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  9 September 2010
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Seventeen
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 Seventeen)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

The first race-fans arrived just after dawn, when the bleachers were only blackened lattice-works, framed against a salmon-coloured sky.  These were the furs in the General Admission sections, where it was all first come, first served.  (The more affluent spectators, the ones who held reserved seats, could afford to wait until after breakfast before taking their places.)

As the early arrivals trooped into the bleachers, there was the inevitable jostling and shoving for the best view, which here and there broke, in isolated instances, broke into the occasional fistfight.  (Some of the fans had hangovers, and a few were still drunk.)

All of these were quickly broken up by the Spontoon Constabulary.

A more serious problem was the ‘scalping’ of some of the choicest spots in the South Island bleachers, where a gang of local youths had camped out on the best seats all night and were now demanding a payment of five shells to relinquish them. 

“I had to send Sergeant Brush over to deal with that lot personal like.”  Keith laughed as he recalled it, “All of ‘em claimed to be sons of bigwigs in the Althing -- and just WAIT till they told their dads how they’d been treated!  The good Sergeant reminded ‘em they’d have to CONSCIOUS for that to happen, and they all cleared off right quick.”

A few of the more enterprising race fans had brought along picnic baskets, which they stowed under their seats.  The majority, however, would be left to the exorbitant mercies of the vendors, all of whom had wisely laid on extra stocks of ice, beer, and soft drinks; it was going to be a warm and sultry day. 

“No clouds, but all that moisture in the air was limiting the fans visibility a bit.”  Keith pulled at his ear, “Like what happens when dew gets on your window.  100 yards or so, and then things got hazy.  We also had this off and on breeze blowing out of the southwest, between 5 and 25 knots.  Meant the planes would have an erratic headwind while coming down the home stretch.”

All in all it wasn’t the best weather for an air-race, but it was by no means a, ‘non-starter’.

“That flippin’ storm.” Keith couldn’t help growling, even now, “Even though it wasn’t going to get within five hundred kilometers of the Spontoons, it was STILL giving me headaches.  All that electricity was playing hob with our radios you see.   The broadcast networks were just going barmy, trying to set up a clear transmission to the states .  Finally someone from NBC got the idea of going through Seathl instead of San Francisco, and that did the trick.  Rain Island wasn’t getting the interference that Frisco was, since it was in the opposite direction of the storm. “

I knew there was more and just nodded.  Every once in a blue moon, Keith doesn’t require coaxing to get to the point.

“But where that static was really causing problems was with our short-wave transmissions.  You’d be talking to a crash-boat captain one second, hearing him loud and clear, as if he were right in front of you, and the next second, all you’d get was flippin’ white noise.”

“Was there any chance you might have to postpone because of it?”  It was one of those questions that answer themselves, but you’ve still got to ask it anyway.

Keith shook his head, but his face was grim.

“Couldn’t if I’d wanted to, not with the bleachers already halfway full.”  He smiled, but wanly and and wagged his tail, but only once   “And anyway, I knew the RINS and Spontoon Militia crash boats were top notch, mate.  Whatever happened, I had confidence, they could handle it.”

(He said this WITHOUT much confidence of his own.)

At precisely 9 AM, (Spontoon Time) Keith gave the signal for the Schneider Cup race-planes to take their starting positions.

The Parade of Speedsters, a phrase coined by aeronautics writer Mark Hammond in The San Francisco Chronicle, is a sight that never fails to energize the crowd and it did back then as well.

“It’s not the first time the fans get to see all of the race planes together.”  Keith explained. “But for some reason that’s how it feels to them.”

 The method of conveyance to the starting post varies greatly from plane to plane.  Some, such as the British team, bring their own motor launches, but most rely on the good graces of the Rain Island Naval Syndicate, or some other outside help.  There’s never any shortage of volunteers; the tow launch is allowed to display whatever sort of advertising they wish.  (Though Keith had wisely stipulated that only ‘family acceptable’ enterprises need apply.)

Conlon, of course had the use of the Ni’s private launch.  (Sophia Bianco had the Italian team’s tow boat.)

“Poor old Lady of Nîmes”, Keith recalled, with an expression of mournful amusement, “She never looked more out of place that company than she did when she took her starting slot on race day...but that only made her more popular than ever with the crowd.  When I announced her over the PA, ‘In the number seven starting position, Plane Number 16,  The Lady of Nîmes, piloted by Denis Conlon.’ she got the loudest and longest cheer of any of ‘em.”

“No surprising there, mate.”  I pointed out, “As the saying goes, ‘It’s the ugly pup you love the most.’”

At 09:35, the last plane was shackled to its mooring...and there they would sit for the next six hours, until 2::00 in the afternoon when the flag would drop on the big race.

