost nonexistent tail fin...a plane that fairly screamed ‘unstable’, and promptly hefted himself into the cockpit and started the engine. When one of the Granvilles had asked him where he was going, he had shouted out jubilantly, “Cleveland, of course!”
What the Hell had ever happened to that daring pilot, Katie wondered now, with a sad head-shake; where had he gone? Wherever he was, he sure wasn’t here.
The pinto mare suddenly recalled the way Finlayson had looked when he’d come through the gate, heard the roar of the engines, inhaled the smell of the av-gas and exhaust.
She would have to act and act fast. When he disappeared through the gate, her one and only chance to make him change his mind would also be gone.
Except...there was a question she would have to ask herself first, and it was one that should allow for at least a day’s contemplation before answering -- not half of a split second. And that question was this: ‘Just how badly do you want the Army Air Corps to accept your design, Katie MacArran? Just how far are you willing to go to make that happen?’
The answer came as she cupped her hooves to her mouth and called after the departing raccoon, “At least, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it, Major.”
Finlayson froze in his tracks...and he wasn’t alone. Shang Li-Sung, who had just re-entered the hangar yard, was staring at her with a mouth like an empty well.
The Major turned slowly around, speaking as if he were testing each word individually.
“Miss...Mac...Arran?” he said, “ A-Are you...suggesting...what...I-I...THINK you’re suggesting?”
“Yes Major, I am.” she answered, folding her arms, “Before you write my little girl off completely, at least take her for a spin yourself.”
Jack Finlayson was stunned. Such a proposition wasn’t just unprecedented...it was almost heretical. You didn’t just offer to let someone ELSE fly your Schneider-Cup race plane on what was practically a whim...especially if you were Katie MacArran; the ‘Flying Duchess’ who always spoke of her race planes as if they were her own children. (Which, in a sense, they were.)
“Miss MacArran.” he said, trying not to fumble over the words, “I can’t just take the Little Engine up for a flight like that. What the heck would the other race-pilots say? Or everyone else. You can’t just let another pilot into the cockpit of the Little Engine on the spur of the moment.”
Now it was Katie’s turn to show some exasperation. The Little Engine was HER plane and she could let anyone into the cockpit she damn well pleased.
But of course, she didn’t say this
“ANY pilot?” she queried, lifting the brow from over her one blue eye, “Have you forgotten who you are, Major Finlayson? You’re only the most famous air-racer in the world, the only flier ever to win the Bendix, the Thompson, AND the Schneider Cup. Who the heck wouldn’t want to let you take a turn in their race-plane, the better to be able to give them a few pointers. Hell, that’s what I’M hoping you’ll do when you’re done flying the Engine.”
“Uh, would you mind not talking about it as if I’ve already accepted,” said the raccoon, reverting quickly back to his aggravated self...but Katie could tell he was wavering...and also what he was thinking: She had THAT much faith in her plane? And what if she were right? What if...just what if the Little Engine really did have the potential to develop the best all-around pursuit plane in the world?
And what if she did, and he just walked away?
Yes, he was still there; the old, original Jack Finlayson was still there.
Though he didn’t seem to realize it himself, yet.
“And anyway, I couldn’t if I wanted to.” he added, “Your crew is still aboard the Republic and won’t be here till this evening.”
“No,” Katie admitted, not backing down an inch, “but the McCraddens are here...and they’re serving as my supplemental crew. They could help us...no sweat.”
“Well, what about fuel?” said the raccoon.
“I believe I already told you the Little Engine’s float tanks are still full.” said Katie. “And even if they weren’t, the MacCraddens have all the 100-octane on hand we need.”
Yes, he was weakening. Come on, Major...you know you want to fly her. You haven’t completely lost the racer’s itch.
“Well, all right.” he said, spreading his arms, “But then what am I supposed to wear? I didn’t even bring a flight helmet with me, Miss MacArran.”
That was when Katie knew she had him.
“There are plenty of spare flight suits and helmets over at International Air Cargo.” she said, speaking in the starched voice of a schoolmarm, “So, how about it, Major?”
He was in...reluctantly, but he was in.
Enlisting the aid of the McCraddens turned out to be almost childishly simple. At the mere mention of the name ‘Jack Finlayson’ EVERYONE on the Superior dock was practically clamoring to be allowed to help. Most of these, Katie noted with interest, were young Spontoonies.
