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30 August 2008
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Four
by John Urie

Keith Lawton, organizer of the Schneider Trophy races held on Spontoon Island,
tells the story of Denis Conlon's entry in the 1935 race.

The Lady of Nîmes

by Drake Hackett

Special to the London Daily Observer
(Part Four)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

Keith and Denis Conlon spent the better part of his lunch break going over the other requirements for the Lady of Nîmes to qualify for the Schneider -- most of which the old boy already knew.

“Right,” he said, “now as I understand it, she’ll have to certified as airworthy by the SIRA board and then make a three-lap demonstration flight round the circuit of the lagoon.  That so?”

“Yes, that’s correct.” Keith answered, folding his paws on the desktop.  “Two at cruising speed and one at full throttle.”

“Aye.” said Conlon, then he grimaced and looked out the window for a second, “And I’m also aware that I’ll have to be certified airworthy meself...physical examination before the first qualifying run.”  (Later, there would be such exams prior to both qualifying runs and also the main event itself.)

“If Mr. Conlon had been a younger fox,” Keith was saying, as he tapped a cigarette against the top of the table, before putting it in his mouth, “I might have found his response to the prospects of the physical examination rather strange.  But he wasn’t, and so of course I didn’t.  At his age, it was a toss-up at best whether he’d pass.”

Keith laid the packet of Players on the table.  I nodded in agreement and reached for it.

“So is there anything I’ve missed then?” Conlon asked him, speaking quickly.  He was clearly in a hurry to be done with Keith and back to work on his plane

“Yes, “ Keith answered, sounding more than a little testy himself -- and rightfully so.  After holding my mate up for almost half his day, Mr. Conlon was in no position to come the impatient with him. “Two things.  First of all, there’s the small matter of the entry fee.”

THAT took the wind right out of the old fox’s sails; for the first time since Keith had met him, he actually looked embarrassed.  He winced and let out a small whine, reminding my friend of someone whose just now realized they were supposed to be home hours ago.

“Ahhh, yes of course, sir.  My apologies, can’t understand how that slipped me mind.  Might I have the boys bring it round later this afternoon?”

“That will be fine,” said Keith, “I’ll be here until six o’clock.”

“Very good, sir.” Conlon answered, nodding, “And that other requirement ye were talking about?”

By way of response, Keith posed a question of his own.

“Do you have a sponsor for your plane yet?”

Denis Conlon pulled back in his chair, ears lowering, along with his head.

“Sponsor?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Keith, not at all put off by this, “Your aircraft has to have a sponsor to be eligible to compete.”

Conlon’s head began to weave from side to side, as a fox’s head will do when he becomes wary

“Errr, what...sort of sponsor...w-would she need?”

“There are three types that are acceptable.” Keith told him, ticking them off on his fingers as he spoke, “First, a government, the DeHavilland Sea Comet for example.  Second, an academic institution, the Songmark Acadmemy’s entry.  Third, a commercial enterprise, the Chronicler, sponsored by the Hearst Newspapers.”  Seeing Conlon’s expression becoming rapidly even more dubious, he quickly hastened to add, “However, it’s not as difficult at requirement as it may sound; the commercial sponsor need not be a major corporation, any legal commercial enterprise  will do.”

“Ahhh,” said Conlon, looking at once both pleased and vastly relieved, “Would that include Miss Baumgartner’s establishment then?”

“Absolutely.” Keith answered, at once. “That would be perfectly agreeable.”

As my friend related this part, Lucy unexpectedly coughed.

“Uh, you all right there, Lu?” I asked.

“Just fine brother,” she answered, for some reason biting her lip.

That reason for her rather odd reaction became clear, or so I thought, when Keith told me what happened shortly after the fox’s departure.

“I had just got off the phone with the British Consulate, when Ruby came knocking at my door.”

“Two of Mr. Conlon’s crew are outside, with his entry fee.”

Keith was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to be somewhere else.  “Last time I’d seen THAT kind of smirk on someone’s face, it was just before he laid four aces in front of me.”

