Tom Swift and His Sky Racer
or, The Speediest Flight On Record
By Victor Appleton Book #9 ©1911
Review by JP Karenko, May 2005
White and Brown Quad dustjacket images are from the collection of Mark Snyder
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
Summary: No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
The story opens with Tom once again considering racing for money (something he said was a bad thing in an earlier volume.) The Eagle Park Aviation Association has scheduled an air race with a prize of $10,000 and Tom feels obliged to win it by custom designing and building a "speedy" 2-seat monoplane. The craft is lightweight, small in size, and fast, which is unusual for aircraft of the day. The plans for the prototype go missing after prowlers are spotted and these indignities, plus an assault on Tom, a fire, and overwork all combine to cause Tom's father to have what is presumed to be a heart attack.
Winning mere prize money takes a back seat to Tom's Humming-bird being used to summon medical help for his father, who is imminent danger of dying without the ministrations of a famous, but distant surgeon.
Who is responsible for the purloined plans, is a surprise twist at the end of the story.
You can probably guess the outcome, but you'll have to read the story to be sure.
This book is available online. See: Tom Swift and His Sky Racer
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift -- Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home--schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. Is a decent cook, too.
Mr. James Gunmore -- Representative of Eagle Park Aviation Association of Westville, NY.
Barton Swift -- Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, develops severe medical condition affecting his heart and circulation. Spends a lot of time being unconscious and causing Tom worry over his health and longevity.
Andy Foger -- Red haired, squinty--eyed bully, who makes great trouble for Tom. "Poor little rich kid," son of wealthy family, born with a chip on his shoulder. Reckless, blustery and angry. Showoff. "Has money, and not much else." Lately is caught spying, burgles the plans for Tom's new Sky Racer., and is suspected of inventing dive bombing, when Tom's airplane hangar is set afire by a midnight air-raid.
Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Eradicate or Rad -- Rad's middle names, (Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln, ) are no longer used. Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack--of--all--trades. "Eradicates dirt." Now is in full-time residence on the Swift estate, and maintains his own chicken coop. Heavy deep--south accent and Uncle Remus attitude. Caretaker of Boomerang, a cantankerous, aged and now ailing, mule.
Mrs. Baggert -- Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family since the time Tom's mother died. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages. Excitable, she seems to expect fatalities after any mishap involving Tom's inventions. In this tome, she is described as "buxom." (Hey. Guys! This is a kid's series, remember?)
Garrett Jackson -- Aged (65+ years old) "engineer" who is more a handyman/machinist and watchman type than engineer. Resides on Swift estate, now in an "apartment" inside the Swift home..
Dr. Gladby -- Local medical maven, who makes repeated house calls to treat the ailing Barton.
Ned Newton--Chum & companion of Tom, currently employed in Shopton 1st National Bank.
Sam Snedecker -- Willing cohort of Andy Foger. No description given in this tome. Previously described as having "large ears." Passing mention only, in this story.
Pete Bailey -- Cohort and willing minion of Andy Foger. No description given. Generic bad guy. Passing mention only, in this story.
Mr. Wakefield Damon -- Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Goes undercover as a spy on the Fogers to see if they have Tom's aeroplane design.
Miss Mary Nestor -- Love interest of Our Hero. Now the recipient of "frequent visits" from Tom. Gets her first introduction to air-travel in Tom's new creation. It's love at first flight...
The Midnight Intruder -- Hatchet-man (literally) who tries to destroy the Humming-Bird.
Dr. Kurtz -- Blustery German physician brought in to minister to Barton Swift when Dr. Gladby is out of town. Has the same demeanor & heavy Bavarian accent as Police Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein.
John Sharp -- Reappears as representative of Eagle Park Aviation Association, the host organization of the big air race. Tom does not recognize him without his moustache.
Mr. Bentley -- NFN or description given. Uncle of Andy Foger. Lives in Hampton, NY, where the Foger Aeroplane is being constructed.
Jake -- NLN or description given. Cohort of Andy Foger. Suspected to be Midnight Intruder (above.)
The Aerial Arsonists -- Dive-bomb and set afire the shed where Humming-Bird is stored, in a midnight air-raid. Suspected to be Andy and Jake, but insufficient evidence to prosecute, as Tom only saw the pilot.
Dr. Edward Hendrix -- Famous surgeon and specialist called upon to operate on Barton Swift. Lives in Kirkville, NY. Out in the boondocks, 100 miles from Shopton and presumably the nearest medical center, Tom has to airlift him in, as the only railroad bridge over "a broad river" is out.
