September 29, 1895|
|Died||June 23, 1970(aged 74)|
|Spouse(s)||Carline Stovall (m. 1924–46)
Margaret Madonna Miller (m. 1946)
|Known for||Barnstorming; Air racing; pet lion|
|Famous flights||Transcontinental airspeed record New York to Los Angeles (1930, 1932); Transcontinental airspeed record Los Angeles to New York (1933); MacRobertson Air Race (1934); Bendix Trophy (1933); Thompson Trophy (1934, 1938, 1939)|
|Awards||Harmon Trophy (1933, 1939); Distinguished Flying Cross (1952); National Aviation Hall of Fame (1975); Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1991)|
Roscoe Turner (September 29, 1895 – June 23, 1970) was a record-breaking American aviator who was a three-time winner of the Thompson Trophy air race, and widely recognized by his flamboyant style and his pet lion.
Roscoe Turner was born in Corinth, Mississippi, the eldest son of farmer Robert Lee Turner and his wife Mary Aquilla Derryberry Turner. From 1903 to 1910, he attended the Glover school in West Corinth, and his formal education reached the tenth grade, the highest available there. He came to realize that he did not want to be a farmer, and daydreamed of a future on the railroad that ran through the family farm. He developed interests and skills in repairing, constructing and experimenting with mechanical objects, including horse-drawn wagons, large kites, motorcycles, and eventually, automobiles. He studied at business college for about six months, then worked in a hardware store, and briefly at a local bank, in the occupation then preferred by his father.
At age 16, he ran away to Memphis in the hope of being an automobile mechanic, but instead had to take a job as a dispatch clerk. In Roscoe's spare time, a truck driver helped him with driving and navigating the local area, and he gained employment in that occupation. He attributed his success at interview to meticulous preparation of his clothing and appearance, an ethos that characterized the rest of his life. He then worked at various jobs, including automobile mechanic, chauffeur and salesman, often coincidentally. He first saw an aircraft in 1913, and in 1916 turned his ambitions towards being a pilot. He applied to the Army for flying training, but despite having mechanical expertise and driving experience, he lacked the required college education. After America entered World War I in April 1917, he enlisted as an ambulance driver. Within months, he was promoted from private to sergeant first class. In January 1918, he was finally accepted as a Flying Cadet and trained as a balloon pilot. In March 1918, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps Reserve. In September 1918, he departed the US to serve in France and Germany, where he gained some unofficial flying training in fixed wing aircraft. In July 1919, he returned to the US as a First Lieutenant, and was discharged in September 1919.
In October 1919, Turner went into partnership with Harry J. Runser, who had already been barnstorming with a Canuck biplane, a Canadian version of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, and who needed someone to act as mechanic, wing-walker and parachutist. Together, they toured eastern and southern states with their passenger joyriding flights and displays of stunts that included posed aircraft crashes. Typically, they permanently wore Army style uniforms, and Turner developed his own design of tailor-made uniform of blue tunic, fawn jodhpurs, riding boots and a beige officer cap. He added a silver winged brooch and a fancy belt, and a grew a waxed moustache to companion his natural toothy smile. In later life, he maintained that his carefully contrived appearance was both practical and good for business, but that he grew to dislike wearing the uniform.
In April 1920, Turner and Runser sold the Curtiss Jenny and purchased an Avro 504 that could carry two passengers. In September 1921, probably due to lack of funds, they sold the Avro 504 and 'purchased' a Curtiss Jenny from a Marine sergeant. In February 1922, Turner and Runser were charged with conspiracy and receiving government property. They both pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to a year and a day in a federal prison. Turner was released on parole in July 1922, and in August 1924 he was granted a full and unconditional pardon by President Calvin Coolidge. He returned to Corinth, and co-formed an automobile repair business. He personally repaired and restored a Curtiss Jenny, improved his flying skills, and barnstormed in the Corinth area. In the fall of 1924, he joined with Arthur H. Starnes to form the Roscoe Turner Flying Circus. They used a Standard J-1 nicknamed an 'OX Standard', later joined by a Breguet 14.