Sure enough, a moment later, the two Donnelly brothers came trundling in, grunting and heaving and toting between them, a strong box the size of a steamer trunk; an ancient thing, with hinges composed of nothing but rust and a sagging bottom that gave it the appearance of being pregnant.

“Not on the desk!”  Keith manage to shout just in the nick of time.   As the trunk plopped down onto the floor, his fears were confirmed, by the unmistakable crunch and jingle of what must have been tens of thousands of coins.

“Sorry, sir.” said Mick Donnelly, or perhaps it was Mike. (The stoats were twins and almost indistinguishable.) “But here, as promised, is Denis’ entry fee. “

“Shall we open it for you, sir?” asked his brother, producing a crowbar from behind his back.

Regrettably, I am unable to repeat Keith’s reply verbatim...but the crux of the matter was that the two stoats were required to remove that box from his presence forthwith, and take it to a bank to have it’s contents tallied.

As Keith recalled this last part, he was answered by a low growl from Lucy.  I was about to ask her what that was all about, when I recalled that she worked as an assistant manager for the First Spontoon National Bank...but at that time she’d been only a clerk.

Sure enough...when Keith arrive home from work that night, he found the house dark and a note on the door--

“Girls are with Mrs. Kakua.  All fed , but you’ll need to get your own supper -- as I’m busy counting coins at the moment!


P.S.  You’ll need to make up the SOFA for yourself as well.”

“When they prized back the lid of that strongbox, brother,” Lucy snickered in spite of herself as she recalled it, ”it looked just like the inside of a flippin’ pirate’s chest...except full of coppers and shillings, and what-have-you, instead of doubloons.  Took us til next afternoon to finish counting ‘em all.”

“Was it enough to make the entry fee then?” I asked.  (Silly question, but it was that, or burst out laughing...not a wise thing to do with my sister when she’d got a glass full of ice cubes in her paw.)

“Yeah,” she said, “Not only made the fee all right, but there was almost two hundred pounds left over.”

Keith didn’t see Denis Conlon for two more days afterwards...no surprise, as they BOTH had a great deal of work to do.

By the time they met again, my friend was in much better spirits than at the time of their first encounter.  After getting off to a shaky start, Speed Week was finally beginning to generate some real enthusiasm.  Oddly, the most well received of the preliminary events had also been the most unlikely; an aerobatics competition for trimotor aircraft only.

It had been with only the greatest reluctance that the Althing had agreed to include it in the programme...and even then only as part of the ‘curtain raiser’, as Keith liked to call it.  Following the debacle of the airship race, they had furiously set about trying to get it canceled, but Keith had held firm...and in the end the trimotor aerobatics competition had been a runaway smash.  The sight of so many lumbering Junkers, Fokkers, and Ford Tri-Motors...performing aerial maneuvers that would have been difficult for even a single engine plane, had left the crowd absolutely spellbound.  (The hit of the event, and the winner, had been two Italian aviators, Aldo Ferelli and Giovanni Caldo.  Flying a pair of Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers, the two rabbits had wowed the spectators by executing the incredibly complex ‘squirrel cage’ maneuver -- performing slow rolls while barrel rolling around one another.)

Returning to his office after the presentation of the trophy, Keith was passing by Superior Engineering when he noticed that the slip where Denis Conlon had his plane moored was strangely silent.

“Up until then the place had been like a boiler factory.  Conlon never let up, not on his crew, or on himself.  From the rise of the sun until well after dark, you could hear them inside the drydock, hard at work on making the Lady of Nîmes ready to take to the air.”

Curious, Keith had gone to the ladder leading down to the shed...right on time to meet Denis Conlon, who had just completed his ascent from below.

“Ah, the very canine I was comin’ to see.  Give us a paw up, will yer, boyo?”

Keith reached down to help the old fox up onto the pier.

“So...may I assume from the lack of activity down below that you have completed the re-assembly of your racer?” he asked.

