Barnstormers

In our last chapter, our two intrepid aviatrices, Kiki and Bridget, were taking off in their green Curtiss Jenny to perform some stunts as part of the Clyde Beckerman Flying Circus, when they realized that as they left the ground, one of the wheels on the plane fell off.

Chapter 2 – Lights in the Factory

Deep in the crowd of spectators at the airfield, a ten-year-old boy tugged at the sleeve of his mother’s blouse and asked, “Did you see that, Mom? That was a triple-barrel roll, I betcha.” He stood up to try to get a better look at the light-blue SPAD VII as it landed on the tarmac. Many spectators applauded politely as the plane rolled past the area where they were standing.

“Mom, I’m gonna be a pilot when I grow up,” the boy stated definitively as the pilot took off his goggles and waved.

“You will not, Jackie,” she replied, “if I have anything to say about it. Flying is too dangerous.”

“No, it’s not. Lookit all these planes, and not one crack-up.”

Just then, Frank the announcer, from his perch high above the field, shouted into his megaphone, “And here they are, folks. The ladies of the day. How ‘bout a big hand for Kristina Hansen and Bridget Doyle?” Many in the crowd cheered as the two women walked across the field, climbed into their plane, and began to taxi down the runway.

“Look, Mom,” Jackie said, tugging his mother’s sleeve again. “That’s my pal Kiki in that plane.” The bright green Jenny flashed by the cheering crowd before starting to lift off. It bounced once and began to climb. As the plane climbed, something fell from the bottom of the fuselage.

– – – – –

“How can a wheel fall off?” Kiki shouted over the sounds of the engine and the wind passing the plane’s open cockpit.

“Never mind how,” replied Bridget. “What are we going to do?”

“You’re gonna land the plane.”

Bridget’s eyes widened. “On one wheel?”

Kiki smiled. “Yeah, you can do it.”

“Not me. You’re the pilot. I’m just a mechanic out of her league.

“Sure you can do it. We still have the left wheel, right?”

Bridget looked over the side. “For now.”

“So the trick is to land while keeping the right wing up as long as you can. Just balance on the one wheel until the ground crew catches us.”

“How the heck am I going to do that?”

“I’ll help. You ready?”

Bridget stared at Kiki for a second. “I guess.”

Kiki looked over the side at the ground below. “Okay, it looks like they cleared the runway. Go around, and let’s land this baby!”

The green plane made a wide turn and headed toward the runway. As it started to descend, Kiki turned, winked at Bridget, and climbed out of the cockpit. She carefully stepped out onto the left wing, using the wires and struts to balance herself. Once she reached about a third of the way down the wing, she turned back to Bridget and pointed to the ground.

Bridget pulled back on the throttle and gripped the control stick tightly. When she felt and heard the lone wheel touch the ground, she cut the throttle and then used the stick and rudders to keep the plane straight on the runway. At the same time, Kiki leaned back and forth on the wing to try to maintain the plane’s balance on the single remaining wheel. Working together, they were able to keep the plane moving in a straight line and balanced until it slowed enough for the mechanics to approach and support the wings, and to guide it into the hangar.

A cheer erupted from the crowd as the ground crew took control of the plane, but Kiki wasn’t paying any attention. Once the plane was safely in the hands of the mechanics, she jumped off the wing and ran for the hangar. She stopped briefly in the doorway before spotting Pete Marshall preparing his yellow J-1 for flight. She ran up behind him and grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around.

“What …” was all he was able to say before Kiki balled up her fist and punched him square in the nose. He recoiled from the blow and, tripping on a wrench, fell on his back. Kiki jumped on top of him, straddling his chest, and continued to hit him.

“Don’t like girl pilots, eh?” she said as she hit him with a left. “Think we don’t belong, huh?” She hit him with a right. “Thought we’d crash the plane, huh?” Another left.

Suddenly, an arm wrapped around Kiki’s waist and she was lifted off of Pete, who had his arms crossed over his face to try to protect himself from the blows. “Hang on a minute, Kiki,” Clyde said as Kiki squirmed in his grasp like a child having a tantrum.

“He sabotaged our plane!” she shouted, arms and legs flailing in Marshall’s direction.

“I didn’t!” Pete shouted, struggling to get to his feet. His nose was bleeding, and the area underneath one eye was already starting to blacken.

Clyde put Kiki down, and she pointed at Marshall. “You did, you worm. I saw you standing by our plane before we took off.”

“I told you I was looking for a wrench,” Pete said, a little more defiantly. “Why would I touch that junk? It looks like it’ll fall apart without any help. Especially the way the big one flies her.”

Kiki moved to attack him again, but Clyde grabbed her shoulders. She kicked in Marshall’s direction in frustration.

While this was happening, Bridget walked into the hangar, carrying something in her fist. She stopped behind Clyde.

He turned and asked, “Did you find anything?”

“It looks like the wheel end cap came off,” Bridget said, holding out her hand. She held what looked like a brass cup with various screws sticking out. “I found these pieces on the runway.” She spread her fingers, and the cup fell into two halves. Kiki took one of the pieces and looked closely at it.