In 1923 in Sheffield, Alabama, he formed the Muscle Shoals Aircraft Corporation to promote aviation and other business in the Sheffield area, but his continuing automobile business in Corinth, and barnstorming with Arthur Starnes, were more successful. On his birthday on September 29, 1924, he married Miss Carline Hunter Stovall at the farm near Corinth where he kept his aircraft. The couple were seated in his aircraft while the minister officiated while standing alongside. As usual, Roscoe wore his display uniform, and publicity was later obtained from the event. In 1925, after Arthur Starnes left to pursue his own barnstorming ambitions, Roscoe employed J. W. 'Bugs' Fisher as his wing walker, stuntman and parachutist.
Airlines and movie-making
In early 1925, via a lease purchase agreement, and with help and sponsorship of the Curlee Clothing Company, The Roscoe Turner Airways Corporation acquired the sole Sikorsky S-29-A, a twin-engine biplane with enclosed cabin for about 16 passengers plus open cockpit for the pilot. Turner used the aircraft through 1927 for commercial charters, publicity campaigns, passenger joy-riding and proposed record-breaking flights. In early 1928, Turner flew the S-29-A to California, for its conversion to a representation of a German Gotha bomber, under a lease agreement with film company Caddo Productions that was controlled by Howard Hughes. Caddo used the aircraft in Hughes' movie film Hell's Angels, often piloted by Turner. While being flown by another pilot during its final filmed stunt, it suffered an inflight failure and crashed with one fatality, after the pilot baled out. During this period, around 1928, Turner and his wife Carline became involved in Hollywood society, including movie executives, politicians and famous actors, all combined with aviation and publicity for all concerned. After failed attempts to break records for air endurance and altitude, he conducted successful experiments with the Russell Parachute Company to safely recover whole aircraft and their contents by parachute. That technique went largely unadopted until Ballistic Recovery Systems developed it further, 50 years later. In early 1929, Turner became chief pilot for Nevada Airlines, flying Lockheed Vegas on regular services between Los Angeles, Bishop, Tonopah, Reno and Las Vegas, to enable people to take advantage of Nevada laws on gambling, marriage and divorce. The first Vega was christened Alimony Special by Bebe Daniels. In August 1929, Governor of Nevada, Fred B. Balzar, appointed Turner to his staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and Governor of California James Rolph then did likewise. From then and for the rest of his life, Turner adopted the title of "Colonel" in all his public activities.
At the 1928 National Air Races, Turner started air racing, in a Timm Aircoach sponsored by Shell Oil Company, and at the 1929 event he raced a Lockheed Vega (NC7954) of Nevada Airlines. On August 21, 1929, Turner started his attempts to beat the two transcontinental airspeed records set by Frank Hawks. He piloted a Lockheed Vega of Nevada Airlines, with Harold Gatty as navigator, plus two passengers. The flights failed to break the records, but brought publicity for Turner, Nevada Airlines, and the concept of transcontinental passenger services. However, Nevada Airlines failed to achieve enough viable services, and ceased operations in February 1930.
In early 1930, Turner persuaded Gilmore Oil Company to purchase from General Tire & Rubber Company the Lockheed Air Express (NR3057) that Henry Brown had flown in the 1929 races. Turner replaced the Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet with a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp, fitted with a NACA cowling. The aircraft was painted cream with red and gold trim, plus matching lion head logo, advertising Gilmore Red Lion products. (Gilmore Oil Company was later absorbed by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, later renamed Mobil). Turner took on Lockheed employee Don Young as his mechanic, in a working partnership that lasted over 20 years. Turner saw a lion cub advertised for sale in California, and persuaded the owner Louis Goebel to donate it to him in return for promoting his lion-breeding farm. He named the cub Gilmore, raised him at home in Beverly Hills, and gave him familiarisation flights in the Air Express. Thereafter, and fitted with a Turner-adapted parachute, Gilmore accompanied Turner on many publicized flights and events until about 1935, when he became too heavy and unmanageable in the aircraft. After retirement with Louis Goebel, Gilmore the lion died in 1952. The lion's body was stuffed, mounted, and put on display in the Turner home. In 1976, it was transferred to the custody of the Smithsonian.
