Tom Swift and His Sky Train
or, Overland Through the Clouds
By Victor Appleton ©1931 Book #34
Review by JP Karenko, November 2005
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
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:
Tom Swift has decided that the time it takes to cross the continent by air is Just Too Long. He has decided to one-up even his own best invention, the AirLine Express. (See Vol. #29) The ALE can make the trip in 16 hours, but only can carry 10 passengers. It is limited to "express" operation, meaning no intermediate stops, except to swap power-train units in Chicago and Denver. The Sky Train is a string of pearls. A powerful tow plane drags a group of up to 5 gliders, strung nose-to-tail. Each glider can hold up to 20 passengers, and these gliders can be coupled and uncoupled, as railroad cars are. This allows for intermediate stops. The other unique part of the concept has to do with this maneuvering being done "on the fly" as it were.
All this hardware costs lots of money. More than even the mighty SCC has in its' coffers. Finances, and the finagling necessary to get the funds to build these devices are more than half of the story.
There are also a series of suspicious "accidents" that occur during the testing of the train. It looks like a saboteur is at work, but why? How these problems are resolved, you will have to locate a hard cover copy of the book to find out.
I have been unable to find this story on line. Sorry.
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
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. His description is never given. He continues in his position as Swifts' financial advisor and CFO (Treasurer) of Swift Construction Company. In this tale, he cautions Tom about the precarious financial shape SCC is in.
The Sky Train Squadron #1-Pilots and crew of the first test flight.
Mason-NFN or description. Swift Construction Employee. Pilot of tow plane.
Porton- NFN or description Swift Construction Employee. Pilot of towed glider.
Northrup- NFN or description Swift Construction Employee. Pilot of towed glider.
Mr. Placent- NFN or description, except "easy to do business with." Former head of Shopton Bank.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "savage and only half-tame," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate. In this episode, he has shrunk, and "is nearly 8 feet tall." He continues as watchman & guard at SCC and his other chore of antagonizing Rad.
Garrett Jackson-No description given, but is spry and fit for his age. (Volumes written 15 years previously, described him as an "aged Engineer.") He is now Swift Construction Works Manager/Superintendent.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant. He is now going deaf and is described as "aged, decrepit, wizened and shuffling." He remains faithful to the Swift family and helps out where he can. Constant rival and antagonist of giant Koku. In this tale, his only function is as personal attendant to Barton Swift.
Davis Daniel-Young assistant hired by Tom as a designer, draftsman and office gofer. Sullen expression and unhappy demeanor. Lives a troubled life.
Edgar-NLN or description. Shopton Country Club Valet. Walk-on part.
Lester William-New Shopton Bank President-Grey eyes, heavy jowls and coarse manners. Smokes cigars and plays golf badly. Overall royal pain-in-the-pooter for Tom.
Mrs. Mary Nestor Swift-Radiant bride of Tom who is described as a "very pretty young woman with flashing brown eyes, and a sweet trilling laugh." Blushes easily, especially around Tom. In this tale, she is found on the links playing golf with some of her female friends. Seems to be becoming a bit of a nag, and spends quite some time trying to pry Tom away from his work. "Murmers" a lot during dialog.
Two for Tea-Lester William and Unidentified Other. The "other" may be one Taylor Burdick, below. Both seem to be plotting mayhem against Tom.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Never fully described, in previous tales he was "portly" with a moustache and "tortoise-shell glasses." Is quite wealthy and on the board of Waterfield Bank. While he has an ongoing problem with travel conveyance trouble, in this tome, he doesn't manage to smash anything. Off the leash and running wild, as his wife is out of town. (Again!)
Taylor Burdick-No description given. On Board of Directors of Waterfield Bank. Friends with Lester William.
The Sky Train Squadron #2-Pilots and crew of the second test flight.
Lacter & Turtan-NFN's or descriptions. Pilots of tow plane Eagle.
Glider #1-No names or descriptions of crew or occupants.
Glider #2-No names or descriptions of crew or occupants.
Glider #3-No names or descriptions of crew. Koku is passenger.
Glider #4-Miskon (NFN) Pilot. No names or descriptions of other occupants.
Glider #5-Blanchard & Lee Pilots. No descriptions. Davis Daniel, passenger.
