Post Leads Names on Short Snorter|
June 26, 2013
Serendipity struck short snorter buff Tom Sparks in April. He was approached by Marilyn Wheeler, daughter of late Florida coin dealer Clifford H. Benjamin, Sr. She had inherited a snorter from her dad in the shape of a Series 1928A Silver Certificate. It was not one from World War II. Rather, it was signed by some heavy hitting U.S. aviation pioneers, both men and women—and an Australian.
Marilyn stumbled over her snorter recently. She recalls her mother giving her the note in its plastic case when the two were sorting dad’s possessions after his death in 2004. She popped it in a drawer where it remained until its rediscovery. This prompted her to call in the cavalry in the shape of Tom Sparks.
The signatories are: Wiley Post, Harold Gatty, Tex Rankin, [aborted Harold Gatty signature], Dorothy Hester, Swanee Taylor, Ruth R. Nichols, Fay Gillis, Mrs Freddie Lund, Frances Harrell, Ken Hunter, Al Williams, Gil Ervin, ?H.C. Martins?, and Bill Turner.
All signatures have been verified by Randy Thern of Signatures in Time. At least 11 were top pilots and one a superb navigator. The backgrounds of two could not be verified.
The signature of Frances Harrell places an upper date on the snorter’s age. Frances was killed during the Cleveland Air Races on Aug. 5, 1934.
This age limit gives the Benjamin-Wheeler snorter an important place in snorter history. It links the use of snorters in World War II with their origins among Alaskan Bush Pilots of the 1920s.
It is also a rarity. Few snorters have surfaced from outside Alaska prior to World War II. Yet, presumably, the tradition spread to other sectors of North America’s fledgling aviation industry. Of their nature pioneering pilots were highly mobile. Some bush pilots tried their hands at barnstorming. Some barnstormers went bush.
As in a number of countries, those magnificent men and women in their flying machines were a feature of American air space in the 1920s and 1930s. From their pre-World War I beginnings, America’s first pilots conducted exhibitions around the country in their newfangled airplanes. These displays were the first major commercial application of aviation.
The shows were known as barnstorming. A team of pilots would land near a small town and negotiate the use of a farmer’s field as a runway. They would then buzz the community offering rides and daring action. For rural folk it was heaven-sent entertainment. They could not get enough of it and the pilots got to do what they liked best.
The activity flourished in the absence of federal aviation regulations. And at first there was little if any glass ceiling—apart from cost. Women could barnstorm right alongside men, as shown by five having signed the snorter. All five were outstanding pilots, some outdoing their male counterparts. Dot Hester’s record of 56 simultaneous inverted snap rolls established in 1931 still stands for both men and women.
Naturally, the reputation of some circuses commanded crowds. Tex Rankin’s Flying Circus was one such. Dot Hester was one of his stars. On May 17, 1931, she cut 62 continuous outside loops for a new world record before a crowd of 20,000 at Omaha.
Some barnstormers were essentially stunt pilots. Others were aerialists undertaking stunt parachuting, mid-air plane transfers and wing walking. These aerialists were often trainee pilots whose extra-cockpit activities paid for their lessons.
By the mid-1930s safety regulations caught up with the barnstormers. Many moved into pilot training or charter flying, while flying circuses progressed into large-scale, air shows. As one era in U.S. aviation history closed, another was evolving: air races. Several of the signatories were not barnstormers. Pilots such as Frances Harrell and Ken Hunter got their kicks from racing and setting endurance records.
Wiley Hardeman Post
It is appropriate that the signature of Wiley Post heads this snorter. He was the first to fly solo around the world.
Wiley saw his first aircraft in 1913 at age 15. It was love at first sight and he promptly signed up for lessons. Post World War I he worked as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields, got arrested for carjacking, worked as a parachutist for a flying circus, and lost an eye in an oil field in 1926. His settlement money purchased his first aircraft.