The Trusted Nurse -- No name or description given. Apparently true then, as it is today, doctors get all the fame, glory and money, while nurses get to do the dirty work and get no recognition.
Frank Forker -- No description. A trusted Eagle Park machinist and mechanic, helps Tom assemble Humming-Bird for the big race.
The French Air Racer -- Perique. No description.
The Dutch Air Racer -- De Tromp. Ponderous.
The Japanese Air Racer -- Loi Tong. Little in stature. (Name sounds Chinese.)
The Government Agent -- No name or description given. Wants to secure the plans for Humming-Bird for use by Uncle Sam.
Tom Swift invents something major in this book. It is a small 2-seat racing monoplane that is planned to go 100+mph. The 2-seats are side-by-side and the craft has all the amenities for modern air-travel, including a rudimentary autopilot stabilizer and an aircraft wireless. Based once again loosely on the Bleriot design, it is "improved" by being smaller, lighter and more streamlined. It is powered by a lightweight aluminum 4-cylinder motor that develops a mighty 1000 pounds of thrust at 2000 rpm, later boosted to 2200 pounds by Tom's tuning and a thorough break-in. It sports a dual engine bearing lubrication system. While frail in appearance, it is a "sturdy" craft that uses "many braces and stays," and has "extra guys" to make it suitable for high speed operation. The aircraft wireless is also smaller and more light weight than other examples of the day.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much society and technology have changed in 95 years. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted, like modern surgery and hospitals. It also gives me an appreciation as to how much society has changed, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our times, mores and attitudes?
Attitudes, Prejudices and Circumstances -- Medical advice having to do with drugs was mostly accurate. Aromatic spirits of ammonia administered to Mr. Swift are considered an anti-anxiety remedy, as well as the traditional "smelling salts" wake-me-up. However a caution was listed in the medical handbooks of the day, not to administer aromatic spirits if the patient was unconscious. Tom's father was out cold when he was given this remedy to drink. Rad is administering peppermint to Boomerang, presumably for dyspepsia, although later it is said the faithful animal is lame. Dr. Gladby is apparently also an Apothecary, and mixes medicine for Barton on-site, from ingredients carried in his bag. As far as the "rare and delicate" surgery performed on Mr. Swift, see Fact vs. Fantasy, below.
Pocket flash-lights are now available that incorporate Tungsten filaments for a "powerful beam." A Dark-Lantern is mentioned several times. This is a device (presumably oil or kerosene-fired) that has a sliding shutter to turn the light "off" when not needed, but without extinguishing the flame.
Tom keeps a revolver in his bedroom, but when attacked by a hatchet-wielding intruder, is unwilling to shoot the perp. He is laid low by the bad-guy and suffers a concussion and serious scalp wound. Guns seem to only be used as a non-deterring deterrent in these stories, unless dealing with "savages" or wild animals. Speaking of guns, Rad "cannot be trusted with a gun." No reason was given, but the old prejudice about slaves and firearms was apparently still strong. Rad is also described as a "dirt chaser" in his function as cleaning man.
The Swift home has an "observation platform" on the roof. This leads one to deduce the structure was Victorian style. The house also had at least one lightning rod on the roof.
Tom and Dr. Hendrix are both Believers, and call upon God in prayer to heal Mr. Swift.
Errata-- On p79 Tom test flies his new craft and leaves the ground "by tilting the wing tips." This would induce a snap-roll, ending Tom's aviation career abruptly. Flaps would cause a sudden lift, but they would have to be inboard on the wings. Frankly, flaps hadn't been invented yet, even by Tom. On p130, the globe-shaped incendiary bombs would have rolled off the sloped roof of Tom's airplane hangar. No mention was made of penetrating the roof, and if they had, the fire would have started inside the building. The title page illustration shows the Humming-Bird as a 2-seat front-to-back, not side-by-side, as is described in the text. Also, the occupants were said to sit "below" the motor. In both the illustration and in the planes HB is based on, the motor is forward and the pilot sits high where he/she can see to navigate. On p200, the HB is said to have propeller(S). One engine, one prop, no consistency.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy
The classic "infernal machine" in the form of a ball-shaped bomb was used to set Tom's aircraft hangar on fire. That this device stayed on a sloped roof long enough to do any damage, was amazing, since it was dropped from a diving biplane. Contents were presumed to be some kind of acid, as there was no explosion, but many fumes. The ball was found in the remains of the building. A breakable glass carboy would have been more believable.
