Barnstormers

Here’s the first chapter of my latest book, about two women and a plane near the dawn of the aviation industry. The book release party will be on October 19, 2019 at the Tamale Hut Cafe.

Chapter 1 – The Flying Circus

The middle-aged but cocksure man in the loud sport-coat climbed to the top of a temporarily erected wooden platform and lifted a conical megaphone to his mouth. “Ladies and gents,” he shouted into the device, “welcome to the Clyde Beckerman Flying Circus!” A smattering of applause from the crowd gathered along the edge of the airfield made him pause before continuing. “We have the world’s most exciting daredevils here to entertain and astound you with their aerial artistry! You will see air-ships of all shapes and sizes performing stunts and tricks designed to thrill you and chill you! You will see death defied so many times this afternoon that you will think the grim reaper was afraid to come near this airfield!” A few men in the crowd chuckled, and some of the women glanced around with worried expressions.

This was the first show of the 1925 season for the Clyde Beckerman Flying Circus. No one knew how many people would turn out on a chilly Saturday in March, but for the past two weeks, walls and fences in the town of Keyport, New Jersey had been plastered over with colorful advertisements for the performance showing all manner of aircraft, some even flying upside down or sideways. Attendance expectations were also tempered by the fact that Aeromarine Airfield was adjacent to the Aeromarine Plane and Motor Company, so the locals were used to the sight of airplanes flying overhead. Some of the largest crowds the Flying Circus had performed in front of over the previous few years were in parts of the country that had no access to any air service. In those towns, the circus would find a farm to rent, and all the residents would come out to see for themselves that a human being could actually fly.

“You are here on an auspicious day,” the man with the megaphone continued, “because we have a young flier making her first appearance with the Beckerman Circus.” He paused for dramatic effect. “That’s right, I said ‘her.’ We are very excited to have this little lady joining our family, and wait until you see what she can do in an airplane! Why, she was born to fly! Let’s give a big hand for Miss Bridget Doyle!”

Across the field was a row of biplanes lined up wing-to-wing, with their propellers facing the crowd. After hearing her name, a woman walked out of the hangar, and the crowd applauded politely. She was tall and full-figured, with long, brown hair tied back in a ponytail. She wore a short leather jacket with a fur collar, a white blouse, tan jodhpurs, and knee-high patent-leather boots. She waved to the crowd as she walked along the row of planes, stopping at the end machine, a green Curtiss Jenny, where two men in overalls were waiting. Her height was not that noticeable as she walked by herself to the plane, but when she arrived, the crowd could see that she towered over the two men. They spoke briefly, and then one of them helped her into the rear cockpit of the plane. He handed her a leather helmet and goggles, which she put on as he moved to spin the propeller. Once the engine started, the men pulled away the chocks that were wedged under the wheels, and the plane moved toward the runway.

The ballyhoo continued. “Miss Bridget Doyle has been interested in flying since the age of five, when her father, a noted airplane aficionado, took his little girl to see the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk! She begged her dad to take her to the local airfield every chance she could, and at the age of 12, she actually built her own airplane in her parents’ garage!” The crowd laughed. “She came to see our Air Circus last year and decided that this is what she wants to do with her life! Look at her go!”

The green plane had taken off and was circling back to the field. As it approached the runway in front of the crowd, it dipped low so that it was flying no more than a few dozen feet above the ground. As it passed, the pilot waved to the people, many of whom waved back. As the plane reached the end of the runway, it swooped up in a barrel roll that made the crowd murmur its approval.

“Miss Doyle was an ace pilot when she joined our group at the end of last season,” the barker said, “but she went south for the winter to practice and to develop some of the death-defying stunts that you have come to expect from the Clyde Beckerman Flying Circus. Here is her version of that famous twenty-four-cent stamp, the ‘Inverted Jenny.’ Everyone thought that the stamp was a mistake. Well, Miss Doyle thinks that was printed correctly.

As the plane started another pass in front of the spectators, it flipped over, so that it passed the crowd upside down. This drew a round of applause. At the end of the run, the plane righted itself and circled around for another pass.