He took up charter work. A client was Will Rogers. He became personal pilot to oilmen Powell Briscoe and F.C. Hall. This gave Wiley access to Hall’s single-engine Lockheed Vega, Winnie Mae. In it he won the National Air Derby between Los Angeles and Chicago.
Then on June 23, 1931, Wiley and navigator Harold Gatty took off in Winnie Mae from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, to beat the round-the-world record of the Graf Zeppelin. Their course went via Europe, the Soviet Union, Alaska, Edmonton, Cleveland, and back to Roosevelt Field. They covered the 15,474 miles in a record eight days, 15 hours, 51 minutes, despite having their propeller replaced in Alaska. Their reception rivaled Lindbergh’s.
In 1933 Wiley repeated the flight solo in seven days, 18 hours, 49 minutes using a newfangled autopilot and radio direction finder. Fifty thousand greeted his return.
He now explored high-altitude, long-distance flight, developing the world’s first pressure suit. In it he reached 40,000 ft. above Chicago in 1934 eventually making it to 50,000 feet. By-the-by, he discovered jet streams.
In 1935 he began surveying an air route to Russia using a float plane cobbled together from two others. Fay Gillis was to be his copilot. When she cancelled Wiley offered the seat to Will Rogers.
On Aug. 15 they took off from a lagoon a few miles from Point Barrow. The engine failed. The aircraft plunged. Both men died instantly.
Harold Charles Gatty
Charles Lindbergh called Tasmanian Harold Gatty “The Prince of Navigators.” He had learned his navigation at the Royal Australian Naval College and post-World War I in the merchant navy. He immigrated to the United States in 1927 to open a school of transoceanic aerial navigation.
His achievements are legend. It was his coast-to-coast route and navigation charts that ex-student Anne Lindbergh used on husband Charles’ 1930 record-setting cross-country flight. He invented the air sextant and the Gatty drift sight that determines the rate and direction of drift from a plane’s heading.
It was Gatty’s reputation that saw Post chose him as navigator for the Winnie Mae’s aerial circumnavigation of the world. Upon their return U.S. Congress passed legislation for both men to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross as civilians. And at the president’s urging Congress legislated to allow Australian Gatty take become Senior Aerial Navigation Engineer in the USAAC.
During the World War II Gatty served in the RAAF as an honorary group captain becoming Director of Air Transport in the Pacific before falling out with Gen.MacArthur.
Post war Gatty moved to Fiji to set up the forerunner of Air Pacific. He died in 1957 and is buried in Fiji.
John Gilbert Rankin
Tex Rankin began flying in 1913. He served in World War I. Post war he took up barnstorming before opening a flying school in 1920 that became the largest air training program in the country.
He participated in the great cross-country air derbies of the late 1920s and excelled in aerobatics competitions in the 1930s. In 1931 he set an NAA all-comers’ record of 131 consecutive outside loops. He won the Aerobatics Trophy at the National Air Races of 1935 and the International Aerobatics Championship of 1938. He was World Aerobatic Champion from 1937 until his death.
Tex was a major advocate of flight safety. Jimmy Doolittle described him as, “a superb pilot, a fine gentleman, and a loyal American.” He was killed during a routine flight in 1947.
Dorothy Hester Stenzel
Dot Hester learned to fly at the Rankin School in 1927 aged 17, paying her way by parachuting at air shows. She was a standout student and Tex Rankin taught her aerobatics. From 1931-1934 she flew with his Flying Circus as Princess Kick-a-Hole-in-the-Sky.
She was the first woman pilot to perform an outside loop. It became her specialty. Her 1931 women’s record of 62 continuous outside loops stood until July 13, 1989. For two hours and six minutes she hung upside down in her open cockpit working the stick with one hand and the wobble pump with the other to keep the fuel flowing. The Omaha World-Herald reported that when she landed, “there was an audible sigh of relief from the crowd.”
Two days earlier Dot had established an all-comers world record of 56 inverted snap rolls. It still stands. This maneuver is executed upside down. The snap is a sudden 360-degree roll, known to rip wings off.
