Time Machine: Col. Roscoe Turner, Legendary speed pilot christened air service in Cedar Rapids

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The first commercial passenger airline service in Cedar Rapids began July 17, 1936. Along with the celebration of the service came the famous Col. Roscoe Turner, America’s famous speed pilot.

Turner, a native of Mississippi, quit business school before he was 20 to drive a taxi. When the United States entered World War I, he joined the Army ambulance service. He transferred to the Army Air Corps and trained to fly an observation balloon. Next came training as a fighter pilot.

When the war ended, Turner became a barnstormer and a movie stunt pilot. He was one of the World War I pilots hired by Howard Hughes for his 1930 film, “Hell’s Angels.”

Turner built his flying career on an eccentric persona. He dressed in a uniform he designed himself: a blue jacket, tan breeches, black riding boots and a military officer’s cap. He always had a waxed mustache.

When the Gilmore Oil Co., owner of the Red Lion gasoline brand, became one of Turner’s sponsors in 1930, Turner immediately adopted a lion cub he named Gilmore.

The cub flew with him in the Lockheed Air Express owned by Gilmore Oil, wearing a small parachute and harness. After two-and-a-half years, Gilmore became too big and too hard to control in the plane’s cockpit and was grounded. He continued to make appearances with Turner until he retired to the farm where he was born.

Turner won the Thompson Trophy 300-mile air race three times — in 1934, 1938 and 1939. His speed in 1939, when he was 43, was 282.53 mph. He twice won the Harmon Trophy, given yearly to the nation’s premier aviator, and he won the Henderson Trophy for the top speed pilot in the nation three times, all before 1940. In 1933, he won the Bendix Transcontinental Race.

turner arrival in C.R.

Turner’s tri-motored Boeing 80-A, the largest passenger plane in service at the time, with three 575-horsepower Hornet engines, arrived at the Cedar Rapids airport on Friday morning, July 16, 1936. It could carry 21 passengers and a crew of three.

At the time, United already had been carrying commercial passengers for 10 years. It had taken over operation of postal air routes and flew planes that carried mail and two passengers at a cruising speed of 100 mph. It took 30 hours to cross the nation.

By 1936, the planes were seven-ton metal transports that cruised at 189 mph and could reach a top speed of 202 mph. Coast-to-coast flights took about 16 hours.

United added Cedar Rapids on its first passenger express service from Omaha to New York City. The Cedar Rapids service was on a trial basis to see if there was enough demand to keep it on the air map permanently.

5,000 see first flight

Turner, hailed as “America’s most famous speed pilot,” was chosen to christen the addition of commercial air service in Cedar Rapids. His visit was also part of an educational tour to interest young people in aviation. He issued a special invitation for children to visit the airport and inspect his plane.

More than 5,000 people flocked to the airport to watch as two United Air Lines passenger-express planes flew into the airport for the first time, one bound for Omaha, the other headed for New York.

The Cedar Rapids Boys Drum & Bugle Corps played as onlookers waited.

The eastbound plane arrived first, carrying 10 passengers, two pilots and a stewardess. Pilot Jack Knight, who had flown more than 2 million miles, more than any other living pilot, landed the plane at 6:45 p.m. and left at 7. The plane Knight was piloting was the same one Turner had flown in the 1934 international air race from London to Melbourne, Australia. Although he didn’t win the race, it was the only plane from the United States to finish the 90-hour, 12,000-mile flight.

The westbound plane landed in Cedar Rapids a few minutes later. Before it departed, Harold Rowe of the Chamber of Commerce Airport Committee emceed a brief program that included Turner’s congratulations to the city for establishing the United Air Lines Service. He declared the runways among the best in the country.

Following the speeches, Mayor Frank Hahn was escorted to the plane and flew to Omaha. He returned to Cedar Rapids on an eastbound plane Saturday night.

In the next few days, Turner took a number of local businessmen and officials for rides in his Boeing aircraft. Passengers also included a group of boys from Keystone who had formed the Roscoe Turner Club and the Cedar Rapids Airhawks, a model aircraft club sponsored by the city’s playground commission.

back in 1956

Turner returned to the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport in 1956. He was 60, gray-haired and no longer wearing his flamboyant uniform. As the owner of Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corp. in Indianapolis, he had flown to Cedar Rapids to have Collins Radio equipment installed in one of his planes.

While he was here, he renewed his friendship with veteran Cedar Rapids aviator and flying service owner Jim Wathan.

Turner died in 1970 in Indianapolis.

“The Great Air Race,” a four-hour mini-series about the 1934 London-to-Melbourne air race, was filmed in 1990, with actor Barry Bostwick playing the part of Col. Roscoe Turner.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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