Roscoe Turner looked like a movie star cast as a circus lion tamer. This was convenient because, at one time or another, he was both of those things. He was a lot of other things too — pilot, racer, activist, author, entrepreneur, showman, convict, raconteur, and even a spokesmodel, back before that was a thing.
One thing he really didn’t want to be was a farmer.
As a kid living on his parents’ Mississippi farm, Roscoe didn’t spend time learning the family business. Instead, he built things. He built a wagon and tinkered with motorcycles and cars while dreaming of driving locomotives for the railroad. He experimented with kites and built one that he thought was big enough to carry him. It wasn’t, but he didn’t know that until after he’d jumped off the barn roof.
After finishing the 10th grade, Roscoe left home at age 16. He juggled a number of different jobs, working as a truck driver and also as a mechanic, car salesman, and chauffeur. This was when he realized that if you wanted a job, you’d better dress the part.
“I will always think that looking like a young man who took care of his appearance and their equipment would be good for their business,” he said, later. Then, in 1913, when he was 18, he saw his first airplane, flown, as he’d recall later, by a “famous aviatrix,” most likely Katherine Stinson.
Suddenly, cars weren’t nearly so interesting.
Determined to be a pilot, Roscoe enlisted in the Army in 1917, a month after the U.S. got involved in World War I. Flying was strictly for college men at the time, so the Army trained him as an ambulance driver. After badgering his superiors for a year, persistence paid off, sort of: Roscoe started flight training, but in balloons, not what he’d had in mind. He shipped off to France shortly before the armistice, then came home and left the Army in 1919.
Committed to flying, Roscoe teamed up with an ex-Army pilot named Harry Runser, and the two created a barnstorming and air show act that found Roscoe wing walking and sky diving from the pair’s JN-4 Canucks and an Avro 504K. Posters of the day promised a “supreme act of dare deviltry,” an “hour of thrills” culminating with Harry crashing into a flimsy building. The audiences were huge, but the money wasn’t — most people watched the show from outside the gates, refusing to pay the 55-cent admission.
“We didn’t make enough to buy a good steak, much less a pair of wings,” Roscoe said later.
Remembering the lessons learned from his early job interviews, Roscoe and his partner initially wore their old Army uniforms for their performances. When those wore out, they ordered their own custom outfits. Roscoe’s uniform consisted of a tan cap or red-and-gold flying helmet and goggles, a sky-blue jacket, tan jodhpurs, polished boots, and, frequently, a Sam Browne belt. The look was completed with the addition of diamond-studded wings framing his initials, and a pencil-thin waxed mustache that he’d wear the rest of his life.
Writing later about the advantages of the uniform, Roscoe said, “It shows them you mean business and command respect.” Some thought the look was dashing, others, ridiculous. The press, not to mention jealous fellow pilots, often gave him a hard time about his somewhat flamboyant look.
“Publicity helps,” he wrote. “That’s why I wear this monkey suit. It makes people notice me wherever I go. Nobody will ever know how much guts it takes for me to wear this circus outfit.”
During their barnstorming days, Roscoe built up a couple of hundred hours of flying time, and graduated from skydiver and wingwalker to pilot. Throughout this period, when they weren’t performing, Roscoe was hustling, meeting with anybody who would listen to try to convince them of the bright future of aviation. He and Harry went their separate ways after they bought an allegedly surplus Jenny from a Marine who didn’t have the authority to sell it and all three went to jail, Roscoe serving just a few months before being paroled.
He also formed an airline, Roscoe Turner Airways, and bid for mail contracts, flying the airline’s Sikorsky S-29A all over the country. The big Sikorsky rarely flew without a sponsor’s name painted on the fuselage and was, at one point, turned into a flying cigar store. Later it played the role of a Gotha bomber in Howard Hughes’ WWI air-combat epic, Hell’s Angels, while Roscoe himself played a British pilot. His airline career continued when he signed on as chief pilot for Nevada Airlines, flying gamblers and wannabe divorcees in a Lockheed Vega that was named the Alimony Special.
For Roscoe, as the ’20s gave way to the ’30s, air racing took center stage. After a couple of tries at the National Air Races in 1928 and 1929, he convinced the Gilmore Oil Company to buy a Lockheed Air Express. The airplane was painted in company colors and christened Gilmore Lion, after the company’s logo. Shortly thereafter, inspired to acquire a mascot, Roscoe convinced the owner of a lion farm to give him a cub in exchange for publicity. Roscoe named the three-week-old cub Gilmore, and the two were constant companions. Roscoe would walk Gilmore on a leash all around Los Angeles, into restaurants and shops, and, of course into the cockpit. Gilmore even had his own parachute, and flew with Roscoe for years until he was too big to fit and eventually retired back to the farm. Gilmore lived to be 22 years old and, after he died, Roscoe had him stuffed and displayed in his living room.
In 1930, Roscoe set the transcontinental speed record, flying from New York to California in slightly less than 19 hours. In 1932, he set the record again, this time on a flight that took just 12 and a half hours, then, two years later, he did it again in 10 hours. He won the Bendix Trophy in 1933, and then the Thompson Trophy in 1934, 1938, and 1939. The only other person to win both the Bendix and the Thompson was Jimmy Doolittle. In 1934, he led a crew flying a Boeing 247 in the MacRobertson race from London to Melbourne, placing second on handicap and third overall. His successes lent credibility to his larger-than-life persona, and before long, Roscoe Turner was everywhere.
He was famous for being famous, in a sense, but, unlike so many of the schadenfreudean train wrecks you might describe that way today, Roscoe earned his celebrity. His face was on trading cards and he appeared in ads for everything from cereal to cigarettes, urging kids to eat Heinz Rice Flakes or Wonder Bread and adults to “ward off fatigue [and] get a lift with a Camel.” He flew as a “stunt pilot” in more movies, and even played himself in the 1939 Republic Pictures film Flight at Midnight.
He started a flying school in Indianapolis that same year, and spent World War II training more than 3,500 students in support of the Civilian Pilot Training Program and its successor. The flight school continued after the war, alongside the newly formed Turner Airlines, under the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation umbrella. When he wasn’t flying, Roscoe was talking, trading on his celebrity to promote aviation and to advocate for continued development of U.S. military air power, a cause he championed until his death in 1970 at age 74.
Roscoe won countless trophies, and has been honored by groups like the National Aviation and the Motorsports Halls of Fame. Airplanes he flew, along with other artifacts, are displayed in museums across the country. The airport in his hometown was named after him when he was barely 40 years old. He won the Harmon Trophy in 1933 and 1939, an award given to someone considered simply “the world’s outstanding aviator.” In 1952, Roscoe became one of only a handful of civilians (including Jackie Cochran) to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which literally required an act of Congress. The citation that came with it read, “By his pride in achievement, intrepid courage, and matchless skill, Roscoe Turner has materially advanced the science of aerial flight.”
Perhaps the most fitting honor, if not necessarily the most prestigious, came in 1962, when Roscoe was named “Character of the Year” by the International Order of Characters, an aviation association that traces its roots to the early days of WWII.
Roscoe Turner was nothing if not a character, and aviation wouldn’t have been the same without him.