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A Showman Takes the Lead

By C.V. Glines
1/29/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Perhaps no other pilot personifies the carefree days of aviation’s Golden Age better than Roscoe Turner. During the 1920s and ’30s—when aviators routinely risked their lives wing-walking, racing, breaking records and pushing the limits of their aircraft and themselves—his aerial escapades and penchant for self-promotion continually kept him in the public eye. Jimmy Doolittle, one of Turner’s racing rivals, said of him: “You always knew when Roscoe was around. His broad smile topped with a broad waxed mustache was the first thing you noticed. Then you saw his uniform—highly polished boots, riding breeches, powder blue military jacket with diamond studded wings, sometimes a Sam Browne belt or a silver buckle, gold-and-crimson helmet and goggles. Then you heard him joshing with everyone, anxious to meet anybody he hadn’t known before. You couldn’t help but like him.”

The eldest son of a dirt-scrabble farmer, Roscoe was born on September 29, 1895, near Corinth, Miss. He completed the 10th grade and then briefly attended Corinth Commercial College—only to find that business didn’t interest him nearly as much as automobiles and racing. He soon left home for Memphis, Tenn., where he found work as an auto mechanic.

Turner got his first up-close look at an airplane, a U.S. Army trainer, in 1916. Thinking the Army might be interested in an applicant who was already an experienced automobile driver, he applied for flight training, only to be turned down because he didn’t have a college degree. He enlisted in January 1918 as an ambulance driver, later transferring to the balloon corps as a flying cadet and receiving a commission. Sent to France in September 1918, he took flying lessons in two-seat trainers from squadron pilots after the Armistice. He was released from active duty as a first lieutenant in September 1919.

Turner returned to Corinth to find he had no civilian clothes, no job and no prospects. His parents thought he should find work in a bank or help with the farm, but Roscoe was determined to remain involved with aviation. He joined forces with Lieutenant Harry Runser, a former Army pilot who was putting on exhibitions in a British Avro 504 trainer. The two formed a barnstorming partnership in 1920, with Roscoe performing as a wing-walker and parachutist. Both men wore their uniforms until they were threadbare, then designed their own stylized replacements. Over the next two years Turner spent many hours at the controls alongside Runser, honing his flying skills.

In 1922 Runser and Turner were arrested for purchasing a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” from a smooth-talking U.S. Marine sergeant, who had somehow convinced them it was no longer owned by the government. The sergeant was court-martialed and imprisoned for three years. The barnstorming duo was indicted for conspiracy and receiving stolen government property. Roscoe maintained he had been an innocent victim, but on the U.S. district attorney’s advice he pleaded guilty, hoping the court would be lenient. That February the fliers were sentenced to a year and a day in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and fined $50. Although officials filed an appeal for Turner, hoping to exonerate him, his case was reviewed to no avail, and the barnstormers began their prison stints.

Meanwhile a Corinth attorney initiated a request for review of Roscoe’s case by the Department of Justice, which ultimately found that he had not known the Jenny was stolen, and “it…appeared that he had conducted himself in a moral and law-abiding manner.” Both Runser and Turner paid their fines and were paroled after serving five months. Turner was granted a “full and unconditional pardon for the purpose of restoring his civil rights” by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, but there’s no record that Runser ever applied for or was granted a pardon. The whole sorry episode was kept quiet; few people outside Turner’s family ever heard of it.

After his release, Turner bought and restored a surplus Jenny, then started selling rides at fairs and special events. He soon discovered that $5 joyrides weren’t enough to live on. Finding a Corinth auto agency that agreed to serve as a sponsor, he began advertising the Gray automobile, a competitor to Ford’s Model T. In addition to stunting in the air, Turner dreamed up a series of newsworthy demonstrations on the ground to show off the car’s power—for example, driving up steep hills and courthouse steps to prove it wouldn’t stall, a feat that few cars of the era could match. The resulting publicity apparently fed the flair for flamboyance and self-promotion that would become one of Turner’s defining characteristics.

In the fall of 1924, Turner teamed up with Arthur Starnes, a parachutist and stuntman, to form the Roscoe Turner Flying Circus, which flourished as the pair flew throughout the southeast on the fair circuit. Turner briefly joined a group of local businessmen to form the Muscle Shoals Aircraft Corporation in the spring of 1925, later starting a flying school at Florence, Ala., with a fleet of four airplanes.

Once he got a look at Igor Sikorsky’s S-29A, a large, all-metal, twin-engine transport, Turner was eager to start his own airline. He persuaded some businessmen to back his Roscoe Turner Airways Corporation, making Atlanta its headquarters. Turner envisioned offering service to New York, as well as charters and local sightseeing trips. Purchasing the S-29 on credit from Sikorsky, he made some promotional flights that garnered a fair amount of publicity. As it turned out, however, he couldn’t find enough backers to make the airline a reality.

