Roscoe Turner with fellow racer Bennie Howard at the National Air Races in Cleveland, 1935.
Roscoe Turner with his Wedell-Williams "Gilmore - Red Lion" racer at the 1932 Cleveland National Air Races.
Roscoe Turner seated in the cockpit of his Laird Pesco Special "Meteor" racer, named Matty.
Roscoe Turner, one of aviation's most colorful individuals, was also one of the best pilots, if not the best, of the 1930s. Turner stood well over six feet (1.8 meters) tall, sported a neatly waxed mustache, and constantly wore a distinctive military-style uniform. His public demeanor was generally jovial, and for those who did not know him, it would have been easy to dismiss him as a boisterous clown. But Turner was anything but a buffoon. He was a serious racing pilot and made several significant contributions to aviation during his career. He was a barnstormer, a Hollywood stunt pilot, a multiple transcontinental speed record holder, and a multiple National Air Race winner. He also flew with a lion in his cockpit! Americans loved Turner because he was just the right combination of showman, daredevil, and talented pilot.
Turner was born on September 29, 1895, to a poor farm family just outside of Corinth, Mississippi. Early on, Roscoe discovered he hated farming. He was interested mainly in fast machines. Shortly after completing 10th grade, Roscoe left school and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he got a job as an auto mechanic. Although Turner had seen an airplane briefly in 1913, aircraft did not excite him as much as cars and motorcycles.
Turner's interests changed in 1916, however, when he met some military aviators. Listening to their stories, Turner decided that he wanted to learn to fly. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he tried to enlist in the Army's Aviation Section but was rejected because of his limited education. After serving a short stint as an ambulance driver, Turner, nonetheless, transferred into the Army Signal Corps' Aviation Section as a balloon pilot/observer trainee. Eventually, he learned to fly airplanes thanks to some military aviators who gave him lessons on the side.
Like many World War I aviators, Turner became a barnstormer after the war. He and Harry Runser, a former Army pilot, toured the United States in a Curtiss "Jenny" biplane. While Runser handled most of the piloting duties, Turner kept the plane together mechanically and did most of the wing-walking and parachute jumping. Despite having a successful act, the two men eventually split up, but not before Turner had established himself as crowd pleaser.
Part of Turner's appeal was his outfit. Both he and Runser had donned their military uniforms while performing, and crowds really liked their "look." When Turner's uniform wore out, he created his own colorful outfit--a sky blue jacket, tan whipcord breeches, black riding boots, topped off with a military officer's cap. The outfit became his trademark.
Turner teamed up with other barnstormers during the 1920s and created another well-known act, the "Roscoe Turner Flying Circus." Although crowds flocked to their show, barnstorming had started to decline by the mid 1920s, thanks to increased federal regulations, and by the late 1920s, Turner was looking for another way to make a living. In 1928, he moved to Hollywood and began working as a movie stunt pilot. There he worked on fellow aviator Howard Hughes's film Hell's Angels.
In October 1929, Turner participated in several prestigious air races including the Bendix Trophy contest and the Thompson Trophy Race. The Bendix was a nonstop contest from Los Angles to Cleveland. Turner made a good showing, finishing third. Then, a few days later, he flew in the Thompson Trophy contest in Cleveland, which was a 100-mile (161-kilometer), closed circuit, "free-for-all" around a series of pylons. Although Turner placed third, his finish, when coupled with his Bendix result, let people know that he was going to be a serious contender in future contests.
In 1930, Turner took on a new and unique partner--a lion. During the previous fall, Turner had convinced the executives of Gilmore Oil Company to sponsor him. Gilmore had a lion as a corporate logo, and Turner, realizing the potential publicity for both him and his sponsor, acquired a lion cub and began flying with him. "Gilmore," as the lion was aptly named, became a well-known national figure and, like Turner's uniform, one of the aviator's trademarks.
Gilmore was onboard when Turner set two transcontinental speed records in May 1930, one traveling eastward and the other westward. Turner flew from Los Angeles to New York in 15 hours, 37 minutes. The journey back to California took 18 hours, 42 minutes. To celebrate his achievements, Turner decided to set yet another record, this time across three countries. In July, he flew with Gilmore nonstop from Vancouver, Canada, to Auga Caliente, Mexico, in a record 9 hours, 14 minutes.
