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12 August 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Nine
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 Nine)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

It was well and good that I was seated in a lounge chair when Lucy told me this.  Had I been sitting in an upright position, the legs of my chair would have been skidding out from under me like so many bowling pins.

“He WHAT?!” I yelped, staring at my sister, bewildered, “It was CONLON got the Belladonna to straighten up and fly right?  B-But that means...”

“....means he threw away his own best chance for getting into the race.” Keith finished it for me, “I know, Drake, I know.   Floored me too, when I first heard about it...but at the end of the day, it paid off quite well for Mr. Conlon.  That beau geste of his weren’t lost on the other race teams, y’see; soon’s they heard about what the old fox had done, he was well and truly considered one of their own.”  He paused, scratching at his nose, “Up until then y’see, the other contestant’s feelings about Denis Conlon sat somewhere between suspicion to out-and-out hostility.  Just who’d this old duffer think he was, showing up out of nowhere and grabbing all the limelight for himself?   But after he helped Sophia Bianco get back in the race,...well, after that, it was a very different story.

“Yeah.” I nodded, “That sounds about the size of it, pal.”  Air racers are a clannish lot, always have been, always will be.  It takes an awful lot to be accepted into their fraternity...and sometimes it never happens.   Her Grace, Katie MacArran was getting the cold shoulder from her fellow contestants even after she started winning every race that she entered.  (This was the same year Conlon showed up for the Schneider.)   When I reminded Keith of this, he let out pained yip.

“Interesting y’ should mention her Drake, coz the next thing I knew, I was beginning to understand how Cliff Henderson must have felt, getting swamped with all those letters and telegrams, demanding that Katie of Strathdern be allowed to compete in the Thompson Trophy.  Every other visitor who came to my office was trying to talk me into letting Conlon into the Schneider, and the other pilots and their crews even got up a petition to that effect.  And that was just the race teams an’ the sponsors; imagine what I was getting from the fans.   It finally got so bad, I had to change the number of my office phone.”

“So what finally happened?” I asked.

Keith’s tail began to wag underneath his chair.

“What happened was Denis Conlon.  Soon as he heard what was going on, he rang up Radio LONO and made the announcement that he would never, under any circumstances, accept a slot in the starting line up that involved a waiver of the rules...nor would he accept that slot if another pilot were to bow out but for no other reason than to offer it to him.”

For the second time in five minutes I was staring.

“Someone was actually thinking of DOING that?” I asked, and Keith batted the invisible fly once more. 

“Course they weren’t...but that was the rumour going round.  Conlon felt he had to scotch it, coz he was afraid that if someone pulled out with a mechanical or suchlike, folks might say they’d REALLY done it only to make room for him.  ‘I’ll be no fur’s charity case,’ was how he put it to me later.”

“Quite right, that.” I nodded.  I was very much beginning to like this grizzled old vulpine -- whom I had yet to meet. “But y’ still haven’t told me how he got the Belladonna to play up and play the game.”

It was a riddle that took Keith some whiles to figure out; Lucy was no mechanical expert and so he was only able to get part of the story from her.  It wasn’t until later that he heard the rest of it from Sophia, her father and still later, from Conlon himself, and in all three cases the tale varied somewhat in the telling.  In the final reckoning though, it went something like this:

Conlon, like Keith, had witnessed the first flight of the Belladonna that morning, and had been passing by the Casadonte hangar just as she was being hauled from the lagoon.  No sooner was the canopy pulled back, than Sophia leaped from the cockpit and grabbed a monkey wrench.  What happened next was unclear.  Sophia and her father both said that she was only going to heave it into the water, but Conlon swore she was preparing to take it to her plane.  Whichever version was true, the old vulpine hurried inside to stop her.  Normally, he wouldn’t have made it two feet inside the door, but with everyone’s attention focused on Sophia, nobody noticed him until he spoke up.

“Wait, please...lemme see if I can help yer.”