Next Turner relocated to Richmond, Va., where he established a flying school and served as a distributor for Waco aircraft. Success proved elusive there as well, and by now he was in debt, flitting from one short-lived promotion to another in an effort to stay afloat. “The greatest hazard I had to overcome was starving to death,” he often said. “Your friends beg you to quit before it is too late; very few people will invest any money with you to help carry on the work; sometimes your creditors will try to collect from you before you take off.”

In 1928 Turner finally turned a corner when he became involved in Howard Hughes’ blockbuster movie Hell’s Angels. In need of a German Gotha bomber, Hughes had heard from his advisers that Turner’s S-29 could be modified to look like one. Roscoe signed a lease and flew the Sikorsky to the West Coast, where Hughes’ publicists announced that the giant “Gotha” had been imported from Germany at a cost of $50,000 and was being flown by “one of the world’s greatest pilots.” Not once during the flight west or on its arrival in California did anyone ever question the airplane’s authenticity.

Turner would be on the West Coast for some time, thanks to Hughes’ exacting standards. To convey a sense of realism, the eccentric millionaire insisted that all aerial scenes be shot with white, puffy clouds in the background. That meant many days of delays, with hundreds of takes before Hughes finally approved footage. Roscoe flew his S-29 regularly while several dozen bogus enemy fighters made passes at the giant “bomber.” Hughes himself was almost killed during the filming. When the pilot of a Thomas-Morse scout refused to make a steep turn at 300 feet because the excessive torque of its rotary engine could cause a stall and spin, a furious Hughes jumped in the aircraft— which he had never flown—took off and started a steep turn. As the pilot had feared, the airplane stalled and crashed, leaving the filmmaker unconscious, with a crushed cheekbone. Hughes underwent three months of plastic surgery for the injury, which caused him discomfort for the rest of his life.

A series of accidents continued to plague the filming, with four men killed during production. The final tragedy cost Turner his own one-of-a-kind airplane when he refused to spin it. Unknown to him, Hughes had persuaded a substitute flier to attempt the shot. Unable to recover from the spin, the pilot bailed out, but the mechanic aboard died in the crash.

Turner received $7,000 from a reluctant Hughes for his loss, but he had spent $2,000 on engine and plane repairs for which the filmmaker never reimbursed him. Bitter about losing “the thing I loved and slaved night and day to obtain,” the flier wrote several letters to Hughes, but he never received another cent for his time and expenses.

During the many months of filming, however, Turner had earned some extra income in his spare time by giving flying lessons and sightseeing flights in a borrowed plane. Always gregarious, he soon attracted an increasingly high-profile clientele out West, including movie stars, executives and politicians who hired him to fly them to Mexico and Nevada. To keep up appearances, he ordered a new uniform and had a jeweler design a pair of wings studded with diamonds centered on the initial “T” with a superimposed, intertwined “R.” In the cockpit he wore a gold-and-crimson helmet, which he swapped for a blue officer’s cap once he landed. Whenever someone razzed him about his ostentatious getup, he just smiled and said, “At least they’re talking about me.” One friend commented: “Roscoe couldn’t move without being front page news. He meant it to be that way.”

Turner’s first notable venture after Hell’s Angels was serving as chief pilot for Nevada Airlines, which began service between Los Angeles, Reno and Las Vegas in 1928 with Lockheed Vegas. For a time the fledgling carrier was publicized as the “fastest airline in the world,” but it ceased operations the following year when it proved unprofitable.

Roscoe continued to fly at every opportunity and even attempted to beat a 65-hour endurance record held by a German pilot, but he was forced to land after 24 hours due to engine trouble. He also coaxed a Lockheed Express up to 24,000 feet, so a parachutist could set an altitude record. While that wasn’t high enough to set a new record for airplane altitude, it still kept the flier’s name in the news.

Turner next decided to enter the 1929 nonstop race from Los Angeles to Cleveland (which in 1931 became the Bendix Trophy Race), and then participate in the National Air Races. He placed third in the cross-country race, but was disqualified because he landed more than an hour after the 6 p.m. deadline. At Cleveland he competed in a closed-course race and the Thompson Trophy Race, placing third in both—a strong finish.

Despite his growing fame, however, Turner’s financial woes continued. Ever in search of sponsors, in the spring of 1929 he learned of a firm that proposed making flying safer by installing parachutes on aircraft, so that when an engine failed the plane could safely float to the ground. Using a borrowed single-engine Thunderbird, Turner climbed to 5,000 feet, cut power, pulled a lever and released the chute. When the airplane dropped to a hard landing in a field, Roscoe wasn’t hurt—but the Thunderbird’s landing gear was smashed and its prop was splintered. (More than 70 years later, the concept would see practical application with the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.)