At the National Air Races at Cleveland in September 1931, Turner was impressed with Jimmy Wedell and his Wedell-Williams Model 44 that achieved second place in the Thompson Trophy race. After obtaining a grant of $5,000 from Gilmore Oil Company, Turner commissioned Wedell to build a new version of the Model 44 with a 525 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engine to replace the 450 hp Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior. That aircraft (NR54Y) crashed while Wedell was flight testing it, and a replacement was built with a redesigned wing.
At the National Air Races at Cleveland in September 1932, Turner came third in the Bendix Trophy cross-country race from Burbank to Cleveland in his new Wedell-Williams Model 44 (NR61Y, race number 121), after Jimmy Haizlip followed by Jimmy Wedell, both also flying Model 44s. On November 14, 1932, Turner flew the Model 44 from Floyd Bennett Field, New York, to Burbank in 12 hours and 33 minutes, breaking the east to west transcontinental airspeed record set by Frank Hawks.
For the National Air Races at Los Angeles in July, 1933, Turner entered his Model 44 (NR61Y, race number 2), that had been fitted with an 800 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp, painted in a combined Gilmore and 20th Century Fox Pictures scheme. On July 1, 1933, he flew in the Bendix Trophy race from New York to Los Angeles, gaining first place, ahead of Jimmy Wedell in his Model 44 (NR278V, race number 44). Turner's time was 11 hours 30 minutes, that also broke his own east to west transcontinental airspeed record. Wedell went on to win the Thompson Trophy circuit race, despite finishing behind Turner, who was disqualified after a strict pylon rules infringement. In Fall 1933, Turner upgraded his Model 44 again with a 1000 hp supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet engine, painted gold overall, and sponsored by Heinz and Macmillan Ring-Free Motor Oil. On September 2, 1933, he flew it from Los Angeles to New York in 10 hours 4 minutes 30 seconds, to break the west to east transcontinental airspeed record, to accompany his existing east to west record.
At the National Air Races at Cleveland in September 1934, Turner entered his Wedell-Williams Model 44 (NR61Y, race number 57), but was a non-starter in the Bendix Trophy race due to a fuel leak. On September 2, 1934, he set off after the Bendix race anyway, to show that he could have won it, but encountered storms en route to the races venue at Cleveland. After a delayed refueling, he flew on to New York to break Frank Hawks' west to east record with a time of 10 hours 2 minutes 39 seconds. He then returned to Cleveland, and won the Thompson Trophy after the Model 44 flown by Doug Davis crashed fatally while leading the race.
MacRobertson Air Race
In 1933, Turner learned of plans to organize what became known as the MacRobertson Air Race, to be run from London, England to Melbourne, Australia, in October 1934. He quickly obtained sponsorship from Pratt & Whitney in the form of engines and technical assistance, followed by Boeing. United Airlines then offered to lend him one of their latest airliners, a Boeing 247 (NR257Y). Other sponsors included Heinz, Macmillan Oil Company, and Warner Brothers. Turner selected Clyde Pangborn as his co-pilot, due to his experience of making international flights. The third crew member was Reeder Nichols, an employee of Bill Lear's Lear Development Corp, whose job it was to operate the Lear radio and direction finder. After modification and testing of the Boeing 247, Turner flew it to New York and had it loaded onto a passenger liner bound for England. After diversions and delays, the aircraft was reassembled at Hamble, then flown via Heston Aerodrome and RAF Martlesham Heath finally to the race starting point at RAF Mildenhall.
Early on October 20, 1934, Turner took off from Mildenhall on the trip to Melbourne, over a distance estimated at 11,300 miles. The sectors to Athens and then to Baghdad were flown with no problem. The next destination was Allahabad, one of the five compulsory refueling stops, but at the calculated arrival time, the aircraft was in darkness and the crew could not see the expected lights of a city. They contacted the radio operator at Allahabad, with little success until they declared SOS, when they finally obtained a radio bearing. They landed with just sufficient fuel to park the aircraft. Further stops were made at Alor Setar, Singapore, Koepang, Timor, and Darwin, where they learned that the de Havilland DH.88 flown by C. W. A. Scott had already landed at Melbourne with a time of 71 hours. On the sector to Charleville, the oil pressures were low, so the engines were throttled back. They set out for Melbourne, but further engine oil problems led to a forced landing at Bourke, New South Wales, where they made minor repairs. They flew on, to cross the race finishing line at Melbourne race course. After checking in with an elapsed time of 92 hours 55 minutes, Turner learned that the Dutch entry, a KLM Douglas DC-2, had arrived in a time of 90 hours 13 minutes. Turner and his two crew were awarded third place overall, and second place on handicap. The Boeing 247 went back into service, and in 1952 was presented to the National Air and Space Museum, where it is now displayed.
