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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Automotive … Planes and Trains Too

article number 508
article date 12-03-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Man Who Flew with a Lion, Roscoe Turner, 1930’s
by Douglas Ingells
   

From the November 1961 American Modeler magazine.

* * *

Whether it was winning the Thompson Trophy Race or wrestling a lion, nothing seemed to stop Roscoe Turner! What a pilot! What a personality!

A hundred thousand pairs of anxious eyes were glued to the skies watching the 1939 National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio. This was the grand finale, the gruelling, grinding Thompson Trophy Race—toughest test for wings.

One man was the favorite. He with the swanky blue uniform, the diamond-studded wings of gold, the “big fellow” whose hulk of a frame could barely squeeze into the cockpit of his small, stub-winged, self-designed racing plane—Colonel Roscoe Turner.

The crowd loved him, magnetized by his masterful showmanship. His competitors respected him as the dean of the “pylon polishers,” two-time winner of the Thompson, 10-year veteran of air racing. But they’d try anything to force him out of the race.

Right now, they had him. It was the ninth lap and Turner was trailing. His plane, larger than the others and more powerful, was the last off the ground. Some said it was too much engine, too little wing.

Then, it happened. On the next lap around, as Turner’s plane flashed by the grandstand, the crowd came to its feet. It was only a blurred streak they saw. Turner had the ship “wide open.”

Like a bullet, he shot past the others, whipped around the checkered pylon and then out of sight and out of sound. The next lap, timers clocked him on the straight-a-way at better than 350 mph, an unofficial record. He never let up until the race was won. At times, he had flown faster than even the fastest military pursuit of that period.

But it was the end of an era. The Races were abandoned during the war years.

When they were resumed again in 1946, military planes dominated the show. It was no longer the Indianapolis 500 of the Air, the proving ground where pilots, themselves, could try out their individual ideas and designs in home-built planes. Then, when Bill Odom crashed to a flaming death flying the Thompson in 1948, the National Air Races died with them.

But whatever happened to Turner?

Recently, I was standing on the ramp at Weir Cook Municipal Airport serving Indianapolis, watching a trim maroon-and-white Beechcraft Bonanza swoop down gracefully out of the sky and settle to earth. It taxied up to a large hangar south of the modern terminal building. The engine stopped. The door opened and out climbed three businessmen returning from a charter flight.

The pilot lingered in the ship. He checked everything in the cockpit carefully, wrote something in a little black book. Then, he climbed down, shut the door and locked it, surveyed his machine with a prideful look and started walking towards me.

It was Roscoe Turner . . . still flying after 43 years in aviation, more than 14,000 hours in the air!

   
Two tickets for the afternoon show? No wonder the crowd hung back in 1934 when Roscoe marched up to the Warner theatre on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Blvd.

Together, we walked into the big hangar. A large sign on the door says—ROSCOE TURNER AERONAUTICAL CORPORATION. It is considered one of the best-run fixed-base facilities in the U. S.

Because he runs his organization with a keen, personal touch, pilots fly hundreds of miles out of their way to bring their planes here for over-hauls and modifications. One regular customer confided—“When I look at Roscoe, who was my idol when I was a kid, who’s been flying more years than I’ve lived and is still at it, there’s nobody else I want handling my airplane.”

Today, Roscoe is 65. There is little paunch on his six-foot, one-inch frame, 230 pounds. His eyesight is exceptional (“my eyes work faster than my brain”). He is deaf in one ear (“horsepoweritis”). His hair is greying and thinning. His famous waxed mustache gives him a debonaire look.

The remarkable thing is, he was flying in the days of wooden props, fabric-covered wings, open-cockpit planes held together with glue and wires. He is one of the last of the air heroes, who in the late twenties and early thirties made the headlines with spectacular flights and put the spotlight on aviation.

In his lifetime, he has spent more than $200,000 of his own money to make the airplane safer, fly higher, farther, faster. His racing exploits, the record-smashing distance, altitude and endurance flights were more than just for fame and recognition and the money he could make.

When the Army and Navy, for example, were skeptical about the 2,000 horsepower engine, Turner built his racer around one of the big Pratt & Whitney twin-row Hornet, radial, air-cooled engines. It powered the plane in which he won the Thompson for the third time.

The Pratt & Whitney twin-row Hornet didn’t burn out, as some expected it would. It wasn’t too much power to put in a small airplane and it became the power package for some of our best fighters in World War II.

On his own, he devised a technique for lowering a complete airplane by parachute. Then, he went up in the sky and demonstrated its practicability.

Roscoe Turner was born in Cornith, Mississippi, on September 29, 1895, in a log cabin. His parents were poor farmfolk of Scotch, Irish and English descent. There were six children. Right from the start Roscoe was a “loner”; he could do things by himself. Yet he liked to be the center of attention.