Dot gave it all away in 1934 to get married and raise a family, but on Nov. 10, 1948, age 38, she became the first woman to take the U.S. Navy’s “G-test.” She accomplished 6.3G without a pressure suit and 8.6G suited. She died in 1991 age 80.
Edward Lee Taylor
Swanee Taylor and brother Sloane served as Army balloonists during World War I. Subsequently he transferred to planes and flew with the military until 1921.
During the twenties he worked as one of the best known wing walkers in Gates Flying Circus. But his real claim to fame was conceiving and organizing the first Powder Puff Air Derby for women pilots.
He devoted much of his life to promoting safe flying, producing scripts, radio programs and training films for new fliers for the Civil Aviation Administration.
When he learned he was dying of cancer he volunteered to become a guinea pig at the National Institute of Health. He died aged 57 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Ruth Rowland Nichols
Ruth Nichols is the only woman to have simultaneously held the women’s world speed (210.704 mph), altitude (28,743 feet) and distance record (Oakland to Louisville: 1,977.6 miles in 19 hours 16 minutes), all achieved in 1931-32.
Ruth was a wealthy socialite. Her first flight was a graduation present. It was a revelation. By 1923 she had soloed in a seaplane to become the first woman licensed for flying boats. In 1929 she was the first of three women to earn an Air Transport Pilot rating.
Crashes in 1931 and 1932 saw her severely injured. For the remainder of her life she would fly with a steel back brace. This did not stop her eventually being rated for: dirigibles, gliders, autogiros, land planes, seaplanes, amphibians, monoplanes, biplanes, tri-planes, twin- and four-engine transports, and supersonic jets. In 1958 she flew a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger at 1,000 mph at 51,000 feet; a record for women.
In 1940 she founded Relief Wings, a humanitarian air service for disaster relief that worked alongside Civil Air Patrol in World War II. Post war she was an advisor to CAP for air ambulance missions and was the first woman director of the Fairchild Aviation Corp.
Adm. Richard E. Byrd ranked Ruth Nichols alongside Amelia Earhart as the two most outstanding women pioneers in aviation. She died in 1960 at the age of 59.
Fay Gillis Wells
On Sept. 1, 1929, Fay Gillis became the first woman member of the Caterpillar Club when she bailed out of her disintegrating aerobatic plane over Long Island.
Fay was born in Minneapolis in 1908. She graduated from high school but bypassed university to fly, beginning in August 1929. That year she became the first air saleswoman and helped found the Ninety Nines, the association of women aviators. She was its first secretary alongside first president Amelia Earhart.
In 1930-34 she served in the Soviet Union as aviation correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and special reporter for the New York Times and Associated Press. This saw her report on the coronation of Emperor Pu Yi in Manchukuo in 1934.
She was the first American woman to fly a Soviet civil aircraft and the first foreigner to own a Soviet glider. In Russia she also handled the logistics of this leg of Wiley Post’s 1933 solo round-the-world flight.
Fay was slated to be with Wiley on his Alaskan adventure. However she eloped with Linton Wells and Will Rogers took her place.
Post war she became a mother and then the first woman broadcaster accredited to the White House in 1964 continuing in this role until 1977. In 1972 she was one of three women reporters who accompanied President Nixon to China. She died age 96 in 2002.
Mrs. Freddie Lund
In 1929 Elizabeth Elkins met stunt pilot Freddie Lund. As soon as Betty graduated from high school they married. She followed her barnstormer around the country learning to fly along the way. She was a natural.
With just 20 minutes of solo flying under her belt she established a new woman’s world record of 67 barrel rolls in 28 minutes over Miami.
But then came the air race at Halley Field on Oct. 3, 1931. Another pilot pulled up into Freddie cutting the tail from his plane. He bailed out but was killed.
For Bettie the show had to go on. Less than two weeks later and still wearing mourning attire, she took Freddie’s place in an air show. Soon after she bought herself a plane painted in Freddie’s colors. By the late-1930s she was one of the country’s top stunt pilots.
