Welcome to, or welcome back to, the 3DB and Happy Friday. Today I want to reintroduce you to a man that Jimmy Doolittle described as a friend, a rival, and ostentatious; however, he also said he had great respect for his flying ability. The man he was referring to was Roscoe Turner.
Roscoe Turner was born in a small rural cabin near Corinth, Mississippi, on September 29th, 1895, and as a boy he developed a great affinity for speed but his father scolded him saying that he was a farmers son, and handed him the reins to a mule pulling a plow. When a caravan of early automobiles chugged past the farm lane Roscoe set his heart on becoming a chauffeur, and a race driver, but when he shared his dreams with his father he received another serious lecture on life when his father said: “You’ll never be worth anything if you keep fooling around with things that burn gasoline instead of oats.”
As you might imagine, this boy had no intention of being told what he could, or could not, do and the rest of the story is aviation history at it’s best.
At the age of sixteen, Roscoe ran away from home and made his way to Memphis, Tennessee, where he eventually became an ice truck driver, then a taxi driver and finally an expert auto mechanic for local Packard and Cadillac dealers.
In 1919, Turner and a partner formed the Roscoe Turner Flying Circus and for five years put on death-defying performances. Roscoe subsequently purchased a Sikorsky cabin plane and for a while he decked it out as a flying cigar store, but later he used it to hold teas for society women and make radio broadcasts aloft.
Hollywood beckoned and Turner became a movie stuntman and actor in the Howard Hughes film, Hell’s Angels. Soon after this Turner became fascinated with speed flying, and entered the free-for-all event of the 1928 National Air Races. But his little biplane was no match for the speedy Lockheed aircraft and he finished the race last.
At this point, Turner helped organize Nevada Airlines in 1929, operating between Los Angeles, Reno, and Las Vegas. After movie star Bebe Daniels christened the four Lockheed “Vegas”, he converted one into a racy showpiece and proved the practicality of transcontinental passenger service by flying the “Vega” from Los Angeles to New York with four passengers aboard. After the Governor of Nevada bestowed him with the title of “Colonel”, Roscoe acquired a resplendent uniform and sported a neatly trimmed and waxed mustache. His appearance soon became his trademark.
Although impressed with the Vega, Turner had his eye on a later Lockheed model, an Air Express, for the 1929 Cleveland Air Races. He convinced Earl Bell Gilmore, president of California-based Gilmore Oil Company, to buy the plane he wanted from the General Tire & Rubber Company. The tire company had planned on entering it in the National Air Races that year, but was having trouble finding a competent pilot to fly the aircraft. Other companies were already sponsoring several of the most popular racers. Jimmy Mattern flew for Pure Oil, Frank Hawks for Texaco, and Jimmy Doolittle for Shell Oil.
The aircraft was painted cream with red and gold trim, and sported the company’s trademark lion’s head, to reflect Gilmore Oil’s popular Red Lion petroleum products. The aircraft would be available for Turner’s record-setting attempts, and serve as a “flying test bed” for the company’s lubricating oils, fuels and safety devices. Christened the “Gilmore Lion” by starlet Carlotta Miles at Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport before 5,000 people, the aircraft soon became a familiar sight at airports and public events throughout the west.
“Aviation’s Master Showman” soon decided that if he was to adopt a lion as a pet, which matched the logo on his aircraft, and name him Gilmore then perhaps his fame, and fortune, would continue to build and so the legend began a new chapter in his life.
Turner made his first flight with Gilmore, his pet lion, in April 1930. He would fly more than 25,000 miles with his unique companion. Louis Goebel presented the 3-week-old cub to Turner in a public ceremony after the aviator persuaded the owner of the Goebel Lion Farm to donate the cub, born in February 1930, to him.
Gilmore was initially nervous about flying but soon grew to love it. He accompanied his flashy owner on many of his cross-country record-breaking flights. To satisfy the Humane Society, Turner outfitted the lion with a parachute created by the Irvin Parachute Co.
The dashing ladies’ man often told people he preferred Gilmore’s company, since he was safer and seldom got him in trouble. Turner took Gilmore with him golfing and, when out of town, to leading hotels, where the pair registered as “Roscoe Turner and Gilmore.” Hotel managers delighted in the publicity, and often asked that Gilmore leave his paw print in the guest register.
At airports, Turner would always have someone ready a cage for Gilmore so the children could see him. When Gilmore passed 150 pounds, however, his weight became a problem in the aircraft, and he ceased to be Turner’s flying companion.
The Turners initially received a permit to keep Gilmore in the garage of their Beverly Hills home. However, after the lion leaped on top of their touring car and smashed the cloth top, they built him a $2,500 house on a 30-square-foot fenced arena in their backyard. Gilmore was often allowed in the Turners’ home, but he spent hours watching fish in his very own fishpond and gnawing the branches on his rubber tree. When he got bored with that, he could swat the automobile tire hanging from its branches.
A portable cage was built to transport Gilmore to and from various motion picture theaters, where it was parked in front to draw a crowd. The lion was also put on display at the United Air Terminal in Burbank.
Gilmore was later displayed in a cage beside a Gilmore service station in Beverly Hills, on the corner of the Earl Gilmore estate at Fairfax and Beverly Boulevard. But in 1935, after a Warner Brothers executive living near the station wrote to the Los Angeles chief of police, saying the lion roared through the night and declaring him a public nuisance, Gilmore was moved to a nearby garage.
In June 1935, Gilmore was moved to Burbank Airport, where Turner’s mechanic, Don Young, looked after him. With Gilmore no longer his flying companion, to continue the lion theme, Turner wore a lion’s skin coat and gloves resembling lion’s paws, and carried a lion’s tail swagger stick.
Gilmore ultimately was moved to a wildlife refuge near Thousand Oaks, California, and when he passed away in 1950 Roscoe “Lionhearted” Turner was by his former passenger’s side holding his paw.
On August 14, 1952, Congress awarded Turner with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He is one of only six civilians to have received this award. Four years later, he was awarded the Paul Tissandier Diploma by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale”.
Turner died on June 23, 1970 and is buried in Indianapolis.
Have a good weekend, enjoy time with family and friends, and enjoy the videos below. The first video was made at the premier of the Howard Hughes film “Hell Angels” and features Roscoe, and Gilmore, at one minute and fifty three seconds from the start. The second video was produced by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and features an interview with Roscoe Turner.
January 5, 2015