Racing for the Gold: The Story of Lyle Shelton and the Rare Bear
by Dell Rourk, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Ind., 2008, $16.95.
Aviation Visionary: “Smilin’ Jack” Conroy and his Conroy Aircraft Corporation
by Robert R. Kirby and George M. Warner, BAC Publishers, Upland, Calif., 2008, $19.95.
Two books you may have missed share some of the same cast of characters. Aviation Visionary is set in the late 1960s, and Racing for the Gold gets its start with the first National Championship Air Races, held at Reno, Nev., in 1964.
Racing for the Gold is told by Dell Rourk, widow of longtime Rare Bear team member Hershel “Hersh” Rourk. Both husband and wife were intimately connected with the racing team from nearly the beginning. The modified Grumman F8F Bearcat that has won Reno 10 times and set the piston-engine closed-course speed record of 528.33 mph started out as a complete wreck sitting in the weeds behind a hangar at Valparaiso Airport in Indiana. From a collection of parts, Lyle Shelton built a racer—and in the process became one of air racing’s greatest ambassadors. Shelton put food on the table flying for TWA, and he spent every spare dollar he had, and many he didn’t (mortgaging the house, etc.), to keep Rare Bear in the air.
Rourk details the race team’s highs and lows: the wins, the camaraderie, the blown engines, the all-night thrashes to change jugs, the long drives from Reno to Chino to borrow parts. Racing for the Gold is an outstanding read for air racing enthusiasts. Concluding as it does in the late 1990s, when Shelton hung up his racing helmet, it leaves open a fascinating decade for another author to build upon.
Jack Conroy is probably best known for the Guppy series of airlifters that made the Apollo space program possible by transporting outsized cargo, such as the Saturn V rocket sections, to Cape Canaveral. Conroy actually contributed much more to aviation, but now that nearly 40 years have passed since the Guppies ruled the heavy-lift market, few people remember his other gifts to the industry—or his famous foibles. In Aviation Visionary, Robert Kirby and George Warner, both of whom worked for Conroy, chronicle the Conroy Aircraft Corp. and the legendary man behind it. The fact that this book is a collaborative effort is a plus for readers. Each author’s views appear as subsections of chapters, giving two perspectives on the same events—as well as two sometimes-varying viewpoints on Conroy and his methods.
Conroy’s company was a leader in adopting turboprop power to formerly piston-powered designs. One of his first projects involved adding a 600-hp AirResearch turboprop engine to a Cessna 337 Skymaster, dubbing it the STOLifter. Center-of-gravity and other aerodynamic problems be damned, with typical Conroy showmanship he put on an airshow to introduce his untried aircraft. In conjunction with his development of the STOLifter, Conroy acquired a Douglas DC-3 and hung a pair of Dart turboprops in place of the radials, calling it the Turbo-Three. The designer’s Guppy conversion of the Canadair CL-44 (known as the Conroy Skymonster) and his attempts to market a turboprop conversion of the Grumman Albatross were the firm’s last hurrah; it folded in 1972.
Kirby and Warner have gained sufficient perspective to be able to look back on their time with Conroy with fondness and humor. Aviation Visionary is an excellent account of an innovative designer’s drive to succeed, against the times, technology and himself.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.