He immediately found himself surrounded...and the faces weren’t friendly.   As Keith had pointed out to me earlier the other race teams hadn’t LIKED having their thunder stolen by this grey-muzzled upstart, and team Casadonte was no exception.

It would be impossible to print the comments they made verbatim, but the gist of what they said was that Conlon had best remove himself from their premises and quickly, or else suffer the consequences. 

Conlon did not remove himself, but folded his arms and stood his ground.

“If that’s what yer want, very well then...but I’d hazard a guess that yer about at wit’s end, trying to solve this problem yerself, so what have yer got to lose by lettin’ me have a crack at it, eh?”

Again, what happened next varies from fur to fur..  According to Conlon, two of the mechanics made a move at him, and he turned quickly to beat a hasty retreat.  Sophia said that he turned away before any one could respond, and in Guiseppe’s version, one of the mechanics shook his fist at the old fox, but didn’t make a move in his direction.  Whatever happened, everyone agrees that Giuseppe whistled through his fingers and called out, “Wait, please.”

Conlon stopped, and Giuseppe climbed up on stool.

“He is right, amici.” he said, raising his paws like Moses preparing to part the Red Sea, “We really have tried all we could think of...unless one of you has a new idea.”

The response was a pin-drop silence, and the old Ibiza Hound went on, “Si, I thought so...and it has been my experience that in situations such as this, it often helps to bring in someone with a fresh view, a different perspective on the matter.”  He looked directly at Conlon, “If you can be of assistance, signor, I will be fursonally very grateful.”

Conlon later said that Sophia immediately tried to veto her father’s the offer, but she insisted that she was only upset that he’d made it without first asking her.

“Whatever happened,” Keith was saying, “going over his daughter’s head like that was very  much unlike Professor Casadonte...but given the amount of tension in that hangar, I can’t say’s I was all that surprised.”

Nor am I.  I’ve been inside Her Grace’s air race hangar (and a few others) enough to know what happens when things start getting tight; folks begin to make snap decisions...more often than not, ones that they later regret. (Of course, as the reader must already know, this time was one of the exceptions.)

Conlon began by doing a walkaround of the Belladonna, occasionally leaning in to look closely or even to sniff at a particular part of her.  All the while, he kept his paws behind his back and a studious expression on his face.

“That didn’t go down well with one member of Sophia Bianco’s race team.” It was Lucy expounding this time, “Kept barracking him about why he was lookin’ the whole plane over when they  already knew it was the magnetometers.”

(Lucy, of course, had actually wanted to say’ magnetos’.   I did not point this out to her however; if I don’t know by now not to correct my sister when she’s got a full glass in her paw, I never will.)

When he came to the propellers, he stopped, cocking his head first this way, and then that.  It reminded Sophia of a cat watching a mousehole.   Keith was about to tell me more when something he’d just said hit home with me.

Propell-ERS?” I asked, interrupting, “but the Belladonna is only a single engine aircraft.”

“She is now, yeah,” Keith affirmed, “but not back in ‘35; that first year she was running two engines with contra-rotating props.”

“Ah, yeah makes sense.” I nodded.  After the stunning triumph of the Macchi Castoldi 72 the previous year, every seaplane racer and their uncle was at least experimenting with contra-rotating props.

After looking over the propellers, Conlon stepped forward, running a paw along the edge of one of the blades.  Then he turned to Giuseppe.

“Those props, now....they appear to be constructed out of some new type of alloy...am I correct?.”

“You are,” said Sophia, in a voice that made clear that the exact composition of that alloy would NOT be forthcoming.

But Conlon just nodded, and asked another question.

“All right...and is the lady here strictly a circuit racer, or does she also do the long distance, then?”

“She is a circuit racer.” Giuseppe answered, quickly before any one else could comment.

“Right.” said Conlon...and then reached into his pocket, pulling out what looked like a small, gun-metal lozenge.  He placed it against the side of the prop...and watched as it held there..