“Those’re our apprentices,” Malcolme explained, “Bright lads an’ lassies, all of ‘em. The best of the lot we send overseas to work as journeyfurs for the various engine manufacturers.”
“Not t’ any German or Eyetie engine builders, tho’.” chimed in Paddy, who had just arrived. “An’ no workin’ fer the Japanese either.” He put a paw on his father’s shoulder, “We’ve got our pride, right Da?”
“Aye, s’trewth.” said the elder sea-otter, “Not that the Germans or Japanese’d have ‘em anyway, bein’ such bluidy nativists an’ all. As for the Italians...” he turned and spat in the water. “Stopped learnin’ how t’ build aircraft engines two years ago.”
Katie nodded her agreement...and her approval. She had seen for herself the kind of latent talent that lay in rural working furs while building the R-100...later the Republic.
“Well, if that’s the case,” she said, “as I understand it, Bristol Aircraft will be introducing a new radial engine next year, the Hercules. According to just about every report I read it’s one helluva design, and if it turns out to be successful one as well, I know Bristol’s gonna need plenty of help bringing it into full production. If you like, I can write a note to George Fedden, their chief designer, asking if he’s got any open berths. He’s a good guy and always on the lookout for bright, young talent.”
“Huh, that’d be excellent, Your Grace.” said Malcolme, “Thankee.”
They arrived back at Katie’s hangar only two steps behind Jack Finlayson, who was now clad in a shapeless flight suit, one size too baggy for his frame. The Major seemed to think he looked ridiculous in his new wardrobe, but none of the Superior crowd appeared to care at all. All of them promptly commenced to surround the raccoon, wanting to shake his paw...even Daffyd, who was normally about as gregarious as Peter the Hermit.
And as always, Finlayson simply couldn’t say no when pressed by the younger ones for his autograph.
Cedric had just raised the big door, and they were preparing to push the Little Engine into the water, when the clipped voice of Shang Li-Sung called to them from the hangar’s side entrance.
“Excuse me, Your Grace.” he said.
Anyone one else would have received a curt, ‘Not NOW!’ delivered through clenched teeth, but Katie knew her security chief; the red panda would never interrupt these sorts of proceedings for a matter of trivial performance.
“Air Chief Marshal Ballory is here.” he said, “With your permission, shall I show him in?”
“Yes, yes, by all means.” said Katie, and a moment later, the big ursine’s blocky frame was filling the doorway. He dressed for the occasion in RAF tropical whites, white shorts and short-sleeved tunic, which had the effect of highlighting the rows of ribbons lining his chest...and also the black riding crop he was carrying, the sight of which put Katie’s teeth slightly on edge.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace.” he said, doffing his hat and placing it under his arm. “Sorry to be so late. Rather unpleasant bit of business with the French team, I’m afraid. Had to go take care of it fursonally.”
“Quite alright, Air Chief Marshal,” said Katie who knew all too well what, or rather WHO that ‘unpleasant bit of business’ had been. She made a mental note to relate for the bear later her more recent conversation with Claude Venzine and Jean-Guy Perreaux; he would thoroughly enjoy the story. She took a step forward and extended her hoof for him. George Gordon Ballory, a fur of the old school like M. Venzine, also bent from the waist and kissed it formally, an act that produced no small amount of mirth amongst the younger Spontoonies present.
“A pleasure, as always to see you again,” she said when he’d straightened up once more
“Likewise, I’m certain.” Ballory replied. In fact, they had met only twice before, and then only briefly...but in both instances, Katie had been highly impressed with the ursine’s boundless energy and undying conviction that Britain should be a first-rate air power.
And George Gordon Ballory was an ursine of nothing if not strong convictions. During the Boer war he had taken a bullet through the lung that had cost him the use of not only that lung but also his legs as well.
His response was to go to Switzerland and take up bobsledding, careening down the mountainsides, and taking one wild spill after another...until after one particularly bad crash, he discovered, to his considerable surprise, that he was able to walk again.
A week later, he took first prize in the St. Moritz Cresta Run bobsled competition. That was who George Gordon Ballory was in a nutshell...and it was this dogged determination that had helped him to keep the RAF an independent fighting force, in the face of almost universal opposition. In those days, he would literally challenge anyone, face-to face, who dared suggest the RAF be reduced to an adjunct of the Army. Once, he had stormed unannounced into the office of the Minister for War and the Air and roared at, “the absurdity of trained pilots becoming mere chauffeurs for the Army and Navy!”
