Suddenly, Burnett’s engine quit. He coolly began a slow climb. At 75 feet, he rolled the plane upright and began gliding toward the field, preparing for an emergency landing. But at that point the engine caught, then started running smoothly once more. Burnett quickly rounded the field and landed at the Chattanooga airport — to a roar of approval from the crowd, which assumed that it was all part of his trademark ‘inverted ribbon act.
Born in 1913, Vincent W. Burnett was the youngest of three children. While he was growing up in the quiet town of Lynchburg, Va., his parents, Sam and Nannie, instilled in him a sense of honesty and fairness that he never forgot. But he was also a mischievous, enterprising and independent youngster.
Early on, Vincent would be called Squeak (sometimes spelled Squeek). Some say it was because he had a high, squeaky voice when he was young. Others think that as a youngster he had to wear shoes that squeaked when he walked. Whatever its origin, the name followed him through his life.
His father originally hoped his youngest child would become a doctor — and he might have if it hadn’t been for Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight of May 1927. Almost overnight most of America was caught up in aviation fever, and so was Squeak Burnett. At 14 he set his sights on becoming a flier. His father initially thought it was a boyish phase he would soon grow out of. But Squeak refused to give up on his dream.
Not long after Lindbergh’s famous flight, Vincent took his first airplane ride. I was riding on a high cloud, he later recalled. That cloud was lined with gold and silver — everything you can name. That cloud really had it all that day. From that time on I was permanently bit.
When the Lynchburg Flying Service was established by Ed Brockenboro and Mac Clarkson, young Squeak started playing hooky from school in order to spend time at the airport, where he quickly became a permanent fixture. Soon he had worked out an agreement with the owners: He would be paid $5 per week to work as a helper, but he would also be given one flying lesson every month.
Through the fall and winter of 1929-30, he was going to the flying field — a cow pasture with a small hangar erected on it — every day. The hangar initially housed their only airplane, an Alexander Eagle Rock, but shortly thereafter a Curtiss Robin and a de Havilland Moth were added to the stable.
During the early part of that winter, Brockenboro and Clarkson began going out on weekend barnstorming trips. Young Burnett went along too. When someone suggested that he might liven up the show by making a few parachute jumps, Squeak — always on the lookout for ways to make more money — quickly agreed. Though his parents were not thrilled, they reluctantly gave permission for him to make his first jump, at Danville, Va.
As a novice jumper, the teenager was advised that he should start out doing a pull off, where the parachutist pulls the rip cord while he is out on the wing, then lets the parachute pull him off the plane. Looking back years later at what could have been his last — as well as his first — jump, Burnett recalled: I got out and moved back to the rear spar. When Mac Clarkson gave me the signal, I would pull the rip cord. He stuck his arm out of the cockpit, signaling for me to pull. I did, and Lord have mercy — all hell broke loose after that. I heard a noise, and I was gone. It yanked me off the airplane like I was a fly being hit by a swatter.
There I was, hanging under that thing all by myself. It was all quiet. I felt kind of lonesome there for a second. I was getting closer and closer to the ground, and there was a little family graveyard that had one big tree next to it. I thought `Oh my goodness, what am I getting myself into now.’ And so help me, I didn’t know anything about how to handle a parachute. I went right down in the tree. There I was, hanging over the edge of the little graveyard. After a short while, someone found a ladder and helped the shaken youth get down.
As the weekend barnstorming trips continued, Burnett recovered from his rocky start as a parachutist and made more jumps. Even better from his perspective, he was allowed to pilot the plane each time they flew back home to Lynchburg.
From then on, flying consumed Squeak Burnett’s every waking moment. By the time he was 17, he had acquired a limited commercial license (he told the Civil Aeronautics Authority he was 18).
By the early 1930s, Burnett was performing regularly at airshows across the country in his Travel Air 2000. He gained a stellar reputation for daring stunts, and eventually linked up with the Flying Aces Air Circus, based in Charlotte, N.C. Founded in 1929 by husband and wife Jimmie and Jessie Woods, the Air Circus operated from 1929 through 1938, eking out a living despite the hard times brought on by the Depression.
Jimmie Woods flew a Travel Air 4D in the shows, doing aerobatics and flying Jessie in some of her wing-walking acts. A top-notch mechanic, he also did most of the engine overhauls and performed inspections. Their operation eventually included 15 employees and a handful of aircraft, including a Ryan B-1 Brougham, the Travel Air 4D and several Stearmans.
Burnett, who stayed with the group until 1937, developed a dogfight act with Jimmie that was reportedly an airshow first. In addition to developing his popular inverted ribbon trick, he also pioneered in picking up small objects, such as handkerchiefs, from the ground with the Travel Air’s tail skid.
