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Superior airmanship

…sometimes means flying the plane from outside the cockpit.

Consider the actions of one Second Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod, VC, a native of Stonewall, Manitoba.  Ninety-two years ago today, McLeod and his gunner Lt. A.W. Hammond were flying an Armstrong Whitworth FK8 bomber, on a mission to bomb and strafe German artillery positions near Bray-sur-Somme, France.   They were jumped by a fighter patrol of eight aircraft from Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG1), the famous “Richtofen’s Flying Circus”.  Despite being wounded several times and the aircraft being aflame, McLeod managed to save himself and his gunner with some unorthodox and skilful flying.  From the May 1st, 1918 edition of the London Gazette:

“His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officer of the Royal Air Force, for services displaying outstanding bravery:

2nd Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod, Royal Air Force.

While flying with his observer, Lieutenant A. W. Hammond, M.C., attacking hostile formations by bombs and machine gun fire, he was assailed at a height of 5,000 feet by eight enemy triplanes which dived at him from all directions, firing from their front guns. By skilful manoeuvring he enabled his observer to fire bursts at each machine in turn, shooting three of them down out of control. By this time Lieutenant McLeod had received five wounds, and while continuing the engagement a bullet penetrated his petrol tank and set the machine on fire.

He then climbed out on to the left bottom plane, controlling his machine from the side of the fuselage, and by sideslipping steeply kept the flames to one side, thus enabling the observer to continue firing until the ground was reached.

The observer had been wounded six times when the machine crashed in “No Man’s Land” and 2nd Lieutenant McLeod, notwithstanding his own wounds, dragged him away from the burning wreckage at great personal risk from heavy machine-gun fire from the enemy’s lines. This very gallant pilot was again wounded by a bomb whilst engaged in this act of rescue, but he persevered until he had placed Lieutenant Hammond in comparative safety, before falling himself from exhaustion and loss of blood.”

While Lieutenant McLeod’s wounds were quite serious, he had recuperated sufficiently to appear at Buckingham Palace on September 4th, 1918 and receive his Victoria Cross from the hand of King George V. His father, Dr. A. N. MacLeod of Winnipeg, was also present at the investitute, having sailed over from Canada to attend to his ailing son. Regrettably, McLeod the younger was too unwell to attend the King’s subsequent luncheon invite to Windsor Castle.

Alan Arnett McLeod returned home and eventually succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic that was sweeping the nation.  The 19-year-old passed away on November 6th, 1918, five days before the Armistice ended the war.

For more information, see the Veterans Affairs Canada record of 2Lt McLeod’s citation, along the associates images which appear here.  Miles Constable’s site dedicated to Canadian Air Aces and Heroes also has a much more detailed account of the life and times of Second Lieutenant Alan Arnett McLeod, including a descriptive account of the battle that also draws upon information gleaned from German war records.

Elinor Smith, the “Flying Flapper of Freeport”, 1911-2010

As with so many pioneering men and women of the Golden Age, we tend to learn of their extraordinary deeds only when they go to their final rest.

Ms. Elinor Smith had a rather remarkable career, and it is with no small shame I concede that I had not heard of her until today. She started her flying instruction at the tender age of ten, and Elinor’s instructor—one Clyde Pangborn, an aviator of some renown himself—had to tie blocks to the rudder pedals so her feet could reach them.

Among Ms. Elinor Smith’s many interesting exploits:

  • At age 15, three months after her first solo flight, she set a light plane altitude record of 11,889 feet.
  • In September of 1927—at the age of 16—she became the youngest US government licensed private pilot then on record.  (Today you can take the written test at 15, but must be 17 to be a licensed private pilot.)
  • On a dare, she flew a Waco 9 biplane under all four of New York City’s East River bridges in mid-October 1928.  To her credit, Elinor did study the local weather conditions, tidal variations and even the designs of the bridges themsevles before making the attempt.  The city of New York gave her an unofficial grounding for ten days, while mayor James J. Walker intervened with federal authorities to prevent any actual, official suspension.
  • In 1929, set the women’s endurance record (flying solo for 26½ hours), women’s speed record (190.8 mph, or 165.8 knots) and the women’s endurance record with aerial refueling (with Bobbi Trout), flying 42½ hours.
  • Broke the world altitude record by a mile in 1930, flying to 27,419 feet.
  • In May of 1930—not yet 19 years old—Elinor became the youngest pilot to receive an Airline Transport License (ATP).  In October of the same year, she was voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” by her licensed peers; Jimmy Doolittle was the “Best Male Pilot in America” that year.
  • Retired from flying for 20 years to raise children, started flying again in 1956 after the death of her husband.  Was given the opportunity to fly the T-33 Shooting Star and C-119 Flying Boxcar via membership in the Air Force Association.
  • In 2000, became the oldest person (89yrs) to successfully land the Space Shuttle simulator—after botching her first attempt.  I think we can cut her some slack for that.  At 89 I’d consider myself lucky if I could still pilot my fork to my mouth.