“Hmmm,” He growled. “Thought so.” He turned around, “Right, I need a battery, wires, and an amperage meter.”

Needless to say, Sophia’s crew didn’t LIKE being given orders by this interloper...and wouldn’t have acceded but for Giuseppe backing him up   With varying degrees of peevishness, they retrieved the requested items.  What Conlon did was first hook the amperage meter up to the wires and battery by itself, and then clamp the battery and meter to opposite sides of  propeller blade, and then hook each one to a different battery terminal.

As soon as the needle moved, “He looked exactly like a someone whose just been dealt four aces.” was how Sophia later described it to Keith.

“Ah-HA!” He growled, raising a clenched fist., “just as Oi thought.”  Without taking his eyes off the amperage meter, he said, “Right, next we’ll need a compass...two would be better, an’ we’ll need to get the Belladonna prepped for flight again.”

That was what tore it.  This time even Sophia joined the chorus of protest.

“ It were one thing for Conlon to expect team Casadonte to follow the orders of some stickybeak they din’t know.” Lucy took her chin in her paw, and gave her head a tiny shake, “but follow them BLINDLY?   That was going more’n a bit too far.”

But then Giuseppe put a paw on his daughter’s shoulder, and spoke up once again. “No!” he barked, and then in much quieter, almost hushed voice, he added, “No...I-I think I see where Signor Conlon is going with this.”

According to Keith, “Sophia later told me there was something about he way her Da said that, made ‘em all clam up right quick.”

Giuseppe meanwhile, was stepping though the crowd, and holding out a paw to the old fox “May I?” he asked.  Conlon passed him the amperage meter, and as soon as he saw it, the old Ibiza hound yelped, and smacked his forehead with a palm.

Che infame!  Of course!   Why did I not see it for myself?”

He gave the meter back to Conlon, and spun rapidly on his heels, barking orders, “like a ships’s captain,” according to the craggy vulpine’s later recollection.

“Petey?  You go over to International Air and see if they will lend you a pair of compasses.  A pair, we must have two.   Aldo?  I need you to move the Belladonna’s radio aerial from behind the cockpit to as close the cowling as you can get her.”

This second order brought an approving yip from Conlon, “Oi!  Good idea that, Professor.”

“T’was right then I began t’ take a real shine t’ Giuseppe.” the old fox told Lucy, during the celebration.
At the moment however. Giuseppe was taking no notice of the vulpine.  Raising his paws, he clapped them twice, like a Mandarin, “The rest of you, we need to get the Belladonna refueled and ready to fly again.  And without waiting for a response, he removed his coat and began to roll up his sleeves.

So did Sophia.

So did Conlon.   

“My sort altogether were those two.” was what the old vulpine told Keith later, “Any crew chief an’ pilot who’re willin’ to get in and get their paws dirty ‘longside their crew are top ‘o th’ list in my book.  So how could I NOT offer t’ lend a paw of me own?”

It was here that I interrupted..

“Blimey, mate...if that’s how he put it, sounds an awful lot like Mr. Conlon was speaking from experience.”

Keith folded his arms and nodded solemnly.

“Yeah, I noticed that too.  But I didn’t find out why until later.”  He lifted his paw in another Great Australian Wave.  “Anyways...IAC was more than happy to lend a Team Casadonte a pair of compasses, and what they did was mount them in the cockpit, one on each side of the pilot’s seat.

“That made it pretty doggone cramped in there.” Sophia told Lucy afterwards, “But I managed to squeeze between them just the same.”

Then Conlon and her father told her to take the Belladonna to the north end of the lagoon at cruising speed, and then turn south.

“And it’s got to be DUE south.” Conlon added, waving a finger for emphasis,” There can’t s’much as one degree of deviation.”

“Si,”“ said Giuseppe, “And then you must bring La Belladonna up to just the edge of where her engine begins to fail...and as you do, you must keep a close eye on the compass needles, and signal meter of the radio.”