Aircraft motor development was impressive in this tale. The HB motor, a 4-cylinder air-cooled rig swings a 10 foot diameter prop. It develops 1000# thrust at 2000rpm, initially. After break-in and some "tuning" by Our Hero, the thrust is upped to 2200# with no apparent change in either speed or propeller pitch. The run-of-the-mill airplane engine was stated to develop 4-500# thrust from an 8 foot prop at 1000rpm. Some tune-up!!!
Later, Tom is sitting behind the wide open exhaust of his airplane, roaring along at 130mph, and has a fine conversation with Mr. Damon, as well as being able to hear wireless messages thru a single earphone.
The motor quits in flight due to a loose magneto wire. Tom is able to repair this without getting lit up by the magneto, because the propeller that had previously been wind-milling was stopped. After the repair, the motor restarts without benefit of a self-starter, which hadn't been invented yet.
The medicineóthe medicine.... It's apparent the authors had even less exposure to surgical procedures than they did to airplanes. Barton Swift's malady, described as a "heart attack," started with memory loss, and confusion. It resulted in his swift <sic> collapse and unconsciousness. It sounds like there was one or more blocked arteries supplying blood to his brain (Intracranial Arterial Stenosis.) A TIA (Trans Ischemic Attack) would have also caused these symptoms, but would have cleared more quickly and without invasive procedures. Also possible are Cardiac Arrhythmia or Atrial Fibrillation. Myxedema with Coma, has even closer correlation to his symptoms than the Arrhythmia, although it is not treated surgically. Bottom line is, none of these conditions are treatable by any kind of "operation" performed on a dining-room table, and with the technology of 1910. Poor Barton would be toast in a real world. Lest I sound like a doctor (I'm not) Go to http://www.webmd.com and you too can get a sip from the fire-hose of knowledge.
The "rare and delicate" surgical procedure "near his heart" performed on Barton, is over in about 60 minutes. Mr. Swift is conscious and able to talk to Tom, shortly thereafter. Ether, the anesthesia of choice in those days, doesn't wear off that quickly, and Barton would have been either in post-op shock from pain, or doped to the eyeballs with Morphine. In either case, talking to Tom moments after his procedure is fantasy. Barton makes a truly remarkable recovery, considering the level of medical competence exhibited.
De plane! De Plane!! Andy Foger's invention, the Slugger, is described as a biplane hybrid incorporating the best features of the Santos-Dumont biplane and Cornu helicopter. Getting such a beast to travel even 50mph, would have to involve great altitude and free-fall. To the right is a photo of the Cornu. The Santos-D is below.
Photo courtesy of http://www.members.shaw.ca/flyingaces/archive1.htm
Tom's creation combines the best features of the Bleriot, the Antoinette, and the Demoiselle. It has a round, rather than square or open frame fuselage and side-by-side seating. Not the best for streamlining frontal area-wise. A spy photo is shown, below, along with his race competition.
The biggest goof about these race planes is that not all of them are 2-seaters, a requirement for entry in the Eagle Park event. Also I suspect few if any were capable of 100 mph, except in free-fall. At no time are passenger/mechanics described, except Mr. Damon. See pictures, below.
Antoinette -- Flown by Alameda
Bleriot -- Flown by Perique
Curtiss Biplane -- Flown by Wendell
Demoiselle -- Flown by Lascalle
Farman -- Flown by De Tromp
Foger's Folly -- Flown by Andy Foger
Santos-Dumont -- Flown by Loi Tong
Humming-Bird -- Flown by Tom Swift
Wright Biplane -- Flown by Von Bergen
Antique aircraft photos are from the following sources: http://www.wingswithwires.com/early_aircraft/antoinette.asp, http://www.members.shaw.ca/flyingaces/archive1.htm
Hummingbird spy photo by the author.
Geography & Environment -- Town/City of Westville NY, (the race site) is an unspecified distance or direction from Shopton. It is stated to be located "in a valley." The Village of Hampton is stated to be 50 miles away. No direction or state is given. Kirkville is 100 miles in an unspecified direction from Shopton, but near a "broad river." This would have to be the Hudson, the only "broad" river within range of the hypothetical Shopton.JP Karenko 5/25/05
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