Elinor Smith passed away on March 19th, 2010.  I’m making a note to reserve her book at the library.

…Now the airlines and the military are finally letting down the bars to admit qualified young women, so this is a good time to recall the difficulties most women fliers encountered during our early struggles for recognition and employment.

Why did we persist in a business that offered so few financial rewards and took lives at such a cruel rate? It’s a question that had as many answers as there were pilots. In my case it was the daily challenge and the sheer beauty of flight that drew me back again and again. It was such a wonderful age to fly through. I was privileged to know all of those gallant pilots, both men and women, and gifted designers. Their efforts should never be forgotten nor their triumphs overlooked. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to have participated and played a small part in it. “To most people, the sky is the limit; to Elinor the sky is home.”

— Smith, Elinor.  “Preface.” Aviatrix.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.

PM Churchill flying BOAC Boeing 314 Berwick G-AGCA

Winston Churchill in the captain's seat aboard BOAC Boeing 314 flying-boat "Berwick" (civil registry G-AGCA), enroute from Virginia to Bermuda. January 16th, 1942. (Imperial War Museum, Catalog #H 16645.)

Churchill soon made friends with [BOAC Captain] John Kelly Rogers, “a man of high quality and experience.”  He entered the cockpit smoking his usual cigar, and Kelly Rogers waived the rules and let him continue, even allowing him to strike a match when it went out.  He tried the controls of the huge craft, as Kelly Rogers whispered into the co-pilot’s ear, ordering him to apply corrections only if it looked as if the plane was getting out of the Prime Minister’s control…

Churchill was allowed to do a couple of slightly banked turns, and was photographed by one of the official cameramen.  He talked about his own flying career which had begun in 1913 when he founded the Royal Naval Air Service, and compared the Boeing Clipper with the primitive aircraft he had known then.  When Kelly Rogers made radio contact with the [accompanying] Pan American planes, Churchill asked if he could speak to them, but the captain ruled that out as too much of a security risk…

After about four hours they arrived at Bermuda and Kelly Rogers offered a sightseeing flight around the islands.  The Prime Minister was summoned from his seat below and he and the Governor [of Bermuda, Lord Knollys] came on the flight deck to view the sights.  Then they landed inside Darrell’s Island, the main flying-boat station in Bermuda…

— Lavery, Brian.  “A Flying Hotel in the Fog.” Churchill Goes to War: Winston’s Wartime Journeys.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007.  94.

This is Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers, Berwick‘s commander for that flight (and the subsequent return flight from Bermuda to Britain).  Regular readers of this space may find him familiar as I have used his likeness here previously as an avatar—a deliberate choice, as the man was one of Imperial Airways’ most experienced and capable captains.

John Cecil Kelly-Rogers was born in 1905, in the seaside town of Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin.  At the age of 14, he joined the training ship HMS Conway—famed for its high-quality merchant marine graduates—and later became an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.  In 1927 he joined the RAF and flew “army cooperation” craft; a loose term describing those aircraft that served as observers, artillery directors and couriers.

Kelly-Rogers joined Imperial Airways (forerunner to BOAC) in 1935, and due to his good airmanship, experience and leadership, was frequently called upon for more hazardous and prestigious assignments.  In 1937 he flew the first Empire flying-boat service along the Nile to Kisumu on Lake Victoria.  He was in regular rotation as a captain on the lengthy Egypt-India-Australia route as well.  In 1939, he flew Imperial’s first transatlantic service to Canada and the United States.  Most famously, in 1940, Kelly-Rogers rescued the Empire flying-boat Corsair from the swamp in the Belgian Congo where it had lain stranded for 10 months.

Corsair had gotten off-course due to faulty maintenance with its direction-finding radio; it was forced to land in a swampy, brackish river to avoid fuel exhaustion and had struck a rock and holed itself in the process.  Captain Edward Samson Alcock—brother of famed Sir John William Alcock, who had made the world’s first successful transatlantic crossing—managed to beach Corsair before she flooded and sank.  The flying-boat had subsequently been repaired in an Herculean effort that saw the creation of a small town full of engineers and hired African labour—nicknamed Corsairville, naturally.  Regrettably Alcock wrecked it again on another rock, in an abortive attempt to get it airborne on the Dangu River’s narrow, short waterway, and Corsair was forced to spend another few months undergoing a second repair.  For the second attempt, the river was dammed to create a lake, and ace pilot Kelly-Rogers was the man that finally got it airborne and back to Britain.

Following the war, Kelly-Rogers returned to his native Ireland and became a pilot for Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus.  He subsequently became a deputy general manager (and later, director) of the airline.  In 1969 he also became the curator of an Irish aviation museum hosted at Dublin Airport.  Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge that museum no longer exists and the disposition of its artifacts is unknown.  One has to presume as well that by the present date, J.C. Kelly-Rogers is dead, although I can find no notice of his passing.

