There was once a time when flying airplanes was really fun and truly free – free in the sense of a lack of regulations. This period was short-lived, lasting less than a decade. During the time from the end of the war until 1927, there were no regulations, no government oversight, and little interference from insurance regulators. Unfortunately, it was also a time during which people were routinely injured or killed by unscrupulous flying companies and ill-trained pilots.
Still, what time it was!
After World War I when the boys returned from “over there,” a percentage of the returning soldiers were pilots. These fledgling pilots were excited about their new profession of flying airplanes and wanted to share their enthusiasm with Americans back home. In those years, right after the war, America saw the start of many different “flying circuses.” One such circus was the famous 13 Black Cats.
Each of the pilots, mechanics, and other performers in the troupe had specialized skills or an act. Gladys Ingle was no exception. She had an act. She had an incredible act. Gladys was a wingwalker and her specialty was transferring from one plane to another – in flight without a parachute – purportedly to save another airplane that had a wheel fall off on takeoff.
What a thrilling sight to see at an afternoon air show. Spectators would line up on the edge of the field to watch the aerialists take to the skies in their underpowered JN-4D Jennies with OX-5 engines. The former combat pilots engaged in mock dogfights overhead giving the people on the ground a taste as to what it was like flying against the Hun in The Great War. After the dogfighting was done, it was time for the other aerial acts.
These were the imaginative acts of pilots and stuntmen. Some pilots would pick up a handkerchief tied to the ground with their wingtips. This is when something “would go wrong.”
As the barnstormers continued flying, there was a Jenny that would take off right in front of the crowd. As the airplane broke ground, everyone in attendance witnessed the creation of a disaster. Right as the weight of the plane lifts from the landing gear, one of the wheels falls off. The announcer feigns shock, pointing out how the airplane is going to crash on landing. Everyone runs around thinking about ways to keep the airplane in the air, fix it, or otherwise avoid disaster.
This is the moment Gladys Ingle would step up to the occasion.
She would calmly grab her small bag of tools, strap a spare tire to her back, and climb into another Jenny “suddenly made ready” to counter the impending disaster. Then she would go to work.
The airplanes rendezvoused overhead and Gladys would walk out on the wing, climb to the top wing, and then transfer to the “stricken aircraft.” Once there, she would walk along the wing of that Jenny and slither down to the landing gear crossbar. Then she would install the new wheel, tighten the retaining nut, and “save the day!” Take a moment to view the video below or at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oAzdbd0J2A, created from one of the oldest film records of the early days of barnstorming.
In the opening of the video, it proclaims an “air crash is averted by woman’s pluck and iron nerve.” You would have to say Gladys had to possess both “pluck” and iron nerves. By the way, the Macmillan dictionary defines pluck as “the quality of being brave and determined.”
Anyone capable of carrying a tire on their back while walking along the wing of a flying airplane would have to have a great deal of pluck. It probably requires extraordinary pluck to step from one airplane to another – without a parachute – hundreds of feet above the ground at 70 mph.
Today, the FAA would never allow such stunts. This was, however, the 1920s and as mentioned in the opening paragraph, there were no regulations prohibiting such acts.
Oh, by the way, some of my research shows that Gladys Ingle died as a little old lady at the age of 82. No question hers was a full and exciting life lived to the fullest.
©2017 J. Clark
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