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2 September 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Twelve
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 Twelve)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

Keith’s face was a mask of disgust.

“Flippin’ circus, that’s what it was.” He growled, “Seemed like every reporter on the island was camped outside Doc Meffitt’s door, waiting for the verdict on whether Denis Conlon was fit to compete in the Schneider.  Had to have the constables to clear a pathway so’s his nurse could get through, it was that bad.”

Yes, it was... but this time, Keith was ready.  He knew that...

A. Given Conlon’s age, there was every chance the old boy might not be approved for the competition,

B.  Every race fan and his uncle was rooting for the Irish fox to get into the Schneider.

“Put those things together mate, throw in a swarm of reporters, and y’ didn’t have to Hercule Purrrot to see what was coming....so what I did, was have Conlon go in to have his examination first rather than last, and sneak him in the back way, rather than bring him through the front door.”

“How’d he feel about that?” I asked. “Conlon,” The old boy hadn’t sounded much like the type for back alley maneuvers.

Keith laced his fingers and leaned forward in his lounge chair, “Oh he was perfectly agreeable to going in the back way, once he saw that farce going on out front -- didn’t like it any more than I did.  ‘Fer cryin’ out loud, boyo,’ he said, ‘I’m not even IN the race yet!’”

“Uh-huh,” I nodded, “And what about the exam itself?   Pretty much the same as it is now?”

Yes, it was... and also more or less the same physical examination Keith and I had both taken when we’d joined the Royal Flying Corps back in 1917 -- heart, pulse, breathing, blood-pressure, eyes, hearing, etc... with one or two innovations of Doctor Meffitt’s own devising thrown in.  For the first, an equilibrium test, you had to turn round five times, as fast as you could, and then walk a straight line.  The second, what Dr. Meffitt called the blackout test involved being propped up against a wall, upside down, for two minutes, then standing up quickly and doing the same.
“And how did Mr. Conlon do, then?”  I queried.

For a moment, I though Keith was going to make me wait while he poured for himself and Lucy again.  Then he raised an ear.

“Well, he didn’t pass it with bells on, mate.  Got the lowest score of anyone, as y’ might expect.  But he didn’t barely squeak through either, well within the acceptable standards for Schneider competition.”  A long, wicked grin wound its way around his muzzle “Heh... but y’ should have seen those reporters’ faces, when Doc Meffit came out and told ‘em Mr. Conlon had already completed his physical and was long gone.  Thought for a second there, they might turn into a lynch mob.  But old Doc, he was as cool as the shade with it, just stood there and announced, very calmly, “On the basis of a full, physical examination, Mr. Denis Conlon is judged fit to compete in this year’s Schneider.Cup competition, barring any subsequent injuries or infirmities.”

I just nodded at this. 

“Very wise of the good doctor to qualify his statement like that.” I observed.  If Conlon entered another competition later on and got hurt, Doctor Meffitt didn’t want to be on record as saying the old boy was fit to compete in ANY race; it’s the sort of thing solicitors drool over.

“Yeah, that was what I thought too.” Keith told me, but with an odd inflection in his voice.  Then he slapped a paw on the side-table.“but that was the end of THAT silly spectacle.  By the time it was the next racer’s turn to go in, the reporters had already scattered.”

Needless to say, the other pilots all passed their exams as well...and then everyone dispersed to their hangars to prepare for the first qualifying run, while Keith went to his office, to oversee the day’s activities.”

“One big advantage I had over Henderson,” he said, referring again to Clifford Henderson, organizer of the National Air Races, “was that at that time, the US Commerce Department was on a crusade to put the American air circuses out of business, dropping so many regs on ‘em, they couldn’t operate.”  He began to pant and wag his tail, “But here in the Spontoons, there were no such restrictions...and so they were more than happy to bring their acts here for Speed Week.”  His tail wagged faster.  “We had ‘em all, mate -- the Clyde Pangborn Circus, the Mabel Cody Circus, the Thirteen Black Cats, but for that day, we had something REALLY special in the works; me old boss Alan Cobham had put his lot back together for a one-time-only reunion show.  And the crowd loved every second of it.”
“So did he.”  Lucy put in, with a wink.

