In 1927, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios staged a stunt flight carrying Leo, the MGM Lion, from San Diego to New York. (Moviegoers are still greeted by Leo’s roar at the beginning of MGM films.)
MGM contracted with the B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corporation (formerly Ryan Airlines) to modify a Ryan B-1 Brougham, similar to the Spirit of St. Louis but with a shorter wing, extra fuel tanks, a cage for Leo, and tanks for milk and water. The pilot was Martin Jensen, who had recently won $10,000 in the Dole Derby, a race staged by the pineapple company for a flight from Oakland, California, to Honolulu. Jensen came in both second and last; only two aircraft made it to Honolulu.
With much fanfare and press coverage, Jensen took off from Camp Kearney, just outside San Diego, shortly after 10 a.m. on September 16. Less than five hours later, he was trapped in a box canyon in what is now known as the Hellsgate Wilderness, near Payson, Arizona. Realizing he could not clear the 6,300-foot-high rim ahead, Jensen landed the airplane in a clump of scrub oaks. The wings and landing gear were torn off before the fuselage tumbled to a stop on its side.
After giving the lion milk, water, and some of his sandwiches, Jensen set off for help. On day four, nearly done in by hunger and exhaustion, he encountered some cowboys, who took him to a telephone. Jensen joked later that, as had happened in the Dole Race, he again came in second: When he called MGM, their first question was “How’s the lion?” Leo was returned in good health by land routes to San Diego.
Scott Gifford, a pilot and owner of a restoration and maintenance company, NostalgAire, at Ernest A. Love Field in Prescott, Arizona, first heard about the MGM Special in 1982. From a book about aviation in Arizona, he learned about the flight and focused on one sentence: “The wreckage of the plane still lies in Hells Canyon near Payson.” Gifford contacted family members of the rescue team and Payson residents, but the project to find the remnants of the Ryan stalled until 1990. That year Gifford was flying a Beechcraft Baron over the Tonto National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service. Looking for Hells Canyon on the charts, he came across a spot called Leo Canyon, named in honor of the lion.
Gifford backpacked into the remote wilderness area several times to search for the remains of the wreckage before he finally found it. “I thought I calmly called everybody down, but I was later teased unmercifully for yelling my fool head off,” he recalls. In 1991, he obtained legal ownership of the wreckage and arranged to have it hoisted out by helicopter. He has since acquired another Ryan Brougham and hopes to eventually restore both to airworthiness.
Because so many years had passed before the wreckage was recovered, parts of the MGM Special are either missing or in poor condition. “Right now, it looks like parts of the landing gear and the shock struts can be restored to airworthy condition,” Gifford says. “Some of the wing attach fittings will be useable.” He uses parts from other Broughams if they are airworthy or can be made so. Otherwise, some components can be used as patterns for reproductions.
A few modifications will be necessary: brakes and a tailwheel, for starters. “You landed going into the wind, and you took off going into the wind,” he says. “The airplanes did not have brakes or a tailwheel, just a tailskid. That’s what helped keep the airplane going straight and also acted as a bit of a brake. On today’s asphalt strips, an airplane with a tailskid and no brakes is going to be uncontrollable.”
Gifford got his hands on an overhauled Wright J-5 Whirlwind, the same 220-horsepower engine used in the original aircraft, and a vintage propeller in stellar condition. At the moment he is working on reconstructing the fuselage, rudder, and vertical stabilizer.
He’s also searching for components of a Pioneer Earth inductor compass. “It was the unit to have,” he says. “It was absolute state of the art.” Gifford already has a control head and hopes to find an indicator instrument and a wind-driven generator, which will be mounted on the side of the fuselage.
Gifford has no time table for completion. “It will fly on the first—the first chance I get,” he says. Whenever that is, a reconstructed cage will house a huge stuffed lion made of plush golden fabric, and Gifford hopes to fly the MGM Special to airshows for at least a year.
Gifford recently met with octogenarian Columbus B. “Junior” Haught in Payson. Junior’s father, Columbus “Boy” Haught, was a member of the 1927 cowboy rescue team. Junior, who was just shy of four years old when Leo was brought by their ranch, says he still recalls one incident “like yesterday.” Two of his mother’s chickens were offered to Leo. “It didn’t take him but just a swallow to get rid of one of them chickens,” Haught recalls, adding that his mom was furious when she found out.