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26 August 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Fifteen
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 Fifteen)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

“Those Ni didn’t get where they were by not knowing a good thing when they had it.” Keith refilled Lucy’s glass, then leaned back in his lounge chair. “The Lady of Nîmes had no sooner crossed the finish line than old Peng-Wum had every single stop pulled out on her behalf. First thing he did was have 50,000 little Irish flags shipped over from Hong-Kong on International Air. Cost ‘im a penny apiece to bring ‘em in, and he sold ‘em for a dime. Sold out in two days and had to bring in more. Then he had this giant ice-sculpture of the Lady of Nîmes done up and put it in the Grand’s main Casino; huge thing, more than twice the size of the Lady herself. Peng claimed it was the largest ice-sculpture in the world.”

“Not exactly true, brother.” Lucy chimed in with a wink. “It wasn’t the largest ice-sculpture EVER, just the biggest one around at that particular time. Peng never mentioned that part of course, but it did the job. Seemed like everyone and their uncle had to come by the Grand just to have a look at her.”

I grinned and wagged my tail.

“And as long as we’re here anyways, how about on quick spin of the roulette wheel, eh?”

Keith grinned back and shot a finger at me. “Bingo! It's like what Peng-Wum said to me once mate, 'Once you get them through the door, the rest will take care of itself.'”

I remembered something else just then

“Hmmm,” I mused, stroking my chin with two fingers, “Is that how the tradition started, then? The victory party I mean.”

At every Schneider victory celebration, the centerpiece is always an ice-sculpture of the winning racer.

“Yes and no.” Keith answered, “Peng had brought in a second block of ice, planning to make another sculpture of the Lady of Nîmes if the first one melted too quick. Didn’t need to as it turned out. After the race. the Chang brothers bought it and used it to do up a statue of the DeHavilland Sea-Comet. It’s been the custom ever since.”

“Hmmmm,” was all I said. It wasn’t all that surprising when I thought about it. Large blocks of ice are not exactly a common sight in this part of the Pacific; who’d want to waste one, if they had it? “So what did Peng do next?” I asked.

A firefly darted in Keith’s face then, but he didn’t bat it away, just followed it with his gaze as if it held a secret wisdom.

“Came to my office and tried to talk me into running off another edition of the race programme, but this time to include an article about the Lady of Nîmes. She, of course, hadn’t been mentioned in the first set. I balked at first, but then Ni offered to pay the printing costs himself, in exchange for a slice of the profits, so I agreed in the end.”

I raised my glass.

“Which was how Peng had planned it all along, I assume?”

Keith raised his back.

“Of course. And anyways, he’d have been insulted if I’d just agreed outright, no dickering at all. I might not have spent as much time dealing with the Chinese as you had back then, pal...but I knew that much, if nothing else.”

The days between the first and second qualifying runs were, then as now, relatively quiet, with few events scheduled. It was another thing Keith wanted that way.

“No worries ‘bout the fans losing interest during that interval.” He explained, assuming his best professional demeanor, “and it’s good to let the fans just play tourist for a day or two. Throw one event after another at ‘em nonstop, and they WILL get bored with it right quick.”

I didn’t answer, I didn’t have to. It was not the first time I had heard Keith deliver that homily-- and I doubt it will be the last. He’d learnt it himself the hard way while working for Alan Cobb.

The day of the second qualifying runs itself however, was anything BUT dull.

“You know how it goes, mate,” Keith had lowered his head, and was shaking it side-to-side, “It never rains, but it pours. From the first plane’s arrival until the second qualifying run, we’d had at least a hundred test flights and a dozen impromptu races...and all without s‘much as one serious mechanical, to say nothing of the first qualifying run. But when the second qualifying day came...well, that was when our chickens finally made it back to the roost.”

By which he meant, before the day was out, the field would be shorter by three planes.

Today of course, the starting order for both qualifying runs is determined by random drawing. In ‘35 however, it was the reverse order of the finish in the first run; slowest time started first, second slowest time started next, and on up the ladder to the fastest time.

The first plane to the starting buoy was the Boeing R-35, the plane whose engine had almost failed to start for the first run...and this time her engine DID fail to catch. After five fruitless attempts at getting their engine to turn over, Keith reluctantly gave the Boeing team the gate.

“Not a good way to start any race day, when the first flippin’ plane to take off can’t get airborne,” he said.

It was only a foretaste of what was to come.

The next two planes turned in performances that can best be described as pitiable. One of them nearly stalled on take-off.

And then it was the Lady of Nîmes’ turn, but if the crowd was expecting anything spectacular from Denis Conlon, they were to be mightily disillusioned. The old fox hadn’t forgotten what happened on his first run, and this time he was playing it safe.

“It was good run, Drake but nothing for the front page. A lot better than his first try, but not nearly as good as how he WOULD’VE finished, first time, if he hadn’t nearly cut that pylon.”

The next plane to go was the French entry, and here something finally happened to catch the fans’ interest. After more than a week of struggle, the French team had finally got their plane’s engine to work correctly.