Keith waved a playful finger, “Course I did.  I’m entitled to have some fun at this job aren’t I?”  He abruptly became serious, leaning forward in his chair, with his fingertips forming an inverted triangle. “But it weren’t all fun and games for me, mate....today was my first real test.   I could put on all the spectacle I wanted., but if I couldn’t deliver a great race with it...well, there’s no show gets a worse review than one’s got a great warm-up and a boring main attraction, is there?    And what sort of race we might have was one thing over which I had very little control.”

Not that Keith didn’t give it everything he’d got, and then some.

In the original Schneider-Cup, the planes had raced against the clock—and also against a bewilderingly complicated set of rule that provided time penalties for everything from cutting a pylon to not taxiing the proper distance before takeoff.   As a result, it was not unknown for a pilot to have the best finishing time, and then get knocked down in order, or even disqualified-- something that did NOT sit well with the race fans.

Keith Lawton changed all that; now instead of against the clock the racers would compete against each other, and those time penalty rules that weren’t eliminated outright were instead, highly modified; for example, now if a racer cut a pylon he was required to circle back around it instead of being given a time penalty.

However, owing to the dimensions of the Spontoon lagoon, however, the racers couldn’t start in a ‘racehorse line’, as they did for the Thompson Trophy.   Instead they would have to start in a grid pattern.

It is the true measure my friend’s genius that he was able to turn that liability into a whopping big asset; to determine each plane’s position in the grid, Keith decreed that there would be two qualifying runs of seven laps each, to be run the weekend before the main event.  Each racer’s best time, in either run, would be used to determine their starting position on race day.

If some of Keith’s other ideas for Speed Week were met with blank stares or even baleful glares, this one was met with a rousing cheer; EVERYONE loved the idea, the casino owners, the Althing, the hotel owners, the racers, and of course the fans.....the other members of the SIRA board were tripping all over one another to vote, ‘aye!’

But even that wasn’t enough for Keith.  Next he ordered the construction of a gigantic clock, a contraption that resembled a gigantic thermometer.   As each racer went streaking around the pylons, he time counted upwards, stopping when the plane crossed the finish on the last lap.  The position was then marked with an arrow, bearing the pilot’s number and race colours; thus the fans could see at a glance how each competitor was faring against the rest of the field as he went round the course.

( The idea worked so well, that three more of these thermometer clocks were added for the next year’s race, each one placed at a strategic location, round the lagoon. )

But even that couldn’t guarantee a good race; it would either happen or it wouldn’t.  And at precisely 2 o’clock that afternoon, the fans gathered round the Spontoon Lagoon to find out.

It was a fine afternoon for a air-race, clear with just a little bit of haze. A bit on the warm side, to be sure, but it could have been a lot worse.

“If nothing else, it was the first time the fans got a look at all the race planes lined up together... including the Lady of Nimes, which was down at the far end of the queue.”

Incredibly, Conlon still had not gotten his starting berth.   Not one of the other competitors had been forced to drop out, a set of circumstances that left Keith more bewildered than anything else.

“If anyone had told, even three weeks previously, that every plane would still be in it by the first qualifying run I would have called for Sergeant Brush to fetch a strait-jacket immediately.” he said, his disbelief faded not in the slightest by the intervening years

Still, this was the first time the race-planes would be giving it their all.  And if any of them were unable to complete their run, Conlon would get his chance.

The first qualifying run was set in a triangular pattern, (with a diamond pattern set for the
second one.)  Then as now, the starting order was determined by drawing lots.

“First up was Jimmy Haizlip in The Chronicler, and he was none too happy with it,” Keith shrugged and reached for his glass, “Can’t say as I blame him much, no one wants to be the bloke everyone’s trying to beat....but rules are rules, and SOMEBODY had to go first, eh?”

True enough, but whatever umbrage Mr. Haizlip may have felt against the gods for putting him at the head of the pack, he did not let it put him off his stride.   Professional that he was, he gave it everything he had round the pylons, and got a healthy time for his efforts.

“Soon as I saw that crowd, I knew how well I’d done.” is what Haizlip told a reporter, later in the day.

Keith was pleased as well, the race fans’ appetites were now well and truly whetted. 