The man with the megaphone continued his narration with a hint of seriousness in his voice. “Now, ladies and gents, Miss Doyle will attempt one of the most dangerous of stunts, the loop-the-loop. Watch closely now.” The green plane sped by the field and started to climb. “This is a dangerous stunt because the airship can stall as the pilot climbs.” Up and up it went, and at several hundred feet above the ground, it began to pitch back at the top of the loop. “There is danger, too, in the stress on the plane as it continues the down side of the loop … oh my god!”

Gasps were heard from several in the crowd as they saw something fall from the plane at the top of the loop. A figure tumbled several times before a large white parachute bloomed above it and immediately slowed the figure’s fall. “It’s okay, folks, she’s going to be okay,” the barker announced. “It’s a good thing she had her parachute with her!”

While the spectators watched the figure of the pilot float gracefully to the ground, one of the men pointed to the left and shouted, “Look! The plane!” The pilotless plane had continued its loop and was hurtling toward the ground. Halfway down, it turned and appeared to be heading straight toward the crowd!

“Keep calm, ladies and gents,” the man on the platform shouted into the megaphone as people in the crowd turned to get out of the way of the plummeting plane. Just then, the plane banked up and left, away from the panicking spectators. It flew to the end of the runway, made a turn, and came down in a perfect landing. The people in the crowd stared as the plane slowed and taxied into the hangar, seemingly without a pilot. The doors closed behind it as the announcer said, “See, everything was under control. The only folks in danger at the Clyde Beckerman Flying Circus are our pilots!” A few people applauded hesitantly as the next plane taxied onto the runway. “As you return to your seats, please welcome our next pilot…”

– – – – –

Bridget reached the ground a hundred yards from the hangar, far enough away to stay out of the path of any other planes taking off or landing. She quickly slipped out of her harness and gathered up her silk parachute as she watched the Jenny land safely. She squeezed the parachute bundle to her chest and hurried to the hangar. She arrived at the building as the plane taxied through the huge door. Slipping through the side door, she tossed her parachute to the side and walked over to where the mechanics were bringing the aircraft to a stop.

“Okay, the doors are closed,” Bridget shouted over the sound of the idling engine. “You can come out now, Kiki.” She moved a ladder to the front cockpit as a small woman stood up there and stretched.

“How was that?” Kiki asked, climbing out of the plane and down the ladder. She was petite, over a foot shorter than Bridget, with short, unruly blond hair and an impish grin. “You know, that mirror system you rigged up was great. I could see everything, and that short control stick made it easy to take control of the plane after you bailed out.”

“Yeah,” Bridget replied, “but I’m not sure that Clyde is going to be too thrilled with you bearing down on the crowd like that. I was still pretty far away, but it looked to me like some of them really panicked.”

“Hey, they came here for death-defying stunts,” Kiki grinned. “I thought I’d give them a taste of what we feel up there.”

They heard a booming voice from the back of the hangar say, “But that’s not what they pay for.” The owner of the voice — a tall, muscular man with a handlebar mustache — approached the girls. He was dressed like an aviator, in a leather jacket, Sam Browne belt across his chest, riding breeches and cavalry boots. He had an unlit cigar clenched between his teeth and a dour expression on his face.

“Hi, boss,” Kiki said with a smile. “How’d you like the stunt?”

He took out the cigar and shook his head. “Too close to the crowd. We’re here to entertain them, not make them wet their pants!”

“We’re sorry, Mr. Beckerman,” Bridget said. “We just need to work on the timing.”

“Yeah,” Kiki said. “And talk to that barker of yours. I was supposed to pull out of the dive when I heard him tell the crowd to keep calm. Which is what I did. He was late.”

Beckerman scowled at the girls, then he turned on his heel and headed for the door, chewing on the cigar as he went.

Bridget swatted Kiki on the arm. “Nice going. You’re going to get us fired after our first show.”

“Aw, lay off. We’re the best thing in this fleabag circus,” Kiki said. At that, one of the mechanics who was working on the plane popped his head up and looked at her with a surprised expression. “I meant performers, Bob. You guys are all top-notch.” She gave him a thumbs-up and a grin. The mechanic frowned and went back to work.

Bridget whispered, “And don’t irritate the guys maintaining the planes.”

“Don’t worry. You know that Bob’s sweet on you. He won’t let anything happen to our plane.”

Bridget blushed and said, “Still…you know how I feel when someone other than me works on our plane.”

“C’mon, let’s get some coffee. We’ve got to get ready for this afternoon’s gag. We can’t pull the same ‘Dropped Pilot’ twice in one day.”

