Spontoon Island
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Katie MacArran
-by John Urie-

A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie

Part One.
On Your Marks...

Chapter 57

“Jeez, don’t that bruin know what’s doin’?” Toby huffed as they walked away from the gate and towards the main building, “Doesn’t he know who you are?”

Katie MacArran responded to this by giving the packrat a shot of her one, blue eye.  “Of COURSE he knows who I am, Toby.  I’m the mare who’ll wring his neck if he doesn’t follow the correct security procedures.”

“And I’M the panda responsible for implementing those procedures,” Shang Li Sung pointedly reminded both Toby and his employer.

When they had arrived at the front gate of The International Air Cargo Company’s Spontoon Island terminal, they had found the sentry box occupied by a thickset sun bear, who had insisted upon scrutinizing ALL their identification before letting them pass...even Katie, never mind her very singular appearance.

“He’s just doing what he’s supposed to do, Toby.” Shang went on, “So simmer down, will you?”

“Right,” said Katie, although actually, she felt a little like coming to slow boil herself, not at the guard, but at someone else.  Of all her companies, the one that gave her the most security headaches was the International Air Cargo Company.  Every single one of their terminals seemed to draw thieves and pilferers the way a flourescent lamp draws insects; even the MacArran and Imperial Distilleries didn’t have it as bad as the IACC.  It reminded the pinto mare of a cartoon she’d seen once; a dike springs a leak, and a kit rushes over and plugs the hole with his finger, only to have another one spring up.  He plugs that hole and another springs up...then and another, and another.
That was what it was like trying to maintain security for the International Air Cargo Company; you fenced off the terminals and the thieves came with wire cutters; you locked the doors, and they picked the locks, you put in extra lights, and they cut the power, you brought in extra guards and the thieves either bribed or intimidated them.  It was especially bad in the larger American cities where, ironically, the thievery was carried out at the direction of the very mobsters to whom Katie had once sold MacArran Scotch.

Finally, she had decided that enough was enough and ordered Shang to deal with the problem ‘in whatever manner you see fit.’, in other words, giving him a blank check.  The red panda had promptly obliged her coming up with a plan for dealing with the larceny that was as effective as it was Draconian; as a simple as carrots and a stick.  The first carrot came in the form of kickbacks paid by the IACC to the heads of various underworld organizations in the US and China for keeping their underlings OUT of the company’s terminals.  The second one was a princely reward of $500.00, payable to any IACC employee who apprehended a thief inside one of the company’s cargo facilities.

The stick was...well, shortly after the program was implemented, whenever law enforcement authorities were summoned by the IACC to take charge of a thief caught by company security they invariably found their charges in pitiable state -- weeping and trembling, and with a sudden aversion to bottles of soda pop. 

Either that, or they had been beaten to a pulp while ‘resisting apprehension.’

After that the thievery had cooled considerably, though it never completely went away.  It was still a never ending battle to keep the cargo passing through the IACC’s terminals intact.  Katie’s only comfort, a cold one, was the knowledge that every other air-cargo carrier on the planet was beset with the same problems

Upon entering the door of the terminal offices, they were greeted by a compact Connemara pony in dungarees, shirtsleeves, and steel-rimmed spectacles.

“Good morning Your Grace,” he said, offering a hoof, “And welcome to the IACC Spontoon Terminal.  I’m Bill Sharkey, head of operations here.”

Katie took the hoof and pumped it warmly.  “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sharkey.” she said, and meant it.  She had already decided she liked this pony.  If he was even a little bit nervous about being in the presence of both the founder of the company AND it’s head of security, not a trace of it was showing on his features.  Instead, he had an air of quiet confidence about him, as if he knew she could drop in any time she wanted, without prior notification, and the place would still meet with her approval.

Besides that, Bill Sharkey had shown up dressed for work in the hangar, not behind a desk.  That was exactly the kind of manager Katie wanted for her companies; not above dirtying his hooves alongside the employees when things got busy. (As they always did during Speed Week.)