“I’d borrowed that from the old, OLD Schneider Cup rules, which said that the planes had to sit in the water for six hours before the start, so as to test the if they were watertight.  Wasn’t needed any more, but I’d talked to a few of the old-timers, Claude Venzines for one, and they’d all told me the planes being out on display for most of the day had always been very popular with the fans.”  The left corner of his mouth pulled upwards.  “And in this business mate, if something works, you might not necessarily want to ask why that’s so.”

But Keith wasn’t just going to leave the fans with nothing to do but stare at the racers in the lagoon.   For climax of Speed-Week, he’d saved the best pre-race event of all, the Spontoon Aerobatics Invitational Championship.

In years to come, the Spontoon Aero-Tourney, as it’s now known, would be come a Speed-Week classic, second only in importance to the big race itself. (Never more so than in 1937 when German aviatrix Ilsa Klensch became the first pilot to win both events, back-to-back.)

But that first year, the Aero Tourney could at best be called a, ‘qualified success’.

“It was that blasted wind out of the Southwest.”  Keith waved a paw towards the lagoon, as if the contest were still taking place right then, “If it had been a steady breeze, the pilots could have coped...but running hot and cold like that, they simply couldn’t make the adjustment.  It might be calm when you started a loop, and blowing hard when you were halfway through it.” He let out short fast breath of air, puffing out his cheeks, “Flippin’ miracle we didn’t have any prangs that day.”

“That’s one thing to be thankful for,” I observed, not unsympathetically.  A mediocre Aero-Tourney meant the Schneider Cup would have to absolutely wow the spectators if the day was going to be a success–but a crash would have ruined it already.

At precisely 2:00 PM on the nose, on Sunday, September First, 1935 Keith Lawton took the PA microphone in his paw, keyed it once to check, and spoke the now familiar words for the first time:

“All racers, take your planes.  All racers take your planes.”

This was accomplished with varying degrees of difficulty.  The old pros like Sophia Bianco and Jimmy Haizlip slipped into their cockpits as easily as putting on a favorite, old coat.  The more novice pilots took longer to get ready, and Denis Conlon, who had never raced before and who practically be shoehorned into his plane took longest of all.

“That was the first and only time I saw the fans show the old duffer any displeasure.”  Keith chuckled at the memory, “No, ‘boos’ mind, just plenty of grumbling...though of course, as soon as Conlon’s boys had him strapped in, the crowd forgot all about their annoyance.”

2:22 P.M....the last plane had been unhooked from it’s mooring and the last launch had cleared the field.

And Keith raised the microphone again:


I could not help noticing that his tail was wagging rapidly as he said this.

“Well...yeah, mate” he admitted, when I pointed this out, “No matter how many times I give that order, it never fails to get my blood up.  Worth giving up my house on Main Island to keep that privilege...OW!”

Lucy had swatted him on the side of the head, and was regarding him with an eyebrow raised and her fangs showing.

“ALMOST worth it.”  He amended quickly, with an expression more appropriate to a sheep than a sheepdog.

Down below in the lagoon, seven high-powered aircraft racing engines, chuffed, squealed, coughed, growled, and rumbled into life, their diverse sounds becoming a singular chorus of throaty roars as the plane revved up for take off....filling the air with a huge tangle of wispy blue-gray exhaust fumes.

Except for the odors of death and rotting potatoes, there is nothing on the planet more stomach turning than the exhalations produced by a race-plane.  (Racing fuel is foul stuff) but I’ve yet to attend an air race where the crowd wasn’t energized by the odor...and such was the case on that day.

“You could almost see it, spreading over the stands like a wave.” It was Lucy who was speaking, “Everywhere the fumes touched, furs were jumping to their feet and shouting.  Soon’s I got a whiff of it, I wanted to as well.  It just has that effect on yer, brother.”

I already knew that, but I chose not to say so.

At 2:27, Keith gave the signal to the starters and the green flag dropped on the 1935 Coupe Schneider.

“It was a near textbook take-off.”  My friend had taken over from his wife, “ Everyone kept in almost perfect formation as they lifted off the lagoon.”  He pulled at his nose, a sign of unease, “Bit of a chance I’d taken there, got to admit it.  Wasn’t sure if having ‘em all take off together in grid like that would work, but turned out that it did. ” He grinned, “And the fans loved it.”

As in the Thompson Trophy, the racers were required to remain in formation until they reached the  first pylon, the ‘Scattering Pylon’ as it’s called.  Only then would the race really begin.

The first to reach the mark was the top qualifier, Sophia Bianco in the Belladonna, and the instant she passed the Scattering Pylon, she slammed her throttles wide open.

The race was on!

As the other racers hit the Scattering Pylon, the stands came alive, everyone on their feet, roaring, howling, screaming, barking and whinnying their enthusiasm.  This was it; the event they’d been waiting for all week.

Which made what happened next even more of an anticlimax.

“Sophia Bianco was just running away with it, leaving the other racers far behind.” Keith did not look angry; she knew, as did the more knowledgeable race fans what was actually happening.