“No, I don’t want to be known as the pilot who can’t stay in her seat.”

“That’s right,” Kiki said with a grin. “I was thinking the crowd might like a little wing walking.” The girls headed to the small kitchen in the back of the hangar as the mechanics pushed their plane through the door toward the gas pumps for refueling.

– – – – –

After the morning’s show was over, the planes were lined up on the field, and the crowd swarmed around the aviators and their machines. Several of the pilots took turns giving some of the more adventurous members of the crowd short rides in the front seat of their airplanes. Many of the spectators gathered around Bridget and her “miracle plane,” as the crowd was calling her bright green Curtiss Jenny. It seemed that everyone wanted to peek into the cockpit, to see what wondrous equipment might be there that allowed the plane to land itself, seemingly without a pilot. They were unaware that before the plane was wheeled out, Bridget removed the mirror assembly and the short control stick that Kiki used to land the plane, so there was no evidence that she had even been aboard.

“So how did the plane land after you fell out?” a towheaded boy, maybe not even ten years old, asked Bridget after he inspected the cockpit. He squinted up at her. “And what kind of a pilot falls out of a plane?”

Bridget winced as he said this, and she heard Kiki chuckling behind him. “Well, first of all, I didn’t fall out of the plane. I jumped out, as part of the stunt.” The boy looked at her with a skeptical look on his face. “And as for how the plane landed … well, I can’t give away all my secrets, can I?” With a wink she said, “You’ll just have to come back tomorrow and watch again. See if you can figure it out.”

The boy walked away, seemingly disappointed by the answer he received. As he passed by Kiki, she whispered to him, “I know how it was done.”

The boy’s face lit up. “Yeah? How?”

“Gremlins,” she said flatly.

“What’s a gremlin?”

“They’re little helpers for pilots, kinda like elves. You know what an elf is?”

“You mean like Santa’s elves?”

“Yeah, like that. Gremlins like to hang around airplanes, and if a pilot is in trouble, they help out sometimes. They can even land a plane for you if they have to.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I’m a pilot too.” She put her hand out to the boy. “My name’s Kristina, but my friends call me Kiki.”

“Gee,” the boy said, shaking her hand. “I’m Jackie. So where are these gremlins?”

“They’re really shy,” Kiki said. “They usually hide when there’s lots of folks around. But they’ll hitch a ride every chance they get. See if you can see one when the planes take off later.”

“I will. Thanks!” The boy ran off, and Kiki walked over to Bridget.

Bridget turned away from the crowd and asked, “Where’d you get that stuff about gremlins?”

Kiki smiled. “Remember that guy we trained with back in Florida? The one with the wooden leg who flew in England in the war? He said that all the pilots over there blamed their problems on gremlins.”

“I guess it’s as good an explanation as any,” Bridget said with a shrug. She turned back to answer more questions from the crowd gathered around the plane.

– – – – –

Farther down the runway, Clyde Beckerman was standing with another of his pilots. The other man was a head shorter and several years younger than the owner of the Flying Circus, and he was not as happy as Beckerman to see the attention being paid to the two young aviatrices.

“I can’t believe the crowd fell for that gag,” ‘Lieutenant’ Peter Marshall said as he paced back and forth in front of his plane, a bright yellow Standard J-1. “It should’ve been obvious to anyone that the little one was in the front seat.” Marshall had been the star attraction of the Beckerman show for the past two seasons, and he was used to having the spotlight trained solely on him.

Clyde pulled the stub of his cigar from his mouth. “That may be true,” he said, “but you have to admit those girls have got some panache. And that’s always good for business.”

“They’re just a pretty face and a gimmick.”

“Hey, that goes a long way in our line of work. Besides, they’re both pretty good fliers. You got to admit it took some skill to finish the loop and land the plane using only that cockamamie mirror device to see where she was going.”

“After almost landing in the crowd,” Marshall snorted.

“Yeah, that wasn’t all their fault. I talked to Frank, and he admitted he was late with the signal. He said he was getting into his spiel and while he knew it was coming, he was a little startled when Bridget bailed out.”

“Girls shouldn’t even be flying,” Marshall grumbled. “They would never have survived the war.”

Clyde clapped Marshall on the back. “Lighten up, Pete. You know you’re still my number-one guy. Let ’em have a little bit of the limelight for a change.”