“We have indeed, sir.” Conlon beamed, “and not to toot our own horn yer understand, but the boys did an absolutely splendid job on puttin’ her back together.”

“Excellent,” Keith answered, nodding.  Having been through the process of assembling a plane himself, he knew the satisfaction of finally completing the task.  “So, might I have a look at her then?” 

“By all means, Mr Lawton.”

It was stuffy inside the shed, an effect greatly heightened by the dim light, and the cloying odor of various lubricants, combined with an odd, rubbery smell.

Keith, however, barely noticed.

It is a time honored aphorism that if you cannot say anything pleasant, you should simply say nothing at all.

Upon glimpsing The Lady of Nîmes for the first time, Keith Lawton remained mute for the better part of five minutes.

His first thought, however, was, “Nice toy, but where’s the PLANE?

“I swear Drake, it looked just like something from a carnival ride...fuselage like a blasted carp-fish, with two slabs of beef for wings...and small?  You could nearly have fit two Lady of Nîmes in that shed.  Odd place for the cockpit too, much further forward than in any other racer I’d ever seen.   When I climbed up to have a peek at her at her controls, I saw that she was tucked in round the center too, just as if she were wearing a corset.  And then there were those wings, looked stubby enough to make a penguin blush.”

But it was what Denis Conlon had to SAY about his plane that really caught Keith’s attention.

“I’ll admit that pinch in the centre makes things a bit more crowded, but it reduces drag to a nearly amazing degree.  Y’see, when the plane is in flight, what it does is create partial vacuum...and this causes the airflow round the fuseage to conform to the plane much better than it does with a straight-up design."

There were a number of other innovations as well, not the least of which was the method by which she was constructed, a technique which the wizened vulpine had dubbed, Geo-coque.

As the name implied, this was a combination of the ‘basket weave’ geodetic method, and monocoque construction, in which the skin of the airplane is what carries the structural load.

What Conlon had done was create an geodetic frame for his aircraft, but woven of much lighter and thinner strips of spruce than would normally have been employed...and also much less closely spaced.  Covered with fabric as in a normal geodetic design, it would have flown apart as soon as the engine revved.  But instead, Conlon had employed a plywood shell, as in a monocoque design, again of wood too thin to have supported the load by itself, but combined with a partial geodetic frame, Conlon’s design enjoyed a weight-to-load-bearing capacity greater than either of the other two designs by themselves.

“At least that’s what the old boy SAID.” Keith was telling me. “He also said that the design allowed him to shape the aircraft to his liking much more easily than with either of the other two designs.  ‘Thin wood bends more easily than the thicker stuff, y’know.  Could never have done that nip and tuck in the middle without it.’”

“Hmmm,” I said, draining the last of my beer.  To paraphrase Lewis Carroll, this story was becoming curioser and curioser.

My expression did not escape my mate’s notice

“Here, let me get that for you pal.” he said, reaching for my glass, “Yeah, I know...that were a right heavy level of expertise for a backyard race-plane builder wan’t it.   I found out why, later at the Pilot’s Reception, but for now, let me get back to what I saw in that shed.  Instead of paint or fabric, Conlon had covered over his plane with a layer of latex rubber.”

Once again, I knew I’d have to ask it, “What for, then?”

“Latex, y’see,” Conlon had explained, “does something fabric doesn’t, and paint can’t...it fills up any cracks or seams, creating a completely uniform surface.”

“Yes, but latex isn’t exactly the most durable compound either.” Keith had pointed out, “How do you keep it from peeling off in the slipstream?”

“By covering it over with a layer of varnish.” the old fox answered, “Took almost a year to come up with one that wouldn’t dissolve the rubber in the process.  Anyways, after the varnish is applied, it’s sanded to complete smoothness...go on, feel for yerself.”

Keith did...and was amazed.

“When I took my paw away, I nearly went to wipe it on my pants -- that plane’s surface was so smooth, if almost felt like it were greased.”