Although Gilmore served Turner as a loyal mascot for several months, eventually he grew too big for the cockpit. When the young lion reached 150 pounds (68 kilograms), Turner banished him from his plane. Even though Gilmore flew with Turner only for a very short time, many people clearly recognized Turner as the pilot with the lion.
In 1932, Turner acquired a new aircraft, a Wedell-Williams Racer, which was designed and built by one of the era's leading pilots. The racer gave Turner the edge he needed to start capturing some of aviation's most prestigious prizes, or at least, to be poised to capture them. That year, Turner finished third in the Bendix and Thompson races and in the Shell Speed Dash, one of the National Air Races in Cleveland. He also set a new transcontinental record from New York to Los Angeles and received the Harmon Trophy for being the best American aviator of 1932.
The following year, Turner achieved several of his main goals as a racer. The first major trophy he captured was the Bendix. Then he won the Shell Speed Dash. He also bettered his transcontinental records, in both directions, even further. With several major victories and records in hand, Turner received the Cliff Henderson Trophy, an award given to America's best speed pilot.
In 1934, Turner finally won the Thompson Trophy. He also set another transcontinental record from California to New York. Then, in October, he joined forces with Clyde Pangborn and Reeder Nichols and competed in the prestigious MacRobertson Race, a London to Melbourne contest. Flying a Boeing 247D--a specially modified passenger/transport plane--the three men placed third overall. Their effort helped land Turner on the cover of Time magazine.
By the mid 1930s, Turner had become one of America's greatest racers, and he wanted to keep on winning. In 1936, he designed his own racing plane, the Laird-Turner Meteor, with an eye toward continued victories. The Meteor, a mid-wing monoplane, incorporated all of the latest aerodynamic advances and was just the type of aircraft that Turner needed to gain an edge in the National Air Races.
Turner achieved some of his greatest accomplishments as a racer while flying the Meteor. In 1938, he won the Thompson Trophy Race for a second time, and in the process, became the first person to capture it more than once. He also received the Cliff Henderson Trophy once again, and the Harmon Trophy for being America's premier aviator. Then, in 1939, he did what many considered unthinkable by winning the Thompson a third time, a feat no one else has yet matched. As a result, Turner received the Henderson Trophy for a second year in a row for having been the best speed pilot once again. After achieving the unthinkable, Turner retired from racing.
In retirement, Turner established his own flight school in Indianapolis and helped train more than 3,300 pilots during World War II. While Turner continued to work in aviation from the 1940s until his death, few people paid as much attention to him as they once had. One exception occurred in 1952 when the U.S. Air Force awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross for his multiple contributions to aviation. Turner continued to make public appearances until his death on June 23, 1970.
During his impressive career, Turner won many races and established seven transcontinental speed records. In sum, few pilots have matched Turner's skills as an aviator, and none could match his accomplishments.
--David H. Onkst
Sources and further reading:
Dwiggins, Don. They Flew the Bendix Race: The History of the Competition for the Bendix Trophy. Philadelphia, Pa.: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1965.
Glines, Carroll V. Roscoe Turner: Aviation's Master Showman. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
Huntington, Roger. Thompson Trophy Races. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1989.
O'Neil, Paul. Barnstormers and Speed Kings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1981.
Turner, Roscoe and Jean H. Dubuque. Win Your Wings: Book Two: A Practical and Comprehensive Advanced Aviation Training Manual for the Student, Pilot, and Instructor. Chicago. Frederick J. Drake & Co., 1942.
"Florence Leontine Lowe (Pancho) Barnes." Flygirls. http://www.publicshelter.com/flygirls/prologue/pancho.html
"The Laird-Turner Meteor." Fiddler's Green. http://fiddlersgreen.net/aircraft/racers/laird/meteor/info.htm
"The Roscoe Turner Personal History Database." Corinth Information Database/Milton Sandy, Jr.. http://www2.tsixroads.com/Corinth_MLSANDY/roscoe.html
"Roscoe Turner, 1975." National Aviation Hall of Fame. http://www.nationalaviation.org/enshrine/turner.html