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31 December 2008
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Five
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 Five)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

When Keith told the SIRA board that he had accepted Denis Conlon’s entry in the Schneider Cup, their reaction could be summed up in three words:


To be fair to the board members, the news was not met with an entirely uniform reception on their part; James Meffit rolled his eyes at the ceiling, Charles Foster Crane groaned and slapped his forehead, Cedric McCradden threw up his paws in frustration and Stavros Krypriakos looked as if he wanted to come across the table at Keith. 

Ever unflappable under pressure, he gave them a moment to fume, and then repeated what he’d said to Conlon the day before – the rules were the rules and could not be waved. 

“We have to stick by our word, everyone.”

That seemed to mollify only Dr. Meffit.  The rest remained spectacularly unconvinced.

“You let this fox into the Schneider,” Charles crane warned, punctuating each word with a jab of his finger in Keith’s direction, “and it’ll be like letting in the camel who only wanted to warm his NOSE in the arab’s tent; by next year, we’ll have every backyard crank from here to Peoria wanting in on the Cup.   And then, what will you do?”

“Yes, absolutely.”  Stavros Krypriakos nodded vigorously in agreement, “And what happens if these tinkerers  manage to get their entries in ahead of the major players like the Reggia Aeronautica and Lady Fenwick?   Are you going to tell THEM, ‘Sorry, but the rules are the rules?’”

Keith listened patiently to their arguments, then stood up, placing his paws on the tabletop.

“I do wish you gentlefurs would give me a bit of credit now and then.  Mr. Crane?  Dr. Krypriakos, I’ve already anticipated your concerns...and so for next year, I’m proposing the following rule change; To be eligible to compete in the Schneider Cup, all entries must have the official approval of their native government.”

Had the members of the SIRA board not been so upset with Keith at the moment, they might have recognized the genius of his proposal right then and there.

It was a masterstroke; with one simple rule-change, he had not only ensured that the vast majority of backyard builders would be eliminated from competition, but virtually guaranteed that the first available slots would go to the pilots with major sponsors.  And if the tinkerers didn’t like it, well the Spontoon Island Racing Association could hardly be faulted for the bias of their OWN governments, now then could it?

Only later would the other board members come to appreciate this; it did not solve their more immediate problem, after all.

“You know, Mr. Lawton,” Cedric McCradden spoke up for the first time.  “Clifford Henderson is going to have a field day with this, when he hears about it.”  He was easily the youngest member of the board, and always the last one to speak his piece.  It was said by some that Keith had selected him on the grounds that he would be able to dominate the young sea-otter in any given conflict.

That wasn’t true, nor was it fair to my friend.  Cedric had in fact been chosen for his expertise in the field of aircraft design.  Furthermore, Keith never tried to impose his will on the SIRA board.

He didn’t have to; his acceptance of the position of Race Organizer had come only after the Althing had agreed to make him a virtual dictator over the Schneider Cup.  One clause in his contract for example, gave him absolute veto-power over any decision by the board with which he disagreed.  (During Speed Week itself, this article even applied to the Althing.)  Yet another clause allowed Keith to bypass the board entirely in an emergency situation...with just what consisted of an emergency being left up entirely to his own discretion.  In short, as he had acidly reminded Captain Rogers, during the final two weeks of August, my friend had no superiors and very few equals.

Even so, Keith only chose to exercise these powers as a last resort, ( as he had in the matter of the tri-motor aerobatics competition. ) preferring instead to employ his considerable powers of persuasion.

“I don’t think so, Mr McCradden.” he said, “Word is, Henderson’s got an odd duck of his own entered in the Thompson Trophy, plane called the Bonzo...and that’s not even mentioning the bigger problem he’s got.”

Keith did not elaborate, but everyone knew what he was talking about...the deluge of correspondence Henderson had received, demanding that Katie MacArran be allowed to fly in the Thompson  -- a race normally reserved for male competitors only.

