Aviation history is filled with fascinating tales of daredevil pilots and record-breaking aircraft that shaped the future of the industry. Among these daring pilots was Roscoe Turner. Often considered one of aviation’s most colorful pilots, Turner was a barnstormer, showman, Hollywood stunt pilot, record holder, National Air Race winner, and even a lion tamer.
Roscoe Turner was born to a farm family in rural Mississippi in 1895. Growing up, Turner discovered a fascination with speed and fast machines–and a strong dislike for farming. At the age of 16, he ran away from home and became an auto mechanic for Packard and Cadillac dealers.
After talking to military pilots, Turner became interested in learning to fly. Though he was rejected from the aviation section of the Signal Corps for his limited education, he enlisted in the Ambulance Corps after the U.S. entered World War I. Still determined to become a pilot, Turner received flight lessons from military pilots in fixed-wing aircraft.
After the war, Turner partnered with former army pilot Henry Runser to tour the U.S. in a Curtiss J-4 Jenny and perform barnstorming stunts for paying crowds. Turner quickly established himself as a crowd-pleasing showman, performing stunts in a colorful makeshift military uniform with a waxed mustache that soon became his trademark.
In the 1920s, Turner teamed up with other barnstormers and created another well-known act, the “Roscoe Turner Flying Circus.” However, after federal regulations limited the dangerous stunts barnstormers could perform, Turner looked to Hollywood for paying work.
After forming his own airline, Roscoe Turner Airways, Turner flew the airline’s Sikorsky S-29A around the country, often sporting sponsor’s names painted on the fuselage. At one point, the Sikorsky was even turned into a flying cigar store. Later, Turner became a movie stuntman and actor in Howard Hughes’ WWII air-combat epic film, Hell’s Angels.
In the 1930s, Turner focused his attention on air racing. His larger-than-life personality earned him the sponsorship of Gilmore Oil Company, who bought a Lockheed Air Express and christened it the Gilmore Lion after the company’s logo. Turner later convinced the owner of a lion farm to give him a cub in exchange for publicity. Turner named the lion cub Gilmore and took him everywhere–including the cockpit.
In 1930, Turner flew from New York to California in slightly less than 19 hours, setting the transcontinental speed record. He set the record two more times, in 1932, and again in 1935. He also won the Bendix Trophy in 1933, and the Thompson Trophy in 1934, 1938, and 1939. According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the only other person to win both the Bendix and the Thompson was Jimmy Doolittle.
When his race days ended in1940, Turner established the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation in Indianapolis and opened an aviation school. As America entered World War II, Turner formed a flight school to help educate and train flight instructors, pilots, and mechanics for the national war effort.
After the war, Turner continued to advance aviation with his flight school and aircraft service facility in Indianapolis. Beloved for his larger than life persona and passion for aviation, Turner continued to make public appearances until his death on June 23rd, 1970.
Featured image: Public Domain. By CBS Radio (Columbia Broadcasting System)/photo by Maurice Seymour, Chicago [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.