Friday, September 16, 2011

Tex Johnston and the Trimotor

"I found you a couple of airplane pictures", said Keith, a generously helpful gentleman who works at one of the local antique malls. He knows I'm building an archive of vintage aircraft photographs, and has been great keeping his eyes open for me. He hands me these two rather battered and abused little snapshots. Trimotors! This put them clearly in the Great Depression years of the mid-1930s. Total bill: $4.

Little did I know the amazing adventures through the threads of history that these two 70-something-year-old photos were about to take me, a trip which culminated in the first article in a new column that I've signed on to doing for AirshowStuff Magazine. (To read the piece, you can download the September issue for free as a PDF file here, but be patient, it's a large file!). This post is all about chasing the light that came through some long-forgotten photographer's lens; and for me, the history detective game was afoot!

Inman Brothers' Fort 4-AT-B Trimotor NC5577
There were a number of things that intrigued me about the photos...clearly they were taken at the same place, the same day. It looked a lot like a dry, dusty summer day somewhere in the midwest. A lot of people were around in the background, so it was an event of some sort, probably a barnstorming airshow, which would account for why these photos were even taken. The popularity of the snapshot camera paralleled the growing popularity of these futuristic machines of the sky. There are no identifying marks on the Stinson, but after scanning at high resolution the Ford 4-AT-B's photo, it was clear that the aircraft had the registration number NC5577 (c/n 4-AT-23), and flew for an outfit called the ____man Bros. (the name being partly obscured by someone standing in front of it).

This one is a Stinson Model T, aka an SM-6000 Airliner, and wears 
old American Airlines colors. American operated them only a short 
time, then sold them to Delta, who also later sold them off. Only 
about 50 were built, and only two have survived the years.

Google to the rescue. Typed in the registration number and right away got some really great hits. First stop on the virtual journey was in Tucson, Arizona, and the website for the Davis-Monthan Municipal Airport Register. This was reportedly the very "first municipal airfield in the U.S.", and between 1925 and 1936 all the visiting pilots signed into a large leather-bound register, and it reads like a who's-who of the golden age of aviation. And NC5577 has it's own web page on the site, because it once stopped over in fact it stopped in on June 25, 1928, only three days after being delivered brand new by Ford to Maddux Airlines. The son of the last civilian owner of the plane had provided a lot of detailed information, including a copy of the National Air & Space Museum's data card that listed every owner the Ford ever had. And that held the key for me: two of the owners were Arthur Inman (who bought the plane on June 26, 1934) and his brother Rodger [sic] Inman (who took ownership on December 2, 1935). It was the Inman Bros. name that was painted on the side of the Tin Goose. At the time, though, the D-M website didn't have any information on the Inman brothers' operation of the plane.

So I Googled the Inman Bros., and again struck gold (after wading through all the links to the modern band by that same name). The full name was "Inman Brother Flying Circus". Based out of Coffeyville, Kansas, the Inman Brothers operated a unique barn-storming act that traveled from city to city giving airplane rides and putting on airshows, complete with skydivers.

Warman's Antiques & Collectibles 2011 Price Guide lists a poster for the Inman Bros. Flying Circus. And then, there was the website, which was offering a vintage Inman Bros. poster for sale, complete with a ticket for an airplane ride that someone had pasted in the center of it. When I contacted EarlyAeronautic about the poster, owner Thomas E. Kullgren very graciously allowed me to use his image of it in the AirshowStuff  article.

The Flying Circus operated a number of different aircraft, from a Curtiss Jenny to the Ford Trimotor to a Boeing Clipper Trimotor. Art and Roger "Rolley" Inman had fallen in love with aviation in 1921. Art had taken a ride from Charles Pedelty in Mason City, Iowa, paying a pricey $7 for the privilege. He and his brother then started taking flying lessons from Charles "Speed" Holman, who later would be Northwest's first pilot. The act included Rolley's wife, Margie, who was a wing walker. Rolley himself died in a plane crash in 1944.

Following the leads on the Flying Circus, I came across one of those "aha" nuggets that history sometimes reveals. A certain young pilot and aircraft mechanic graduate of the Spartan School of Aeronautics went looking for his first aviation job from his home-town friends, Art and Rolley. This young lad was Alvin "Tex" Johnston. He was hired on to sell tickets for the airplane rides, and worked on the Trimotors' engines when needed. He needed to build flight time, so traded some of his labor for instruction and time in the Ford Trimotor. Later, during WWII, he served as a ferry pilot for the Army Air Corps, won the Thompson Trophy in 1946, and then went to work for Bell Aircraft as a test pilot. There, he helped design and test flew the revolutionary Bell X-1, which then went on to break the sound barrier for the first time while being flown by Chuck Yeager.

