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Gus and Bill’s not-so-fine day at Daytona Beach

Gus and Bill were ready for action.

“Watch the surf,” Gus said to Bill, as reported in the Billings Gazetteon November 15, 1929.

“The next rich mama who yells for help is our meal ticket. We’re going to beat that boat, sink old Jenny, and save a rich heiress. We can’t lose.”

The two near-starving fliers watched, and then a bather screamed. Gus and Bill took off in their plane, flying on their last gallon of gas. They got to the swimmer in distress before the rescue boat. They wrecked their plane in the waves, and rescued the woman. And their plan went awry when they learned she was a cook in a local hotel.

“We're ruined,” Bill said.

“Ruined nothing!” said his partner, better at scheming. “A cook is a cook. Maybe we'll eat now, anyway.”

By the late 1920s, aviation had become a national industry “backed by Big Business, quoted on Wall Street,” according to article author Elliot Underhill. Yet, for the first years of the decade, flight was the province of tramp pilots like Gus and Bill, young men who had learned to fly in the Army during World War I and wouldn't return to mundane, ground-based pursuits.

Lacking capital, they didn’t have companies behind them. They had no assured income and financed their flying with their own, skimpy resources.

“They bought their own planes, made their own repairs, went after their own contracts, calculated their own risks, buried their own dead,” Underhill said.

He recalled barnstorming contracts that listed the names of three or four substitutes in case the principal was killed or injured. And sometimes the list wasn't long enough.

Underhill gave a personal example, from when he was fourth among those signed up for an exhibition at the Trenton State Fair in New Jersey in 1920. Ahead of Underhill were three veteran performers: Laura Bromwell, “a clever girl pilot”: a famous flyer, Ormer Locklear; and Tex McLaughlin. None of the four reached the fairground. Five days before the fair, Bromwell crashed to her death while trying to break the women's loop-the-loop record. The next day, Locklear died attempting a plane stunt for a movie. Twenty fours later, McLaughlin met his death when a propeller on a nearby plane cut him to "ribbons" as he hung on a rope ladder suspended from his plane.

The job reverted to Underhill but bad luck caught up with him, too. En route to the fair, he had to ditch his plane in a swamp where he was stuck for four dates.

“It was a hoodoo date,”  Underhill said.

The New Jersey man had been barnstorming around the country since he was discharged from the Marine Flying Corps in 1919. Among his fellow gypsy pilots were several who became commercial pilots: Clarence Chamberlain, Eddie Stinson, Dear Smith. Casey Jones, and Paul Collins.

“Gypsy flying gave us all sorts of experience,” Underhill said.
(To be continued).

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Jamie Larson