Friday, March 16, 2012

The Saga of the Sunkist Lady

On the side of the Lady, underneath the "City of Fullerton" lettering, is a map
listing out the stops along the route to Florida and back.
While looking through a large stack of vintage photos, trying to find the elusive gems that would be worth acquiring for the MojaveWest archive, I came across a small, faded snapshot depicting a single-engine tail-dragger aircraft sitting in a field. At first glance, the photo was completely unremarkable, to the point that I almost passed it up. But the markings, round circles on the fuselage and wings, caught my attention, and the photo went in the "buy" pile. It's a good thing it did. A look closer at those circles showed that they contained the plane's name, Sunkist Lady. This Aeronca Sedan, it turns out, was for a time, a world-record holder for endurance flight.

When Dick Rutan, who became famous for spending a mere nine days in the small cabin of the Voyager, was just ten years old, another Dick, Dick Riedel and fellow pilot Bill Barris spent 1008 hours and 2 minutes - a total of 42 days on board the Sunkist Lady.

In 1939, the world endurance flight records was set by pilots Wes Carroll and Clyde Scliepper of Long Beach, with a 736-hour flight. World War II came and went, and the record still stood. Riedel and Barris, both flight instructors at Fullerton Air Service, decided that it was high-time to beat the record, and publicize the advantages of the Fullerton Municipal Airport while doing it. The flight plan specified a flight that would last at least 1,000 hour and fly from Fullerton to Florida and back. The pair secured sponsorship from the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce, who raised funds to support the flight from community businesses. Southern California orange producer Sunkist jumped on board, shrewdly taking the opportunity to thumb their noses at competing Florida orange produces from the air.

The first three attempts at setting the record failed, due to mechanical problems. The first flight lasted 116 hours, and the second only 92 hours. On the third flight, after 568 hours in the air, they started experiencing power loss from carburetor icing. They tried to over come the problem for twelve hours before giving up and landing. But for Reidel and Barris, the fourth time was the charm. At 11:45 am on March 15, 1949, the two lifted off from Fullerton and headed their Aeronca Sedan east.

The aircraft they had chosen, an Aeronca 15AC Sedan registered N1074H, was ideal for the task, being docile, good at slow-speed flight, and relatively roomy. The first Aeronca Sedan flew in 1947, and was derived from earlier models that had built a reputation for reliability. Aeronca's two-seat aircraft had been good sellers, but the numbers were dropping off, so Aeronca decided to go after the four-seat market, with their new design utilizing as many parts from previous aircraft as possible, to keep costs down. Out the door, a new Sedan would set you back a mere $4,395. The production run lasted through 1951, with over 560 Sedans being built.

This Acme news photo (from the Aeronca Sedan N1331H
) was released on March 24, 1949, and shows the
resupply scheme in action. Bill Barris is at the controls, and
Dick Riedel is receiving the supplies. The location is Opa
Locka Airport, Miami, Florida.
The Sunkist Lady was accompanied by another Sedan called The Lady's Maid. This aircraft carried the ground crew, made up of  Lloyd Colboch, Don Janson, and Frank Miller, and would fly ahead and land at designated resupply points. Once there, the crew would board Willys Jeepsters (providing local dealers with publicity, too) and speed down the airport's runway, while the Sunkist Lady flew just above it. Fuel and food would then be handed up to Riedel and Barris, the gas in three-gallon milk cans, necessitating repeated runs (up to 14 runs were sometimes needed to fill the fuel tanks!) down the runway before the plane could head for the next destination.

When the weather along the route back went bad, they decided to wait it out: for two weeks! During that time, they orbited over the Miami area. It was during this time that the team had a run-in with the law. Resupply sessions were needed during the night, as well as during the day, and such nighttime affairs soon caught the suspicious attention of the local FBI office, who suspected some sort of smuggling activity was going on. In an interview that Janson gave to the Los Angeles Times, published on January 16, 1990, he described the encounter. '"This guy shoves a gun into my ribs. They thought we had just given them dope or something. . . . I think they thought they had something really good when they caught us.' None of the agents seemed to have heard of their attempt to set the world record, Janson said. 'And here it was all in the papers in the Miami area,' he said."

The Sunkist Lady arrived back over Fullerton on April 11, and then proceeded to tour around Southern California to build hours. Finally, the long journey was over and at 11:45 am on April 26, the Lady touched earth again at Fullerton, in front of a crowd that numbered somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 spectators (depending on which news source you read).

The Lady had flown flawlessly at an average airspeed of 75 mph, logging just over 1,008 flight hours, traveled over 75,000 land miles, and consumed 6,552 gallons of aviation gas. That distance is three times what the Rutan Voyager flew!

But, for all the effort, the record only lasted for six months. Later in 1949, a pair of ex-Navy pilot, sponsored by the City of Yuma, Arizona, also flew an Aeronca Sedan into the history books, with a flight that lasted 1,124 hours. That record stood for another nine years, when Robert Timm and John Cook set a record of 64 days and 22 hours in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk (named Hacienda, now hanging at McCarran Airport), over Las Vegas. That record has yet to be beat.

While the Sedan City of Yuma was preserved in a museum, The Sunkist Lady herself seems to have disappeared from history. The FAA registration number was most recently held by a Taylorcraft.

The Sunkist Lady's legacy hasn't been forgotten by the folks in Fullerton, either. The City has a whole web page dedicated to telling the story of the record flight, with some additional photos and a really cool, must-watch vintage newsreel documentary.


  1. Thank you. The story of the Sunkist Lady is very interesting. I was searching online to find out what ever happened to the aircraft. My son is doing a report on Fullerton and we wanted to see if it was being displayed somewhere. Sad to know it is not.

  2. I stumbled across this article after searching for the vintage footage of "The Sunkist Lady". My father Louis A. Gutierrez was part of the ground crew at one of the airports in the Imperial Valley. I have a photo of my father with the pilots and crew of The Sunkist Lady as well as one of the milk cans that were used to refuel. I will submit the photos. I would love to get in contact with anyone who might have more information on this historical flight!

    1. Wow...thanks for writing! It's great to hear from someone connected to it. I would love to see the photos, and if you don't mind, host them. I can be reached at airphotoservices at gmail dot com.

    2. I would love to connect up with you regarding the flight. My father is Bill Barris.

  3. Bill is my 2nd grandmother was at fullwrton airservice in her jeep which was called snow moms mother rosemary handed foid and gas cans thats a down granny!!!!!!!!awesome to see