After Bell, Johnston went to work for Boeing as their chief test pilot, and gained public notoriety as the pilot who rolled the prototype of the Boeing 707 airliners over the National Hydroplane races in Seattle. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) was also holding their annual convention in Seattle at that time, which meant that the executives of the world's airlines which Boeing wanted to pitch their new jet to were sitting there right on their doorstep, on August 6, 1955. According to Johnston, when you wanted to sell airplanes, you demonstrated them. He said in a television interview once, "I knew the prototype [the 367-80], and there's one maneuver that you can do with no hazard whatsoever. I decided that I would do a roll to impress the people." He practiced the maneuver a couple of times out of sight, and then headed for where the crowds were. "So I came across [Lake Washington] and did a chandelle," which he then continued into a 1-G barrel roll.

The crowd was impressed, to say the least. Boeing President William M. Allen reportedly turned to a friend he was sitting with and asked if he could take some of his friend's heart attack medication. Johnston continued: "I was called into Mr. Allen's office on Monday morning, Mr. Allen asked me what I thought I was doing. I said, 'Well, I was selling airplanes,' and explained it was a 1-G maneuver, it's absolutely non-hazardous, and it's very impressive. He said, 'You know that, now we know that, but let's not do that any more.'"

Tex may have become famous by barnstorming Boeing's prototype jet airliner, but that was nothing out of the ordinary for him, after all, his first job was flying and maintaining a humble Ford Trimotor flown by the Inman Brothers Flying Circus.

(Tex wasn't the only future aviator inspired by the Inman Brothers. Mildred "Mickey" Axton took a ride in the Inman's Jenny at age nine and fell in love with flying. She went on to serve as a WASP in WWII, and then went to work for Boeing and became the first woman to fly the B-29. Her story is here.)

But while Tex was going on the fame and glory, what about NC5577? In July, 1938, the Ford was victim of a freak accident, when an Aeronca that was taxiing past suffered from a broken crankshaft. The prop flew off the small plane and went whirling through the air, and though the tail of the Ford. On February 27, 1939, the Inmans sold it to Oscar Nichols, who was one of the principals in the Phenick Flying Service in Newark, Ohio. They operated the Ford until late in 1942, when it was sold to the U.S. Government. It, along with another Ford, was taken to South America to be used by the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of the Pan American Highway. The planes were based in San Jose, Costa Rica. After the project was discontinued in 1943, the planes were auctioned off locally, and at this point, NC5577 disappears from history. Was it operated by a Costa Rican company? Did it crash? Did it just disappear into the jungle? We'll probably never know...


  1. Nice article about NC5577...My last name is Inman and I'm a retired UAL pilot...Years ago I acquired an original Inman Bros. poster that NC5577 is on as well as the Boeing -80, NC230M. This -80 was owned and operated by UAL prior to the Inman's ownership...I found a book at the Boeing museum about -80s that gives the history of NC230M...Roscoe Turner also owned the -80 prior to the Bros....Thanks for the info on NC5577...By the way I haven't found any family connection to the Inmans:)...

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  2. If you can provide the title and author of that book, I'd really appreciate it, sounds like it would be a good addition to my library.

    Interestingly, photos of NC230M as a crash near Donner Summit can be found here: Of course, that newsletter incorrectly identifies the Boeing as the one in the Museum of Flight in Seattle...that one is NC224M.

  3. My grandfather, Mel Hart, flew with the Inman Brothers for several years. Another interesting fact about their act is they had a lion that traveled with them for a while. My grandmother, who is still with us at 97, has many memories of life with the flying circus and the Inman brothers.

    1. Hi Krista, Thanks for writing!! I would love to interview your grandmother for a bigger project on the Inmans that I have in mind. Email me at airphotoservices at gmail dot com if you think she'd be interested in helping!

  4. Jack Abernathy, Jr.July 23, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    I don't remember the details, but my father and I went on my first flight in 1942 or '43 in Rolley Inman's Stinson Trimotor.

  5. My grandpa, Scott Griffin, was raised by his sister Margie after their father (really his Uncle because Margie was really a cousin) and he spoke often about this trimotor and the Lockheed that they flew around in....