The occupant of the Air Minister’s office at that time, had been one Winston Spencer Churchill... and after both their shouting had died down, Ballory found the WSC had swung over to his point of view. From that day forward, there was no more passionate advocate of an independent RAF in the cabinet.
It was hard for Katie not to like him...especially since he was a deep-dyed enemy of another former Air Minister -- Lord Casterley, whose political machinations had led the bear to resign in disgust as RAF Chief of Staff in 1918.
She swept a hoof backwards at the present company.
“And may I present the McCraddens, of Superior Engineering, who will be serving as part of my crew...together with some of their apprentices?”
All the sea-otters greeted the Air Chief Marshal warmly...well, almost all of them. Like all good Irish furs, Padraig McCradden found the sight of someone in a BRITISH military uniform to be somewhat less than aesthetically pleasing. The others had to practically gang up on him before he was willing to shake Ballory’s paw, and even then he took it as though expecting the bear to be concealing a joy buzzer. “Pleasure.” he said coldly, and with a brevity worthy of his Welsh brother.
“Most definitely, I’m ceratin,“ the bear replied, ignoring the otter’s brusqueness. He looked over Paddy’s shoulder at the aircraft about to enter the water.
“Ah, preparing the Little Engine for a flight, I see.” he said, then regarded Katie again with a puzzled eyebrow arching almost into his scalp “But where is Major Finlayson, then? Ought he not to be here? And, if you’ll pardon my forwardness Your Grace, you’re not going to take her up dressed like THAT are you.”
“I’m up here, Air Chief Marshal,” called a voice from above, and the bear looked up to see the wan smile of Jack Finlayson greeting him from the cockpit.
Now both of George Ballory’s brows shot upwards.
“Good Lord, you’re having the Major fly your plane? What’s this for, then?”
Katie quickly got between him and the others, speaking hurriedly under her breath, “Engine cowling.”
The big bear focused on that location, and immediately formed a circle with his lips as though attempting to whistle.
“Ah, yes.” he said, speaking in both a near whisper and in classic British understatement, “a Merlin. Yes, that rather will take a bit of selling, won’t it?” He set his cap and crop down on a nearby barrel, then strode over to the racer and took hold of one of the wing floats.
“Extra pair of paws,” he said, “Can’t hurt, I shouldn’t wonder.”
By the time the Little Engine was in deep enough water to start her engine, a substantial crowd had gathered, not only on the surrounding docks, but also across the channel on Moon Island, and over on Casino Island as well. From the direction of the main lagoon, a news photographer’s launch was approaching to catch a shot of the great Jack Finlayson taking to the skies in a race plane one more time. Meanwhile Katie and Sir George Ballory, together with the McCraddens and their crew, had gone outside to watch from the dock.
“Word spreads quickly around here, I daresay.” observed Air Chief Marshal Ballory, noting the rapidly increasing number of spectators.
Katie MacArran just shrugged.
“It’s an island chain, Sir George. Can’t expect any less.” She shook her head and pinched her muzzle just below the eyes...and then closed them. “Christmas...I should have my head examined for doing this.”
“I should have my head examined for doing this.” said Major Jack Finlayson, and then pressed the starter button. There was a familiar squeak and whistle, and then the engine rumbled to life.
A Merlin engine...why the Hell did it have to be a Merlin? Privately, the raccoon shared none of Air Corps brass’ or Harry Hopkins aversion to the Rolls Royce power plant, especially after his conversations with Reginald Mitchell.
But, as he had earlier pointed out to Katie MacArran, THEY were the ones making the decisions, not him. A British-made engine? He might be able to talk Harry Hopkins into it, after a few scotches. A liquid cooled engine? It wouldn’t be easy, but he could probably bring the brass hats around.
But BOTH? Not hardly, as Katie herself would say. There was about as much of a chance of convincing Uncle Sam to develop this plane as a pursuit aircraft as there was of panning gold in the Potomac.
He eased the throttle forward and began to taxi.