Model-T Teddy-Faceless and nameless country lad in ramshackle auto who aids Tom in finding a downed glider.
Mrs. Lester William-Pathetic, drooping and nervous wife of "Big Les." As described, she is probably an early victim of what is now called domestic abuse.
Williams' Maid-No name. Faceless mouse. Walk-on part.
Miss Mapes-Tom's Secretary/Stenographer No Description or first name.
Jed the Jeweler-Shopton retailer, who repairs a pearl necklace for Mary Swift.
Ollie the Oldster-Elderly auto driver who has a "senior moment" and almost wrecks Tom & Mary.
Davy Daniel-Son of Davis Daniel, Tom's designer. 5 years old, dressed in red "knickers" and suffering from a degenerative eye condition that will make him blind unless treated.
Dr. Mercy Me-Shopton Mercy Hospital attending physician. Treats Davy for bumps and bruises. He gets clipped by Tom & Mary's car, while they are trying to avoid getting T-boned by Ollie, above.
Mrs. Kalthan-Surrogate grandmother to Davy Daniel. Old neighborhood lady who looks after him.
Jorgin-NFN or description. Swift Construction employee. Pilot of towed 5th glider. See Errata.
Nosy Newsmen-Pusillanimous Paparazzi, still hand-cranking their movie cameras. They now have "talkie" attachments to record sound. Tom's electric powered Wizard Camera (See Vol #14) has been around for almost 20 years and still hasn't caught on? Someone needs to shake up the marketing department at SCC.
Helen Morton-No description. Love interest of Ned Newton first introduced in Volume #29. She is now engaged to Ned.. (Well, they have been dating for a while...) Freeboard passenger in the first transcontinental trip of the Sky Train.
Barton "Bart" Swift- On the dust jacket of Chest of Secrets, his appearance is remarkably like that of Robert E. Lee, but with glasses. Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he has once again declined in his health, and is unwilling/unable to go on the record-breaking first trip of the Sky Train. Now being attended almost full-time by Eradicate Sampson.
Sergeant Sam-Shopton Beat cop. No name or description. Crowd control boss.
Patrolman Pete-Shopton Beat cop. No name or description. Walk-on part.
Newsy Nick-Reporter for a San Francisco paper. Carries a large, gold-headed cane. Walk-on part.
Broadcaster Bob-The man with the microphone. Interviews Tom for the Universal Broadcaster Company, after the momentous landing in California.
As is usual lately, many of these characters (especially the ones introduced late in the story) do not rate any development or even a description. They are brought forth and discarded after they do their bits to make the story flow. The (hopefully humorous) alliterative names are my "inventions" to make reading these reviews a bit more fun.
In the simplest terms, Tom has designed a passenger train that rides the clouds, instead of steel rails. A powerful tow-plane has hitched to it a string of un-powered gliders that can be coupled and dropped off as the "train" passes over various cities. Up to five gliders, each holding as many as 20 passengers, can be attached like a string of pearls. Time is saved, as the need to stop and wait for embarking and disembarking is eliminated.
Couplers are magnetic, with indicator lights and dual activation needed to avoid accidents. They also have floatation capability for emergency landings in water.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
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. It also has given me a grasp of just how technologically and culturally unsophisticated the average reader was in the early 1900's.
Attitudes and Prejudices- Some clews (although that term is no longer used) that were detected as to the author of this tale: This tale reeks with a string of coincidences that are required to allow the story line to progress. The story also requires significant foreboding, (bordering on clairvoyance,) to prepare for events that make the plot flow. The author's engineering knowledge is minimal, but some techno-things are actually described correctly. (See Fact vs. Fiction, below.) Language remains a mix of modern slang and older English. The author discovered the word "jiggers," and uses it seven times. The words "Jove, (5 times)" "muse" and "dingus" are also reused often. There has been a lot of gunplay in the last few stories, but in this one, there is none. Emphasis is on finances and money troubles. (After all, we are well into the Great Depression.) It may be this story was blocked out by Russell Adams (Harriet's husband) who was a securities broker, and then possibly finished from his notes. From the "look and feel" of the story, I think Harriet Stratemeyer is firmly planted behind the typewriter for this one, at least as editor.
