|The History of Roscoe Turner – Building Highways in the Sky
“People go through sacrifice to advance aviation — sacrifice of time and money and labor — and life”.
Roscoe Turner, on the death of a colleague in a flying accident – Aug 31, 1934
Few pilots have influenced aviation in its early years as much as Roscoe Turner did. Starting from what can only be described as very humble beginnings Turner pushed his way into mainstream aviation in the US and helped it evolve from a dangerous curiosity to a stable commercial and military activity. Part showman, part adventurer and part visionary, Roscoe Turner’s name was synonymous with aviation in the 1920s. The history of Roscoe Turner can actually be called the history of aviation in the 20s and 30s. Astronaut Michael Collins of Apollo 11 fame recalls that he idolized Roscoe Turner from early childhood. Roscoe’s famous victories in air races, his waxed mustache, white silk kerchief and self designed military uniform breathed romance, adventure and raw courage. Which boy could grow up in that era and stay unaffected?
From Locomotives to Airplanes
Roscoe was the eldest of six surviving children born to parents of Scotch – Irish ancestry who had arrived in America in the 1800s. While his father expected that he would tend to the family’s fifty acres, staring all day at the backside of a mule while plowing land was not what excited Roscoe. As Roscoe’s native town of Corinth (population 3000 in the 1900 census) became a major railroad junction, Roscoe dreamt of growing up to be a railway engine driver. All spare time was spent sitting on a hill gazing at locomotives or tinkering with his tools. However, aviation was just coming into public awareness and before long, attraction to locomotives switched to fascination with aircraft. Roscoe’s father finally relented and the boy was allowed to leave the farm and join the military when America entered the First World War. However, the military did not make Roscoe a pilot as he wanted since he did not have a college degree. For some time, Roscoe drove an ambulance and later, as the requirement of a college degree was waived off, he was transferred to be a balloon observer.
Once bitten by the aviation bug, Roscoe moved inexorably in that direction. He managed private flying lessons and when the war ended, he bought himself a war surplus aircraft and began barnstorming. For a while barnstorming was great and Roscoe was living the life he wanted. However, he soon tired of flying from field to field and decided to fly west to tap what was an underdeveloped area in aviation. It was here that Roscoe founded Nevada Airlines. He worked here for a time and his efforts here were so successful that the Governor of Nevada granted him an honorary title of Colonel in the Nevada National Guard. Colonel Roscoe Turner was proud of his rank and got himself a colorful uniform. He was doing well for himself in the west. As aviation became more main stream, it was but inevitable that as an early pioneer, Roscoe Turner moved to flying stunts and working in the movies. The imposing Colonel with the big waxed mustache and eye catching – though some called it gaudy – uniform made quite a name for himself as a stunt pilot. Roscoe and his S 29 worked in the 1930s Howard Hughes movie ‘Hells Angles’ as a German bomber and its crew. The history of Roscoe Turner came full circle when in the 2004 hit movie ‘The Aviator’ starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Raymond Ducasse acted out the role of Roscoe Turner in the 1920s with Howard Hughes! So wedded was Roscoe to his Sikorsky S 29 that when the time came to tie the knot with Carline Stovall, he chose to get married in the cockpit of his beloved aircraft. Possibly this was an early indication to Carline about where she stood in Roscoe’s priority list! Nevertheless, she seemed to share his interests and the two were happy together.
Gilmore and Roscoe
For an aviator as much in the news as Roscoe was, sponsors were never in short supply. The best known of these sponsors – and one that probably derived the most mileage was the Gilmore Oil Company. The Gilmore Company – later to merge with the Mobil Company – provided Roscoe Turner with a five month old lion cub. The cub was promptly named Gilmore and was outfitted with his own custom built parachute. Gilmore flew with Roscoe for several years. Finally when the lion weighed more than 500 pounds (and probably scared airport officials) he was given over to a private collection with Roscoe continuing to look after his upkeep. Gilmore passed away peacefully in 1952 and never had to use his parachute even once!