“And this,” she said, nodding at the two furs beside her, “is Shang Li-Sung, head of security for the Combs and MacArran companies, and Toby Moran, member of my race team.”

“Shang, I met already,” the pony replied, a thread of Brooklyn accent becoming distinct as he shook the red panda’s paw.  He moved on to Toby, “Pleased to make yas acquaintance, Mr. Moran.”

“Hey, likewise guy.” said the packrat.

“Have the McCraddens arrived yet?” asked Katie, ignoring Bill Sharkey’s amused expression at the rat’s patois.

“Yeah, they’re over in the commissary, waitin’ on yas.” the pony responded, adding, “Good guys, Malcolme and his boys.  We gotta a few of his ex-apprentices workin’ for us as mechanics.”

“Hey,” said Toby Moran, a note of censure in his voice, “I hope they all got union cards.”

Bill Sharkey put his hooves on his hips, and leaned partway towards the packrat with his ears falling back.

“Lemme put it this way, Jack; one of ‘em’s our shop steward.  That good enough for yas?”

“Okay, okay.” said Toby, backing off with his paws raised.

They found the McCraddens seated at a long table, conversing with some of the IACC mechanics.  As they entered the room, everyone stood up.

“Good Morning, Your Grace,” said Malcolme McCradden, his sons quickly following suit.

“Morning, Mr. Cradden,, morning Paddy, Daffyd, Cedric.”  She nodded at the trio of IACC mechanics on the other side of the table. “Those some of your former apprentices?”

“Aye, they are that.” the otter replied, an unmistakable note of pride in his voice.

“Yeah?” said Bill Sharkey, jerking a thumb at the door, “Well, they’re gonna be FORMER employees if they don’t get a move on and start gettin’ the plane that just landed checked out an’ refueled.”

At this, the oldest of the IACC group, a twenty-ish genet cat in greasy coveralls, raised an arm and turned it around, pointing defiantly at his wristwatch, “We still got three minutes left on break, boss.  You wanna talk to Tapa’ni about it?”

This drew an immediate guffaw from good, union member Toby, “That’s tellin’ ‘em, brother!” he said, and the genet responded with a thumbs up.

“And this,” said Katie, clapping a hoof on the rodent’s shoulder, “Is Toby Moran, of the Little Engine race team, who decided to tag along with us this morning and help out.”

“Hey, nice to meet you.” said the packrat, offering a paw first to Malcolme and then to the others, “I heard a lotta good things about you guys from the Professor, excuse me, I mean Zeke Bronstiel.  He says you got it tight and right.”

“Thanky, laddie,” said the grizzled sea-otter.

With the introductions complete, Katie turned to Bill Sharkey again.

“Did my flight suit and the other items arrive okay?” she asked.  The pony nodded at once.

“Yeah, we got ‘em set up in one of the spare lockers for yas... in the pilot’s ready-room, just down the hall.” He reached in his pocket, pulling out a small piece of paper. “Here’s the combo for ya, Your Grace; your locker’s the third one from the end.”

“Thank you, Sharkey.” said Katie, pleased.  This was one terminal manager who knew how to run his operation.  Hmmm, when was the last time he’d had a raise?   Have to get note off to London about that before she left the islands.

“Okay,” she said, returning her attention to Toby Moran and the McCraddens, “Can you boys get my plane rolled out and fueled up while I change?”

“Done n’ done.” said Malcolme.

The flight suit Katie found in her locker was not the custom-silk model she’d worn on her arrival; that one was reserved for The Little Engine only.  For this flight, her outfit was a standard issue set of light gray IACC flight coveralls, but without the company logos and tailored to match her particular conformation. (There were certain privileges of ownership even SHE would not pass up.)

When she exited the ready room a few minutes later, she found Bill Sharkey waiting for her once again.