Cars now have license plates, and a "special government permit" is now required to make transcontinental flights. Mrs. William (with a little prompting from her husband) has a spontaneous case of "mental anguish" after a glider demolishes her greenhouse. Tom gets threatened with a lawsuit, and has to send a lawyer to settle out-of-court. Reporters are still "making" news, rather than getting the facts straight and merely reporting them. Tom invents the old "they all do that" excuse used today by new-car service managers, everywhere. When a sabotaged coupler lets go, unexpectedly, causing a forced landing of a glider on Lake Carlopa, Tom baldly lies to conceal the real circumstances of the near crash, by saying "it's part of the test." Seems Our Knight's Shining Armor isn't quite as shiny as originally advertised...
Errata-There is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterfield and Waterford, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.
There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome, Mr. D's home flips to Waterfield.
The tally for 34 volumes, to date is:
Waterfield-16, Both places-2, Waterford-10, and Neither place-6.
Typos and malapropisms were nonexistent. Nothing jumped out at me.
It has previously been de rigueur for Tom to "rescue" someone, anyone, at least once per episode. In this tome, he picks up an urchin who literally walks into the side fender of Tom's Runabout, and gets knocked down. It turns out he is the son of Tom's office assistant and is going blind, probably due to Glaucoma.
Davis Daniel is always around when things go wrong. In spite of no less than a half dozen different references to him "needing to be watched closely," he isn't. There's an old saying, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." Six times is stupidity, but it does stretch the story and give us a convenient bad-guy to pin things on, later...
I sometimes wonder why SCC can't retain staff? The guys below were pilots in the AirLine Express adventure. They seem to all have moved on to greener pastures...
Harry Meldrum, Chief Pilot. Bert Dodge, Co-Pilot.
Sam Stone, Chief Pilot. Jim Waldo, Co-Pilot.
Ted Dolan, Chief Pilot. Art Wright, Co-Pilot.
None of them are present for this episode. Speaking of crew changes, The 5th glider pilot(s) on a near disastrous test flight were described as Blanchard & Lee. Later, the author changes the crew to a single someone named Jorgin.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy- The energy needed to fly a glider at speed is described correctly. It is minimal. Overcoming the inertia of a loaded "train" and dragging those gliders into the air off a comparatively short runway, sounds like an engineering Fantasy to me. The action of a strong acid was also described correctly, but I'm not sure it would have eaten through a leather shoe sole quite as fast as what was described.
Why Do This? There is quite a bit of engineering in the Sky Train, but I wonder if the concept really was thought through. Details kill many a fine idea. The idea of coupling up to 5 gliders behind a tow-plane, is a concept that could probably work. The question that begs is "why?" The concept as proposed is to save the time involved in landing and transferring passengers at intermediate stops (assumed to be Chicago and Denver) on a coast-to-coast route. The time saved could possibly cut an hour or maybe two off a transcontinental journey, only if they went straight through. The other concern is at what cost? If one were really in a hurry, why not use the AirLine Express, from several volumes back? As a customer, I for one, would gladly sacrifice an hour (or even two) knowing that if my plane had to "go around" to avoid some hazard on the runway, the pilot could do so. Landing "dead stick" didn't get that moniker because it was the safest way to do things.
Fly United? The idea of dropping off the hindmost glider in this sky-train is trivial. Hooking up is another matter. All the illustrations I have available (dust jackets only-my copy of the book is a Whitman without frontispiece) show the gliders attached with intermediate cables. This would be ideal (and necessary) for taking off safely from the ground. Hooking up to a flexible, but substantial connection flapping in the slipstream while airborne, would be a challenge. Ask any Air Force or Navy pilot who has had to do an air-to-air refueling maneuver.
In college, we were taught the Three Immutable Laws of Engineering, to whit:
1. Water flows downhill
2. You can't push on a rope
3. Gravity is an illusion-the world sucks.
Tom's invention, as illustrated, pretty much violates Law II. The text, however stated that these "couplers" are actually rigidly mounted to the airframe, as in railroad cars. (They thump and bang together during operation.) Solid connections could make the concept work better, since Law II is no longer an issue, but I have not yet decided about the stability of a string of aircraft, strung rigidly nose-to-tail. Taking off loaded & inflexibly coupled, could be suicidal from a stability standpoint.
