Moye W. Stephens’ introduction to aviation was the Dominguez Aviation Meet, the American West’s first airshow, held near Los Angeles in 1910. ‘1 was not quite 4 when my parents took me to the event, Stephens later recalled, but my mother was to comment later that it left its mark on her son. That experience would lead him into a life of aviation pioneering and adventure — and on a remarkable journey around the globe.
Stephens made his first flight when he was 17, in a Curtiss OX-5-powered Standard J-1 (a version of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny). From that time on, he had to fly. Tall and self-confident, the Hollywood High School senior talked an airport manager into letting him work in exchange for flying lessons, serving as a combination grease monkey and beast of burden. Each hour’s work would earn one minute of instruction — all in the air.
Stephens left for Stanford University in 1924 with his pilot’s license and, for a time thereafter, was able to fly only during summer vacations. He bought his first airplane in 1926, a Thomas-Morse S-4C Scout, with the $450 he earned from his first job as a pilot — flying in Cecil B. De Mille’s Corporal Kate with movie stunt pilot Leo Nomis, who sold him the plane. He also flew in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and gave flying lessons at Clover Field in Santa Monica the following summer and after graduating in 1928. One of his pupils was millionaire shipbuilder Captain G. Alan Hancock, who a few weeks before had sponsored Charles Kingsford-Smith’s record transpacific flight in Southern Cross (see Art of Flight in the May 1999 issue of Aviation History). Stephens bought Hancock’s OX-5 Travel Air 2000 with a loan from Hancock and used it to instruct future aviation entrepreneurs John K. Northrop (Northrop Corporation), Jerry Vultee (Consolidated-Vultee/Convair) and Cliff Garrett (Garrett AiResearch), all of whom were then working for Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank.
Stephens reluctantly returned to Stanford in September and started law school. Then an unexpected phone call in January gave him an excuse not to follow his father into the family law firm. Maddux Airlines offered him a full-time flying job.
For Maddux, Stephens flew an 11-passenger Ford 4-AT TriMotor on a gambler’s run from Los Angeles to San Diego and on to the Aguacaliente Casino across the Mexican border. There were no navigation aids, no reliable weather reports, no radio set and no airfield lighting except car headlights in emergencies. Checkout consisted of `riding shotgun’ on a trip to San Diego and another to Alameda, Stephens recalled, during which I handled the controls in the air; a quick circuit of Glendale’s Grand Central Air Terminal in the left-hand seat with the Chief Pilot observing…my take-off and landing — my first in a multi-engined aircraft-followed by three quick solo circuits. The next day: presto! — airline captain on a regular run with a load of unwittingly trusting souls in the passenger compartment and a mechanic riding shotgun. Stephens loved it. Six months later he was flying a 14-passenger Ford 5-AT TriMotor for Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), forerunner of today’s Trans World Airlines.
A call in September 1930 from Major C.C. Mosley, a World War I pilot and the founder of Western Airlines, ended Stephens’ airline career. Richard Halliburton, a well-known adventure-travel writer and speaker, decided that in 1930 an adventure not in the air is obsolete, and he wanted to fly into the most remote and exotic parts of Africa and Asia to gather material for his next book. He would need a skilled and resourceful pilot, and Mosley had recommended Stephens. Halliburton planned to take two years and circle the globe. There would be no salary, but all expenses would be covered.
Stephens’ fellow fliers, who had elected him president of the Professional Pilots Association in 1929, considered him crazy to consider the offer. TAT would grant only a year’s leave of absence, so he would lose his seniority with the company. But Stephens felt the airlines were run by accountants and government regulation all pervasive. Halliburton, on the other hand, was offering a round-the-world expedition — a virtual flying carpet!
Halliburton tried to negotiate a deal so that he could get the use of an airplane from a manufacturer in return for publicity. Shell Oil Company agreed to let him sign for fuel abroad and cancel the debt when — or if — he returned. A private party offered him a grand big Stearman plane with a 500-hp motor. But he turned it down because, as he said, it burns 30 gallons of gas an hour and gas abroad costs 75 cents, and because the owner insisted his own pilot fly it. Halliburton’s wealthy cousin Erle owned a modern, twin-engine all-metal Lockheed Vega, but the writer told his parents that Stephens doesn’t want to go in anything but an open Stearman, thinks the Lockheed too big.