“Can’t say I was surprised,” Keith rumbled airily, “not with Claude Venzine as the Frenchie’s crew chief. Their Caudron CS-4 put in a performance as good as anything the top three had given on day one.”

Next on the course was Hawker’s entry, the Hawker Cyclone.

“Interesting thing about that plane, mate.” Keith was saying, ‘She’d been built in the hope of becoming Britain’s official entry in the Schneider Cup, but Lady Fenwick had ended up rejecting her in favour of the DeHavilland plane.”

Which quickly turned out to have been a wise decision on her Ladyship’s part. Midway through the third lap, a thin plume of white began trailing from the Cyclone’s engine cowling; white that turned quickly to grey and then to black. The pilot managed to land her safely, but by then, the engine was a write-off and in any event, the aircraft had failed to complete the run.

Now there were eight entries left in the Schneider.

The next to go was Jimmy Haizlip, and now things began to get interesting once more. The Chronicler came off the starting pylon like Seabiscuit out of the starting gate. By the end of his fifth lap, it was obvious he was going to put in the fastest time yet.

Alas, such was not to be. Just as he was preparing to make his turn into the final go round, a chuff of smoke belched out of the Chronicler’s exhaust pipe, and she seemed to stutter in the air for a second.

“Great pilot that he is, Haizlip managed to finish that run,” Keith was studying his glass as though looking for clues, “but with the second slowest time.”

“Did Hearst send him rocket over it.” I had to ask, it would have been just like that bear.

“Not Haizlip.” Keith answered, pursing his lips, “But the team’s chief mechanic was sent packing back to Oakland on the next plane out...and for once you had to agree with Mr. Hearst. Seems the bloke had gone behind both his and Haizlip’s back and made an engine mod the two of them had rejected point blank.”

I felt the hairs on my neck standing up again.

“Oi, too flippin’ right to give that idiot the sack.” I agreed, “ Can’t have that. But then that would’ve put Denis Conlon up a notch, wouldn’t it?”

Keith made a face.

“Yeah, but I wasn’t particularly happy for him right then, or for anybody. So far, except for the French plane, it had been a right miserable performance, and the crowd was getting fidgety I could only hope the top three finishers from the first qualifying day would make up for it.”

They did.

“When the Sea-Comet started her run, it looked like another cautious performance. Took the first two laps at only decent speed. I might have wanted to eat my own tail then, except I knew what Harry Forlani was up to; it’s how he does his qualifiers mate, lets himself feel out the course on the first two laps and then gives her the gun on the rest.”

And that was exactly how it happened, on his third pass by the red pylon, the Sea-Comet shot forward as if she’d been fired from a giant invisible slingshot. Suddenly everyone was on their feet again as Forlani went tearing round the pylons at full throttle. With every circuit he made, he was going faster and faster, until on lap number six, he stunned the crowd by besting the Italians’ top speed from the first qualifying day.

“He didn’t just beat their time, he shattered it.” Keith recounted, “When the Sea-Comet touched down on the lagoon, I looked over and there was Pamela Fenwick, mistress of self control, fists raised, and jumping up and down like a cub whose just found a new bicycle under the Christmas Tree. A few yards over, Giuseppe Bianco had his paws behind his back and was pacing up and down the quay. If that didn’t tell you his daughter Sophia had a tough row to hoe, nothing would.”

That might have been so, but as Her Grace, The Duchess of Strathdern will be the first to tell you, if there’s any air race pilot capable of rising to a challenge, it’s Sophia Bianco.

“She knew the only way she was going to best Forlani was to take the course flat out, all the way. The Belladonna simply didn’t have Sea-Comet’s kind of power, not back then anyways. Sophia didn’t even wait ‘till she passed the red pylon before throwing it wide open.”

Twice...three times it looked as if Sophia was going to cut one of the pylons...but she held on smoothly through every turn; never once did the Belladonna start to fishtail. Though her top speed never once matched Sea-Comet’s best, the clock told a different story. It was going to be close, a razor-thin margin whichever way it went. As the Belladonna came down the final stretch for the finish pylon, the thermometer clock was nearly to the British entry. Would it be above, or below when she finished?

It was question that would remain unanswered for several minutes; when Sophia Bianco flashed past the finish pylon, the marker appeared to be dead even with the Sea-Comet’s finish.

“Had to call for a ruling from the time-keeper’s box, it was that close.” Keith sounded almost as breathless as he must have been that morning.

As every race fan knows now, their ruling was that by a scant two tenths of a second, the Belladonna had wrested the pole position away from the Sea-Comet.

Needless to say, the crowd went wild.

But not for long. Now it was the Italians’ turn.

The MC 87's second qualifying run can best be likened to having a world champion boxer step into the ring at Golden Gloves bout. “Move aside, lads...and let me show you how it’s done.”

