Born in the year 1900, three years before the Wright brothers had launched the Wright Flyer; James Robert Wedell was to grow into a worthy contemporary. Starting with resources that can only be called below zero or negative, this man one day owned the largest number of individual flying records and was a partner in an airline that included the largest private collection of aircraft in the world. The Wedell Story relates how James Wedell achieved this and more in a span of just 34 years cut short by a flying accident when teaching a student pilot in a slow and safe Gypsy Moth.
Legend tells us many things about Wedell. As a kid he built an automobile out of bicycle wheels and a motor cycle engine. He dropped out of school in standard nine and lost an eye in a motorcycle accident. Having lost his mother very early he looked after his brother and sister while his father worked late nights in a bar. This was the legacy life gave him.
James Wedell was built of strong fiber though. Soon he was running his own garage and the motor repair business gave him enough funds to buy two derelict airplanes. Such were his mechanical skills that he salvaged parts of both to build a flyable aircraft. After a one hour flying lesson, James was on his own and into barnstorming with his brother Walter, who he taught flying to.
The First World War
The First World War intervened and while Walter left to join the Navy, James was rejected because of his bad eye. Left to himself, James Weddell engaged in some dubious activities on the Mexican border – gun running was rumored. Since he was unable to out run the aircraft of the US Customs – James resolved to do two things – (a) Fly at night and (b) Build faster airplanes!Luckily for him, Jimmy Wedell was never caught by the Customs, though there were several close calls. It was then that the Wedell Story saw a twist and Jimmy met Harry Williams, a wealthy and adventurous lumber company owner. Williams was keen to buy an airplane and learn to fly. Jimmy met him as a salesman for Ryan Aircraft. The sale was made and Jimmy also agreed to teach Williams flying. This was in 1927. By 1929 the two were partners and had started the Wedell Williams Air Service.
The Wedell Williams partnerships flourished. They offered charters, scheduled services, flying lessons and transporting mail. However, the partnership also permitted them to focus on a common passion – building hot rod racers. Wedell was possibly the last of a breed who understood flying from an intuitive design perspective. He could design an airplane by look and feel without going into complex aerodynamics and engineering. And the airplanes he made not only flew – they beat the field when it came to racing.
The Wedell-Williams 44
The Wedell Williams 44 and the Wedell story are of course intertwined and well known. The famous plane went on to win many races and on several occasions, Wedell Williams 44s came in at the 1sr, 2nd and 3rd positions. However, Jimmy Wedell was also a great humanitarian. Time Magazine has documented in its January 1934 issue how he flew severely ill five month old Sue and her mother 1400 miles across the US through fog and thunderstorms to a doctor who performed a life saving operation. There are many other documented instances where Jim Wedell flew mercy errands. Besides being famous as an aircraft designer and a pilot, Wedell was also known for helping people out whenever he could.
At 34, many of us just begin to be effective in our jobs. James Wedell was a master in his vocation at this age. Unfortunately, death chose him at this early age and the world lost a fine pilot, designer and a great human being. Death came to him the only way he would have wanted it – at the controls of a plane.
Wedell and Williams’ picture from http://countryroadsmagazine.com/Weekends-Away/wedell-williams-aviation-collection/Page-2
Newspaper print from http://cgi.ebay.com/101150C-JIMMY-WEDELL-SPEED-FLYER-AIRPLANE-BUILDER-DIES-/390302111587
Crash picture from web site of Louisiana State Museum http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/aviation/wedell3.htm#Death1
To learn more you should get Race with the Wind: How Air Racing Advanced Aviation a great read!
Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch!
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