On the dock, Cedric McCradden was passing around the various sets of binoculars, telescopes and field glasses that his family had collected over the years, reserving a pair of oversized Orion Optics binoculars for Katie’s use. Air Chief Marshall Ballory, standing beside her, was given a pair of W. Watson field glasses that Malcolme had owned since before leaving Banff.
Katie bit her lip as she watched the Little Engine gathering speed, the twin wakes turning from green to white as she prepared to part company with the water. Then with the ease and suppleness of a falcon lifting from it’s perch, the aircraft rose majestically from the lagoon and began to gain altitude. Around her, the pinto mare could hear the McCradden crew letting go a faint cheer, while Air Chief Marshal Ballory made a small, Ursine grunt.
“Huh.” he said, rolling the focus knob on his glasses as the tried to keep pace with airplane, “That’s rather a short taxi for a Schneider-Cup plane, isn’t it?”
One of the reasons the Schneider-Cup planes had dominated their land-based cousins in terms of speed for so many years was due to the much longer taxiway afforded to floatplanes. It allowed for shorter wings, longer fuselages...and much faster speeds than would have been possible otherwise.
“By-product of the Merlin, Air Chief Marshal,” Katie told him, also attempting to follow the Little Engine’s progress...and feeling not the slightest bit of guilt for not telling him the entire truth, not yet anyway. Her race-plane’s ability to make relatively short take offs WAS an unexpected dividend, all right...but it came from the aircraft’s wing design, not from it’s Merlin engine. And that was the reason for the OTHER plane she had brought to the Spontoons, a plane now patiently waiting it’s turn in the International Air Cargo hangar.
As for Sir George, Katie would set the record straight with him later, but she was not about to do so here, and in open company. She trusted the McCraddens, and was inclined to trust
their crew of young apprentices, but as a wise old fox named Mr. Dooley had observed a generation earlier, ‘Trust everyone...but cut the ca’ards.’
Meanwhile, in the cockpit of the Little Engine, Jack Finlayson was trying very hard NOT to be impressed...and failing miserably. When he had pulled back on the stick and the plane had risen from the water, he also hadn’t been expecting her to lift off after such a relatively short taxi-run. By rights this should have caused the plane to jerk upwards on take off, with her nose raised upwards in the manner of a haughty butler.
That wasn’t what had happened. Instead the Little Engine had taken flight in silky, almost fluid motion.
“All right,” he muttered, getting down to the business at paw, “Let’s see a little of what this bird can do.”
He pushed forward on the throttled and pulled backwards on the stick...and this time he was not impressed. THIS plane was supposed to have a superior rate of climb? It had hardly even responded when he...
These thoughts were abruptly truncated as he looked out the canopy, and noticed that the scene below had shrunk to the size of a diorama; ships the size of bathtub toys, and hangars no bigger than the average dollhouse. Still unable to believe what he was seeing, the raccoon cross-referenced the scene against the altimeter. Holeeee, the Little Engine had climbed 1000 feet in a matter of seconds...and he hadn’t even felt it.
He brought the stick around, pulling her into a turn. Whoa, this plane wasn’t just responsive, it almost seemed to be anticipating his moves. And steady? You could almost call the Little Engine the ANTI-Gee Bee. It would not have greatly surprised the Major to have looked out the canopy again and seen that she was riding on rails rather than wing floats.
“Ohhhh-kay “ he said to himself, setting his jaw into a firm triangle, “But how do you handle with your throttle opened up, ‘little girl’?”
He pushed it forward, and immediately found out.
Katie watched as her racer begin to strut her stuff. As the pinto mare knew she would, the Little Engine did not leap or bound forward; rather the race-plane seemed to ease into high throttle, but at a speed too fast for the eye to comprehend.
“Still don’t think the Army will accept her, Major?” she nickered, drawing a sideways look of amusement from Air Chief Marshal Ballory.
No, Major Finalyson was still of the belief that the USAAC would reject the Little Engine as a pursuit-plane design...but they wouldn’t reject it out of paw; his flight so far had him convinced of that much at least. When he put the plane into a high-speed turn, he was quickly wavering even more. Not the slightest shudder of protest was felt from the wing fillets...and the aircraft continued to remain glued to her course.
He pulled her back into a straightaway again...and heard an odd change in the engine song. No, wait...it wasn’t coming from the Little Engine’s cowling. Then where...?
Another plane was pulling up on his right wingtip.