“She beat the Sea-Comet’s top speed on her FIRST lap.” Keith was shaking his head at the memory, “And Agello only went faster from there. He couldn’t take the pylons near as tight as the Sea-Comet, much less the Belladonna...but with a plane that fast, who needed to, eh? If everyone had been on the edge of their seats, watching Sophia Bianco a moment ago, now they were staring with their mouths wide open. None of them had EVER seen a Schneider Cup plane perform like that...including Sophia , who’d been present for every contest since 1929, as well as Francesco Agello’s world record run the year before. She later told me she'd been so stunned, she'd felt numb."

Coming down the home stretch, Agello was able to throttle back a little; he had that much of a lead on the others.

That action is probably what saved his life, almost the instant he crossed the finish pylon, he heard the sound that every air racer dreads more than any other.


The MC 87's engines had stopped dead in their tracks, the result, it was later determined, of a massive bearing failure...and now Captain Agello was facing the air race pilot’s worst nightmare, a dead-stick landing.

Air race planes are built for three things -- speed, speed, and speed, a requirement that translates into big engines and stubby wings, the WORST possible configuration for a landing without power.

In the blink of an eye, the MC 87 had nosed over into 45 degree angle and was dropping like a stone.

“Agello had only seconds to react, but he hadn’t set the world’s speed record for seaplanes by not knowing how to stay cool in a crisis. He didn’t try to pull out all at once, just eased back steady on the stick, waiting till just before the impact, and hoping he didn’t figure it wrong.”

I felt my paw tightening round my glass. Keith was speaking from experience, as I had good reason to know; I’d been there in the passenger seat at the time. Listening to him, I could picture it all over again. Two miles out of Alice, engine quitting...right at the moment we got caught in that downdraft. Watching the ground come straight at us, coming on faster and faster. Wanting to scream, “Pull BACK!” but knowing better Keith finally pulling the nose up, bracing for the impact.

We came out of that prang with nothing more than a broken propellor blade and a cracked undercarriage...but WE hadn’t been flying a racer, had we?

Somehow, Agello managed to ease his plane up by ten degrees when she hit the lagoon floats-first. They punched through surface at 200 mph, burying themselves by a good ten feet before stopping.

The plane attached to them did NOT stop; with a tooth grinding screech, the MC 87 tore free of her pontoons and plunged head-first into the water, like a native diver.

Everyone screamed, Keith included. Francesco Agello, holder of the world speed record for seaplanes, was gone.

In fact he wasn’t, but he was nearly so. At that moment, the red squirrel’s life was literally hanging by a thread.

“One single strut had stayed attached to the MC 87. And by some really quirky twist of fate, and I do mean twist, it had got pulled round, up and over the MC 87 like pup’s balloon on a string. That’s what kept her from sinking...just long enough for the crash boats to get there and get Agello out of the cockpit. He was nearly drowned when they pulled him onto the boat, took a good ten minutes to revive him--but he was alive Came out of it with nothing worse than a cracked collarbone, and a very bad temper.”

“Can’t say as I blame him there, mate.” I observed, taking a small sip of beer, “Pranging your plane into a write-off, AFTER you’ve won. Who wouldn’t be angry?”

“Oh I agreed,” Keith nodded, knowingly, “But d’you know that later, because of that crash, Captain Agello nearly went into the priesthood?”

“No!” I said, nearly dropping my glass.

“Oh yeah,” said Keith raising his, “Claimed he’d seen a vision of the Virgin Mary while he’d been underwater.”

“And who knows, maybe he did..” Lucy offered, “Certainly, SOMEBODY had been watching over him that day. Since we’ve moved to the Spontoons brother, I’ve seen more than my share of air-crashes, but I’ve never seen a nearer thing than that one.”

“Mmmm,” said Keith, and took a long, silent draught of his beer. Glancing down, I saw that his tail was sticking out, straight as an arrow. I knew that sign, knew it all too well.

“Something bothering you, pal?”

Keith downed his glass in a single gulp and studied it for a second, then he looked at me.

“Mate, I love air-racing, I always will, but if there’s one thing I DON’T like about it, it’s how some of the race fans are such flaming ghouls when it comes to air-crashes.” He let out a short growl, “I don’t care what anyone says, there’s always at least a few in the stands who show up HOPING they’ll get to see someone buy it...and that’s how it was when Agello pranged. I spotted at least dozen furs around me who looked disappointed that he hadn’t been killed.” He growled again, slumping lower in his seat and muttering to no one, “Like to see one of that lot have to write a letter to a grieving family sometime.”

An unpleasant silence fell over the verandah, quickly rescued by my sister, Lucy.

“At then end of the day, Conlon ended up with slot number four in a field of seven.”

“Slap in the middle,” I observed.

“Right.” said Keith, coming out of his reverie, “and a much better slot than where he’d been before.” He scratched at an ear with his hind leg for a second, “And now, I’ve got to admit something, mate...glad as I was that Agello was all right, him being knocked out of the race was probably the best thing that could have happened for the ‘35 Schneider.”

For the second time in five minutes, my glass nearly went tumbling.


(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco is the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.)
(Ni Peng Wum is the intellectual property of Walter Reimer)
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