Jessie Schulz Woods — who would go on to serve as a pilot instructor during World War II and would be inducted into the National Women’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1994 — developed a real fondness for Burnett. Years later, she recalled: There was only one like him. He was an ornery little cuss, but we were real close to him….We had some scary experiences together. One was in Minnesota. Squeak was doing aerobatics, with me on the top wing. Somehow he got the airplane upside down and was spinning flat. I was just hanging on by a rope. I thought the end was coming. When we got out of that, we were down to maybe 700 or 800 feet. We talked about it later, but never could figure out what happened. He had no control over the airplane. Somehow, one of our guardian angels must have set it straight for us.
After staying with the Flying Aces for three years, Burnett began freelancing in 1937. By this time he was well known enough to pick and choose the shows where he would perform. While practicing for a show at Bluefield, W.Va., he met Evelyn Baker. A romance quickly blossomed, and they were married on New Year’s Eve in 1938. Until the start of World War II, Burnett barnstormed across much of the country in the Travel Air, with Evelyn accompanying him on all his trips. They had been married a month when Burnett performed at the All-American Air Maneuvers in Miami, Fla. He was reportedly the first person to do a square outside loop maneuver, in which the aircraft climbs straight up, pulls into horizontal on its back and then dives straight down while in the inverted position. In Miami he performed that maneuver for the first time in public.
Burnett was always a showman, and many who did not personally know him considered him a daredevil. But he actually did not take undue risks. For example, before beginning his square outside loop demonstrations, he consulted with engineers at the Ercoupe plant in Washington, D.C., about the stresses the maneuver would impose on his plane. By following their recommendations to the letter, Burnett figured out how to manage the high G load necessary for the stunt.
His square outside loop surely contributed to Burnett’s winning the Freddy Lund trophy for aerobatic excellence (named for Freddy Lund, a test and racing pilot, who was killed while flying a closed-course race at Lexington, Ky.) in Miami that year. Just a few days later Burnett flew to Havana, Cuba, where he won the President’s Cup competition, established by Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s president.
Burnett subsequently taught private, commercial, instrument and advanced aerobatics at College Park Airport in Maryland. He also helped establish training routes used by the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and instructed students in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which had just been established by the federal government. He was still an airshow performer on the weekends.
In January 1940, Burnett was back in Miami, this time performing his inverted ribbon act. Normally he performed it at 10 feet, but in Miami, the Travel Air’s rudder was only 3 feet off the ground. At first the crowd watched in silence, thinking he would surely fly into the ground. After Burnett landed, the crowd gave him a roaring ovation. Reporting on the show, the Miami Herald labeled his act Death Takes a Holiday. A photograph of the inverted plane filled nearly half a page, with a caption that read: The camera caught `Squeak’ Burnett as he attempted one of the most breathtaking stunts ever devised…zooming 100 miles per hour, Burnett turned over his airplane and skimmed along upside down between two poles, only three feet above the ground. And the plane is 15 years old! The article made all the U.S. wire services the next day.
In the stands that day was aircraft designer Walter Beech, who had built the Travel Air. Reacting to Burnett’s act, he was seen jumping up and down, slapping his thigh and yelling: By God, I can’t believe it is still holding together after all these years. We built a good solid ship back in those days, didn’t we? And that Burnett’s flying is unbelievable.
It was a star turn that many in the audience never forgot. Gus Pasquarella, a columnist for the Saturday Evening Post, wrote on July 12, 1947:
Flying an airplane upside down isn’t so unusual when you are away up there in the blue, with plenty of room between you and the unyielding earth. But in years of flying, before and during the war, I know of only one pilot — Vincent Squeak Burnett — who was willing to risk his life at inverted flight within 15 feet of the ground. I have been told that Ernest Udet, the famous German stunt pilot, used to do it.
Burnett did the mad stunt as a regular feature of air shows before the war. He made the maneuver mechanically possible by having two inverted gas tanks attached to his landing gear, providing an upside down gravity fuel system: for the rest, success in the hair-raising feat depended on miraculous flying skill and something rare in the way of nerves. He would raise the nose just enough so that the tail will clip the ribbon strung between two poles. When asked by reporters about his flying he replied, I never think anything is going to happen to me. I am master of the plane at all times, and there is more danger in conventional flying with pilots who haven’t learned what not to do than there is in aerobatic flying with pilots who know what to do.