It was another seaplane, a beautiful aircraft with a sculptured, elliptical fuselage, a Y-shaped tail, and contra-rotating props. It’s forward swept wings reminded the raccoon of someone preparing to greet a loved-one with arms wide open.
This interloper was painted in an unmistakable, deep-water blue,...and sported the tricolor of France on her vertical stabilizer.
“Now, what the Hell...?” he grunted.
Katie MacArran suppressed a giggle as she watched Jean-Guy Perreaux bringing the Bugatti S.120 up alongside the Little Engine. If Jack Finlayson didn’t realize what the Hell was going on, she did -- the French fox was challenging him to race. And why not? She would have done the same thing, had it been her flying the Bugatti.
“C’mon, Major...” she whispered under her breath, “Come on, you can take him.”
But even as she spoke these words, she was wary. She had taken a huge chance, letting the raccoon fly her race plane in the first place; for all the improvement in performance that had come with the switch to the Merlin, there had also been a price to pay...an Achilles’ heel which Finlayson had yet to discover. Not a glaring weakness, to be sure...but given the known habits of the Little Engine’s designer, one of no small irony. Under the present circumstances, it would be more than enough to cause Finlayson to wash his paws of the entire project should it’s presence become known to him.
And if he took Perreaux’s challenge, that possibility would increase exponentially.
Jack Finlayson would later liken his present circumstances to one of those cartoons depicting a confused fur with an angel standing on one shoulder and a devil perched on the other.
When he had retired from air racing, six years previously, he had been determined never to return to the game -- not even informally.
And so far, he had kept that vow.
There was a rumor in some circles that he had gotten out because of the Gee-Bee...and it was not an unwarranted supposition. At least six other pilots had died in the crash of a Granville Brothers ‘Bumblebee’, including two of the greats, Russell Boardman and Lowell Bayles. The first time the redoubtable Jimmy Haizlip had flown a Gee-Bee had also been his last...and though he had survived the crash, he hadn’t walked away from the wreckage.
He had RUN away.
But that wasn’t why Jack Finlayson had retired from air racing, (though it certainly hadn’t been an impediment to his decision.) After becoming the first, and only pilot ever to win the big three air races, he had rightly concluded that there were no more laurels for him to be won around the pylons. He could never top his performance in the ‘32 Thompson. No matter how many races he won afterwards, that would always be the contest everyone would remember. And indeed, did a youngster EVER ask him to autograph a model of the Curtiss Hawk he had piloted to victory in the ‘25 Schneider or the Laird Super Solution with which he had taken the ‘31 Bendix trophy?
Nope...it was always the Gee-Bee, the Gee-Bee, and the Gee-Bee.
And that was why Jack Finlayson was done with air-racing...or that was what he would have said and believed with all his heart not fifteen minutes ago.
But now he was here, in the cockpit of The Little Engine, the deep thrum of it’s power-plant a siren song in his ears -- while not thirty feet from his wingtip, the great Jean-Guy Perreaux was cheerfully throwing down the gauntlet. And the adrenaline was flowing...that irresistible, electric tingle the raccoon had felt so many times before.
Jack Finlayson screwed his eyes shut for a second, let out a short, rumbling breath...and surrendered to his demons.
Whoops and cheers erupted all along the waterfront as the raccoon accepted M. Perreaux’s challenge. Finlayson had the advantage of being the first of the blocks, but Jean-Guy Perreaux had not gotten where he was by way of slow reflexes. The Little Engine had less than half a plane length on the Bugatti before the red fox was right there with him. Finlayson kicked up the throttle, and felt the willing racer responding to his touch. Beside him, Jean-Guy Perreaux did the same, but with it’s complicated drive-system, the 120.S seemed to think it over for half a second before complying.
Finlayson was in the lead as the two planes went streaking towards the turn around South Island., but when they got there and began to wheel around Mount Tabotabo, it was Perreaux who held the advantage; the Bugatti had the inside of the turn, and he quickly took the lead as two racers went peeling around the backside of the mountain. To overtake him here, Finlayson would not only have to fly faster than the French fox, but also much further as well. He would not attempt such a thing of course, he would wait until they were out of the turn. None of the spectators believed he would try to recapture the lead now.
ALMOST none of them.