At 16, he was driving a five-ton ice truck in Memphis, Tenn. Later he became a garage mechanic. He learned by doing. In time, it didn’t make any difference whether he was looking at a Packard motor, an old in-line Liberty or a giant 28-cylinder “corn cob” 3,000 horsepower radial . . . he knew its biology like a doctor.

In 1916, he tried to enlist in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. They turned him down, no college background. When the U. S. got into the First World War, he enlisted as an ambulance driver.

He was headed overseas when they transferred him to the Signal Corps and a balloon outfit in Texas. There, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. He won his first pair of wings as a Balloon Pilot. Shipped to France, he was assigned as a Balloon Observer.

Later he qualified as an Airplane Pilot. He became one of the few individuals in the U. S. Air Service to hold all three ratings as Balloon Pilot, Balloon Observer and Airplane Pilot. He never saw action as an aerial combatant. He had just been assigned to an airplane squadron at the Front, when the war was over.

   
Mr. and Mrs. Turner and original Gilmore entertain a young visitor.

Mustered out of the service, he went back to Cornith and opened a garage selling cars and motorcycles. He bought a half-interest in a wartime Curtiss JN-4 Trainer and with his partner Arthur H. Starnes, a dare-devil stunt flyer, they started “The Roscoe Turner Flying Circus.”

The show toured the south putting on a death-defying aerial act at carnivals and fairs. Turner did a wing-walking stunt. He performed on a trapeze below the speeding plane in “The Swing Of Death.”

A spectacular climax was “Falling A Mile In Flames.” With Fourth of July pyrotechnics hanging all over the plane they took off into the night sky. When they touched off the fireworks the plane, like a flaming meteor, cavorted about the heavens.

Turner had a publicity man’s flare for sensationalism. When he read about an 18-passenger sky giant—the first plane built in America by Igor Sikorsky—Turner negotiated to buy the ship, a twin-engined biplane, largest in the U. S.

Immediately, he turned the plane into a “flying broadcasting studio” with programs originating a mile high in the sky.

One time he flew a Baby Grand piano and other furniture to Mrs. Coolidge in the White House.

Turner was flambuoyant even in the clothes he wore. The snappy, military uniform, polished puttees, Sam Browne belt, visored cap, king-sized diamond-studded wings—they were for a reason. He maintained. “If you appear like a tramp or a grease-monkey how can you expect people to have any confidence in your business. Furthermore, a uniform commands respect. Aviation needs it.”

In 1928, Turner went to Hollywood for the movies. Howard Hughes was making his multi-million dollar air epic “Hells Angels.” For the final episode he needed a giant German Gotha bomber, World War I vintage. There weren’t any to be found.

Hughes heard about Turner’s giant. He hired Roscoe to fly it across the continent, and they converted the Sikorsky into a bombardment craft.

Roscoe did a lot of the flying for the spectacular aerial combat scenes. They also made an actor out of him. He played the role of a British Major in the movie, one of Hollywood’s big box-office hits.

Turner started Nevada Air Lines and named it, “The Alimony Special.” Fast Lockheed Vega monoplanes flew regularly scheduled flights between Los Angeles and Reno.

Box-office stars like Bebe Daniels, Miriam Hopkins, Maureen O’Sullivan, Loretta Young, Joan Bennett, Billie Dove, Clark Gable, and Fred MacMurray took their first airplane ride with Turner.

Then, things took a bad turn. Hollywood had too many air pictures in the cans. Flying jobs became scarce. The bottom fell out of any backing for flying ventures with the stock market “crash,” the depression was coming on. Nevada Air Lines went bankrupt.

Al Wilson, a stunt flyer, crashed the Gotha for the grand finale of Hughes’ picture. For the first time in 10 years, Turner was without his own airplane. He got $10,000 for the Sikorsky, but the money went to pay off debts.

   
Turner’s giant Sikorsky "Gotha Bomber" heads to the crash site.

There were fitful nights when he lay awake trying to think of some kind of gimmick, something different, socko! He drove into a filling station one day and there was the answer staring him in the face. On a huge billboard was the head of a lion, the Gilmore Oil Company’s advertising symbol.

Turner had a brainstorm. He’d get himself a live African lion, name it “Gilmore.” Then, he’d talk the Gilmore Oil crowd into buying him an airplane and name the plane, “The Gilmore Lion.”

He had just the ship in mind, the General Tire & Rubber Company’s Lockheed Air Express job that Henry Brown had flown non-stop, Los Angeles-Cleveland in 13 hours, 15 minutes! With that plane, Roscoe was certain he could break every record in the books. He’d take the lion with him on every flight. THE LION WITH THE HORSEPOWER ROAR, the newspapers would eat it up!

Through a friend, he got an appointment with Earl B. Gilmore, President of Gilmore Oil. Roscoe outlined his plan. Gilmore bought the idea, gave Roscoe a check for $15,000 and told him to go buy the airplane. While it was being modified and painted, Turner started to look for his lion.