Stephens found a silver Stearman C-3B, a fabric-covered, open dual-cockpit biplane, at Burbank airport in November. Its sole navigation device was a magnetic compass, and it was not equipped with a radio, but — as Halliburton reassured his parents — its 225-hp Curtiss J-5 engine was the same engine that [Charles] Lindbergh used to fly the Atlantic. Stephens had the plane reconditioned, and Halliburton had the fuselage repainted scarlet, with its name picked out in gold over a black stripe: The Flying Carpet.
They flew to New York in January 1931, crated the plane as deck cargo and sailed for England on the White Star Line’s Majestic. During their flight from England to the Continent, Halliburton noted that the Stearman’s aileron pushrods, which had always vibrated more than they should, began to oscillate dangerously The two men waited three frustrating weeks in Paris until a visiting Wright expert found that the riggers in Burbank had installed the pushrods upside down. The problem was corrected in minutes.
In French Morocco, Stephens flew Halliburton over much of the country so the writer could collect material for an article on the French Foreign Legion. The young pilot also found time to fly in Morocco’s first-ever airshow, held at Fez, competing with Michel Detroyat, the leading French aerobatic pilot. He later performed in Algeria’s first airshow along with Rene Fonck, top Allied ace of World War I.
Halliburton became obsessed with flying to Timbuktu. The historic but decaying slave-trading center lay 1,300 miles away across the desert from the Foreign Legion post at Colomb Bechar, on the northern edge of the Sahara, then 300 miles farther up the Niger River from the outpost of Gao. The Stearman could carry fuel for 540 miles at the most. The French army allowed them to refuel from dumps left at 400-mile intervals along a faint caravan track to Gao.
Moye’s eyes and mine were fixed desperately on [the track], Halliburton wrote of that flight. At 500 feet [the dump] looked like any one of a thousand rocks, but Moye saw it. The heat and sun were incredible. The horizon was a straight line. What with head winds and filling our gas tank by hand in the blistering sun, we could not make our destination and had to come down and sleep on the desert…. We slept on our parachutes and almost froze, whereas four hours before to breathe had burned the lungs. They spent three days at Gao cleaning sand out of the engine, then flew on to Timbuktu.
The pair flew back to Paris in June for an engine overhaul. There, Halliburton learned that the Russians had denied him permission to fly through Soviet Central Asia. Rather than give up, he and Stephens decided to fly through the Holy Land, Iraq and Persia (Iran) to India, thence to the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. Technical services would be available only in Cairo and Manila.
On occasion, Halliburton expressed a wish that The Flying Carpet could be used to rescue a damsel in distress. Stephens had flown to Bushire, on the Persian Gulf, and was waiting for Halliburton to come overland when a young woman in a leather flying outfit burst into his hotel dining room and addressed him in French and English. She was Elly Beinhorn — known as Germany’s Amelia Earhart — and she was attempting a Berlin-to-Sydney solo flight. Her distress was that the engine of her small Klemm K1.25 monoplane had quit 60 miles north of Bushire, forcing her to hitch a ride to town on a rickety truck. Stephens flew her to her plane the next day and traced the trouble to a sand-clogged fuel jet, much to the chagrin of the resolutely self-sufficient aviatrix.
By the time The Flying Carpet reached Calcutta, Stephens had begun to wonder how long their good luck would hold. Halliburton’s main objective in India was to fly as high as possible up Mount Everest. Following an airshow by Stephens and Fräulein Beinhorn for the maharaja of Nepal, the maharaja gave Stephens and Halliburton permission to attempt it. With the Stearman’s tachometer redlined, Stephens recalled, I nursed it up to 18,000 feet by getting some lift from up-slope drafts. When Everest loomed out of the cloud mass, the plane was barely 500 feet above the jagged ridges, nose-high and barely airborne. I was wishing the thing along, just on the edge of a stall, when all of a sudden Halliburton stood up in the rear cockpit with a camera! With the air resistance of his body, we lost speed and started down. Stephens batted Halliburton down in his seat and dived to regain flying speed. Fortunately I had just turned away from the ridge, the pilot said, and The Carpet pulled out with only a few feet to spare.