More air racing
For much of 1935, Turner publicized many products and causes, including Boeing Model 80, United Airlines, Heinz foods, Camel cigarettes, Motor Glide scooters, Macmillan Oil, and the National Safety Council. Turner entered the Bendix Trophy race with his Model 44 (NR61Y, race number 57). On August 31, 1935, after flying from Burbank to Cleveland, he finished just 23.5 seconds after the winner Ben Howard in his Howard DGA-6 named Mr Mulligan. On September 2, 1935, in the Thompson Trophy race, his Model 44 suffered engine failure, but Turner made a safe dead-stick landing.
In late August 1936, Turner took off from Burbank in his Wedell-Williams Model 44 (NR61Y) bound for New York from where the Bendix Trophy race was due to start. The Model 44 suffered engine problems near Flagstaff, Arizona, and he crash-landed on a Zuni Indian reservation. The carburettor had iced up, and seriously affected the engine running; on landing, the aircraft had somersaulted, breaking the fuselage behind the cockpit. Turner had fractured two ribs and a bone in his neck, but he endured 17 miles on horseback, then 35 miles in a car, and he then returned to Los Angeles by train before seeking medical help. He deceived the press about the cause of the accident, to save the reputation of Pratt & Whitney. On October 15, 1936, Turner flew the Lockheed Air Express into the first Roscoe Turner Airport at Corinth for its dedication ceremony. The airport had been built with funds from the Works Progress Administration on the site of the farm where he once kept his aircraft, and where he was married.
During 1936, Turner worked on the design of a new racing aircraft to accommodate a 1000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engine, plus his flying requirements to suit both cross-country races and closed circuit pylon races. He commissioned Professor Howard W. Barlow of University of Minneapolis to prepare the detailed design and drawings, and then engaged Lawrence W. Brown and his Brown Aircraft Co. to build the aircraft. Brown made many changes to the design during construction, and Turner demanded a larger wing to safely carry the extra weight, but serious disagreements caused Brown to quit the project. In May 1937, Don Young transported the uncompleted aircraft to the premises of Matty Laird in Chicago, where Young rebuilt the crashed Wedell-Williams Model 44, and Laird completed the new racer to Turner's requirements, that now included weight reduction plus a newly designed wing of greater span designed by Raoul Hoffman. In August 1937, Turner test flew his 'Turner Special' (officially Turner-Laird RT-14 Meteor, registered NR263Y), painted silver with tail number R263Y and racing number 29. On September 3, 1937, fuel leaks and consequent repairs caused Turner to miss the start of the Bendix Trophy race from Burbank to Cleveland. On September 6, Turner flew the racer, labeled 'Ring-Free Meteor', in the Thompson Trophy race. He led the race, but then circled a pylon in the mistaken belief that he had turned inside it, and only came third. Turner's Wedell-Williams Model 44 (R61Y, race number 25, named 'Ring-Free Comet') piloted by Lt Joseph C. Mackey, dropped out of the same race with engine failure. In November 1936, Turner started broadcasting a NBC radio show titled 'Flying Time', for five days a week.
In 1938, Turner had the Turner Special modified with wheel spats and other improvements. On May 30, 1938, he entered it in a closed circuit race at Oakland and came second, but posted the highest average speed over one lap of 278.8 mile/h. The rules for the Bendix race had been changed to disallow participating aircraft being used to compete for the Thompson Trophy. The Thompson Trophy race had been lengthened to 30 laps of a 10-mile circuit, and Turner decided to enter with R263Y (race number 29) newly sponsored by Pesco Products and renamed 'Pesco Special'. On September 5, 1938, he won the race with an average speed of 283.4 mile/h, having lapped Earl Ortman in second place in his Keith Rider R-3 (NX14215, race number 4). Turner's Wedell-Williams Model 44 (NX61Y, race number 25) piloted by Joe Mackey, came fifth in the same race. In October 1938, Turner took part in a movie film 'Flight at Midnight', released in August 1939, but most of his footage was cut.