RELATED: Captain J.C. Kelly-Rogers gives his own impressions of the Prime Minister (and the flight from Bermuda to Britain) in the February 2, 1942 edition of LIFE magazine.

Flight Students, 1939

A group of Dave Raub's female flight students posed around a Stinson Reliant biplane, summer 1939. Left to right: (standing) Jean Adams Cook (airport manager), Anne Beach, Grace Larkin Coffin, Edith Jenney, Kathryn Cady (married Dave Raub), Winifred Williams; (seated) Linda Loring, Doris Gilman. (Nantucket Historical Assocation, image number PH23-10) Flickr: Flight Students, 1939, originally uploaded by nha.library.

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Famous Aviators You’ve Never Heard Of: Wiley Post

Wiley Post and Lockheed Vega 5C "Winnie Mae", before embarking on the record-breaking solo circumnavigation, July 15th, 1933.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wiley Post and Lockheed Vega 5B "Winnie Mae of Oklahoma", before embarking on his record-breaking solo circumnavigation, July 15th, 1933. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wiley Hardeman Post saw his first airplane at the age of fifteen, at the 1913 Lawton County Fair.  From that day on his interest in aeronautics never flagged, although he could not pursue it immediately.  Although Post had quit school at the tender age of 11, he had a great deal of mechanical aptitude and became a first-class mechanic.  During the Great War he joined the US Army hoping to become a pilot, but ended up as a radio operator; the war ended while he was still in training.  In 1919 Post, a Texan, was working as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields; in the same year he also got his first ride in an airplane.  Some time after he had a serious run-in with the law:  after stealing a car, Wiley was caught, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in the Granite Reformatory.  He got parole after only 13 months.

In 1924, fate provided Wiley Post with what is surely aviation history’s most hazardous entry-level job.  A barnstorming troupe—Burrell Tibbs and His Texas Topnotch Fliers—had arrived in Oklahoma, but their parachutist was injured.  Against all logic, Wiley persuaded owner Charles Burrell Tibbs to let him fill in; and despite a total lack of skydiving experience, Post did not kill himself in the attempt.  Wiley made a total of 99 jumps, earning $100-200 for each—good money for the time.  The show’s pilots (including Tibbs) gave him flying lessons.

In order to earn enough money to buy his own aircraft, Post returned to the oil fields in 1926 but was injured on his first day; a stray chip hit him in the left eye, and a massive infection threatened sight in both.  In order to save his sight, doctors removed his left eye.  Depth perception was a problem with only one eye, so Post taught himself to gauge distances; he used telephone poles and two-storey buildings to help judge altitudes and distances when landing.

Mae Post in Alaska

Mae Laine Post in Alaska

For his injury Wiley Post was awarded $1,800 by the Oklahoma Industrial Court, and with it he bought his first plane, a Curtis Canuck (the Canadian version of the Curtis JN-4 “Jenny”).  The Canuck cost him the grand sum of $240, and with it he began a career as a barnstormer, travelling throughout Oklahoma and northern Texas.  In Sweetwater, Texas, 28-year-old Post met and fell in love with pretty 17-year-old Mae Laine.  The two eloped and were later married in Oklahoma, on June 27th, 1927; over the year, the happy couple barnstormed across Oklahoma and Texas.  Post also took the time to get an official pilot’s license, with a waiver for his blind eye.

The ever-practical Post realised that barnstorming was not steady income, though, and sought to provide more stability for his wife.  In 1928 he heard from a friend in Oklahoma City that an oilman there, F.C. Hall, was looking for a personal pilot.  Post applied and got the job.

Hall’s aircraft was an open-cockpit biplane (Travelair 3000), and the oilman inevitably tired of the wind-in-your-face bug-smashing.  With Post’s advice, he picked out the fastest enclosed-cabin aircraft available, a Lockheed Vega (registry NC 7954) which Hall christened Winnie Mae after his daughter.  Wiley Post flew for Hall until the Great Depression forced Hall to sell the aircraft back to Lockheed, and in characteristic fashion he found an opportunity in this, too.  When Post returned the aircraft to Lockheed, the aircraft manufacturer hired him on as test pilot.


In 1930, F.C. Hall’s fortunes were once again on the rise, and he bought a later-model Lockheed Vega 5B (named Winnie Mae of Oklahoma, registry NC/NR 105W), with seating for seven passengers and 420hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine.  With Hall’s permission, Post entered the 1930 National Air Race Derby, a race from Los Angeles to Chicago.  On August 27th, 1930, Post and Winnie Mae won the $7,500 prize with a time of 9 hours, 8 minutes and 2 seconds. He beat second-place finisher Art Goebel (9 hrs, 9 min and 4 sec), who was flying NC 7954—the first Winnie Mae.  F.C. Hall had “Los Angeles to Chicago 9 hrs. 8 min. 2 sec. August 27, 1930.” inscribed on the airplane’s fuselage, and encouraged Post to enter himself and Winnie Mae into further aviation competitions.