Some of the crowd had started to work down the line of planes, and a young woman and her son walked toward where the two men were standing. Clyde stuck the cigar back into the corner of his mouth and stepped back behind the bright yellow plane. Marshall flashed a dazzling smile to the woman and the boy as they approached.

“Say, mister,” the boy said, “you got any gremlins in your plane?”

Marshall’s jaw dropped, then he scowled as he heard Clyde laughing from behind the plane.

– – – – –

After spending time talking to the pilots and marveling at the machines that carry them into the sky, the crowd moved over to the concession area, and the pilots started preparing for the afternoon show. Kiki walked into the hangar where the Jenny was being readied for the next stunt, and she found a man standing next to the plane with a wrench in his hand.

“Marshall,” she shouted. “What are you doing by my plane?”

Pete Marshall was startled by this, but he quickly regained his composure. “I’m not doing anything. Just trying to figure out how this rattletrap stays in the air.”

Kiki walked right up to him and swiped the wrench from his hand. He was only a few inches taller than her, so she could almost look him straight in the eye. “And what were you planning to do with this?”

He grabbed the wrench right back but maintained eye contact, not backing down. “One of those idiot mechanics didn’t tighten up an oil line he cleared, and I couldn’t find a wrench on that side of the hangar. Why, what did you think I was doing?”

“How would I know?” Kiki replied. “I just don’t like anyone messing with my plane.”

He sneered. “And why exactly would I do that?”

“I don’t know. You didn’t seem too thrilled when we stole your thunder this morning.”

Marshall laughed loudly. “That was a fluke. Everyone felt sorry for the big one when she fell out of the cockpit.”

“She has a name, you know.”

Marshall smiled. “Yeah?” he said, and he turned and walked away. Kiki stood there clenching and unclenching her fists as Bridget walked up to her.

“Was that Pete?” she asked.

“I’m gonna sock that guy one of these days.”

Bridget looked off in the direction Marshall went. “Why? What did he do?”

Kiki looked up at Bridget, then shook her head. “Never mind. Let’s get ready for the afternoon gag. You clear on what we’re going to do?”

“Yeah, I’m going to make a couple of passes over the crowd, and you’re going to play jungle gym on the wings. You got your tennis shoes on?”

“I was thinking of wearing my riding boots,” Kiki said. “I like the way they make my legs look.”

Bridget shook her head. “No good. You need traction on the wings. I don’t want you sailing off in the breeze.”

“Yeah, okay. I’m going to get into my costume. You give the plane a once-over before we go.”

– – – – –

Clyde Beckerman knew the crowd was eager to see the “miracle plane,” so the girls had to wait until later in the program for their chance to perform. When they heard Frank the barker introduce them, they walked across the field to cheers from the audience. Bridget was wearing the same outfit she had on that morning, but this time the crowd got to see Kiki as well. She was wearing a long-sleeved white blouse, white riding pants and white canvas shoes with rubber soles. She clasped her hands together over one shoulder, then the other, like a boxer celebrating a victory. When they reached the plane, they each donned leather helmets and goggles, and with Bridget in the backseat and Kiki in the front, the mechanic spun the prop, and the plane taxied to the runway.

“You ready?” Bridget yelled over the thrum of the idling motor.

Kiki turned her head back and shouted, “Ready!”

Bridget opened the throttle, and the plane moved down the runway, picking up speed. It started to lift, then it bounced once and became airborne. About a dozen feet off the ground, the plane lurched a little to the left before leveling off.

“What was that?” Kiki yelled back over the sound of the engine.

“I don’t know,” Bridget shouted. “An air pocket, maybe. The plane feels funny.”

“Funny how? Funny bad? Should we go back?”

Bridget wiggled the stick. “No, it seems responsive. See if you can see what happened.”

As they rose into the air, Kiki scanned the wings for any broken wires or damage to the surface. She stood up and looked over Bridget’s head to see if the control wires to the tail were fouled. Then she looked over the side and sat down quickly.

“What’s the matter?” Bridget shouted.

“Wheel,” Kiki yelled back, pointing down. The two girls looked over the side to see

– – – – –

How could the wheel just fall off? Was it just a malfunction or was it tampered with? And how will they land the plane on only one wheel? We’ll find out the answers to this and more in the next exciting chapter.