“They got your plane out, over by the maintenance hangar.” he said. “C’mon, and I’ll show you.”

“Uhhh, that’s really not necessary, Mr. Sharkey.” she replied, beginning to reconsider sending that note to London.  This pony was beginning to carry his routine a little too far, from mere efficiency and into fawning...and if there was anything Katie MacArran detested, it was a toady.

“It’s no problem, really,” the pony replied.  “I gotta go start checking in that planeload of Imperial Gin that just arrived anyway.  It’s right on the way.”

Katie’s ears shot up and pointed at each other..
“What the...?   They had to bring in a shipment of Imperial Gin...by AIR FREIGHT?”

Bill Sharkey let out a small horse laugh.

“Yeah...Wouldja believe they’re runnin’ short of the stuff already?    For some reason the hot drink for Speed Week this year is the Martini.  Don’t ask me why, but that’s the deal.  One a’ the pit-bosses over at the Imperial told me yesterday that their bar-guys can’t mix ‘em fast enough to keep up.  Even the Brits are slingin’ down Martinis like there’s no tomorrow...uhhh, no offense.”

“None taken,” said Katie. He was right to be surprised; upper class Britishers considered the American Martini to be the acme of vulgarity.  Or they had the last time she’d been in London.  Christmas, she’d been away a long time from Britain.

“Anyway, that’s why I wanna oversee the off-loading of this stuff myself.” the Connemara pony was saying, with a disgusted snuffle. “Ain’t no cargo in the world more subject to pilferage than booze.”

“You got that right.” said Katie nodding.  Hmmm, maybe she should send that note off to London, after all.

Bill Sharkey took his leave of her as they passed by where the NA-40 Skypacket was being unloaded....in a very quick and efficient manner, thanks in no small part to a unique aspect of it’s design.

Unlike every the DC-2, it’s closest rival, the NA-40 did not have its cargo doors mounted on the side of the fuselage.  In fact, it had no cargo doors at all.  Instead, the entire nose section of the Skypacket was able to detach and swing away to the side, thus allowing the cargo to be driven up a low ramp and directly into the cargo hold, or offloaded in similar fashion.  It was a much simpler method than having to hoist the freight up, and into the side of the plane, then push it forward by way of elbow grease. (as had to be done with every other cargo carrying plane.)  And because the NA-40 sat on tricycle landing gear, it’s profile remained relatively level on the runway.  Not so the other cargo planes, all of which employed twin landing gear and a tail wheel...with the result that once the cargo had been placed on board, it had to be moved UP an incline, an invitation to serious injury or worse, if anything came loose in the midst of loading or unloading.*

Coupled with the NA-40's reputation for range, reliability, and durability...together with it’s economy and ease of operation, and it was small wonder that it was such a sought after cargo plane.

“Hey, have good flight, huh?” said Sharkey, giving her hooves one final shake, and then strode off towards the cargo plane, shouting, “Awright, you guys, let’s have that manifest over here.”

Katie spotted her own aircraft about 20 yards away, parked in front of the maintenance hangar, just as the pony had said. 

For the moment, except for the odd splash of yellow, it remained completely obscured by the gaggle of otters and a packrat clustered around it.  As she came closer, she heard Toby explaining to the McCraddens:

“What you’re lookin’ at is our ‘test-bed plane’.  Before fitting the Little Engine with that new wing design y’see, we tested it first on a North American NA-50 pursuit plane.  Then we did the same thing with the canopy, tail-faring, and what have you.  It saved us a heckuva lot of time in development.”

“NA-50.” Cedric was musing, “Wasn’t that the plane Her Grace flew in China?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Toby, “That’s why we used it for our test plane.  If there’s one aircraft Miss MacArran’s familiar with, this is it.”

Katie snorted silently to herself.  That was in fact, only one of the reasons they had used an NA-50 for their test plane.  The other had been that there were plenty of them readily available, just sitting idle in a California warehouse -- thanks to the machinations of, among others,  a certain underpawed bureaucrat with whom she was shortly going to settle accounts. 