“And there’s something else.” my friend said, sitting down once again, “None of you have actually seen seen the Lady of Nîmes, or talked with her creator, I have.  She’s the ugliest airplane ever, I’ll grant you that...but one thing she’s NOT is a backyard whack-up job.” He paused, looking from one face to the next, as he spoke again. “I dunno where, when, or how he came by it, but somewheres along the line this Conlon bloke picked up some serious expertise in aircraft design...and not just through trail and error.  He’s done this for a living, I’m sure of it.”

What settled it was when Keith reminded everyone, that he had only accepted Denis’s application on the conditions that his plane be certified as airworthy by the SIRA board, and then perform a successful demonstration flight.  In other words, he wasn’t in the race just yet...and whether or not that would happen lay in THEIR paws. 

That was enough for the board, at least for the moment, and so with Keith leading the way, the board filed out of the Aero Club, and went to have a look at Denis Conlon and The Lady of Nîmes.

They found him at the Superior dock, with his plane tied up to the quayside, in the midst of performing some last-minute tuning on the engine.

When they got their first look at Denis Conlon, and his plane, the other board members promptly demonstrated that they were not nearly as well versed in etiquette as Keith Lawton; by way of greeting, they collectively let loose the sort of sound usually heard in response to a particularly bad pun.  If anything, the Lady of Nîmes was even more homely to behold in daylight than she’d been inside her shed, an effect not diminished by the crude number ‘3' hastily scrawled on the tail fairing with what looked like charcoal.

Conlon, for his part, was unruffled.

“I know she’s nothin’ much to look at, furs.” he said, climbing down from the engine, and turning to face his jury, “but then I’ve noticed that the race doesn’t necessarily go to the PRETTIEST runner, now then does it?”

“He might also, have been talking about himself.” Keith noted dryly, “He was wearing coveralls so greasy, could have used ‘em for oilskins, three sizes too big no less, and his fur was matted in all direction.  He’d either been burning the midnight oil last night, or gotten a VERY early start that morning.”

Even so, the old fox’s statement was enough to have the board members looking abashed faces at each other; the Sea-Bee, the plane which had brought the Schneider to the Spontoons in the first place, had been no beauty queen either.

On closer examination of the Lady of Nîmes, at least two of the board members were ready to reassess their initial impression of her.  Cedric McCradden called her ‘an inspired piece of work’ and, ‘a first-rate construction job.’  Dr. Krypriakos was particularly impressed by Conlon’s ‘geo-cocque’ design, and wanted to question him at length about it, “when you have more time.”  Both he and Cedric agreed that she was fully airworthy and ready for her demonstration flight. 

However, one more opinion was needed on that score before Conlon could hit the starter button;  Cedric and Dr. Kripriakos area of expertise ran towards airframes, not aircraft engines.  For that, the board needed the opinion of an ‘outside consultant’, i,e Cedric MCradden’s older brother, Daffyd -- Superior Engineering’s resident mechanical expert.

He arrived clad in coveralls that, if it were possible, were even more filthy than the ones Denis Conlon was wearing.  (A fact that seemed to immediately endear him to the old vulpine.)

Climbing up and poking his head inside the engine cowling, the burly sea-otter spoke not a word as he conducted his examination of her power-plant.  This clearly made the Donnelly brothers and Paddy Martin nervous, but Conlon just stood there, leaning against a post with one leg crossed over the other, and watching insouciantly.

“He seemed almost to be DARING Daffyd to find anything wrong.” Keith told me, “Like he was saying, ‘G’wan, boyo, do yer worst.’”

But then who should come ambling over to see what was up but the third McCradden brother, Paddy...who clearly hadn’t forgotten the way Denis had hoodwinked him.  His immediate comment was a derisive hoot, followed by a litany of commentary, most unprintable, about The Lady of Nîmes.  That was enough to get the Donelly boys moving across the pier in his direction, and Paddy Martin was none too pleased either.

Conlon, however, remained wholly unfazed.