Wiley Post (left) and Harold Gatty (right)

What Wiley Post really wanted was to fly around the world; to reclaim for fixed-wing aircraft a record that was at the time held by the Graf Zeppelin, having circumnavigated the globe in 1929 with a time of 21 days.  Post became acquainted with Australian Harold Gatty, an extremely skilled navigator who pioneered the use of many new instruments and techniques.  On June 23, 1931, Post and Gatty left Roosevelt Field in Winnie Mae, following a 15,000 mile itinerary that would take them through Harbor Grace, Newfoundland; then Chester, England; Hanover and Berlin, Germany; Moscow, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk, all in Russia; Nome, Alaska; Edmonton, Canada; Cleveland and then New York again.  The duo landed on July 1st, 1931, having set a world record for traversing 15,474 miles in only 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes.  Post and Gatty were fêted in style upon their return; they lunched at the White House on July 6th, rode in a New York City ticker-tape parade the next day, and were guests of honour at a banquet in the Hotel Astor.  F.C. Hall later sold the record-setting Winnie Mae to its now-famous pilot.  At an appearance in Claremore, Oklahoma, Post first met fellow Oklahoman and famed Vaudeville humourist Will Rogers; their mutual interest in aviation would make them friends for life.  Gatty and Post also wrote a book, Around the World in Eight Days: The Flight of the Winnie Mae; Will Rogers contributed the foreword. A year after their record-setting flight, the US Congress passed a law allowing civilians to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross; Post and Gatty had their medals pinned on by President Herbert Hoover.

Some pundits and potential financiers soured on Wiley because of his rural roots and lack of formal education, and this torpedoed his plans to open an aeronautical school.  The true genius must be Harold Gatty, the skeptics reasoned, even though both men readily acknowledged it had been a team effort.  No doubt these criticisms stung, and Wiley soon made plans for a solo circumnavigation.  He spent a year preparing Winnie Mae, upgrading its avionics with a brand new autopilot and radio direction finder being jointly developed by the Sperry Gyroscope Company and the US Army Air Corps.  (Those of you with some aviation knowledge will ask how Post tuned his ADF to non-directional beacons [NDBs] before such ground-based navaids were widely adopted for use.  The answer is that the ADFs of yesterday and today can also tune/receive signals from ordinary AM radio stations.)  Post also trained his body to endure the rigours of his ambitious flight; he practiced taking short naps instead of sleeping through the night.  In 1933, he repeated his circumnavigation—alone this time—and beat his old record, arriving in 7 days and 19 hours.  Being the first person to fly around the world solo earned Wiley Post his second ticker-tape parade in New York City.


By 1934 Wiley had his eye on another goal, the £10,000 Robertson Prize to be awarded to the winner of an air race from England to Australia.  Post was eager to compete, but realised that recent advancements in engine and airframe technology would relegate Winnie Mae to also-ran status.  Post knew that fast-moving streams of air (what we would now call jet streams) were supposed to exist in the higher altitudes—between 30,000 and 50,000 feet—but he also knew that the human body could not long survive up there without adequate oxygen.  Since Winnie Mae’s plywood shell could not be safely pressurised, he decided to try and build a wearable pressure suit instead.  With that he hoped to utilise the thin air and fast winds of the stratosphere to beat the other Robertson competitors to Australia.

Post wanted to keep the true purpose of his plan under wraps, but he did mention the pressure suit idea to friend Jimmy Doolittle, who referred him to the B.F. Goodrich Company.  Wiley requested a rubber suit that would maintain 5,500 feet pressure equivalent up to altitudes of 27,000 feet; air pressure would be provided by a new engine supercharger he planned to install in Winnie Mae.  The U.S. Army Air Service graciously let Post use its low-pressure chamber at Wright Field, Ohio (now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), and he also received technical assistance from the base’s medical and engineering staffs.  Wiley Post and B.F. Goodrich would end up manufacturing three suits of rubberised parachute fabric, as various technical hurdles were encountered and overcome.  The first pressure suit was designed to fit a man standing up, and when pressurised, the limbs became inflexible.  This same suit later failed a static pressure test at Wright Field, which ended its use.  The second suit had flexible ring joints at the knees and elbows, solving the flexibility issue.  Unfortunately Wiley gained a little weight during these months of testing and became stuck in the second suit; he had to be cut out, which ruined it.