“So...yer might say she’s th’ Little Engine’s Ma then, eh?” offered Paddy in his rolling, Irish brogue.

“Heh, that’s one way of looking at it.” Toby answered, with a laugh.

In point of fact, the North American XP-30, ( it’s official designation ) bore only a scant resemblance to the pursuit plane from which it had been built, and practically none at all to the racer that had developed from it.

Oh yes, it had the same short, somewhat stubby fuselage as the NA-50, with a barrel-shaped cowling, to indicate a radial engine, but it’s profile was considerably slimmer than the NA-50's -- thanks to the changeover from a Wright Cyclone 9 engine to the much sleeker Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Jr. and the tuck-up administered to it’s waist section.  Likewise, it’s oversized, ‘golf-club’ vertical stabilizer had been shaved down into a smaller, trapezoidal shape, the only place where it bore even a passing resemblance to the Little Engine.  In addition, the oil-cooler intake had been moved from the upper left side of the cowling to the underside of the fuselage, in roughly the same location as the Engine’s air-scoop.  And then there was the cockpit, perhaps the most dramatic change of all.  Gone forever was the oversized greenhouse that had once served as the NA-50's canopy, and in it’s place was something considerably less contrived; the sleek bubble of the Supermarine Spitfire.

Throw in that bullet-headed prop spinner, and what you had was resolute rather than a graceful looking plane; not gonna win any beauty contests but hey, don’t mess with me, pal.  And just to make sure you got the message, the aircraft had been painted in bright, canary yellow, with an oversized, scarlet rendering of the lion rampant of Scotland tattooed firmly onto the fuselage..  This scheme appeared to please Malcolme McCradden immensely...though not as much as it might have; emblazoned just behind the lion-logo, in bold, red script, was the aircraft’s name.

She was known simply as The Other Plane.

“It’s one of those names that just sort of evolve on you.” Katie explained, “When we were building the Little Engine I was always saying things like, ‘Get the other plane ready.’ or ‘We need to test this in the other plane first.’  After a while The Other Plane just sort of became her official name...and don’t ask me exactly when that happened, coz I can’t tell you.”

“Hmmm, I understand, Your Grace.” said Malcome, pulling at his chin, “But it’s still not much of a flatterin’ thing, is it?”

“Welllll, meself I’m not so certain about that, Da.” Paddy countered, “I mean, it’s somethin’ of a defiant name in’ it?  One in yer eye an’ all that. ”

“Mnnnnmmm, aye...is that.” chimed in Daffyd, drawing a surprised look from both his father and his brothers.  A statement this long from HIM was the equivalent of a Shakespeare soliloquy.

Katie had just taken her seat in the Other Plane’s cockpit, and was busily adjusting her flight harness, when Cedric turned and pointed across the channel at Moon Island.

“Huh, wonder what’s going on over there, then.”

Katie craned her neck, and saw that a quartet of RINS fire boats and a pair of tugs setting off in that direction from the Moon Island base, while the same flotilla of KV-3 bombers that had guided the Republic in, was just in the process of getting airborne once again.

“Think I know,” she said, turning around once more, “I heard on the radio earlier that HMS Courageous is clear of the outer islands.  That’s probably her escort you’re looking at.” (I hope!)

With Zeke Bronstiel not present, it fell to Malcolme McCradden to walk Katie through her pre-flight check.  Fortunately, the grizzled sea-otter was an old paw at this, having assisted countless other pilots in a similar vein, following repair work done on their aircraft by Superior Engineering.  Even so, it seemed to Katie that he was taking far too long.  ‘C’mon, dammit!  I’ve got hot a date with an aircraft carrier.’