“If that’s yer attitude about me plane, boyo,” he said, flashing Paddy McCradden his best sardonic grin, “then what say we make our bet double or nothin’?   The Lady of Nîmes, gone off your dock by sunset, against a hundred guineas....an’ says she passes her flight test with flying colours.”

Paddy instantly silenced himself; once bitten, twice shy.

Daffyd meanwhile, had closed the engine cowling and was climbing down again.  Walking up to Denis, he offered his paw, saying only, “S’good.”

As I mentioned before, Daffyd McCradden is a member of Duchess MacArran’s race team for this years Schneider-Cup, and about as talkative as a fence-post.  A paw shake and a word from him is like anyone else gushing on for ten minutes.

With the consensus made, it felt to Keith to deliver the verdict.

“Very well, Mr. Conlon, this plane is hereby certified as airworthy, pending a satisfactory performance in her demonstration flight.  You may now enter the cockpit and start the engine.”

“Yes sir,” the fox nodded solemnly, “if ye would just give me a moment to change into something more suitable for flying then?”

“Ahhh, are you saying that YOU’RE the pilot, sir?”  It was Dr. Meffit.

“I am that,” Conlon’s chest went out as he turned to speak directly to the skunk, “And I am also fully aware that I shal need to pass a physical examination prior to being allowed to compete.  And if the result of that examination should be that I am too infirm to fly in the Schneider Cup, then I fully intend to both accept and abide by that decision.”

Keith never knew if Conlon was aware that he was speaking to the very fur who would perform that examination.  “But one thing I could tell, mate.  Conlon had obviously been rehearsing that answer for at least a day or two.  It was the first time I ever heard him tone his brogue down.”

Disappearing into a nearby shed for a moment, Conlon re-emerged, clad in a pair of linen trousers and shirtsleeves; a wise choice, it was a humid morning, and warming quickly.  He then stood quietly still while Paddy Martin wrapped his tail tightly in with a linen bandage, drawing impatient looks from most of the board, and a sympathetic one from Dr. Meffit, himself a bushy-tailed species.

While this was going on, Conlon was strapping on a well-worn flight helmet, and adjusting his flight-goggles, a pair of ancient things, that must have dated from the Great War. 

“They were so old, the glass in the lenses had actually started to turn blue,” Keith flicked his cigarette into the water, where it died with a fast hiss, “Cedric asked him if he wanted a newer pair, but he just said, ‘Not on yer life, boyo.’ And later, when I found out where he’d got those goggles, I couldn’t have agreed with him more.” He chuckled and waved a paw. “but that’s for later, pal.  Now, there’s never been a Schneider-Cup racer didn’t have a small cockpit, comes with the territory you might say...but to get him in behind the stick of THAT plane, Conlon and his boys  practically needed to perform a flippin’ tea-ceremony.  He had to ease himself halfway into the seat, and then stay like that while the Donellys threaded his tail round the back of it.  Only then could he sit down the rest of the way, and strap in.”

What happened next was so purely routine, it was almost an anti climax.  While the Donellys undid the Lady of Nîmes from the pier, Paddy Martin inserted the engine crank and began to turn it.  After about half a dozen revolutions, the engine caught and started, black smoke spitting from the exhaust pipes, then turning to grey, and finally invisible.

Daffyd McCradden would later tell Keith that as soon as he heard it, he knew that the Lady of Nîmes’ Packard R1 engine had indeed been highly modified....but even without that knowledge, the sound was impressive to Keith’s ears; deep and throaty, but without being guttural. 

“It was Sophia Bianco, whose hangar was nearby, who probably best described it.  She said it reminded her of a Basso Profundo in an opera, warming up before a big performance.”

Taxiing out into the lagoon, Conlon turned his plane west and into the wind, waiting for clearance from the tower.   The conditions that morning were a steady, if not stiff breeze, some low, scudding clouds and a little chop the in harbor.  All in all, it wasn’t the perfect situation for the Lady of Nîmes to make her debut, but it was by no means unsuitable for the purpose at paw.