As she watched the planes disappear around Tapotapo, Katie’s hooves were tightening sharply around the barrel of her binoculars.
“C’mon, Major.” she nickered under her breath, “The Little Engine can take it, give her the gun.”
On the backside South Island, invisible to her eyes, the Major was doing just that. Katie MacArran had been more correct in her assessment than even she had realized; the old Jack Finlayson not only still there, he was there with a vengeance. Setting his jaw tightly, he chopped the throttle and pulled hard on the stick, saw Tabotabo wheeling past him in a gaudy, green kaleidoscope as pushed the race-plane fast around the mountain. He was not the raccoon he’d been six years ago, he was older now and had lost some of his superb conditioning since quitting the race-game.
But the iron will that had propelled him to victory so many times before was still there...and damn, this was a helluva plane. If HE was feeling the G-forces, the Little Engine’s attitude towards them seemed to be, “Yeah? So what?” He saw the Bugatti coming up on his right, heard the roar of it’s twin engines as it began to move past him and towards the rear. Perreaux, he knew, was not going to yield so easily, and sure enough, the vulpine immediately kicked up his own engines in response.
As the two of them came around the mountain, and pulled into the straightaway, they were both pouring it on. Wild cheers accompanied the pair of race-planes as they thundered across the lagoon, headed for the second turn around the shortwave towers on Main Island. Even so, neither pilot was giving their plane all they had; they’d need to save that for the qualifying runs and the big race.
But none of the tourists seemed to care. As if by magic, hundreds handkerchief-sized French tricolor flags, and Stars and Stripes had appeared in the paws of the spectators. (Katie later would learn from Drake that Keith Lawton had been ‘practically jumping for joy.’ when he’d heard of Finlayson and Perreaux’s impromptu contest.)
The two of them began to wheel their planes around the radio towers...and this time, Finlayson held the inside track. In response, Perreaux tried to return the favor of passing him on the outside by putting HIS throttles wide open.
And that was why, as they came out of the turn, their ad-hoc race came to a quick, anticlimactic end.
They were just breaking into the straightaway again, when Katie saw it; the Bugatti seeming to stutter in the air. Then it was dropping back and pealing away in the direction of Eastern Island once again. A collective groan went up from the crowd of onlookers, and then she heard Paddy McCradden stating the obvious, “Shite! Bloody Frenchie’s engine’s ‘r overheatin’ on ‘em again.”
Air Chief Marshall Ballory’s reaction was somewhat more subdued.
“Pity.” he said, lowering his binoculars, “Right when it was getting rather interesting.”
“Yeah,” said Katie, nodding in concurrence, as she watched the Bugatti coming in for a landing, “You’ve got to hand it to Jean-Guy Perreaux, though. He didn’t just challenge Major Finlayson to a race for the heck of it. He wanted to see how those new radiators were gonna perform under actual racing conditions.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me if tha’ were Claude Venzine’s idea, Yer Grace.” said Malcolme, coming to join them, “‘S what I would ha’ done...give those radiators the acid test, if ye like.”
“Venzine must be ready t’ tear ‘is tail out, ‘bout now.” a Welsh accented voice offered from a space away. (Daffyd' s natural reticence always faded a little when the subject under discussion was aircraft engines.)
“Not hardly, Daffyd.” said Katie, correcting him, “Claude’s been around too long for that..and he’s had to deal with a lot worse.. If I know that hedgehog, he’ll just say, ‘Zut.’ and then try to figure out what their next move is.”
“An’ ave ‘is crew up ‘arf the night, doin’ it.” observed Paddy, drawing knowing murmurs from all around. The French crew-chief might be a cool customer...but he was also the quintessential slave-driver.
“Here comes the Little Engine,” someone called, and everyone turned just in time to watch Katie’s racer touching down on the water once more.
Jack Finlayson could have been ferried ashore by boat, but chose to remain in the cockpit until the others had the plane back inside the hangar again. When he climbed down the ladder, he was trembling slightly, and his borrowed flight suit was patched with spots of sweat. No one was surprised. Air-racing is a stressful business, after all. Turning to face her, the raccoon removed his flight-helmet and slapped it against one thigh. Then he shook his head slowly, staring at Katie for a long moment.
“I...can’t believe you DID that.” was all he had to say.
The McCraddens are the intellectual property of Steve Gallacci. Used here with permission.