She did not, of course, give voice to these thoughts...especially since they were a little on the hypocritical side.  When the pre-check was completed, instead of starting the engine immediately, as might have been expected, Katie reached over to rub Linc’s head for good luck.  Only after this touchstone had been greased, did she press the starter button.  With a whistle, screech, and chug the propellor began to rotate and the engine churned into life...and then Katie was waving and giving a farewell thumbs up as she taxied The Other Plane onto the runway, at the same time, reaching for the radio.

“This is aircraft KCG-493 calling Spontoon Tower, Aircraft KCG 493 calling Spontoon Tower, requesting clearance for take-off.  Over.”

She crossed her fingers, hoping she wouldn’t have to wait for that flight of KV-3s to get airborne.  That shouldn’t be the case; her plane and the Rain Island squadron were facing in almost the opposite direction.  But wouldn’t it be just too much irony in her diet if she missed the HMS Courageous on account of being held up by the same pilot whose praises she had been singing just the evening befo...?”

“KCG-493,” came the reply in a Spontoonie accent, “You clear for take off at this time.  Good luck, Your Grace.  Over.”

Huh!  He’d KNOWN who was flying that yellow plane.  Either this controller was a wiz at identifying voices, or gossip spread around these islands faster than Katie thought.

“Thank you Spontoon Tower.  KCG-493 Out.”

She placed the microphone back in it’s cradle and taking the throttle and stick in a firm grip.

It was a vintage Katie MacArran take off, smooth as the silk she adored so much; it was almost as if she had levitated The Other Plane off the tarmac.  That, however, was not what caused several jaws to drop as the aircraft lifted skyward.

“Oi, that’s got to be only arf the runway, she used t’ get airborne.” said Paddy McCradden

“If that.” agreed Daffyd, nodding.

‘That’ was also the general idea.  Katie WANTED to show how little runway The Other Plane required for take off.  She hadn’t originally planned it this way, but with the arrival of the HMS Courageous...best laid plans, and all that..  Now, this would no longer be merely a workout flight, but a demonstration flight as well.

She pulled left on the stick and banked hard, circling around and over Moon Island and the Ship Channel, making certain to keep well clear of both Casino Island and the phalanx of cruise ships anchored nearby.  (Even the hardiest of air race fans wouldn’t appreciate the sound of an aircraft engine overhead THIS early in the morning.)

Katie was over the South channel when she caught up with the squadron of KV-3 bombers, waggling her wings in a friendly greeting as she passed them by.  

And then, there she was, the HMS Courageous, too far away to be visible from the Islands; barely a speck, even from Katie’s point of view.  Nonetheless, it was her...had to be.  That flotilla of fireboats and floatplanes hadn’t been dispatched to welcome any collier.

She pushed forward on the throttle, feeling the fine acceleration.  Who would have thought?  In setting out to create the new American pursuit plane, Katie had come very close to achieving another, completely unexpected goal.

“IF that new Hercules engine from Bristol is a good as I heard.”, the pinto mare reminded herself.

And even then, there was the small matter of convincing the Admiralty; hidebound fogies, most of them, who thought airplanes were all but useless in naval engagements...and females even less useful.

It was an attitude perfectly exemplified by the ship now coming into view.  Compared to the Japanese carrier, Hiryu and the American flattop, Saratoga, HMS Courageous was a frog among swans.  Laid down in 1915, she had started life as what was known as a Large, Fast Cruiser.  After the war, she had been converted to an aircraft carrier and re-launched in 1928...or rather partially converted, by the appearance of her; HMS Courageous’s flight deck truncated well short of her bow.  To Katie, peering at the carrier through the Other Plane’s bubble canopy, it looked almost as if the dockworkers who had done the refit on Courageous had called a wildcat strike halfway through the job--and the Admiralty had seen fit to launch her as is.   In a stand up fight, she would last, perhaps, five minutes against either of the other two flattops.  And that was equally true of her sister carriers in His Majesty’s Royal Navy

But soon, the pinto mare knew, all that was going to change.  A new generation of British carriers, the Illustrious class, was already on the ways...together with the even more advanced ( some said radically advanced  ) new ‘swift carrier’, HMS Tenacious.

