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SMILIN' JACK . . . and the Strato-Plane


SMILIN' Jack almost ran into Mary Harlan as he came around the corner of the hangar one morning. Mary was Jack's special friend, or had been until the girl flier called Red Wright had appeared at the landing field. Red Wright was an accomplished aviator and an especially good stunt flier. Jack had been seeing a lot of her.

"Hello, Jack!" Mary greeted him. "I haven't seen you for ages."

"Gosh, I'm glad to see you, Mary, but I can't stop now. I've got to put on some air acrobatics over at the fair grounds with Red Wright. Mary, that Red is some girl. You know Professor Sputter and I are making a stratosphere plane. Well, Red has given us lots of ideas for that. Well, so long, Mary. I've gotta hurry."

"Oh, shucks! " said Mary stamping her foot as Jack disappeared around the hangar. "Ever since that girl saved his life she's been keeping him busy. I've got an idea!" she remarked to herself suddenly.

She ran around the hangar and found the manager.

"I want to hire a plane!" she said.

"Okay!" he answered. "I've got a bran' new sportster I think you'll like fine. It's all gassed up, ready to take off."

Ten minutes later, Mary took off in the new sport plane. She thought out her big idea as she flew. "If I want to see more of Jack, I'll have to speak his language. That means I'll have to do stunt flying. I guess there's no better time than the present, so here goes. I'll try a loop first—"

The little plane zoomed and turned over on its back, and then pointed its nose to the earth and dived.

"Oo-ooh!" gasped Mary, "I've done something wrong—"

She jerked the stick and pressed the controls. The plane nearly turned itself into knots.

The pilots and mechanics on the ground stared in open-mouthed wonder at what they thought was stunt flying.

"Marvelous! " cried a visiting pilot. "I've never seen anything like it. Must be imitating someone who has lost control."

Someone had lost control. Mary was reaching the point where she could not think clearly. She grabbed the stick. The plane rose almost vertically. Then the ship turned over and whipped into a spin.

The men watching below expected to see it crash at any moment. They ran for shelter. But Mary brought the plane out of the dive and roared over the laboratory where Jack and Professor Sputter were working.

"Well, Jack," Professor Sputter was saying, "our new stratosphere plane is nearly completed. In fact, when these last parts are assembled, you can fly it."

"Fine, Professor!" answered Jack. "Say wot's that plane doin' so close?"

Having escaped death by a number of miracles, Mary finally righted the plane, and after circling over the field, landed and came to a bouncing stop.

It was Pinfeathers, the youngster who hung around the hangars, who told Jack who the pilot of the plane had been.

"Mary!" scoffed Jack, "why that's impossible."

"Impossible or not, it was Mary just the same," Pinfeathers said.

"But Mary's no stunt pilot!" insisted Smilin' Jack.

"Says you! She's been doin' stunts nobody ever heard of before," Pinfeathers retorted. "Look! She's over there talkin' to that little mechanic now."

Mary was saying to the mechanic, "Gee, I guess I'll never make a stunt flier. I never would be able to give a crowd a real thrill."

"Oh, NO?" gasped the mechanic, who even now just got his breath after watching Mary.

Turning in Smilin' Jack's direction, Mary hailed him with a wave of her hand.

"How'd you like my little work-out just now? Not bad, even if I'll never make a real stunt pilot! What d'ya say?" she said.

"Wot do I say?" Jack gulped. "I say you oughta be spanked. You're just a crazy little fool for luck, Mary Harlan. Haven't you ANY consideration for your life?"

"Oh, yeah?" Mary said indignantly. "And I suppose you don't think stratosphere flying is dangerous."

"That's different," Jack retorted. "Men have to take chances sometimes. It's no excuse for YOUR crazy flying. I forbid you to do any more."

Mary started back at these words.

"FORBID!" she laughed shrilly. "Say! Just who do you think you are to tell me what I can't do? You have no right to talk to me like that." Her chin quivered with rage. "As hard as I've tried to be a stunt flier so I'd have something in common with you! I never want to see you again—NEVER!"

"B-B-But Mary!" Jack pleaded. "Wait a minute!"

But Mary walked away toward her sport plane and got into it. Jack ran after it trying to stop her. But it was no use. The plane was taking off before he reached it.

"Well, who'd have thought it of quiet Mary Harlan—Jack said miserably.

"What's the matter with you?" asked a voice behind him.

Smilin' Jack turned around.

"Hello, Red. Mary and I just had another quarrel."

Mary had gone up, her chin set with grim determination. She was resolved not to come down until she could fly as well as Red, or the plane ran out of gas.

The red-headed stunt girl meanwhile had her own scheme.

"Well, that's Mary's own business, isn't it? You couldn't stop her, so why worry? Come on over to my apartment—I've just made some chocolate cake," she said.

Smilin' Jack went along rather sorrowfully. He almost forgot about Mary, in the eating of a huge piece of cake.

Suddenly running feet were heard in the hall, and Pinfeathers rushed in.