“I’d been keeping me fingers crossed all morning that we’d have a good first run, nothing better to fire up the crowd.”

The next plane on course was the French entry, which didn’t do nearly as well as the Chronicler, followed by the Hawker Cyclone, which also turned in a lackluster performance.

But then it was the DeHavilland Sea-Comet’s turn, and by the end of the fifth lap, it was obvious that Harry Forlani was going to beat the Chronicler’s time.  Things were getting interesting once more.

Things got even more interesting when the next plane was pulled up to the starting post, the Boeing R25, co-sponsored by Pan-American Airways.

“I saw the propellor turned twice, heard the engine started to catch, and then it coughed and died, with dark smoke coming from the exhaust.”  Keith was saying.  “The fuel mixture was too rich.”

“Either that, or motor oil was getting into the carburetors.”  I countered.   As I said, I’ve done some engine work myself. 

“Right.”  Said Keith, fanning the air with his fingers, ‘But the important thing Drake, was that each competitor was allowed five tries at starting his engine, and no more.  If it didn’t catch on the fifth attempt, he was disqualified from competition that day... and Ron Brentschen,  the Boeing pilot didn’t have any more luck getting his engine to turn over on the next try.  On the next one, he barely got the prop to turn at all.  Now, it was beginning to look as if Denis Conlon might finally have his place in the starting lineup.”

Alas, no such luck for the old boy; on the fourth attempt, the Boeing’s engine finally caught.  Ron Brentschen eventually ended up with the worst qualifying time of any competitor that day....but he completed the course nonetheless, and the rules were the rules as Keith had just said.

But whatever disappointment the crowd may have felt over the R25's dismal run was soon to be alleviated.  Next, it was Sophia Casadonte’s turn, and if anyone still doubted that she was a top contender for the Cup, such doubts were quickly put by the wayside.  La Belldonna shot into the air as if she’d been launched from a catapult, and in a stunning upset, Sophia edged out Harry Forlani to take the top slot for herself.

“She beat Forlani by only two tenths of second, but she beat him just the same.”   Keith’s tail was wagging again as he recalled it, “And the first thing she did after climbing out of the cockpit was go running over to the Lady of Nimes and give Denis Conlon a big kiss.  THAT got a few whoops from the stands, I can tell you.”

Her jubilation, however, was destined to be short lived.  Next up was Francesco Agello, in the stunning Macchi-Castoldi MC 87.

“He just blew round those pylons so fast, only one good photo of his run was ever taken.” Keith waved, as if at a nonexistent wall,  You’ve seen it, it’s the one on the wall of my office, above the bookshelf.   Agello beat Sophia’s time by a good two seconds, didn’t smash her record, but it was still a solid win.  I saw General Italo Balbo jumping up and down like a kit when the MC 87 crossed the finish line; even he hadn’t expected Agello to perform that well.”  He sighed, “But after that, it was all downhill, no one else even came close to touching Agello’s time...and none of the others had any sorts of mechanical problems.  By the time the last racer was preparing to taxi, everyone knew The Lady of Nimes wasn’t going to be in it.   That plane was the Jersey Lightning,  anything but a great performer, but she had never experienced even the slightest bit of mechanical trouble, not one flippin’ time.”

No one knew that better than Denis Conlon.  Even as the Jersey Lightning was being towed to the starting line, the old fox’s crew was patting him on the back and attempting to console him.

“I managed to steal a look in his direction.”  Lucy added, “Sophia Casadonte and her father were there with him as well.  Poor Denis, he was trying so hard to put on his best brave face....but it didn’t look as if he could keep it up for long.”

The Jersey Lightning had just taken off, when Cedric McCradden appeared and passed Keith a note.

“Who’s this from then?” He’d asked, thoroughly peeved.  If there was one time NOT to interrupt him....

“From my brother Daffyd.” the young otter replied, nervously, “I’ve no idea what it’s all about, but he said to give it to you straight away.”

“For a second, I though about stashing that note in my pocket and reading it later.”  Keith’s tail shivered slightly, as if at the thought of what might have been, “except... Daffyd McCradden sending me a message just then?   If it had come from THAT bloke, it must have been important.  So I unfolded the paper and -- typical Daffyd --  on it was written just four words, ‘Tail faring, look close’.”