“It looks like someone whacked it here,” she said, pointing to a dent on the crack line. She pointed at Pete. “You did this.

“I told you it wasn’t me,” he protested while pinching the bridge of his nose to stop the bleeding.

“That might have happened when it hit the tarmac,” Bridget said, taking the metal piece back. “It might have just been an accident.

Kiki fixed Bridget with a stare. “You really believe that?”

Bridget shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is I’ll be checking the plane more thoroughly from now on.”

– – – – –

Later that afternoon, a reporter from a newspaper in nearby Keyport, New Jersey stopped by the airfield and, after a quick conversation with Clyde Beckerman, made a beeline to where Bridget was working on the plane.

“Miss Doyle?” he asked. “My name is Chuck Kropka. I’m from the Keyport Enterprise. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”

Bridget looked up from the engine she was working on and said, “That’s fine, Mr. Kropka, if you don’t mind me working while we talk.”

“Go right ahead,” Chuck said, taking a notebook out of his jacket pocket. “So, those were some pretty spectacular stunts today.”

Bridget chuckled. “Well, the first one was a stunt. The second was just Keek and me trying to land in one piece.”

“Well, whatever it was, it was pretty exciting. How long have you and Kiki been a team?”

“We’ve been a flying team for two or three years now, but we’ve been a team for longer than that. I’ve known her for about as long as I’ve known myself. We grew up next door to each other, but we’re more like sisters.”

“I understand you’re from Boston.”

Bridget nodded. “Yeah, both of us are. My dad was a cop there. Three of my brothers are cops, too.”

“The announcer said that your dad was an ‘airplane aficionado’ and took you to see the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.”

Bridget looked up at the reporter and smiled. “Well, that’s not exactly true. They just changed a few facts, you know, to make it sound more interesting. Truth is, the family went to New York when I was about seven, and while we were there we saw one of ’em, I think it was Wilbur, fly down the Hudson River and fly around the Statue of Liberty. It was something to see.”

“So if that wasn’t true, does that mean that you didn’t build a plane in your parents’ garage?”

Bridget laughed. “That did happen, but it wasn’t nearly as successful as they made it sound. We launched it off of the garage roof, and it crashed immediately.”

Chuck laughed. “So who was at the controls, you or Kiki?”

“Neither. My brother Bill also didn’t think girls could be pilots, and even though we built it, he insisted on flying. Got a broken arm for his trouble.”

“So that led to this? The Flying Circus?”

“Not exactly. Can you hand me that crescent?” Bridget asked, pointing to a wrench on a cart next to Chuck. He handed her the tool. “Thanks. No, Bill’s Plunge, as we started calling it, put a damper on the whole flying thing for a while. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when a flier was giving a talk at school, that we got interested in flying again. He had a plane there and gave some of us rides, so we would have an idea of the sensation of flight. Kiki absolutely fell in love with it.”

“But you didn’t?”

“It was okay, but I was more interested in the mechanical aspect of it.” She stepped back, wiping her hands on a towel. “Look at this beautiful piece of equipment. This collection of wood and cloth and wires will carry people up into the sky. When my Mom and Dad were my age, nobody thought that was possible. They would look up at the birds, jealous of their ability to fly. Now we have a machine that will put us up there with them.” She patted the engine. “As long as I keep it running, that is.”

“So this is your plane? It’s not one of the Flying Circus planes?”

Bridget patted the engine again. “No. Clyde pays for the gas, but the plane is ours, free and clear. My uncle bought it for us.”

“It pays to have a rich uncle,” Chuck said.

“It certainly does,” Bridget said with a smile.

– – – – –

Later that night, after the crowd had left the field and the other pilots had gone into town to celebrate the successful first show of the year, Bridget and Kiki were alone in the hangar. Bridget had been working on the plane all evening, tuning up the engine for the following day’s performance. Kiki inspected the control mechanisms, checking to make sure there was no evidence of tampering.

Kiki was standing outside the slightly open hangar door, smoking a cigarette, when she stuck her head back in and called, “Hey, Bridge. C’mere for a minute.”

Bridget walked to the door, wiping her hands on a towel. “What’s going on?” she asked.

Kiki pointed across the darkened airfield and asked, “What do you make of that?” Across the field stood the massive Aeromarine factory complex. At the north end was a long dark building, and at the south end stood a hangar larger than the one that housed the Flying Circus planes. Between them were two office buildings, and a small white building stood south of the hangar. All the windows in the buildings were dark, but every so often, one of the windows in the large building was slightly illuminated, as if someone with a flashlight was walking around.

“So?” Bridget asked. “That’s probably just the security guard.”

Kiki shook her head. “No, the security guard makes his rounds every half-hour. I’ve been watching, and he’s not due for another”—she checked her watch—“fifteen minutes or so. Even if it was him, then who is that?” She pointed to one of the office buildings, and they saw a similar light moving along the darkened windows of that structure.

“Maybe we should check it out,” Bridget said.

Kiki and Bridget closed the large sliding door and walked back through the hangar, stopping to take a few flashlights and the keys to the old Ford Model T that Clyde kept behind the hangar for emergencies. They climbed into the car, started it up after a few tries, then drove over to the factory.

