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Love of Flying

The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900–1950

by Joseph J. Corn
Oxford University Press, 177 pp., $17.95


I was twice footnote to the history of aviation. On July 7, 1929, still on the sunny side of four years old, I flew in the first commercially scheduled airliner (a Ford trimotor) across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles in forty-eight hours. Aviation was now so safe that even a little child could fly in comfort. I remember only two things about the flight: the lurid flames from the exhaust through the window; then a sudden loss of altitude over Los Angeles, during which my eardrums burst. Always the trouper, I was later posed, smiling, for the rotogravure sections of the newspapers, blood trickling from tiny lobes. Among my supporting cast that day were my father, the assistant general manager of the company (Transcontinental Air Transport), his great and good friend, as the never great, never good Time magazine would say, Amelia Earhart, as well as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose husband Charles was my pilot. 1 Both Lindbergh and Amelia had been hired by the line’s promoter, one C.M. Keys (not even a footnote now but then known as the czar of aviation), to publicize TAT, popularly known as “The Lindbergh Line.”

My second moment of footnotehood occurred in the spring of 1936, when I was—significantly—on the sunny side of eleven. I was picked up at St. Albans School in Washington, DC, by my father, Eugene L. Vidal, director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (an appointee of one Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself mere tinkling prelude to Reagan’s heavenly choir). FDR wanted to have a ministry of aviation like the European powers; and so the Bureau of Air Commerce was created.

On hot spring mornings Washington’s streets smelled of melting asphalt; and everything was a dull tropical green. The city was more like a Virginia country seat than a world capital. The men wore straw hats in summer; white suits. There was no air conditioning. People used palmetto fans. As we got into my implausibly handsome father’s plausible Plymouth, he was mysterious, while I was delighted to be liberated from school. I wore short trousers and polo shirt, the standard costume of those obliged to pretend that they were children a half-century ago. What was up? I asked. My father said, You’ll see. Since we were now on the familiar road to Bolling Field, I knew that whatever was up, it was probably going to be us. Ever since my father—known to all as Gene—had become director in 1933, we used to fly together nearly every weekend in the director’s Stinson monoplane. Occasionally he’d let me take the controls. Otherwise, I was navigator. With a filling-station road map on my bony knees, I would look out the window for familiar landmarks. When in doubt, you followed a railroad line or a main highway. Period joke: a dumb pilot was told to follow the Super Chief no matter what; when the train entered a tunnel, so did the pilot. End of joke.

At Bolling Field, I recognized the so-called Hammond flivver plane. Gene had recently told the press that a plane had been developed so safe that anyone could fly it and so practical that anyone who could afford a flivver car could buy it—in mass production, that is. At present, there was only the prototype. But it was my father’s dream to put everyone in the air, just as Henry Ford had put everyone on the road. Since 1933, miles of newsprint and celluloid had been devoted to Gene Vidal’s dream—or was it folly?

We had been up in the Hammond plane before; and I suppose it really was almost “foolproof,” as my father claimed. I forget the plane’s range and speed but the speed was probably less than a hundred miles an hour. (One pleasure of flying then: sliding the window open and sticking out your hand, and feeling the wind smash against it.) As a boy, the actual flying of a plane was a lot simpler for me than building one of those model planes that the other lads were so adept at making and I all thumbs in the presence of balsa wood, paper, and glue—the Dionysiac properties of glue were hardly known then. But those were Depression years, and we Americans a serious people. That is how we beat Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo.

Next to the Hammond, there was a Pathé newsreel crew, presided over by the familiar figure of Floyd Gibbons, a dark patch covering the vacancy in his florid face where once there had been an eye that he had lost—it was rumored—as a correspondent in the war to make the world safe for democracy, and now for a flivver aircraft in every garage. Since my father appeared regularly in newsreels and Marches of Time, a newsreel crew was no novelty. At age seven, when asked what my father did, I said, He’s in the newsreels. But now, since I had been taken so mysteriously out of class, could it be…? I felt a premonitory chill.

As we drove onto the runway (no nonsense in those days when the director came calling), Gene said, “Well, you want to be a movie actor. So here’s your chance.” He was, if nothing else, a superb salesman. Jaded when it came to flying, I was overwhelmed by the movies. Ever since Mickey Rooney played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I had wanted to be a star, too. What could Rooney do that I couldn’t? Why was I at St. Albans, starting Latin, when I might be darting about the world, unconfined by either gravity of the director’s Stinson? “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes!” Rooney had croaked. Now I was about to do the same.