Writing in the October 1934 edition of Popular Mechanics, Wiley offered this remarkable prophecy on the future of airline transport:

I believe that, in the future, all flying will be done at 50,000 feet or so when the distance is great enough to warrant climbing to that height.  Transcontinental and transoceanic hauling of passengers and freight can be done in one half the present normal time, simply by use of suitable supercharging of engine, pilot and passenger cabin.  No radical changes in plane or engine are necessary, but of course, further refinements of plane and engine design and improved methods of streamlining will reduce the time even further.


Wiley Post's third pressure suit.

The third suit passed manned and unmanned tests, plus compatibility and fit checks within Winnie Mae.  Wiley flew several test flights up to 40,000 feet in the latter half of 1934; earning him yet another place in history—the first person to fly in a pressure suit.  On December 7, 1934, he flew up to 50,000 feet and actually rode the jet stream; but what should have been a world altitude record was foiled when one of two NACA barographs failed during the ascent, so his record remained unofficial.  Post actually made about eight flights up to or near 50,000 feet, but without dual barograph verification, no record could be verified by the government.  In preparation for future flights, Wiley successfully attained an instrument rating from the Department of Commerce in January of 1935.

As it turned out the third suit and modifications to Winnie Mae would not be made in time for the Robertson Prize race; Wiley was nonetheless still interested in high-altitude research and continued to work on it into 1935.  An attempt at a transcontinental speed record was foiled by when a jealous pilot sabotaged Winnie Mae‘s engine (Wiley was able to land unharmed).  A subsequent transcontinental flight was aborted when Post ran out of oxygen over the Midwest, but he did manage to fly from Burbank, California to Cleveland, Ohio in a record time of 7 hours and 19 minutes.  Winnie Mae’s average speed on that flight was 279 miles per hour (242 knots) or a full 100 mph faster than her normal maximum airspeed; her groundspeed peaked at 340 miles per hour.  Post and his eight-year-old, semi-obsolescent aircraft had undoubtedly ridden the jetstream, and it attracted national attention.

Winnie Mae‘s engine, however, was starting to show the strain and became increasingly breakdown-prone.  Will Rogers suggested to his friend (and the newspapers) that the valiant aircraft ought to be retired to the Smithsonian.  House Resolution 8622 did just that, authorising the Smithsonian to purchase Winnie Mae for not more than $25,000 (with a further $25,000 authorised to carry out the provisions of the resolution).


With Winnie Mae‘s retirement provided for, Wiley Post sought to purchase another aircraft.  He couldn’t afford a brand-new high-performance machine, but instead he cobbled together the salvaged parts of two damaged airplanes.  This composite aircraft was comprised of the fuselage and engine from an ex-TWA Lockheed Orion, and the wing of a Lockheed Explorer.  Although the Lockheed Company did not sanction nor encourage this amalgamation of parts, it was rebuilt anyway and received registry number NC 12283 from the U.S. Bureau of Aeronautics.  Its official type classification was Orion 9E Special (although it has also been referred to as an Orion-Explorer).  Wiley’s original intentions for this aircraft are not fully known.  It was suggested that he, Mae Post and a friend would vacation for six weeks in Siberia, as a way of scouting out a new air mail route between Russia and Alaska that would bypass the dangerous transpacific route.

On August 1st, 1935, Wiley and his wife took off from San Francisco for Seattle; while there the Orion 9E would be fitted with pontoons as a seaplane.  There were several changes in plan, too.  Will Rogers wanted to go hunting and fishing in Alaska with Wiley, and felt camping in the bush might be too much to ask of Mae Post.  She flew home from Seattle.  Critically, the pontoons Wiley had arranged to borrow were not in Seattle; and since Rogers was both paying the bills and anxious to be on his way north, Wiley looked for another set.  He settled on a set of pontoons meant for a much larger and heavier aircraft, and had them installed.  They changed the Orion-Explorer’s centre of gravity to the point where power had to be carried to keep a nose-up attitude in landing.

After loading two cases of chili, Post and Rogers boarded NC 12283 and departed for Alaska at approximately 9:20am on August 6th, 1935.  They arrived at Juneau on the 7th, visisted with friends, and were forced to remain a few extra days due to inclement weather.  They then flew on to Dawson in the Yukon Territory, followed by Fairbanks, Alaska.  Rogers wanted to visit Point Barrow in order to secure an interview with an elderly whaler and trader for his newspaper column.  The pair refuelled their craft at Lake Harding, and then again at Walapka Lagoon, 16 miles from Barrow.  They chatted with Clair Okpeaha, proprietor of a hearby sealing camp, ate some food, and then climbed back into the aircraft.


NC 12283 after the crash.

The aircraft had barely lifted off the water on her takeoff run when the engine quit.  Owing to its nose-heavy centre of gravity, NC 12283 dove into the shallow water, ruptured its fuselage and flipped over onto its back.  Okpeaha immediately took off at a run for Barrow; the 16 mile trip took him five hours.  A UPI correspondent in Barrow got a group of men together and they trekked out to the crash site.  The rescue party located the bodies, noting that Post’s watch had stopped at 8:18pm, August 15th.

