“The planes were very comfortable and had wicker seats. And I remember Dick Blythe [a reporter] from the Detroit News had a little monkey named Whirlwind Jimmy. We’d land at all of these airports and the kids would be following me and the monkey would be sitting on my shoulder holding onto my hair. I’ll never forget the kids trailing after me.”
To honor people like her father and Stinson, Rosemarie wants to participate in the National Air Tour this fall, but she’s had heart surgery and back problems and can’t be sure she’ll show.
It’s first-person accounts like hers that bring back the innocence, energy, and fun of the era, during the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, when nearly half of Americans lived on farms, and men with an idea and some cash could design their own airplanes.
After winning the 1929 tour in a Waco 225, John Livingston wrote a day-by-day account of his three-week adventure for Aviation. “While the total number of hours I have in the air is not excessive,” Livingston wrote, “much of my experience has been in virgin cross-country work. As a result, I think that perhaps I have developed a knack of recognizing little things that help me stay on course.”
The original tours focused on manufacturing towns, rather than big cities like New York or San Francisco, so there was a small-scale quirkiness to the whole escapade. In 1928, the city of Wausau, Wisconsin, population 18,000, offered $1,200 and the honorary title “Air Mayor of Wausau” to the pilot voted into office by the Wausau citizenry. The manager of the town airfield, John Wood, was competing in a Waco 10, painted with the Baby Ruth candy bar insignia. He attached parachutes to small candy bars and dropped them over the side of his aircraft to the crowds. He became the hometown hero, and new Air Mayor of Wausau, when he won the tour. But in a pattern all too common for pilots at the time, he died the following year over the California desert when lightning hit his Lockheed Vega. Wausau (current population 40,000), which named a street near the airport after Wood, will be one of the stops on the 2003 tour.
Greg Herrick can’t get enough of these stories. To him, all of the Wacos, Stinsons, Ryans, Fairchilds, Birds, Cabinaires, Stearmans, Travel Airs, and Sikorskys that flew in the tours represented a creative flash in the commercial aviation industry that disappeared with the rise of long production lines at the advent of World War II.
“Everyone is into warbirds, which is just great, but, frankly, the world doesn’t really need another [restored] P-51,” he says.
“I figured if I was going to put in all this time and money I wanted something unique,” says Andrew King of Elwood, Virginia, who plans to fly his 1926 Ryan M-1. “It’s a monoplane from a time when almost all of the planes were biplanes. It was used on airmail routes a lot between Los Angeles and Seattle.”
Addison Pemberton of Spokane, Washington, also has an affinity for the airmail carriers. In 1993 he decided to re-fly the San Francisco-to-Chicago run in his Stearman 4E Speedmail with his buddy Ben Scott, another pilot who will fly in the September tour.
“We were sworn in as airmail pilots and carried 3,000 letters. I had my two boys with me—they were small at the time—we had airmail bags and everything.”