All well and good, but in building this new generation of carriers, the Admiralty had neglected one important fact...and though Katie could not see the proof of this, as British carriers did not carry their planes on their flight decks, she knew they were there, snugly ensconced down in HMS Courageous’s hangar.

And that was why she was here, this morning.

“Okay,” she said, reaching over to rub Linc’s head again, “Let’s show these boys what we’ve got, eh?”

She pulled up and banked right, circling once over the Courageous, then pushed the stick forward and hit the throttle, coming in at a shallow, high-speed dive, the heady rush of adrenaline lifting her like champagne.  Leveling off at deck-top height, she went flashing past the carrier at a range of two hundred meters, and if the Other Plane wasn’t nearly as swift as the Little Engine in flight, she was every bit as stable and then some.  Katie almost felt as if she were flying on rails.  And she shot past the carrier’s island, she performed not a single, but a DOUBLE snap roll.

“That ought to get their attention.” she thought.

It did, but not quite in the manner, Katie MacArran might have expected.  On the bridge of the HMS Courageous, a pair of binoculars were lowered swiftly downward, revealing eyes like smouldering charcoal, and feral snarl.

“Just who the devil IS that idiot,?” growled Captain Alistair Jackson, Harrier Hound and commander of HMS Courageous, “I’ll have his guts for garters for buzzing my ship.”

It was meant as a rhetorical question and he did not expect a response...and would normally have assigned an unpleasant task to any officer or crew-member who did make bold to respond.  However there was one individual on the bridge this morning who fell into neither category, and so felt free to answer as he saw fit.

“That...” he said, with an amused snuffle, also lowering a pair of binoculars, “is Her Grace, the Duchess of Strathdern.” He looked sideways at Captain Jackson, “And...buzzed your ship?  Really, Captain, I’d say she’s more than keeping her proper distance.”

The speaker was an Anglo-Warmblood stallion, a magnificent, red-chestnut who looked much younger than his 60-odd years.  Only a little taller than average for his breed, he was nonetheless possessed of a physique that might have been the work of Michelangelo...and also pair of eyes that seemed perpetually alight.

Captain Jackson growled again, “With all due respect sir, that’s my call to make, isn’t it?  And as soon as we dock, I shall lodge an immediate protest with...”

“I had rather you didn’t.” the horse interrupted him.  Alistair Jackson at once straightened up into a pose of heavily starched dignity

“Again...with all due respect...”

“I had also rather not make that an order, Captain.”

“Yes, Admiral.” the dog replied, and then turned to glare at the vole handling the helm....who was trying very hard not to look amused.

The admiral also turned, focusing with his own pair of binoculars on the bright, yellow plane once again. 

“Bloody Hell,” he thought, “The Duchess of Strathdern.  Decorated combat pilot, accomplished aircraft designer...AND she apprenticed under Barnes Wallis himself.  If there’s anyone who’d know a thing or two about the geodetic design, it’s her.  Devil’s own work getting it past the Admiralty if she’s involved of course, but God’s blood, why didn’t I think of her before?”

Unaware of these musings, Katie MacArran was taking measured breaths and steeling herself for the next task.  Okay, she had made her entrance.  Now it was time to get down to the original purpose of this flight.  Bringing the Other Plane up to 8000 feet, she leveled off, took another deep breath, and stroked Linc’s head one more time for good luck.

Then she flipped the aircraft into a steep dive, pointing her nose straight almost downward, and pushing forward on both the throttle and the stick.  Gritting her teeth, she watched the airspeed indicator climbing, 200 mph...225...275....300.

350 mph...now!

Katie pushed the stick forward, pulling the Other Plane into a vertical outside loop, a loop with her hooves toward the center of the circle.  Almost immediately, her extremities became a mass of pinpricks, and her skull began to fill with pain; the centrifugal force of the turn was causing the blood to rush into her head. 