So did Sophia Bianco.

“Harry Forlani was just biding his time,” Keith went on, “getting the feel for the course before he made his move.  Sophia Bianco knew that, and was trying to put as much airspace between them as she could before then.”  He winked, “But Harry knew what she was up to as well, you see; he never allowed the Belladonna to get TOO much distance on him...and he wasn’t yielding second place to anyone.  The French team found that out, third turn, third lap, when the Caudron CS-4 tried to overtake the Sea Comet coming out of that turn, Forlani opened his throttles up and just left them in the dust.”

Meanwhile,  further back, the Lady of Nîmes was slowly gaining ground, moving up just a little bit more on every turn. 

“Conlon may not have had much air- racing experience...but unlike everyone other pilot, except for Sophia Bianco, he’d fursonally designed and built his race-plane.  He knew what the Lady’s biggest strength was, and how to take advantage of it.  By the sixth lap he was challenging the French plane for third place, and coming out of the third turn on that lap he overtook her.”

That was enough to have the spectators jump to their feet and cheer wildly...but only a split second later, they were treated to an even bigger thrill.

Without warning, the DeHavilland Sea Comet shot forward with both exhausts roaring.

Harry Forlani was finally going after Sophia Bianco.

Keith’s eyes were flashing as he told the story.

“For a bit there, Forlani was gaining on Sophia, but then she saw him coming and began taking the pylons tighter and faster than ever.”

And the Sea Comet not only stopped gaining on the Belladonna, but actually began to fall back.  Ever the canny Ibiza Hound, Sophia Bianco, had been keeping something up her sleeve after all.

“But Harry Forlani was one tortoiseshell cat who was NOT going to be beaten that easily mate, not by a long chalk.” Here Keith raised finger for emphasis. “If his plane wasn’t built to take the pylons in a tight turn...all right then. he’d up and MAKE her do it.”

The fans’ hearts were in their mouth, each time Harry Forlani went wheeling around a pylon.  As Keith had said, his plane was too large to take that kind of sharp turn. Not safely anyway.  At any second they expected to see an aileron or wing flap detach itself from the Sea Comet, and the plane herself to go spinning down to a watery cataclysm.

“‘Reluctant champion’, my TAIL!” Keith spat out Flying Officer Harold Henry Hartwicke Forlani’s racing nickname as if it were a fly who’d accidentally darted into his mouth, “Ready to kill ’imself to win.  But even with his best efforts pal, the Sea Comet couldn’t take the pylons as tightly as the Belladonna or the Lady of Nîmes...and Forlani didn’t get ‘em all, never did quite manage to make it smoothly round pylon number three...but even so, the Sea Comet began to gain ground on the Belladonna again, not steadily, mind.  Three steps forward, two steps back is what it was.  Just the same, he kept on moving up on the Belladonna until the 12th lap, second turn...and no one was who there that day will ever forget it.”

Of all the pylon turns, the one round the second pylon was the easiest; this was the turn where Forlani invariably held his ground, gaining more on the next straightaway and then losing some of it back on the sharper turn number three.

Harry Forlani would later say he was trying to utilize the element of surprise: “It was my belief that what Miss ( Bianco ) would least expect would be for me to attempt to overtake her going THROUGH that turn.” he explained, in his trademark diffident manner.

He was nearly right.  Sophia didn’t see the other plane coming up on her right until she was midway through the turn.  For a second, for less than a second, she was distracted...but for an air-race pilot, less than a second is all it takes.  At that instant, one of those intermittent air-gusts hit her plane, and with her attention diverted, she was unable to compensate in time. 

It could have been worse – had the draft come from the opposite direction it would have pushed her to the inside and Sophia would have been driven headlong into the race pylon...but instead the sudden plug of wind came from the opposite direction.

With an abrupt, sideways lurch, the Belladonna shot wide of the turn...VERY wide   If the Sea Comet had not been on her outside, Harry Forlani might have grabbed the lead right then and there. (and probably held it all the way to the finish.)  But poised on Sophia’s right wingtip as he was, all he could do was pull out with her...and pray there’d be no sound of rending metal  

(There wasn’t, as everybody now knows.)

But if Harry Forlani was not able to take advantage of the situation, someone else was.  As the two lead planes arced wide of the pylon, a third aircraft came tearing through the gap to take the lead.

“Everyone was just staring, slack mouthed as if they’d all gone daft.”  Keith’s tail was wagging like a metronome now, “With all of the fans’ attention riveted on Sophia Bianco, and Harry Forlani, NOBODY had seen him coming...including me.  It wasn’t until the announcement came over the public address that everyone stopped pinching themselves.

“In first place, Race-Plane Number 16, The Lady of Nîmes.  In first place, Number 16, The Lady of Nîmes.

And the crowd went absolutely wild.

to be continued

(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco is the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.)

(Sergeant Orrin FX Brush is the intellectual property of E.O. Costello.)
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