Keith knew Daffyd well enough by then to know that he had to have meant the Jersey Lightning, and so he trained his binoculars on the racer, focusing in on the tail section.

“There’d been a lot of modifications made to the plane to get her ready for the Schneider.”  Keith said, and I nodded in response.

“No big surprise there pal, tonight’s first time I’ve ever heard of anyone even TRYING to run a Wedell-Williams 44 as a seaplane.  And you’re not gonna get away with it unless you make some serious changes, even I know that much.”

“True for telling mate,” Keith waved a paw, sending the firefly that had been circling round his head dashing for safely, “If I hadn’t known Jersey-L was a Weddell-Williams double-four, I might never have taken her for one.”  He leaned forward on his knees again,   “They’d done some right radical things to that plane to get her ready for the Schneider, Drake... radical, it’s the only word to describe it.   First off, they’d lengthened fuselage and slimmed it down, then they’d shaved down the cockpit so much, it was even more cramped than the Lady of Nimes.  The capper though was the engine, upgraded from a Pratt and Whitney Hornet to a Twin Wasp.”

I let out a low whistle, “Grrrr mate, that should’ve made for one hot plane.”

Keith’s mouth went in two different directions.

“Yeah, you’d have thought so, wouldn’t y’ Drake?  But it didn’t happen.  As fine a land-plane as the 44 is, it just didn’t convert that well into a floatplane.”  He sat back again, leaning an elbow on the chair arm, “I later learnt that Mr. Whitney had been hoping to have Jimmy Wedell design a Schneider Cup racer from the ground up for him, but then Wedell got killed in that silly accident.” (The previous summer, one of Mr. Wedell’s students had  frozen up at the controls while he was in the cockpit.) “After that, Mr.Whitney had to do the best he could with a modified type 44....and he wasn’t doing all that well.”

“Yeah, so you said Keith.” I held out my glass for another refill, “But what about the Jersey Lightning’s tail faring, then?  Was that modified as well?”

“Yeah,” said Keith, his mouth becoming a flat, grim line, “Originally the rudder had gone all the way ‘round the tail faring, but now the plane had a ‘boat tail’, kind of like the Hughes H-1, and a split rudder, part of it above and part of it below the tail.”  He reached quickly for his beer and took a fast swallow...and I was promptly taken aback    This was a sign that I knew all too well, and I was most gratified to know that I was not the cause.  “But what caught my attention,” he said, “Or rather what Daffyd had wanted to bring to my attention was something new that had been added -- a pair of exhaust ports on the underside of the tail.”  He set his glass down again, “At first, I was a bit confused.  Granted, that was rather an odd place to mount an exhaust pipe, but given the changeover to the large engine, it was perfectly understandable that the Jersey Lightning would want to have them.”

But then Keith noticed something else....and his tail went rigid, and he had to bite his lip to keep it from curling up in fury.

Down went the binoculars, and then he was wheeling on Cedric as if the young chap had just made an offensive remark to Lucy.  (Who was also there in Keith’s box.)

“You there, get over to the Jersey Lighting’s hangar right away, and tell them they’re to bring their plane in immediately, my express orders.  Then go find your brother Daffyd and tell him to meet me there at once.”

Cedric just blinked at him, “Mr. Lawton, wh-what....?”

Keith nearly took his head off.

“Didn’t you here me sport?” he barked, “Get a move on!”

Cedric hurried away.  Keith watched him go, then rang up the tower, (The organizer’s box had its own direct line.)

“What I told them was that the Jersey Lightning was not, repeat NOT to be given the green light to start her qualifying run without my express orders.  Made ‘em repeat it back to me twice, just so’s there’d be no understanding.”

That being done Keith raised his binoculars once more and resumed his scrutiny of the Jersey Lightning, which just continued to circle overhead, giving no indication of turning for home.

After a few moments, Cedric reappeared, with his brother Daffyd in tow and a none-too-happy look on his face.

“Mr. Lawton?   I relayed your order as you said, but Mr. Whitney refuses to bring his plane down and demands the Jersey Lighting be given the starting gate immediately.”