Still, she kept going....her head feeling as if it might burst open at any second, fingers and her hooves going rapidly numb.  After what seemed like far too long, she was coming up on the bottom of the loop, the place where the force was greatest, a massive 450 lbs per square inch.  She could feel the safety harness trying to dig into her shoulders, her vision was going red from the blood being forced into her corneas, and sweat seemed to be gushing from every pore in her body.

And she was only halfway through the loop.  The pain was exploding in her head now.  She let out a quick, short scream, and went with it.  Keep the stick forward....forward, forward, forward.  
The Other Plane was trying to slow down now, pointing almost straight up, working against rather than with the forces of gravity.  Katie punched the throttle, refusing to let it happen.  But even as she did, she knew the stress had become too much for her, she had overdone it this time.  She must pull out, and pull out now.

Except...there was a cloud in front of her...just a small one, but it was a flat bottomed cloud...or it was almost flat-bottomed; it was tilted at a slight angle   If she could just hold out a little longer...just a teeny bit longer...yes!  Yes, there it was, the cloud was horizontal now...and there was the horizon.  She had done it; she had completed the loop.

But not her morning’s workout.  Pushing forward on the stick again, Katie dropped into a second dive.  Only this time, when she had the plane up to 350 mph, she pulled back on the stick instead of pushing it forward, going into an INSIDE rather than an outside loop, her head now angled towards the center of the vortex.  Once again, she began to feel the centrifugal effects...but this time, they were very different.  Now the blood was being drawn from her head rather than pressed into it – and that was what made this a much more dangerous maneuver than the one she had just performed.  With less blood circulation in her brain, Katie’s reaction time would be considerably slowed and her perceptions less than focused.  She would have to concentrate on what she was doing, banish everything else as she had when performing her Tai Chi exercises earlier.  One mis-perception of a problem, one wrong move made to correct it, and the Other Plane would reduce itself to a crumpled mass of machinery against the surface of the gunmetal sea.

Assuming, of course, that Katie didn’t black out during the maneuver...in which case, the whole point would be moot.

Her vision was beginning to turn gray as she neared the bottom of the curve, not good...but then a second later, the roar of the Other Plane’s engine began to muffle -- much worse.  Hearing was the last thing to go before you lost consciousness.  She began to breath harder, sucking in great gulps of air as the aircraft reached it’s perigee and began to climb once again.  Katie felt, rather than saw the world begin in invert.  Or was it?   There was no cloud this time, nothing to serve as an indicator. 

Without warning, her field of vision flashed to white hot and the world went instantly black.  But then the instruments began to fade in again.  She had not blacked out, the sun had caught the windscreen at just the right angle, dazzling her pupils for a moment.  But what was her position?  There was nothing around her but blue sky.  Had she come to the top of the loop?  Was she even close to it?   No, nothing was below her, no ocean, no carrier.   She looked up, and there, directly above her were five distinct aircraft....the Rain Island bomber squadron.  Except, they were coming towards her nose on.  Which meant she was in the vertical arc of her loop.  Uh, that was what it meant, wasn’t it?  Never mind...just keep that stick back and keep your eye on those planes.  When you’re looking at them from directly above, it means you’re at the top of the loop....uh, right?   Katie blinked her eyes rapidly.  Her hooves and fingers had gone numb again...only this time it was a painful numbness, the kind that comes from have your wrists and ankles shackled too tightly.  And her flight suit was drenched in sweat.

She made herself press on, saw the Rain Island planes dropping away below her.  Little spots of black began to fill her vision, and her head felt light, light as helium.  Not yet, not yet, just a little more...you’re almost at the top.  Now!

Katie pulled right on the stick and half snap-rolled once again.  Above her was the sun, below her was the Courageous, and between them was the RINS patrol flotilla...and her plane was flying straight and level.

