One of America’s best-known aviators of the early twentieth century, Roscoe Turner, was born on a farm outside of Corinth, Mississippi, on 29 September 1895. Turner had no desire to become a farmer, and at sixteen he quit school and moved to Memphis, where he found a job as an auto mechanic and fell in love with fast cars and motorcycles. Turner enlisted in the US Army in 1917, became a balloon pilot, and soon began taking flying lessons.
After World War I, Turner became a barnstormer. He and his partner, Harry Runser, toured the South in a Curtiss Jenny biplane, performing barrel rolls, wing walking, and parachute jumping. The young aviators often paid their bills by offering sightseeing flights to fairgoers. The partnership dissolved after several years, and Turner then operated the Roscoe Turner Flying Circus until 1925, when he opened a flying school in Florence, Alabama. He purchased a seven-passenger Sikorsky S-29A plane and dreamed of starting an airline. This purchase, along with Turner’s flying reputation, caught Hollywood’s attention.
Film producer Howard Hughes hired Turner to convert his S-29A into a German Gotha bomber for the World War I epic Hell’s Angels. Turner’s time in Hollywood soon came to an end when a stunt pilot crashed his prized S-29A. The plane was a total loss, but Turner rebounded by piloting a new Lockheed Vega for the air racing circuit in 1929. Moving to Las Vegas, he established the short-lived Nevada Airlines and became a colonel in the Nevada National Guard. The onset of the Great Depression ended his commercial aviation dream, and he returned to speed racing in early 1930.
Always the showman, Turner remarketed himself as the “Colonel,” designed himself a military-style uniform, and obtained a sponsorship from the Gilmore Oil Company. The company’s mascot was a lion, and Turner purchased a lion cub as a publicity stunt. Named Gilmore, the lion was onboard Turner’s new Lockheed Air Express when he gained national attention by setting a May 1930 transcontinental speed record from Los Angeles to New York City.
During the 1930s Turner competed on the speed-racing circuit against noted pilots such as Jimmy Doolittle and Wiley Post. In 1934 Turner piloted a new Boeing 247 airliner in the MacRobertson Air Race from London, England, to Melbourne, Australia. Finishing second, Turner appeared on the cover of Time magazine and became an aviation icon. United Airlines soon hired him as a spokesperson, and he traveled the United States, lecturing to large audiences about the benefits of aviation.
With the advent of World War II, Turner moved to Indianapolis and established the Roscoe Turner Aeronautical Corporation to train war pilots. In 1946 Roscoe Turner Airlines began serving the Midwest. In December 1950 Turner sold his interest, and the company’s name became Lake Central Airlines. Turner again returned to the lecture circuit and in 1952 received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress for his contributions to aviation. In 1961 Corinth renamed its municipal airport in Turner’s honor.
Turner died of bone cancer on 23 June 1970. After World War II, he had said, “Aviation is going to control the world economically and militarily whether we like it or not. Airpower is not merely military aviation, it is also civilian aviation and airpower is peace power.”
- Carroll V. Glines, Aviation’s Master Showman (1997)
- Michael O’Leary, Air Classics (2003)
- National Aviation Hall of Fame website, www.nationalaviation.org