I wanted to duck and cross my arms over my head when Keith told me this, NO ONE talks to him that way, not during our Outback days, and certainly not now...but then I remembered something else.

“Hang on mate, what was Mr. Whitney doing at his hangar then?  I’d have thought he’d have a box, wouldn’t he?”

Keith waved a rapid paw in the air, annoyed at having been sidetracked

“The Jersey Lightning’s hangar had a terrace up top, it’s the same one the Russians are using this year, great view and quite comfortable...and just my luck with it too, that the old snake’d be there.   Would’ve saved me a lot of trouble if he hadn’t been.   Anyway, I told Cedric to get back there and tell Whitney that if he didn’t order his plane back this instant, I would.”

This was where Lucy came in again

“What Keith was trying to do,” she explained, “was get the Jersey Lightning back before anyone noticed how long it was taking her to start her qualifying run.  For the moment, he was safe, but the clock was rapidly winding down.”

“Didn’t you ask him what all the fuss was about?” I queried.  As the reader will by now have noted, Lucy’s anything but the shrinking violet type.

My sister let out a small yip.

“Even I know better than to press on Keith when he’s in THAT sort of mood, Drake.  Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.  To have set him percolating like that after the first qualifying runs had gone so well...it must have been something really horrible.”

It was then that Keith heard a new voice, coming from the foot of the Organizer’s Box.

“What the Devil’s going on, Lawton?”

“Normally,” Keith sniggered as he recalled it, “I found Professor Stavros Krypriakos’ company to be about as congenial as bulldog ants, but on this occasion I was glad to see him, I could use some confirmation for what I’d just observed.”

So saying, he invited the Greek goat into his box and passed him the binoculars.  The Professor’s comments, when he saw what Keith had seen, are mostly unprintable, although he did commend my pal on his keen eye.

“Can’t take credit for it actually, Prof.” Keith indicated the burly otter on his left, “It was Daffyd here who first noticed.”

Krypriakos immediately turned to address the Welsh otter. “You SURE you won’t take that job with KV aircraft?” he asked, squinting at Daffyd like a jeweler through a loup.  Daffyd just grunted and shook his head.

At that moment, Cedric reappeared, looking even more distraught than before.

“Wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d held up a bowl and begged for more gruel.” Lucy chuckled at the memory.

“I’m sorry Mr. Lawton,” he said, wringing his paws on every fourth word, “but Mr. Whitney still refuses to order his plane down...and says that if you try to order it, he’ll have his attorneys.....”

That was as far as he got before Stavros Krypriakos jumped in, “with both hooves,” according to Keith.

“What?!  Leave him to me, Lawton!” 

“Those were not the Prof’s exact words of course.” Keith sniggered again, in spite of himself, “but he practically leapt out of the box and was gone off at full tilt.   And now I was genuinely grateful that he’d shown up.”

 Not wasting any time himself, Keith told Cedric McCradden to go and find Sergeant Orrin Brush and have him come to the Jersey Lightning’s hangar as well, “And tell him he might bring a few of his larger blokes with him.” For some reason, his expression turned self-conscious.  “Given Mr. Whitney’s stubborn behavior so far,” he said, “thought I’d best bring the artillery, just in case.”

I just nodded and said nothing.  What I really wanted to know was, what the Devil had Keith seen?  What on earth could have  caused him to give an order like that... or had Dr. Krypriakos running off pell-mell to Team Whitney’s hangar, for that matter?

 But I knew there’d be no prying it out of my pal until he was ready.  Besides, I already had something of an inkling as to what had happened...though I hardly dared believe it.  Would even Richard Whitney have gone THAT far?  

Well, Keith was soon to find out....because at last the Jersey Lightning turned about, and winged away in the direction of her hangar, inciting no small hubbub within the crowd.  Keith ignored it and climbed down from the box, brushing aside the questions from a trio of reporters. 

He had other business to attend to.


(Cedric and Daffyd McCradden are the intellectual property of Steve Gallacci.
Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco is the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.
Stavros Krypriakos is the intellectual property of Walter Reimer.
Sergeant Orrin FX Brush is the intellectual property of EO Costello.)
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