As we parked, Gene explained that I was to take off, circle the field once, and land. After I got out of the plane, I would have to do some acting. Floyd Gibbons would ask me what it was like to fly the flivver plane, and I was to say it was just like driving a flivver car. The fact that I had never even tried to drive a car seemed to my father and me irrelevant as we prepared for my screen debut. As it turned out, I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-five years old.

My earlier footnotehood was clear-cut. I was indeed the first child to cross the country by air. But now I was a challenger. In 1927, one Jack Chapman, aged eleven, had soloed. Since there had been so much public complaint (suppose he had gone and killed a cow?), my father’s predecessor had made it the law that no one under sixteen years of age could solo. Now here I was a few months younger than Chapman had been in 1927, ready to break the prepubescent record. But the law said that I could not fly unattended. Ordinarily, my father—true pioneer—would have ignored this sort of law. But the director of the Air Commerce could not—at least in front of Pathé News—break a law that he was sworn to uphold.

As I stood by the door to the plane, staring glassy-eyed at the cobra-camera, a long discussion took place. How was I to solo (thus proving that the Hammond flivver was if not foolproof boyproof) and yet not break the 1927 law? Floyd Gibbons proposed that my father sit behind me. But Gene said, no. He was already so familiar a figure in the Transluxes of the Republic that the audience would think that he had done the flying. Finally, Fred Geisse, an official of the bureau (and, like me, a nonpilot), got in first and crouched behind the pilot’s seat. The cameras started to turn. With a slight but lovable Rooneyesque swagger, I climbed aboard.

Recently, I saw some footage from the newsreel. As I fasten my seat belt, I stare serenely off into space, not unlike Lindbergh-Earhart. I even looked a bit like the god and goddess of flight who, in turn, looked spookily like each other. I start up the engine. I am still serene. But as I watched the ancient footage, I recalled suddenly the terror that I was actually feeling. Terror not of flying but of the camera. This was my big chance to replace Mickey Rooney. But where was my script? My director? My talent? Thinking only of stardom, I took off. With Geisse behind me kindly suggesting that I keep into the wind (that is, opposite to the way that the lady’s stocking on the flagpole was blowing), I circled the field not once but twice and landed with the sort of jolt that one of today’s jet cowboys likes to bring to earth his DC-10.

The real terror began when I got out of the plane and stood, one hand on the doorknob, staring into the camera. Gibbons asked me about the flight. I said, Oh, it wasn’t much, and it wasn’t, either. But I was now suffering from terminal stage fright. As my voice box began to shut down, the fingers on the door knob appeared to have a life of their own. I stammered incoherently. Finally, I gave what I thought was a puckish Rooneyesque grin which exploded onto the screen with all the sinister force of Peter Lorre’s M. In that final ghastly frame, suddenly broken off as if edited by someone’s teeth in the cutting room, my career as boy film star ended and my career as boy aviator was launched. I watched the newsreel twice in the Belasco Theater, built on the site of William Seward’s Old Club House. Each time, I shuddered with horror at that demented leer which had cost me stardom. Yet, leer notwithstanding, I was summer famous; and my contemporaries knew loathing. The young Streckfus Persons (a.k.a. Truman Capote) knew of my exploit. “Among other things,” Harper Lee writes of the boy she based on Capote, “he had been up in a mail plane seventeen times, he had been to Nova Scotia, he had seen an elephant, etc.” In the Sixties, when I introduced Norman Mailer to my father, I was amazed how much Mailer knew of Gene’s pioneering.

I record this trivia not to try to regain my forever-lost feetnotehood but to try to recall the spirit of the early days of aviation, a spirit itself now footnote to the vast air and aerospace industries of today. In Anthony Sampson’s Empires of the Sky,2 only a dozen pages are devoted to the first quarter-century of American aviation. There are also three times as many references to something called Freddie Laker as there are to Lindbergh. Well, sic transit was always the name of the game, even now when the focus is on space itself. Finally, I am put in mind of all this by a number of recent books on aviation, of which the most intriguing and original is The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, by Joseph J. Corn, in which the author recalls the quasi-religious fervor that Americans experienced when men took to the air and how, for a time, there was “a gospel of flight,” and Gene Vidal was its “high priest.” Flight would make men near-angels, it was believed; and a peaceful world one.

  1. 1

    A recent investigation of a certain newspaper of record shows that, contrary to family tradition, I made my first cross-country flight a few months later, at the age of four. In any case, I am still a triumphant footnote: the first child ever to cross the country by air-rail.

  2. 2

    To be published by Random House in February.

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