Conlon’s take-off was neither the best, nor the worst that Keith had seen from a racer that week; after one false start, the Lady of Nîmes lifted easily off the water and into the air.  Not great, but more than adequate for the stamp of approval.  Circling left, Conlon came around to start the first lap of his demo flight...and that was when the board truly began to revise their opinion of his plane.

Keith’s explanation for their change of heart can only be described as a novel analogy

“You’ve seen pelicans sitting on pilings now and again, haven’t you Drake?   Big and ugly, ‘bout the most ungainly thing you’ve ever set eyes on...UNTIL they get airborne, then they’re almost elegant to look at.  And when they go into a dive, it’ll about take your breath aways.  That’s what it was like watching the Lady of Nîmes in flight.  She might have been an ugly duckling on the ground, but once she got airborne...wel-l-l-ll it’d be going a bit far to call her a beautiful swan.  But to see her fly, it was still as different as night and day.”

Even so, Conlon hadn’t pulled it out yet.  He still had to make three full circuits of the lagoon, the third one flat out...and for he final lap that he had to maintain an average airspeed of at least 200 mph.               

Conlon’s first two circuits of the lagoon went smoothly enough. There were no signs of instability or engine trouble, and the Lady of Nîmes went easily through her turns.

“All well and good.” said Charles Crane, rolling the focus bar on his binoculars for a better look.  He lowered them for a second, and looked at Keith, adding a terse. “so far.”

Keith sighed and lowered his own lenses.  Crane, it was becoming painfully obvious, was going to be the toughest nut to crack.  He was about so say something, when he heard Cedric McCradden give a short bark.

“Byowp!  Now, where the devil did HE come from?”

Keith quickly lifted his binoculars again...and saw that another plane had just pulled up alongside The Lady of Nîmes.

“Who’s that, then?” he heard Dr. Meffit asking. 

Keith rolled the focus on his binoculars.

The interloper’s aircraft was a big plane, with long floats and a fuselage shaped like stretched barrel; flying next to it, the Lady of Nîmes looked even more like a child’s toy than when Keith had first set eyes on her. 

“This other plane had a radial engine, too.” my friend recalled, “which narrowed it down to one of only three entrants in the Schneider.”

Then, as the pairs came closer, he saw that the newcomer was painted a deep, sea-green, with lemon yellow wings.

“That’s Jimmy Haizlip, in the Chronicler.” he said.

“Well what’s he doing?” demanded Stavros Kypriakos, “Tell the tower to get him out of there.”

“How?  We don’t have a radio.” Keith reminded him.

“There’s one back in our office,” said Cedric, “Paddy can go take care of it.”

Paddy’s fur turned instantly into a stiff brush  “Oi, an’ since when did I become YOUR errand..?”

His words were cut off as Haizlip waggled his wings at Conlon in an unmistakable fashion.  Dr. Meffit almost dropped his binoculars when he saw it.

“Good God...he’s challenging Conlon to race him.”

When Conlon waggled his wings back in acceptance, EVERYONE’S binoculars almost went clattering.  Cedric McCradden became almost apoplectic.

“Paddy....for God’s sake, get back to the office and tell the tower to...”

“No, Cedric.” Keith responded, speaking calmly and with authority, “Let them go at it.”

Even now, three years later, he is still unable explain the reason for his action.

“All I can say is pal...it just FELT like the right thing to do.”

“And it was,” Lucy added, putting her arms around his neck and giving him a small nuzzle.

The two planes slowly accelerated as the they turned into the strait separating Moon and Eastern Islands, running in perfect parallel.  By acclamation, the starting point for these impromptu contests, then as now, was the Eastern Island radio tower. 

“How Conlon had become aware of that fact, even his crew didn’t seem to know.” Keith said, shrugging.

The two planes were almost perfectly aligned as the came down the strait and towards the tower.  Everyone was watching with baited breath, caught up in moment in spite of themselves.

Then, as their noses came abreast of the radio mast, there came a roar of engines accelerating, and the two racers shot out of the channel and away.