There were a number of other innovations as well; instead of the usual array of bracing wires to secure the two floats, Conlon had added another pair of struts, connecting outwards to the wings to form a ‘W’ pattern with the two inner struts

“Thin as razors and shaped like airfoils.  Conlon admitted they added more weight that bracing wires, but said the trade-off in drag reduction was worth it.”  Expecting a negative answer, Keith asked the old fox if he’d had the opportunity to do any wind-tunnel testing with his plane.

“Of sorts.” the craggy, old vulpine had replied, and Keith laughed as he told me how he’d done it.

What Conlon and his crew did was find an old, disused hay barn, facing west, towards the sea.  Then they’d knocked out the front and back walls, sealed up all the cracks, and just let nature supply the air flow

“Worked quite well, actually.” Conlon told Keith, with a twinkle in his eye, “Galway Bay’s a windy place y’know.  Not ideal, I’ll admit, but better than nothin’.  We mounted an anemometer on the roof to measure the windspeed.”

The more I listened, the more curious I was becoming about this Denis Conlon.  He seemed have a genuine talent for improvising solutions, and to just about any problem you might care to throw his way.

“He did indeed, Drake.” Keith nodded, “And that was another thing I learnt more about that at the Pilot’s Reception...but getting back to the Lady of Nîmes.  I next asked Mr. Conlon what sort of engine he was running...and would yer believe it was a Packard 1A?

I let out a low whistle; the last race-plane to fly with a Packard 1A engine had been a PULITZER Trophy entry, circa 1923.   (Though admittedly, it had dominated the field.)

“Yes, I know.” Conlon had admitted, “But she’s not straight stock, boyo.  I’ve made a number of special modifications of me own.  Fitted her with new ultra high-compression rings and cylinders, cast from an alloy I developed meself, and traded her old valves for sodium-filled ones.  Also put in a better radiator and added two surface radiators on the wings.”

But the piece-de-resistance was the supercharger.

“Built it himself, Drake...and it was a right piece of art.  Every bit machined by paw, one at a time.  If old Mr. Bendix could have had a look at it, he’d have turned green as new-ripe lime.”

 The propellor had turned out to be a conversation piece as well.  A three-bladed prop (unusual for 1935) of very high pitch.  Each one was long enough to almost reach the water, and was dished out in the center like a spoon.  The trailing edges were so sharp, that when Keith ran his paw along one of them, he almost cut himself.

“I had this made to me own specs by a friend of mine, Feargal Siobhan.” Conlon had explained,  “Never done an airplane propellor before, but an absolute master at woodworkin’.”

I felt my ears go up again.

“Fergal Siobhan?  The same bloke who made Danny McCordy’s fiddle?”

“Aye, the very one.” Keith answered.  Danny McCordy was an Irish wildcat and itinerant musician we’d befriended during our Outback days.  Incredible player, and the instrument he carried was a thing of pure beauty.  “No less than ye’d expect from Feargal Siobhan.” Danny was always saying, “There’s no one makes a fiddle like Ferg-o does.”

Keith would love to have stayed to tell Denis the story...

“...but I’ve got an interview with a reporter from the Frankfurter Zeitung, and I can’t be late.  But before I go Mr. Conlon, is your plane ready for it’s board certification and demonstration fight, then?”

“She is,” Conlon answered, with a slow, solemn nod. “Just what I was comin’ to see yer about when you arrived, in fact.”

This was exactly what Keith had been hoping he’d say.  For once, the old boy’s timing was impeccable.

“Splendid, that will work out perfectly; the SIRA board has a breakfast meeting tomorrow at 8...should break up about 9:00...9:30, and then we’ve got another hour before the first Speed Week event of the day.  Can you have the Lady of Nîmes in the water, and ready to go by then? ”

In response to this, Conlon raised a paw, as if about to be sworn in on the witness stand.

“We’ll be there, an’ with bells on, Mr. Lawton.” He said.  They shook on it, and then Keith hurried off to Shepherd’s and his newspaper interview.  

                Speed Week!
                   Lady of Nîmes