Another Halliburton stunt almost marooned them in Pontianak, Dutch Borneo, where a crowd of natives had come to view the takeoff. Pontoons had been shipped ahead from Fairchild Industries and fitted to the Stearman in Singapore. Standing on one pontoon, Halliburton started to pull up the anchor as the plane taxied slowly over it. Then, while addressing the crowd, he carelessly let the anchor line get into the idling propeller. In a flash, the prop wound up the rope. The anchor whizzed past Halliburton’s head and bent the propeller.
The only technical support available was a mechanic who straightened motorboat props bent from running into submerged logs; but he measured and marked off identical stations on the two blades. Then he went to work with a block of wood and a clamp and a thickness gauge, said Stephens, and straightened that thing out to where there was no vibration at all and it flew right from there on!
The two adventurers found they were the first Americans ever to fly into the Philippines when they landed in Manila in April 1932. While they were there, Halliburton learned that his New York bank account was $2,000 overdrawn. The pair had The Carpet crated, and they sailed May 9 for San Francisco on President McKinley, retrieving the Stearman’s dry-land undercarriage — shipped ahead from Singapore — during a stop in Hong Kong. To raise expense money, Halliburton managed to schedule paid broadcast appearances during their stopover in Honolulu and then in San Francisco after they landed on May 31.
Stephens spiraled The Flying Carpet into Burbank airport on June 4, 1932, where they had taken off 18 months, 33,660 miles, 374 flying hours, 34 countries and 178 landings before. They shook hands and parted company, Halliburton to write his book, Stephens to spend, as he put it, an unhappy three-year period of non-aviation employment — working as production manager in a glass business his family owned. He finally returned to the fold in 1935 as a partner in the West Coast distributor for Fairchild Aircraft, where he also flew occasional mapping jobs for Fairchild Aerial Survey.
Stephens met Inez, contessa Gadina de Turiani, through recreational flying, and they later married. The contessa was the first woman in Italy to hold a pilot’s license, earned in Los Angeles at age 20 when she was sent to live with American relatives. She returned to California — and flying — after attending medical school in Italy. A Lockheed Aircraft Company trip to New Zealand and Australia in 1937 served as the couplers honeymoon.
War orders from Europe boosted the American aircraft industry in 1939, giving Stephens’ old flying pupil Jack Northrop a chance to form his own company. Stephens joined him to organize and promote the new venture and later was elected to the board of directors. At the same time, he served as the firm’s chief test pilot, participating in development of the N-3PB seaplane built for Norway, the A-31 Vengeance dive bomber designed for, the U.S. Navy, and the P-61 Black Widow night fighter for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Stephens also did most of the test-flying of the N1-M, a flying mock-up intended to explore Northrop’s pet all-wing concept. He assessed the N 1-M as vastly overweight, sorely underpowered and plagued with constant engine problems, but admitted that it fulfilled its design purpose and produced the general configuration for the subsequent Northrop Flying Wings.
South America looked like commercial aviation’s frontier after World War II, and Stephens formed a partnership with Northrop’s former sales manager to start in aerial merchandising project in the interior of Brazil. Problems developed in spite of a government franchise, however, and when the climate proved detrimental to Stephens’ young son’s health, the family returned to Southern California. Moye and Inez Stephens later moved to Ensenada, Mexico, and then relocated in 1995 to California’s Napa Valley to be near their son.
Jack Northrop awarded Moye Stephens lifetime membership in the Flying Wing Club in 1948. The Society of Experimental Test Pilots elected him Honorary Fellow in 1983, to join Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Doolittle and some 50 other carefully selected…eminent individuals in the aerospace field. And the OX-5 Aviation Pioneers elected Stephens to its Hall of Fame in the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1989.
What perhaps gives Stephens the most pleasure today is the black-and-white photographs in his tattered copy of a book published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1932. Written by Halliburton after they returned from their trip around the world that year, is titled simply The Flying Carpet.
This article was written by Ronald Gilliam and originally published in the July 1999 issue of Aviation History magazine.
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