The Racing Era
Shortly after his foray into films, Roscoe turned his mind to racing. Roscoe’s racing career really began to grab attention when he broke the East-West transcontinental record in 1930. Back then in the 1930s, aviation was still under developmental control of individuals. A number of rich companies and individuals offered large prizes for aerial races. While these races created a big buzz and brought in large crowds, they also had a very beneficial effect on the development of aviation. The Thomson Race Cup (later known as the Thomson Trophy) was one such event. It was a 10 mile closed circuit race around two pylons. Since the race was in a closed loop and had a novel format where all airplanes raced together, it was a thrilling event and attracted a lot of attention. The Thomson Trophy was contested 1930 onwards. However, it took Roscoe Turner two years before he participated in his first event. In all Roscoe participated in 7 races. He was disqualified in one, came last in another, came third twice and won it three times. It is also perhaps a sign of the personality that Roscoe Turner was that when he won the trophy a third time; he refused to return it for the next race. The organizers were forced to cast a new one. The original stayed with Roscoe Turner till his death and was donated to the National Air and Space Museum by his wife shortly after his death in 1970. There resides an important fragment of the history of Roscoe Turner, on view for all aviation enthusiasts.
The Great Race - Mildenhall to Melbourne 1934
Although Roscoe Turner won the 1934 edition of the Thomson Trophy, his sights were set on bigger things. Being flown to celebrate the centennial year of Melbourne, the MacRobertson Trophy Race was to be flown from Mildenhall near London to Melbourne, a distance of 11,323 miles. The race would cover 16 countries and would be flown day and night. It was the ultimate test of man and machine. Roscoe Turner was determined to take part in the race, except for a minor detail; he did not have an aircraft that could make the trip nor a sponsor who would fund him. He also did not have a passport – not being able to produce a birth certificate but that was the least of his worries. How Roscoe Turner persuaded the Boeing aircraft company and its purchaser of a Boeing 247D to loan him the aircraft for the race is history now and probably a lesson in salesmanship and persuasion. Needless to say, Roscoe’s growing reputation as an ace pilot had much to do with it. Do remember that this was still 1934 and the string of wins in the Thomson Trophy were still some time in the future. This was an all American crew in an all American airplane and this ignited public imagination and interest. Every obstacle was eventually overcome and Roscoe and his team roared into Melbourne in number three position in about three days. The fact that he came in third bothered few in America. 64 entries had come in for the race and Roscoe came 3rd out of a total of 64 who had registered initially. He was American, his crew and airplane was American and he was already an established hero of the land. The race added greatly to Boeing’s reputation as a manufacturer of reliable airplanes and to that of Roscoe Turner as a serious pilot who could hold his own in a grueling endurance race.
The World War II Years
While it was probably too late for Roscoe to see active service in WW II, he nevertheless was closely involved with the war effort. Roscoe ran a pilot training school that produced close to 3000 pilots who went on to contribute greatly to the war effort.
Honors and Awards
Roscoe Turner’s contribution to aviation and to the war did not go unrecognized. In 1952 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the US Congress for his contribution to American Aviation. This was a great honor and a major exception since very few civilian pilots have ever been so awarded. Naturally enough, this led to the naming of the airport in his native city of Corinth, MS after the aviator. The airfield is officially called the ‘Roscoe Turner Airport’. TIME magazine, reporting about the Mildenhall to Melbourne race called Roscoe Turner a temperamental prima donna on ground but a cold nerveless machine in air. Roscoe himself was more candid, in the same article in TIME, he said – “I am a speed merchant”. A merchant who could give a fillip to Boeing’s products and inspire generations of young boys and girls - including an astronaut who went to the moon, Roscoe Turner was a major influence on modern aviation. Roscoe’s place in aviation history is assured. You can learn more about the life and times of Roscoe Turner: Aviation's Master Showman in this wonderful book.
|Great Quotes: Will Rogers
| Will Rogers and Roscoe Turner were good friends, and they died together in an aircraft accident ending a great flying career and denying the world some great humor. Here are some of Will Rogers' famous quotations: An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out. Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for. Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do today. Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip. On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.
|Photo of the Month
Roscoe Turner and "Gilmore" - his pet lion that flew with him Photo Courtesy of the National Aviation and Space Museum
John M. White, Editor
Each month we bring you informative, educational and entertaining articles about all things aviation. You can find more timely and current articles here at our blog: All Things Aviation Blog
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