Post’s body was transported back to Oklahoma, where it lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol; some 15,000 visitors came to pay their respects.  His remains were interred into the Memorial Park Cemetery in Edmond, Oklahoma.


Wiley Post and Will Rogers are both memorialised by aerodromes in Oklahoma City (Wiley Post Airport [KPWA] and Will Rogers World Airport [KOKC], respectively).  The airfield in Barrow, Alaska is also named for them—Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport (PABR).  Wiley Post was further immortalised in two US Postal Service stamps in 1979.


Mae Laine Post beside her husband's memorial.

A concrete memorial was erected near the crash site, paid for by public subscription.

Wiley’s 26-year-old widow, Mae Laine Post, never remarried.  She is buried beside her husband in Memorial Park Cemetery.

The indomitable Winnie Mae of Oklahoma , now 79 years old, remains on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart.

Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart.

After having seen the trailer, I am hoping that Mira Nair’s new movie about Mrs. Amelia Earhart Putnam doesn’t suck.  Not having seen Ms. Swank in any film other than 1992’s Buffy the Vampie Slayer, it is a bit of a surprise to note how easily she goes from hot to fugly.  Her affected accent is a little too Katharine Hepburn/New England instead of Earhart’s Kansas drawl, but that’s a minor quibble.  Because Nair is the director it’s a safe bet the film will be visually sumptuous; although something about the trailer leaves me with the nagging feeling that she was casting about for high-drama Oscar moments rather than trying to deliver a truthful portrait of Earhart’s complex life.

One interesting thing I learned at the air show on Saturday was that Earhart first felt the stirrings of a desire to fly right here in Toronto!   The young Ms. Earhart had visited her sister in this city for the Christmas of 1917, and having seen the returning wounded, was moved to assist them.  She quit school and became a nurse’s aide at the Spadina Military Hospital (now home to the fine arts department of UofT’s Faculty of Arts and Science).  In her free time Amelia went horseback riding with her sister Muriel, and sometimes a British Royal Flying Corps officer would join them.  He invited them to the airfield but could not offer them a flight, owing to regulations of the time.  In her diary, Earhart recalls spending much spare time at the aerodrome and absorbing as much information as she could.  She and her sister also observed a Great War ace perform a flying demonstration at the 1918 Canadian National Exhibition:

He was bored.  He had looped and rolled and spun and finished his little bag of tricks, and there was nothing left to do but watch the people on the ground running as he swooped close to them.

…I remember the mingled fear and pleasure which surged over me as I watched that small plane at the top of its earthward swoop.  …I did not understand it at the time but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.

— Haugen, Brenda.  Amelia Earhart: Legendary Aviator.  Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007.

Amelia’s story ought to be one of the great epics of aviation, but my inner skeptic knows how easily Hollywood can take a good story, and by judicious tweaking and re-writing, turn it into an enormous fly-ridden pile of crap.

The odds aren’t helped by the fact that Earhart’s fate has remained something of a mystery since her 1937 disappearance with copilot and navigator Fred Noonan.  Aside from the obvious and least conspiracy-ridden “ditched at sea” theory, there are plenty of others—that she and Noonan were able to crash-land on Nikumaroro/Gardner Island; that they crash-landed on Saipan and were executed by the occupying Japanese; that they survived the world flight and assumed new identities.  That otherwise respectable decorated war heroes (Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, for example) believed some of the more outlandish and improbable claims lends these tall tales a credence they do not deserve.

But my purpose here is not to rehash the variables of a 72-year-old mystery.  I really do hope this film is worthwhile; not merely because the aviatrix is a certified aviation icon, but because it might conceivably spur others to themselves take to the skies.  Hollywood’s typical treatment of aircraft and aviation is to ignore basic procedures and equipment, because their proper operation would short-circuit a lame “protagonists in jeopardy” moment upon which a critical plot point revolves.  They depend on viewers’ ignorance to slip by howlers that, to pilots, appear as ridiculous a conceit as the boogeyman leaping out of one’s closet.  Thus any time the media machine breaks from these tedious habits, it ought to be encouraged.

So with that in mind, and notwithstanding the presence of Richard Gere, I am hoping against hope that this one turns out all right.

Lieutenant Colonel Harry J. Zimmerman, USAAF


Lt. Col. Jack Zimmerman (Photo courtesy Hayes Presidential Center, via Mansfield News Journal)

Over the last week, you may have seen articles in various Canadian media outlets detailing the discovery of a sunken Second World War PBY Catalina flying boat off Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Québec.

A U.S. warplane that crashed in waters off the Quebec coast in November 1942 with five crewmen trapped inside has been discovered by underwater archeologists from Parks Canada – a “very significant” find for aviation heritage and a “testament to the collaboration” between Canada and the U.S. during the Second World War, Public Works Minister Christian Paradis announced on Thursday.