Which was more than could be said for the pinto mare’s head.  Katie felt as if she had a goldfish bowl for a brain. Forcing herself to think, she eased off on the throttle, keeping her plane on an easy and steady course while she waited for the circulation in her head and limbs to stabilize once again.

But hmmm, someone was talking to her?  Who was talking...?

“Silver Birch One to Phoenix One.  Silver Birch One to Phoenix One.  Over.”

Oh riiiight, the radio.  With a shaky, still-not-quite-capable-of-feeling hoof she plucked the microphone from it’s cradle, needing three attempts to be able to press the key.  She really wanted to just leave the mike where it was...except that this might be the aircraft carrier calling.

“Silver Birch one, go ahead.  Uh, over”

Silver Birch One, as it turned out, wasn’t HMS Courageous ...but it wasn’t unwelcome either.

“Phoenix One, this is Lieutenant Halli Amura again.   Just wanted to say that was one helluva pair of loops you just performed.  Over.”

Halli Amura....Oh, right.

“Why, thank you Silver Birch One.” Katie answered.  She could feel her focus rapidly returning...much more quickly than it had when she’d first begun performing this exercise. “I appreciate that very much.  Over.”

“Actually, I’M the one who’s appreciative, Phoenix One.” Lt. Amura responded.  There was a brief pause, with muffled talking in the background, and then the rabbit femme’s voice came back once more. “Uhhh, my gunner wants to know what was the purpose of that maneuver... if you don’t mind my asking.  Over”

No, Katie didn’t mind her asking.  She keyed the mike again.

“It’s a little something I picked up from Jack Finlayson...”

At that moment, a number of miles away, Toby Moran was offering roughly the same explanation to the McCradden Clan.

“You’re familiar with Jack Finlayson’s victory in the ‘25 Schneider, right?”

“Aye,” said Malcolme, nodding.

“Uh huh,” the packrat continued, “Then you also know he frinkin’ ran away with that race.”

“Aye,” the sea-otter repeated, “Took the pylons at almost full throttle, something none o’ the other racing pilots were even willing to try.” 

“Set a new closed course speed record for floatplanes too, din’ he?” someone else queried.  It was Paddy.

“Yeah, that’s right.” said Toby, clapping his paws together, “But he wasn’t able to take the turns  like that because his PLANE was any more capable of it than the others; the rest of the Army pilots were flying the same Curtiss Hawk RC.2 as he was.  But what you might not know is that it wasn’t because Major Finlayson was any more skilled than the other pilots either.”

For the first time since Toby had begun his little discourse, Malcolme McCradden looked surprised.

“It wan’t?  What was it, then?”

Toby smiled and pointed out to sea, where a bright, yellow speck could be seen flying in circles over the barely visible outline of an approaching large warship.

“It was because Jack Finlayson was more PHYSICALLY capable of taking those turns at full throttle than his competitors.  All those high speed maneuvers he’d performed before entering the Schneider had ended up conditioning him to be able to handle a tremendous amount of centrifugal force.   THAT was why he was able take the pylons like that, while none of the others even tried it; if any of them had, they’d probably have blacked out.”

He pointed towards the Other Plane again, which had now turned and was winging it’s way in their direction.

“And that’s why Her Grace goes out every other day and performs two high speed loops, one outside, one inside...to toughen herself up to take the pylons in the Schneider.”

“Makes sense,” said Cedric, sounding faintly troubled.  He did not offer an explanation for his unease.....and Toby didn’t need one.

Yeah, that WAS one helluva risk for Katie MacArran to take on day after day, wasn’t it? 
And all in the name of physical conditioning.

From seemingly nowhere, came the dour voice of Trevor Cadogan, echoing in his head

“One of these days,  those chickens Her Grace keeps hatching’ll be coming home t’ roost.”

Or something like that...


Ship Reference: HMS Courageous

*Author’s note: I can personally attest to this, after nearly having a fingernail torn off while unloading cargo from a DC-3.

                To Katie MacArran