It was a clear night, and the moon was bright enough that they could almost make out the path of the uneven dirt road between the hangar and the factory. They rode in silence, the only sound being the chug of the Tin Lizzie’s engine and the occasional squeaks and groans the car made as it drove over the divots in the road. Kiki cut the lights and the engine several yards away from the building, and she let the car coast to a stop in front of the main entrance.

As they approached the door, they saw that it was partially open. Kiki put her finger to her lips, then she slipped through the door with Bridget close behind. Inside was the main manufacturing floor of the aircraft company. The skylights in the roof above let through enough moonlight for the girls to make out vague shapes in the darkness. There were large machines for fabricating parts along one side, and the rest seemed to be planes in various stages of assembly. There was a strong smell of aircraft fuel in the air, more than there should have been even in an aircraft factory.

Kiki and Bridget stood just inside the door, waiting for their eyes to get accustomed to the gloom, when they saw a light move briefly across one window along the far wall. Bridget tapped Kiki on the shoulder and pointed to where the light appeared. Kiki nodded, and the two started across the manufacturing floor. They didn’t use their flashlights, and they stayed in the shadows to prevent anyone from seeing them.

They reached the area where they saw the light and discovered that the back wall was a row of offices, each with a large window and a wooden door. They had seen the light in one of the center offices, so they cautiously approached that room. As they got there, they saw that the door was ajar. They peeked in through the window and saw some drafting tables and a door leading into the next office, through which a faint glow could be seen.

Kiki signaled to Bridget that she would enter through the open door and that Bridget should go around to the next office. Bridget nodded and, after seeing no one through the window, quickly stepped over to the next door. She tried the door but found it locked. The shades were drawn in that window, so she moved on to the next office.

Meanwhile, Kiki carefully pushed the door open and stepped into the room. There were two drafting boards standing back to back, with a row of filing cabinets along the wall opposite the door. Some of the drawers were hanging open, and papers were littered all over the floor, some typed documents and some blueprints. She noticed that the smell of airplane fuel seemed stronger in the office, which worried her. She carefully walked over to the door leading to the next office and cautiously peered in.

The next office was set up almost identically to the one she was standing in, with two drafting boards and a long row of filing cabinets. In that office, though, a man in a dark suit and hat, wearing a silk mask over his face, was taking documents from one of the cabinets, briefly looking at them, then throwing them on the floor. He opened another cabinet, pulled out more blueprints, panned over them with his flashlight, then started to roll them up, apparently having found what he was looking for.

“Hey,” Kiki shouted as she walked through the door and shined her flashlight full in the face of the masked man. “What do you think you’re doing? Bridge, where are you?” The man put an arm up to shield his eyes from the light, then he turned to run toward the door to the next office. Kiki ran to stop the man, but she tripped over a gas can that was on the floor next to where the man was standing. The gas can tipped over and started spilling its contents on the floor. As Kiki started to rise to go after the man, he turned back and hit her over the head with his flashlight. Kiki dropped to the floor, unconscious. The man saw that she wasn’t moving, paused to light a match, and threw it into the pool of fuel widening behind where Kiki lay.

While this was happening, Bridget had reached the end office before finding an unlocked door. She entered that office as she heard Kiki call for help, then she saw the flash as the fuel ignited. Dropping any attempt at stealth, Bridget pulled open the door and started to enter the room as the man in the mask ran through the door opposite her. He paused briefly as he saw her, then ran forward, directly at Bridget. She saw him coming and braced herself, and when he ran into her, she grabbed him by the lapels and threw him to the floor, knocking over the drafting tables and a small table full of pencils and pens.

Bridget landed on top of the masked man, ripping off his hat and mask, and was startled to see Bob, the mechanic from the air show, in the dim light of the office. He had an ugly expression on his face as he struggled to get out from underneath Bridget. “Bob?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”

“You better go get your friend,” he sneered. Bridget turned her head toward the open door, and Bob bucked from the floor, throwing Bridget off him. He grabbed his hat and the blueprints and ran out the door Bridget had entered through, as Bridget ran toward the fire.

Keek!” Bridget shouted from the doorway when she saw her friend on the floor. Half the office was in flames as Bridget grabbed the unconscious girl’s arms and dragged her from the room. As she did, she looked past the flames and saw that the next office over was on fire as well.

Bridget closed the door to the burning room and knelt down to check on Kiki. She saw that Kiki had a large lump on the top of her head, and she was checking to see if her friend was breathing when she heard a door slam behind her. Bridget ran to the door she entered through, but it was either locked or something was blocking the other side, preventing it from opening. She walked over to the window and saw Bob running away from the office. He stopped by one of the half-completed planes. He looked back to Bridget, smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He then lit a match and threw it at the plane. The plane erupted in flame. Bridget watched Bob run toward the main door as the flames jumped from one plane to the next. Before she knew it, the entire manufacturing floor was burning.

– – – – –

How badly is Kiki injured? How will our heroines escape the burning building?  What was the mechanic looking for? We’ll find out the answers to this and more in the next exciting chapter.