In 1939, Turner was employed by the Porterfield Aircraft Corporation to promote, demonstrate and sell its aircraft, but he resigned in 1940. He secured new sponsoring contracts with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and Kellogg's. His RT-14 Meteor (NX263Y, race number 29) was entered in the Thompson Trophy race, sponsored by Champion spark plugs. On September 5, 1939, he won the race at an average speed of 282.536 mile/h, with one lap timed at 299.03 mile/h. Joe Mackey came sixth in Turner's Model 44 (NX61Y). Turner demanded that Don Young join him on the podium, where he publicly announced "This is my last race. I'll be 44 this month. This is a young man's game."
In November 1939, Turner and two partners purchased the stock of Central Aeronautical Corporation (CAC), that offered aircraft sales and services at Indianapolis Municipal Airport. The purpose was to obtain local planning authority to build a hangar and administration building in order to start business as a Fixed Base Operator (FBO). In February 1940, CAC was renamed Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation (RTAC), and the new buildings were eventually dedicated in May 1941. By that time, RTAC operated 16 aircraft and offered a large variety of services including sales, servicing, charters, flight instruction and ground school training. In July 1941, Turner suffered a fractured pelvis in an automobile accident, and settled out of court after suing for loss of earnings. He campaigned for the establishment of an air force separate from the US Army, and proposed the use of 'flivver' planes for national defense, converted from small private aircraft. He continued to campaign on many aviation issues after the US joined World War II in December 1941, but his personal and business ideas and proposals were repeatedly turned down by the government and the Army Air Force. RTAC took part in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), then renamed the War Training Service (WTS), and in February 1943, RTAC took on additional training programs. In early 1944, all the WTS programs were discontinued. By then, RTAC had trained an estimated 3,500 students. In July 1944, Roscoe started a daily charter service between Detroit and Memphis, managed by his brother Robert Turner, but after forty days it was shut down by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) who ruled that it was an unauthorised scheduled airline service. On December 13, 1946, he married his second wife, Madonna M. Miller, who went on to become president and then treasurer of RTAC, and is credited with rescuing the finances of Roscoe and RTAC.
In February 1948, RTAC obtained authority from the CAB to operate airline services from a hub at Weir-Cook Municipal Airport (formerly Indianapolis Municipal Airport) under the name Turner Airlines. However, Turner failed to obtain sufficient finances, and sold the franchise to John Weesner and Paul Weesner. On August 9, 1949, they officially formed Turner Airlines, and on November 12, 1949, began operating services. In February 1950, it was renamed Lake Central Airlines. Turner continued to campaign and crusade for strong national air power in the Cold War.
In 1949, a special act of Congress was enacted to award the Distinguished Flying Cross to Roscoe Turner, who eventually received it on August 14, 1952 at the Pentagon. The citation was "for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight".
In 1967, Roscoe Turner sold his controlling interest in RTAC to Charles Gates, Jr., president of Gates Rubber Company. Gates had acquired a majority holding in Learjet, that was a competitor of Beechcraft, and Beechcraft Corporation then canceled all contracts with RTAC, that had a major Beechcraft distributorship and service facility. In September 1968, all the remaining financial interests of Roscoe and Madonna Turner in Turner businesses were sold.
On September 29, 1970, the Roscoe Turner Museum was opened at Indianapolis, with exhibits that included the Turner Special aircraft and Roscoe's Packard automobile, plus many trophies and other artifacts. Don Young became its curator. It closed in 1972, and in 1976 the contents were transferred to the National Air and Space Museum, where the exhibits include the Boeing 247 that Turner flew in the MacRobertson Race.
Turner was an honorary official with the Indianapolis 500 car race for many years.
In the 1991 Australian television miniseries The Great Air Race (about the 1934 London-Melbourne MacRobertson Air Race), Turner was portrayed by Barry Bostwick. Actor and animal trainer Raymond Ducasse portrayed Turner in the 2004 motion picture The Aviator about the life and career of Howard Hughes. In the film, Turner attends the 1930 Hollywood premiere of Hughes' epic picture Hell's Angels with his lion cub Gilmore.
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