"Hey, Jack! Where are you?" screeched Pinfeathers. "Come quick! Mary's in trouble—lost in a fog that's just come up."

Jack was on his feet in an instant.

"Gangway!" he shouted.

Red was completely forgotten.

"Hurry! " cried Pinfeathers. "They can tell by her radio that she is near the airport, but she doesn't know how to land blind, and she hasn't a parachute."

"I'll find her!" Jack replied. "There's a radio direction-finder in Professor's new plane. It could find a mosquito in a blizzard. Roll her out!" he called to the mechanic as they reached the hangar.

Professor Sputter, waiting at the door, seized Jack's arm.

"Are you crazy?" he squeaked. "Listen, you'll only get lost yourself. I won't let you—"

But Jack was already at the controls.

"Stubborn fool!" yelped the little man. "Splendid fool!"

To make a long story short, Smilin' Jack did find Mary's plane in the fog, transferred to it in the air, and brought it down safely. But he had to abandon the new stratosphere plane.

The next day, in spite of having made things up with Mary, Jack walked about the laboratory in a cloud of gloom. Professor Sputter tried to comfort him.

"Cheer up, my boy! " he said. "Don't feel so bad about losing our strato-plane. It was a cheap price to pay for saving Mary's life."

"I know, Professor," protested Jack, "but the new plane meant so much to you, and—"

"Lookit!" yelped Pinfeathers. "That's an army plane cornin' in to land, isn't it?"

Both men followed the youngster's pointing arm and saw a big gray monoplane gliding down to the landing field.

"One of the new type army bombers," commented Jack. "It's the fastest thing yet in big ships. Wonder what he wants!"

Jack's question was soon answered by the army pilot himself.

"Your strato-plane, Professor," he said, "has been located by army fliers. It is resting on level ground on a western prairie."

"Wonderful!" squeaked the professor. "Tell me, Captain, will it be possible to salvage the essential parts?"

"More than that!" the Captain answered. "The plane seems to be unhurt. If you will step into my plane, you shall go to inspect it yourself."

"Gladly," the professor assented.

Not only the professor, but Jack and Pinfeathers were passengers in the plane.

"I didn't know that the army was so interested in our new invention, Captain," Smilin' Jack remarked.

The officer nodded.

"Yes, the government is more than interested. An army equipped with stratosphere planes would have the advantage over every force in the world. And speaking of your plane, there she lies, just below us over to the right. We can't understand yet how it came to land safely without a pilot."

"Gee, Professor! " Pinfeathers broke in. "How do you explain that?"

Professor Sputter grinned.

"My strato-plane has an automatic pilot—an invention brought to perfection for the first time. That's what flew the plane after Jack abandoned it in mid-air, and landed it when the gas gave out. I expected drat we'd find it safe and sound."

"Knowing your ability as an inventor, I suspected it was something like this," said the captain. "But tell me, does your automatic pilot also refuel the plane and take off from the ground alone?"

All eyes searched the captain's face for some sign of a joke.

"Of course not!" the professor snapped rudely. "Why do you ask that?"

"Because," the officer said, "your stratoplane is taking off this very minute!"

"Catch it!" screamed the professor.

The army plane's motors roared with incredible power. For a moment it seemed as if the pursuit might be successful. But the strato-plane's supercharged motors quickly began to draw the ship away from the army plane.

"Some thief is piloting it!" the professor shouted.

"Gee! " squealed Pinfeathers, "can't we do something about it?"

"We'll try some tracer-bullets," grunted the captain. "Sergeant," he spoke into the radio-phone. "Forward machine gun—tracer bullets. Try to scare that plane down."

Instandy the quick-firer in the forward turret began spraying white streaks toward the fleeing plane. They went to the right and the left of it. Evidently the thief had plenty of nerve. He simply went faster.

"You'll never get him before he hits the stratosphere, Captain," groaned Jack, "and then it's good-bye."

"We won't give up yet. We have something better than tracer bullets!" He pointed to a small lever on the instrument board. "This new directional beam will blow up the ignition of any gasoline engine running."

A low humming was the only sound heard in the plane. But the effects were seen in the fleeing strato-plane's change of maneuvers. Caught in a climb, it suddenly stalled. Then it fell in a swift glide to the earth. As luck would have it, the prairie below was fairly level.

The strato-plane swooped to an emergency landing, with the army bomber close at its heels. The instant the wheels of the strato-plane touched the ground, the thief jammed on his brakes and jumped clear.

Luck was with him and the wonderplane he had tried to steal. Nothing happened to either one. The captain of the bomber was more cautious. He came to a landing a hundred yards away, jumped from the plane and dashed after the thief.

Again and again his automatic spoke. But the bullets only kicked up dust around the feet of the fleeing figure.

"Best see what direction he takes after getting through those trees over there," Jack advised. "We can follow his tracks for some distance."

But, as luck would have it, the ground beneath the trees was too dry for tracking. The captain and Jack turned back, angry and disappointed. The thief had got away.

From a safe cover near the road, the thief watched them.

"They won the trick this time," he said, "but I'll get the plans of that plane yet!"