In 1930 Turner persuaded Earl R. Gilmore, president of the Gil – more Oil Co., to purchase a Lockheed Air Express and put him on the payroll for record-setting attempts. He would also use the airplane as a flying test bed for the firm’s products. After seeing a sign advertising Gilmore Lion Head petroleum products, the flier persuaded the owner of a lion farm to donate a three-week-old cub, turning the whole venture into a media circus. To satisfy the Humane Society, Turner had the 17-pound cub—promptly christened Gilmore—fitted with a para – chute. For several memorable months the young lion was just as much a part of Roscoe’s image as his waxed mustache and flashy uniform.

Turner soon began setting records in earnest with the Lockheed Express. In May 1930 he beat Frank Hawks’ east-west transcontinental record by more than 28 minutes, and in July established a record from Vancouver, B.C., to Agua Caliente, Mexico, of 9 hours, 14 minutes. Several other point-to-point landmarks followed, with Turner’s leonine sidekick inevitably causing a commotion wherever they went. But by the time his cub had grown to 150 pounds, Roscoe knew their partnership had to end. Gilmore went to live at a wild animal farm until his death in 1952 at age 22. Today his stuffed body is in cold storage at the National Air & Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber facility (and a host of Turner memorabilia is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center).

Turner formed a friendship with Jimmy Wedell, an uneducated racing pilot with a genius for aircraft design, who was backed by Harry Williams, a Louisiana millionaire. Wedell, with the help of Don Young, Roscoe’s ever-loyal mechanic, produced the Wedell-Williams Model 44 racer, which Turner flew in the 1932 Bendix race to third place. He then entered the Thompson race and again placed third. Turner won the Bendix in 1933, his first major victory. But in that year’s Thompson race he was disqualified for cutting a pylon, a major disappointment. Convinced that he had the fastest racer in the country, he set a new transcontinental record that year from New York to Los Angeles and another from Los Angeles to New York.

Roscoe won the 1934 Bendix race to Cleveland in the Wedell 44, continuing on to New York to beat his own coast-to-coast record by a few minutes. He then won the Thompson race, with its $4,500 prize.

Learning that Sir Macpherson Robertson, an Australian candy manufacturer, was sponsoring the MacRobertson International London-to-Melbourne race in 1934, for a top prize of $15,000, Turner negotiated with Boeing, United Airlines and Pratt & Whitney to borrow a Boeing 247D airliner with auxiliary fuel tanks. He also signed on other sponsors, including William Lear, Warner Brothers Pictures and Firestone Tire Company, as well as the H.J. Heinz Company, which loaned him $2,500. He hired stunt pilot Clyde Pangborn, who had flown almost completely around the world in 1931, and Reeder Nichols, an expert radio operator, to join him for the trip.

The MacRobertson was actually two races to be run concurrently. The speed race had a minimum of restrictions: The winner would be the first to arrive at Melbourne. The handicap race measured a plane’s performance according to a formula involving gross weight, engine horsepower, wing area and payload. The race to Melbourne, 11,323 miles away, officially began in London at 6:30 a.m. on October 20.

The 247 made stops at Athens, Baghdad and Karachi without incident, but the leg to Allahabad nearly ended in disaster when the crew became lost in poor visibility at night over mountains and Nichols couldn’t raise the Allahabad radio operator for a bearing. Knowing their fuel was dangerously low and they were over dense jungle, Turner tallied his options: “Tigers, crocodiles, and no airport. Bail out and play tag with tigers. Land in the river and annoy the crocs. Do neither and die.” After Nichols radioed a desperate SOS, they finally got a steer from Allahabad and landed safely. But following five more gas stops they had to make a forced landing at Bourke in Australia’s outback, with both engines barely operating. The exhausted team worked frantically to fix their power plants. When they at last reached Melbourne, they found that their chief competitor, a KLM Douglas DC-2, had landed two hours ahead of them to capture the handicap prize; Turner and his crew won $7,500 for second place. British pilots C.W.A. Scott and Tom Campbell Black won the speed prize in a de Havilland D.H.88 Comet. Of the 63 entries from a dozen nations, only 12 eventually reached Melbourne. (As for the Boeing 247, which Turner returned to United Airlines, it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum, where it is on permanent display.)

Now internationally famous, Roscoe planned to make a speaking tour, hoping to recoup expenses for the Melbourne flight and also find new sponsors. Leasing a Boeing 80A trimotor from United, he began touring in 1935. He had contracts to advertise Camel cigarettes in addition to a motor scooter that he took with him. But like so many of his other ventures, both those arrangements proved to be short-lived.