In early 1941, with war looming, Burnett was asked to go to Richmond, Va., and start a Civilian Pilot Training Program similar to the one in College Park. As Evelyn Burnett would later recall, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, their lives changed forever. From that day on, I could sense that Squeak was eager to move into some branch of the service, Evelyn said. Every day recruits were coming through the airport, and he would come home at night looking so restless and unhappy. One day I asked him what was troubling him. He said: `I can do so much more for the war effort than what I’m doing. I must get out of here.’
She continued: I was selfish enough to feel he wouldn’t have to go into the thick of things, that he would be set for the duration. So many of his old aerobatic friends were conducting these flying schools around the country. It was far more lucrative than entering the service, but Squeak never cared much about money. He would work for nothing if it was something he really believed in. He came home one day with a circular about ferry pilots being needed. The pay was not too good — about half of what he was receiving.
Burnett’s mind was made up. He was assigned to the Northeast Sector of Ferry Command at Baltimore. Serving as chief test pilot, he flew all the different civilian aircraft the military had acquired and also ferried them throughout the United States and to England, in addition to working as a check pilot.
The Ferry Command soon had a large number of twin-engine Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers that needed ferrying. Up to that point, Burnett’s previous checkout in the B-26 consisted of two trips around the field after less than a day of familiarization. In fact, at that juncture his only multiengine time consisted of a few hours in a Ford TriMotor.
Thanks to a series of training accidents in 1942, the B-26 had earned a reputation for being difficult to handle, and many pilots declared they didn’t want anything to do with it. Some fliers were actually quitting the Ferry Command rather than fly the Marauder.
By September 1942, the training accidents had become even more frequent. The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) initiated an investigation into the cause. That October, a committe appointed by Senator Harry S. Truman to look into the B-26 problems recommended that the program be canceled. But the USAAF’s commander, Henry H. Hap Arnold, directed Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle, fresh from his famous raid on Tokyo, to personally investigate the bomber’s alleged failings. Doolittle and the Air Safety Board soon concluded that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the Marauder, tracing most problems to poor training and inexperienced flight crews and ground crews, in addition to overloading. Many of the accidents involved engine failure. Since the instructors teaching novice pilots to fly the B-26 were also inexperienced with the plane, no one was being taught, for example, how to fly on a single engine. Meanwhile Burnett — whose entire unit, redesignated the 12th Ferrying Squadron, was moved to New Castle Army Air Field at Wilmington, Del. — had begun flying verification tests on his own during his spare time to prove the B-26’s airworthiness.
In July 1942, Burnett ran across an old friend from civilian life, Major Clare Bunch. Their relationship went back to when Bunch had loaned Squeak his clipped-wing Monocoupe Nervous Energy II to use in aerobatic demonstrations. Bunch, now serving on the staff of Jimmy Doolittle, was recruiting pilots for the 4th Medium Bombardment Wing, Twelfth Air Force, at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. Doolittle had instructed Bunch to recruit the best pilots he could find for the new wing, so of course Bunch initiated what would result in a formal request for his old friend’s transfer to the Twelfth. Due to a shortage of ferry pilots, that request was initially refused, but Bunch soon convinced Doolittle that Burnett’s expertise was invaluable. In the end, on direct orders from Hap Arnold, Burnett was assigned to Doolittle as his technical adviser.
In September 1942, the Twelfth moved to England, where planning was underway for the invasion of North Africa. By November, the men had again moved, to Algeria. With much of Doolittle’s attention focused on Operation Torch, Burnett spent most of his time testing the B-26 and figuring out how to overcome its liabilities.
Doolittle sent Burnett back to the United States in the spring of 1943 to do a tour of bases and show pilots that the Marauder could be safely flown. Squeak explained the aircraft’s slow-flying characteristics and showed how to safely recover from unusual flight attitudes. His demonstrations also included low-altitude flight with one engine feathered, as well as turning in the direction of the dead engine — a move that aircrews had previously been warned against. By far his most memorable maneuver was when he flew around control towers with one engine feathered. Through his superb flying, Burnett played a huge role in saving the B-26.
Martin would introduce modifications to the Marauder — such as increasing the wing area and equipping the bomber with a taller fin and rudder — to improve low-speed performance and cut down on takeoff and landing accidents. The company also sent engineers to deployed units, to show ground crews how to avoid overloading problems. As a result, the Marauder went on to record the lowest attrition rate of any American aircraft by the U.S. Ninth Air Force in Europe.
Burnett had hopes of commanding a North American P-51 squadron upon his return to North Africa, but while he was still in Miami, he learned he would be working with Maj. Gen. Robert Harper’s command to solve continuing problems in the B-26 training program. Harper, then serving as director of all flight training in the United States, would later sum up his relationship with the former barnstormer in succinct fashion: If all else fails, send for Burnett.