Approach With Caution-A better, more viable way to safely approach the airborne train would also have to be worked out. The story had the towed Tail-End Charlie being attached to a local powered "switch engine" plane from above. This means the glider pilot is very limited in his options for controlling his craft. The glider is at the mercy of the skill of the tow plane pilot, who is operating at a cables' length distance and can't even see the glider. ( It is behind and below him. ) There is also turbulence from all these aircraft being in close proximity to contend with. Modern air rendezvous techniques approach from behind & below. The pilot of the rear plane has a clear view of what is happening and better control as he is out of the wash of propellers and/or jet exhaust. The upper plane has an observer whose only job is to "fly" the coupler (in this case a fuel hose) on to the following plane's attach point. Tom's way sounds risky.
For talking purposes, let's assume the issues of safe couple and decouple are indeed solved. We now have a string of 5 aircraft: A tow-plane and 4 glider "coaches" leaving New York and headed to San Francisco via Chicago and Denver. The tow plane holds 20 passengers. They are pre-selected to go to the "end of the line." Limiting the number of "cars" in this train is better (and safer) in this case.
That Left Turn at Albuquerque. 1st question: Why 4 gliders, as there will only be two stops? OK, let's say there will be a few intermediate drops without corresponding pick ups, or lots of passengers (more than 20) for a given stop. The Tail-End-Charlie (#4) has passengers for Pittsburgh. He gets dropped OK, as they zoom past. Next glider up, #3 in line originally, but now last, has passengers for Chicago. He gets dropped and a new #3 coach with passengers for Denver or SF is picked up. Wait-a-minute! The folks in coach #2 want to get off at St. Louis. Hm! #3 is now in the way. On a ground railroad, which this device is sort-of patterned after, you end up on a siding for at least a little while the car(s) on the train are re-ordered. You cannot just drop off the hindmost coach "on-the-fly" like what is proposed, in the story. Well, Tom says you can...
This situation above, can get solved a couple of ways. One is by limiting the number of stops to the number of towed aircraft, (minus one) and limiting the destination of the picked up craft to "the next stop." ( Note that the economics of this whole scheme are staring to unravel...) The other way is what Tom proposed: That is to couple and uncouple gliders at the intermediate stop(s) and rearrange the pearls on the string, as a rail train would. This doubles or triples the risk of an accident, and nobody has accounted for the fact that the Sky Train is zinging along at 200mph while all this "re-shuffling" is going on. That's why they put railroad cars on sidings to do this. Those extra tow-planes and crews are also a significant overhead.
Who Said "Bag It?" Another item, no one has bothered to take into account the effect of slipstream turbulence on this string of aerial jewels. As you go further back down the line, the ride gets progressively bumpier. Since this is a premium service, the little paper bags in the seat back must have fancy gold embossing. Anyone who has played "crack the whip" on ice skates knows what being last in line is all about. Tom's "gyroscope stabilizer" is installed in all the gliders, but a gyro can only do so much. Anybody that has played with gyros as a child, knows that the "stability" they afford comes at a price. Any sudden attempt to force changes in the glider's (or gyro's) attitude means there will be a corresponding sudden unwanted change at 90 degrees to the original movement. This skewing movement could cause a wreck all by itself.
Also, the tow plane now has to now have transcontinental capability. The aircrews will also need the stamina to fly coast-to-coast without a break. Previously, this was a big problem, and crew changeovers were mandatory at the major terminus stops.
Amtrak, Anyone? This begins to sound more and more like "it ain't worth it." Take a real train, folks. It's less risky, cheaper, and you won't get airsick from all the jockeying around. Plus, you actually get to see the scenery as you go by...
Geography- The author remains enigmatic about Shopton. It is still not specified as to which state it is in. Previous volumes specify "this state" as New York. SCC now covers an area "many miles in circumference." There is also a full-fledged airport on the grounds. Considering the topography of upstate New York, especially near Lake George (excuse me, Carlopa,) I wonder where Tom found so much level real estate? We also have two new large cities on the map. Portboro is about 100 miles away, and Kenville is 300 miles from Shopton. I again wonder at this constantly changing topography. I think it would be simpler to just drive a tack in the map, pick a half dozen landmarks, and reuse them from story to story. Mansburg and Waterfield/ford seem to work OK.
JP Karenko, 11/02/05
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