“Whoof.” I let out a short, sharp breath. “No mean trick while flying a race plane, that...’specially one with a quirky motor.”

No, it wasn’t...but Sophia was anything but daunted.  “All I cared about right then was getting my plane to straighten up and fly right.” was what she told Lucy at the celebration afterwards.             
So saying, they put the Belladonna into the water and Sophia started the engine

What happened next has already been related – or part of it, anways; Sophia brought La Belladonna to the north end of the lagoon, turned south, and opened the throttles.

Per usual, nothing happened at first.,but then at 225 mph, the engine began to cut out again....and something else also happened.  Sophia later described it in an interview with Charles Foster Crane, of the Spontoon Mirror.

“Just before the engine began to get stubborn on me again, I saw the compass needles waver, and then begin to spin backwards.  Then engine started to stammer, and I had to ease back again, but not before I saw that the needles had turned to point right at the nose of the plane.  That was when I also realized what was happening, why my plane would not fly at full throttle.  But I had to be certain, so I brought the Belladonna up to the wall, as I called it, once more, holding her as long as I dared.   This time there could be no doubt, the needles WERE pointing south.  And there was something else; the radio had gone dead, completely dead, the indicator had dropped all the way down to zero.  Now I was almost certain of the problem, but I had to be completely sure, so I ran the Belladonna up to 225 twice more before bringing her in again.”

And when she landed, everyone in the Team Casadonte hangar knew what the problem had been....and so did I, at that point in the story.   (I’ve done a bit of aircraft engine work in my time.)

“The propellers,” I said, “Those new alloy, contra-rotating props....they were creating a magnetic field while they spun round one other, weren’t they?   An’ that’s what mucking up the Belladonna’s magnetos....am I right?”

Keith cocked a finger and fired it at me, “Bingo!   Not powerful enough to make a difference until she was flying at 225 mph...but after that, look out!  An’ that was also why the Belladonna’s engine didn’t quit when they took her out and put her on the test-bed -- coz they always removed the props when they did that.”

The solution, as is so often the case with supposedly unsolvable problems with an aircraft, was childishly simple.  They just switched over to the Belladona’s spare propellers -- which were not made of that new alloy -- and so didn’t create a magnetic field.

And just like that, Sophia Casadonte became a serious contender for the Schneider Trophy, a fortuitous occurrence for Keith as it turned out.   The fans of her films, whose interest in the Schneider had been only lukewarm up until then, were now almost as eager for the race as she was....including one whose enthusiasm was especially gratifying for her.  The day after her triumphant practice run, Sophia received a telegram from Mr. Freddy Bianco, Hollywood Califurnia, announcing that he would attend the race, after all.  (As everyone knows, it was during the ‘35 Schneider that Sophia Casandonte and her co-star first became an item.)

“But what about Denis Conlon?”  I asked, beginning, “Why’d he do it, then?”

To my considerable surprise, Keith shrugged helplessly, something I’ve only seen him do twice in all the time I’ve known him.

“I honestly don’t know mate; when I asked Denis about it all he said was, “'Well yer don’t leave a lady in distress, d’yer?’  He raised his glass and winked, “Though now I know the story on him, I think I can make a guess.”

I didn’t MEAN to bang my glass when I set it down, but....

“Yeah, about that.....NOW will y’tell me how Mr. Conlon came by bein’ such flippin’ a wizard an’ all?”  Being a herding dog, I’ve never been the most patient of canines.

Keith just grinned and wagged his tail.

“Mind, I didn’t see him again until the Pilot’s Reception, mate...but that was where it finally came out.”


Excerpt from ‘Sophia Casadonte -- No Risk, No Race’, copyright Chas. Foster Crane, The Spontoon Mirror, Aug 31, 1935, used with kind permission.

(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco and Giuseppe Casadonte are the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.)
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