Throughout the summer of 1943, Burnett made more demonstration flights, gave orientation rides and appeared at symposiums for student pilots across the country. Through his efforts and recommendations, improvements were made in training procedures. The initial indoctrination program Burnett developed proved so successful that it was expanded and continued, with crews who had completed their tours of duty in North Africa returning to conduct the seminars.
Burnett was next sent as an Army Air Forces representative to a conference near Galveston, Texas, where he would explore ways to improve combat flying techniques and demonstrate tactics used by all three air services. Also attending that conference was Joe Foss, a Marine ace with 26 victories, flying one of the best fighters of the day, a Chance Vought F4U Corsair. No one quite knows how it came about, but Burnett apparently challenged Foss to a dogfight.
Pitting a medium bomber against a top-of-the-line fighter should have resulted in a very lopsided duel. Normally the outcome would have been apparent from the outset, but with Burnett at the controls of his B-26 it was a different story. As the two aircraft tore through the Texas sky, Foss quickly discovered that his opponent was no ordinary pilot. Burnett reportedly maneuvered the B-26 more like a fighter than a bomber. When the match was over, it was declared a draw. Burnett later maintained that he offered to put his B-26 up against any comparable aircraft, and that no one could take him on.
Burnett later worked to perfect a target-towing version of the Marauder, the AT-23. That move was in response to reports from a variety of combat theaters that bomber gunners were not shooting accurately at high altitudes. At the time, the Army Air Forces had no target tow aircraft that could operate above 10,000 feet. Since ballistics were different at high altitudes, a higher-performance tow target aircraft was needed to operate above 20,000 feet. Burnett made exhaustive test flights in the course of the AT-23’s development for that role. It became the standard high-altitude aircraft for the USAAF.
Some of Burnett’s wartime duties were much less publicized than others. In addition to his high-profile work demonstrating the B-26, he also flew courier flights, carrying classified documents across the Atlantic Ocean between the Twelfth Air Force headquarters in England or Algeria and General Arnold’s office in the Pentagon. At the time, he was one of 100 or so pilots to hold what was known as a Green Card rating that enabled him to write his own clearances, giving him great flexibility on those flights. It is also known that he worked for the French underground and served as an operative in some additional clandestine activities during the war as well as afterward — activities that Burnett himself never talked much about then or later in life. For example, his wife later recalled that once when they were living in Washington, D.C., just after the war, Squeak went out one night to take out the garbage and didn’t return for three days. When he did come back, he never gave any explanation for his absence.
In 1946 Burnett was sent to Germany to serve on the Group Control Council, where his work involved a special assignment of occupying conquered territory. He also piloted VIPs between the United States and Europe during the postwar years.
From 1948 to 1950 the Burnetts were at Mitchell Field, on Long Island, N.Y., where Squeak — by now a lieutenant colonel — served as deputy commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing. He retired on April 1, 1950, after which the couple moved back to Rustburg, Va., to take up farming. Two years later, however, Squeak abandoned retirement for a time, moving to Bartow, Fla., to work for Garner Aviation, which was then training air cadets who were headed for the Korean War. He returned to farming after that war, but continued to participate in airshows and teach aerobatics in the 1960s and early ’70s.
Burnett had done and seen a lot, but he was not interested in publicity. He kept much of what he had seen to himself. In his later years, there were apparently memories that troubled him deeply. Evelyn recalled that he would often pace up and down at night, seemingly trying to find some peace that never would come.
Vincent W. Burnett died on February 28, 1989. Among those who had known him longest and best was another aerobatics star, the late W.W. Woody Edmondson, who had been his friend for 60 years. Edmondson himself was best known for winning the World Aerobatic Championships in 1942 at Miami, flying Little Butch, a Monocoupe 110 Special. Looking back on their long relationship, Edmondson wrote:
Squeak was to me a very special friend. We both loved the freedom of making an airplane talk our language, sharing a good laugh, respecting each other’s talents, and playing a really good trick on each other.
I remember the most the ever-present mischievous twinkle in Squeak’s eyes, the same kind you often see in a little kid. Many times I’ve seen him come across a field upside down in his Travel Air dragging his tail in the weeds. He was a natural and a joy to watch man-handle a flying machine. In fact, I think he was the best precision aerobatic pilot I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the best of them.
We flew many air shows together, experiencing the best of times, and sometimes the worst of times. But we were always happy as long as there was an airplane to fly.
This article was written by David Fortuna and originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History.
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