The downed aircraft, an amphibious PBY Catalina that was part of a key Allied squadron of planes linking North America to the battlefields of Europe, is believed to be the underwater grave of five U.S. airmen who couldn’t be rescued by the local fishermen who plucked four other Americans from choppy waters at the crash site.

— Boswell, Randy.  “Wreckage of U.S. warplane found off Quebec coast.Canwest News Service, 06 August 2009.

The commander of that aircraft is thought to be one Lt. Col. Harry “Jack” Zimmerman, US Army Air Force.  Ms. Kristina Smith Horn of the Mansfield News Journal has penned a terrific biographical sketch of a man who was a true pioneer of civil aviation.

Born and raised in Fremont, Zimmerman was one of the first pilots for TWA Airlines, said Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. When he joined the Army, he was TWA’s chief pilot for its Eastern and Atlantic Division.

In 1929, he piloted a Ford Tri-Motor — better known as the Tin Goose — in the first air service from one side of the continent to the other for an airline that later became TWA, Hayes Center records show. Ten years later, he flew the first scheduled flight into LaGuardia Airport the day it opened in New York.

…He flew FBI agents to nab notorious kidnapper and thug Alvin “Creepy” Karpis — the FBI’s “Public Enemy No. 1” — and won the gratitude of bureau director J. Edgar Hoover.

His role in the FBI’s arrest of Karpis won him fame and a personal letter from Hoover.

“If you are ever in Washington, I hope you will let me know because I would like to show you some of the things here which we are trying to do in the crime situation,” Hoover wrote. “If occasion should require the chartering of a plane for my use in the future in a similar case, I hope it may be possible to secure your services.”

— Smith Horn, Kristina.  “Ohio flying ace’s remains may have been found.Mansfield News Journal, 16 August 2009.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Requiescat in pace, Lt. Col. Zimmerman (Long Island, N.Y); Capt. Carney Lee Dowlen (Dallas, Texas); Sgt. Charles O. Richardson (Charlevoix, Mich); Pte. Erwin G. Austin (Monroe, Maine); and Pte. Peter J. Cuzins (Cincinnati, Ohio).  May future generations remember your deeds.

A NOTE OF CORRECTION: The Canwest News story linked at the top incorrectly states that Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan was part of the “Crimson Route” for ferry flights from Canada to Britain.  The Crimson Route actually originated much further west at Gore Field, Montana, and routed much further north via Iqaluit, a.k.a. “Crystal II”.  Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan may, however, have been part of the primary or secondary “Northern Route.”  For more information on the Atlantic ferry routes, see the informative and well-illustrated “Interesting Facts about the Atlantic Air Routes of WWII” by Kelsey McMillan, published in Vol. I No. 4 of the Bomber Legends e-magazine.

Famous Aviators You’ve Never Heard Of: Amy Johnson, CBE

Amy Johnson, 1930.

Amy Johnson, 1930.

Secretary to a London solicitor, Ms. Amy Johnson was introduced to flying as a hobbyist in the winter of 1928.  Despite being told that she would “never make a flier”, she persisted under the tutelage of the London Aeroplane Club’s Captain Valentine Baker.  Not long afterward she became certificated as a private pilot (“A” License) on July 6th, 1929—five days after her 26th birthday.  Within the same year she also became Britain’s first female qualified ground engineer, receiving her “C” license in December.  Unable to find work as a pilot, Ms. Johnson decided to undertake some kind of record-breaking flight, in order to demonstrate that women could handle the complexities and demands of aviation as well as men.  All she had wanted was a “proper flying job”, but few men in the industry took the idea of women pilots very seriously.


The late 20s were also a time of aeronautical daring; in 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, and in 1928 Bert Hinkler flew solo from Britain to Australia in what was then an astounding 15 ½ days.  Ms. Johnson decided she would try to beat Hinkler’s time, in spite of the fact that her longest trip to date had been a mere two hours, between London and Hull.  She canvassed various public figures for support, but her most generous backers were her own father and Lord Wakefield of Hythe, founder of the Castrol oil company.  Wakefield offered to fund half the cost of an aeroplane and pre-position fuel supplies along the route.  Funds in hand, Amy purchased a second-hand, two-year-old Gipsy Moth (registry G-AAAH)—an open-cockpit biplane whose top speed was 78 knots (or 90 miles per hour).  Johnson christened the plane Jason, after her father’s company trademark.

aj-australiaAmy departed London’s Croydon Aerodrome on May 5th, 1930, attended by very little publicity; it seemed that the media didn’t take her all that seriously, either.  She made good progress though, and managed to fly the 4,000 miles to Karachi in only six days—improving on Hinkler’s time by two.  The media and public started to pay attention in earnest as her time kept improving, but then disaster struck.  Approaching Rangoon on the ninth day, she mistook a football (soccer) pitch for the landing area and crashed, damaging the Gipsy Moth.  It would require three days to repair, putting Hinkler’s record out of reach.  She pushed on anyway, arriving in Darwin, Australia on May 24th.  The field was blanketed with people, and Amy thought she had inadvertently arrived during an air show.