During World War II she served in the WAF, transporting planes from West coast plants to the East.
Frances Harrell Marsalis
Frances Harrell was a founder member of the Ninety Nines. In August 1932 she teamed with Louise Thaden to set a new endurance record for women of 196 hours over Long Island. They exceeded the previous record by 72 hours.
During the eight days the two made 78 air-to-air refueling contacts. Food, water and fresh clothing were delivered from another aircraft. They conducted a series of national live radio broadcasts and landed only when, “the boredom became too strong.”
Two years later, on Jan. 8, 1934, Frances teamed with Helen Richey to extend the women’s endurance record to 237 hours, 42 minutes.
On Aug. 5, 1934, she was killed during the Cleveland Air Races. Rounding the second pylon she dipped to gain momentum but her wing tip struck the ground. She was cut from the wreckage alive but died en route to a hospital. She was just 29.
Ken Hunter was one of four brothers who discovered airplanes in 1924. They started the Hunter Brothers Flying Circus. Barnstorming became a way of life.
In the late 1920s they began breaking flight endurance records. Their greatest achievement came between June 11 and July 4, 1930, when Ken and John Hunter flew Stinson Detroiter NR5189, The City of Chicago, continuously for 553 hours 41 minutes and 30 seconds. They covered 40,000 miles while circling Sky Harbor Airport, Chicago.
Albert and Walter Hunter flew the refueling plane. It had the passenger seats removed and replaced by a 100-gallon refueling gas tank plus a massive loudspeaker.
The Hunters achieved their 23 days aloft despite a mid-air oil leak that saw Ken crawl along a catwalk built around the nose of the plane to effect repairs mid-air, and an impending court injunction the judge declined to enforce until they had landed.
Al Williams’ 1958 obituary states that he, “had few, if any, peers as an aviation pioneer, prophet, and patriot.” Despite holding a law degree and being offered a career in baseball, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1917 simply to fly. He soloed after just four hours tuition.
By 1925 he was Chief Test Pilot for the Navy. He flew new planes to near destruction. His subsequent technical analysis resulted in significant airplane design improvements. In 1929 he was awarded one of the first Distinguished Flying Crosses for his contributions as a test pilot. Along the way he teamed with Gen. Billy Mitchell to prove aircraft could sink battleships.
He was acclaimed as one of the world’s foremost aerobatic pilots and in 1923 won the Pulitzer Trophy with a world speed record of 224 mph.
He resigned his commission in 1930. His blunt views on the importance of military air power upset his superiors.
He became a freelance pilot flying aerobatic routines in his one-of-a-kind Curtiss Hawk 1A Gulfhawk. It was a superb aerobatic plane—now in the Smithsonian.
Wherever he performed crowds poured in. At the conclusion he would dive bomb and detonate black powder charges, all the time promoting military aviation to the public.
In early 1931 his engine failed over Charlotte, N.C.. He recovered sufficiently to pancake. He walked away but his plane required a complete rebuild.
In 1933 he became the first manager of Gulf Oil’s aviation department where he remained until he retired in 1951. He died in 1958 and is buried in at Arlington National Cemetery.
Little is known of Gil Ervin. The Scarsdale Inquirer of Aug. 7, 1931, lists Maj. Gil Ervin among a group of, “Aviators who have been making aviation history” that visited West Point. This group included Major Jimmy Doolittle.
And Gil’s name also pops up in Doolittle’s book, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, as having flown for Curtiss Flying Services and, possibly, for U.S. Air Mail.
Further information is sought by Tom Sparks as it is about the last two signatories.
A possible link
A distant link to the snorter may be Joe Crosson. Joe and sister Marvel were barnstormers. Joe went to Fairbanks in 1926 to fly for the Fairbanks Airplane Co.. Joe met Wiley Post during both round the world flights and also flew the bodies of Wiley and Will Rogers to Seattle in 1935. Perhaps, Wiley learned about short snorters from Joe in 1931 or 1933.
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