Turner did have one sustaining contract with the H.J. Heinz Company, which touted him as the “Speed King of the Sky.” Capitalizing on America’s obsession with flight, he was the star of a Heinz 57 Varieties campaign aimed at youngsters. The ads urged kids to join the Roscoe Turner Flying Corps, which offered them their own winged badges, pilot licenses and a wealth of inside information—including secret passwords (see sidebar, P. 58). As a result, Roscoe became a hero for many young Americans during the grim Depression years, also helping to focus attention on aviation in general.

Turner announced that he would enter the 1935 Bendix and Thompson races with the souped-up Wedell-Williams 44 racer. All nine entries in the Bendix race had to fight storms over the entire distance to Cleveland. After Roscoe dived out of the clouds and flashed across the finish line in the rain, he found that he had lost by a mere 23.5 seconds, taking second place. In that year’s Thompson race he had an engine fire during the last lap, but crash-landed without injury.

Still searching for a win in 1936, Roscoe planned to fly a new plane designed by Howard W. Barlow of the University of Minnesota and finished by Emil M. “Matty” Laird, designer of Jimmy Doolittle’s winning Super Solution five years earlier. When that plane wasn’t ready in time, he opted to use the Wedell 44 for the Bendix race. As it turned out, he had to crash-land it near an Indian reservation in Arizona.

Determined to try again in 1937, he went on a letter-writing spree to find sponsors—which led to his being hired by NBC to host Flying Time, a popular radio show. Also helping to keep Roscoe in the news at the time was cartoonist Zack Mosley, who modeled his strip’s main character, “Smilin’ Jack,” after Turner’s helmet-and-goggles image.

By that time Matty Laird had finished the Turner Special, later known as the RT-14 Meteor, and Roscoe planned to enter the 1937 Bendix with it. But he was officially disqualified before the race as a result of flash burns he received when a welder tried to repair a gas tank leak. However, he did place third with it in the Thompson race.

While he didn’t enter the 1938 or 1939 Bendix races, Turner won the Thompson races for both years, becoming the only three-time Thompson Trophy winner in history. With war clouds looming, the National Air Races were discontinued at that point. He then formed the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corp. at the Indianapolis airport, a fixed-base operation that included a mechanics’ school, air taxi service, maintenance for transient aircraft and a sales and service facility for Wacos, Stinsons and Taylorcrafts. Eager to promote aviation, he flew an estimated 38,000 passengers on local flights during 1940-41.

When the U.S. entered World War II, Turner’s company started training pilots under the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and he became active in the Civil Air Patrol and the American Legion. He started a charter service between Detroit and Memphis, but had to discontinue it when government inspectors found that he was offering it on a scheduled basis. He also flew the Turner Special to Indianapolis from storage in Chicago to start a museum. (After being suspended in the Turner hangar for 28 years, it was donated to the National Air and Space Museum, and is now on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.)

Turner dabbled in film and nonfiction writing, appearing briefly in the motion picture Flight at Midnight and co-writing a book, Win Your Wings, in addition to publishing a newsletter called Circles, coauthoring a newspaper column and participating in Sky Blazers, a CBS radio show. While flying the national commander of the American Legion around the country, Roscoe gained the opportunity to voice his own ever-quotable opinions on a variety of aviation topics.

During WWII, Turner applied for renewal of his commission and asked to be assigned as a government consultant. He wanted to serve with the “Flying Tigers” in China and on Maj. Gen. Doolittle’s staff in North Africa, but all his requests were turned down. Doolittle pointed out that running training schools was just as important to the war effort as serving in combat.

After the war, Turner Airlines applied to conduct feeder operations between Indianapolis and Grand Rapids, Mich. Service began in November 1949, but investors quickly lost interest, and the franchise was sold to Lake Central Airlines.

When supporters of a separate U.S. Air Force rallied after the war, Turner was recognized as a high-profile proponent whose comments always generated headlines. He was rewarded for his efforts in August 1952 with the Distinguished Flying Cross, usually reserved for members of the armed forces. In 1956 he received the Paul Tissandier Diploma in Vienna, Austria, for a lifetime of contributions to private and sporting aviation. And in July 1960 he was appointed a special consultant to the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Aeronautics Committee, on which he served for eight years.

By the mid-1960s, Roscoe was flying with a veteran pilot friend alongside him as a safety pilot. He sold controlling interests in his company in 1968. During a vacation trip to New Orleans that same year, he checked into the Ochsner Clinic and was diagnosed with bone cancer. He died in Indianapolis on June 23, 1970.

Roscoe Turner began his career as a freewheeling gypsy during the Golden Age of flight. He helped to build public confidence in aviation through a long list of achievements—all of them enhanced by his flamboyance and genius for image management. Though he frequently teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, he never lost faith in what the airplane could do to ensure America’s supremacy in peace and war. He remains one of the most colorful figures in aviation history.

 

Contributing editor C.V. Glines is the award-winning author of many aviation-related books, including the biography Roscoe Turner.

Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.  

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