As it turned out, they were all there to see her, despite the failure to break the record.  Somewhat mystified by the crowd’s enthusiasm, she is reported to have said “I’m afraid I didn’t break the record, but you don’t seem to mind that – it’s jolly sporting of you.”  Her story was snapped up by the Daily Mail for £10,000, and Ms. Johnson received the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE.  She was also awarded the No. 1 civil pilot’s licence under Australia’s 1921 Air Navigation Regulations (although the first Australian recipient, Sir Norman Brearley, had been flying with License No. 2 since 1921).

Jim Mollison & Amy Johnson

Jim Mollison & Amy Johnson

The fame and celebrity enabled her to meet other famous pilots; one of whom was Jim Mollison, who in 1931 beat both Johnson and Hinkler by flying from Britain to Australia in 9 days.  Mollison and Johnson would end up marrying in 1932.  The two aviators, jointly and separately, would go on to establish, break or regain several aviation records throughout the early 1930s.  In 1931, Johnson and Jack Humphreys became the first pilots to fly from London to Moscow in one day (21hrs).  They then flew on through Siberia to Japan, establishing a time record from Britain to Japan.  In 1932 Mollison established a time record from Britain to South Africa in 113 hours, which Johnson proceeded to break shortly thereafter.  She lost it in later years, and regained it with a much faster 78 hour flight in 1936.  She and Mollison attempted a joint nonstop flight from Wales to New York in 1933, but ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Connecticut, injuring both.


Paradoxically all of the attention was detrimental to her hopes of landing an ordinary flying job.  Employers either tried to exploit her fame, or dismissed her as a mere glory-hound.  Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 during her around-the-world attempt with Fred Noonan soured Amy on the idea of further record-breaking flights.  They were in any event losing their glamour as flying became more and more ordinary and accessible for the general public.  Jim Mollison’s infidelities brought additional turmoil and, eventually, a painful divorce in 1939.  It would take the outbreak of war in September to bring Amy regular, attention-free flying.

In 1938 the British government established the Air Transport Auxiliary, meant as a civilian service to ferry mail and medical supplies to military installations.  As continental tensions gave way to war, the mission was changed to ferrying aircraft (and occasionally personnel) between manufacturers, assembly points, depots and front-line units.  In late 1939 the ATA opened a women’s section, and would eventually grow to include 166 women (1/8th of the entire ATA force) from Britain, the Empire (Canada, New Zealand and South Africa), the Netherlands, Poland and Chile.  One of these unsung, anonymous pilots was Amy Johnson; by all accounts she handled herself with aplomb and was considered “just one of the girls”.  In an interesting footnote, in 1943 the Women’s ATA became the very first British government organisation to receive equal pay for equal work.  In contrast its American counterpart (WASP) was still paying its women pilots up to 35% less than their male colleagues.

At 10:45am on January 5th, 1941, Amy departed Blackpool in an Airspeed Oxford Mk II, bound for RAF Kidlington.  The weather was far from favourable and she indicated to onlookers that she would “go over the top” (fly above the cloud layers), something not recommended for ATA pilots as they flew without radios.  The low clouds made navigation difficult and Amy’s aircraft wandered far off course.   She was spotted on air defence radars and aircraft were dispatched to guide her home, but it is presumed that the Oxford (which carried 4.75 hours of fuel) had by that time experienced fuel exhaustion, and Amy had to bail out some time between 1500 and 1537 GMT.

Her parachute and aircraft were spotted over the Thames estuary by lookouts on cross-Channel steamer HMS Haslemere, and air trapped in the parachute is reported to have kept her afloat for ten minutes.  Haslemere‘s captain, Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher, dived into the freezing river with a rope tied around his waist, in a bid to try and save the then-unknown pilot.  She was last seen disappearing under the Haslemere‘s stern and was presumed dead by drowning; her body was never recovered.   The gallant Lieutenant Commander Fletcher later died from immersion hypothermia in hospital at Sheerness.


The name Amy Johnson is still relatively well-known in Britain and Australia, but otherwise forgotten (especially in North America, where Amelia Earhart tends to take pride of place, and where the name Amy Johnson conjures up the Pink Power Ranger).  Castrol oil survives as a brand of British Petroleum, of course, and Amy’s father’s company, Andrew Johnson Knudtzon, originally fish merchants, are now a cold storage company still headquartered in the family’s old hometown of Hull.

Gipsy Moth Jason G-AAAH, now 81 years old, remains on display at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London.

READ MORE: A fuller account of her life and times, including a reasonable reconstruction of the circumstances of her last flight, at the RAF’s History Section.