Haizlip got the jump on Conlon, taking the lead out of the chute...but the Lady of Nîmes was right there with him, less than half a plane length behind.

But then, as the pair went into a sharp turn around the backside of Main Island, Conlon pulled his plane up slightly and dove to the inside, the racers disappearing around the backside of Main’s northeastern peak.

But when they came back into view again, at least one pair of binoculars DID fall to the floor...Charles Crane’s.

“Oh my Gaw...Conlon’s BEATING him!”

And he was...going through the turn, the Lady of Nîmes had picked up at least two plane lengths on the Chronicler.  Through his binoculars, Keith could see the old fox whoop and laugh as he plunged ahead, with his opponent’s plane trailing in his wake

But Jimmy Haizlip was no rookie pilot, and he wasn’t about to be bested quite that easily.  As he and Conlon went hurtling around the backside of Main Island, the Chronicler slowly began to close the gap, until she and the Lady of Nîmes were running neck and neck and ful flat-out.   As the flashed by the twin shortwave towers, the Chronicler had regained a slight advantage...but seconds later, Conlon took it back 

Coming around the turn on the Southern tip of Main Island, Conlon attempted a repeat of the trick that had put him into the lead...but this time Haizlip was ready for him.  As the Lady of Nîmes pulled up and dived to the inside, so did the Chronicler, and so the gambit was only good for a sliver of distance, which Jimmy Haizlip quickly erased.

Almost neck and neck, and wingtip-to-wingtip, the Chronicler and the Lady of Nîmes went flashing around the backside of South Island, with Haizlip beginning to pull ahead once again.

But now the two planes were swinging into the final turn around South and into the seaplane channel.  Not only was this the tightest curl yet, but is was also an‘S’-curve.. 

Keith smiled wickedly as he related what happened next.

“Jimmy obviously knew by now that his plane couldn’t out-turn the Lady of Nîmes...but he also knew the Chronicler was the faster plane on the straightaways.”  He chuckled, raising his glass as if in salute to a passing firefly. “So he went for one of the oldest tricks out there.  He simply pulled up right beside of Conlon, on the inside.  That way, the old fox couldn’t take the turn any more tightly than he could...and once they were out of it, the Chronicler’s superior power would give him the lead to the finish flags.”

“Hm,” I said, watching him, “Judging by the look on your face mate, I’d say it didn’t quite work out that way.”

It didn’t.  Conlon might not have been the more experienced pilot, but he still knew a thing or two. What most are racers would have done was play a little game of ‘chicken’ with Jimmy Haizlip, pulling in dangerously close on the turn, trying to make him back off.

Not Conlon.  Instead, he pulled wide on the turn, and gave his plane the gun...which he knew would also gave HIM the inside track through the second part of the ‘S’.

“Except Conlon was taking it too fast for such a tight turn.” It had been three years ago, but Keith’s words were still came out in a rush, “At that speed, he’d never make the reverse curve without going into a spin...if he was lucky.”

Everyone was holding their breath as Conlon and Haizlip went roaring into the final turn...watching for the telltale shudder of Conlon’s tail fairing, the herald of an imminent breakaway from the fuselage.

It never came.  Even the Lady of Nîmes wasn’t that indestructible, but she WAS nimble enough to pull back to the outside of the turn, just in time.
Whether it was intentional or not, nobody ever found out, but Conlon’s move forced the Chronicler to go wide on the curve, putting the old fox in the lead by a plane length once again.  Now the two racers let it all out as they barreled headlong for the radio tower.  And once more, Haizlip was closing the gap, but this time he wasn’t going to make it.  When the two planes went shooting past the radio-tower and the finish line, the Lady of Nîmes was still in the lead.

“Beat the Chronicler by a good two yards.” Keith said,, then quietly set his glass down, looking straight at me. “And with just that one lap ‘round the lagoon, Conlon had changed it all.”

                Speed Week!
                    Lady of Nîmes