Slim and Bud

Meet Charles Lindbergh the barnstormer—as he interviews his oldest flying buddy.

Charles Lindbergh (left) and Harlan Gurney (with a Lincoln-Standard J-1, ca. 1922) would remain lifelong friends. (Linbergh Archives at Yale University Courtesy of The Gurney Family)
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Gurney's account of being knocked unconscious for several minutes by lightning is prefaced with a disclaimer:

"I don't know if I'm going to have much agreement with Charles Lindbergh on this, but this is the way I remember it.

"I was holding on to the stabilizer wires underneath the tail of the airplane.... The thing I remember next—which seems strange to me that [Lindbergh] doesn't—[is] that I was lying in about three inches of water...and Charles Lindbergh...said to me, ‘Did you feel that little shock?' "

Neither backed off his version, but eventually Lindbergh conceded that Gurney "may have gotten a worse shock," to which Gurney gracefully concluded, "I don't know.... At any rate, it wasn't a very successful barnstorming trip."

There were several forced landings in Lindbergh's Jenny, and it is amazing that the only serious injury was to Gurney while he was performing a parachute jump after the International Air Races in St. Louis in October 1923.

Lindbergh and Gurney traveled separately to the races, where they stood among 140,000 spectators and watched biplanes roar around pylons at 200 mph. Both found the spectacle exhilarating, but, said Gurney, "it couldn't all be fun. There was work to be done." Gurney was promised $50 for a parachute drop over the grandstand, money that would allow him to return to school. Lindbergh agreed to carry Gurney aloft in his Jenny. When Gurney jumped from the Jenny, he dropped into the slip stream of another aircraft, and his parachute collapsed. While spectators watched, Gurney fell to the ground.

"I hit it...more or less horizontally, and...broke [a] bone in one arm and did some damage to the socket. [I] put the parachute over my shoulder...and I walked across the field, and I almost made the hospital tent one quarter mile away. Almost. When I woke up I was in an ambulance, and Charles Lindbergh was beside me."

For three weeks, Gurney had one daily visitor—his friend Slim. When Gurney felt strong enough to leave the hospital, he had no way to settle his bill. "They weren't going to let me out," said Gurney. "After all, I wasn't a charity case. I'd won quite a bit of money at the St. Louis Air Races although I hadn't collected it. And they had no way of collecting the money, so I had to collect it. And guess who I collected it from? Charles Lindbergh!

"[P]rior to entering Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, I'd met a boy named Francis Stimson.... I introduced him to Charles Lindbergh. While I was in the hospital, Charles Lindbergh sold his Jenny to Francis Stimson and was teaching him to fly."

Because Gurney's accident and the sale of Lindbergh's Jenny happened so close together, some historians have speculated that Lindbergh sold his Jenny to pay Gurney's hospital bill. However, aviation historian Chet Peek, who has reviewed the unedited manuscript of The Spirit of St. Louis, says that Lindbergh was paid for his Jenny on November 14, 1923, long after Gurney had left the hospital. It's possible that the money Gurney collected from Lindbergh was Gurney's own prize money, which Lindbergh retrieved for him.

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