He found it in the “Yellow Pages”! There was a lion farm near Ventura that raised and trained the jungle cats for the movies. Lewis Goebel, the owner, saw merit in Turner’s idea and gave him a five-weeks old cub.

There was a big christening ceremony for plane and lion at the Los Angeles airport. After that, Turner took off with the lion riding in Mrs. Turner’s lap. So far as is known, it was the first time the King of Beasts ever had a ride in an airplane. “Gilmore” loved it, growled for more.

On Tuesday May 13, 1930, a cream-and-red monoplane—THE GILMORE LION—roared off the runway into the purple eastern sky. With Turner in the cockpit was “Gilmore,” the lion, wearing his own flying suit and parachute.

   
1931 picture of Col. Roscoe Turner, the daredevil pilot with first Gilmore—then two years old, the lion weighed 150 pounds. Lockheed “Express" in background. (from Col. Turner’s collection)

The pair were after the trans-continental record set by Colonel and Mrs. Charles A. Lindbergh just two weeks before. Fourteen hours and 52 minutes later, they landed at Curtiss Field, Long Island, missing Lindy’s mark by 20 minutes because they were forced down at Middletown, Pa., with an oil leak.

It didn’t make much difference whether they broke the record or not. Overnight, "The Man Who Flew With The Lion" became famous. The stunt got him offers from sources he had never heard about.

Turner and the lion became inseparable. “Gilmore” lived at home with the Turner’s, a house pet.

Away from home, the two stayed at the best hotels. When he checked in Turner signed the register simply—”Roscoe and Gilmore.”

They made stage appearances with Eddie Cantor and Joe E. Brown. At the National Air Races that year, Turner didn’t win but he stole the whole show.

There was only one sour note. The lion cub grew too fast! In six months he was so big he couldn’t get into the cockpit, so they made a special seat for him in the ship’s cabin.

After 25,000 miles of flying, Roscoe had to “ground” him. Turner put him in a private zoo in Los Angeles and paid $40 a month for his upkeep for more than 25 years. (“That guy supported me, the least I can do is pay him retirement compensation,” Roscoe explained. “We went through a lot together.”)

When “Gilmore” died in 1957, Turner had a taxidermist make him look life-like and flew the lion back to Indianapolis.

And so today a huge 700-pound stuffed lion occupies a prominent place in Turner’s Trophy Room. “He’s not one of the trophies,” Roscoe tells astonished guests. “The truth is, the trophies belong to him as much as they do to me.”

During the decade of the Thirties, Turner blazed trails across a thousand skies. His exploits became legend. Typical was the flying campaign tour that helped elect James Rolph, Governor of California. In appreciation, Governor Rolph made him a Colonel on his personal staff.

Turner is not a Colonel in any branch of the U. S. Military Services. But he probably has done more for the nation’s air power programs than some generals in the Pentagon. Currently, he is Vice-Chairman of the National Security Commission for the American Legion, whose national headquarters are in Indianapolis. General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle calls him—”An Apostle of the Air Age.”

Turner’s patriotism is red-white-blue. Perhaps, a good example, is what he did in the MacPherson-Robertson International Air Race from London to Melbourne, Australia in 1934.

Planes and pilots from many nations were represented, but Turner was the only American entry. With the Stars and Stripes painted on the tail of his own Boeing 247 twin-engined ship, "Nip and Tuck," he and the famous Clyde Pangborn as co-pilot, took second place in the Speed Section.

There was no “angel” backing their flight. It cost Turner, personally, $35,000. His reward: Prestige for his country in a day when airplane records were the yardstick of a nation’s air power.

That same year, in his Wedell-Williams, sleek, trim, low-wing racing plane which he helped to design, he burned up the pylons at Cleveland to win the Thompson Trophy for the first time.

   
Lockheed “Express" two years later (1933) alongside first 300-mph plane, the Wedell-Williams Racer which R.T. helped design, build. (from Col. Turner’s collection)

Then, came the day in 1939 when he decided to quit the speed game for good.

When he started the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation, he had $15,000 in cash and three airplanes. Today, the corporation has seven planes of its own, hangars, shops, office building valued at several, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It got that way because Turner put on air shows and attracted thousands of persons out to the airport every week-end, stimulated a new interest in aviation locally.

In World War II Turner’s Flying School turned out 3,500 eaglets to fight and serve as instructors.

For his war contribution and his ceaseless pioneering in aviation development, particularly speed flying, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by a special act of Congress. Only five other civilian fliers were ever accorded such recognition.

One of his proudest moments came when he was appointed a Special Consultant to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics by Representative Overton Brooks (D-La.) Chairman of this important group.

“Turner will undertake a special study of the progress being made in the aeronautical sciences,” the official announcement said. “He will also help determine whether the government agencies have been pushing aeronautical research hard enough since the advent of the Space Age.”

They hadn’t forgotten him . . . the fellow who flew with the lion.

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