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Look, Ma, No Hands...
William Johnson
September 14, 1970
That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy
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September 14, 1970

Look, Ma, No Hands...

That's the way it was decades ago when air circus pilots flew deadly competitions—and that's the way it is still as sports like Bevo Howard (preceding page) take to the skies and perform flights of fancy

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But if there is an aura of middle age about the performers, there also is a dearth of the rambunctious, crazy, flapdoodle flirtations with violent death that seemed to be the hallmark of circus flyers at the dawn of the air age. Marion Cole, a 45-year-old corporation pilot, says, "People would like to think we are up there cheating death every time we do a snap roll. I've had dozens of people ask me if I ever flew through a hangar. Or they want to know when's the next time I'm going to fly under a bridge, because they want to be there to see me do it. Well, no pilot who has any sanity is going to fly under a bridge these days. For one thing, he will lose his license. For another, it is awful easy to splatter out when you're going under a bridge, and the most sensible show pilots like to calculate their odds for life a little better than that. And if you fly under bridges it gives you a really bad reputation among reputable pilots. They laugh at those guys, and when a man earns a reputation for being a daredevil in this business he is considered a fool."

Still, no one in airborne show biz would deny that the impression of defying death is extremely important in holding a crowd's interest. Sandi Pierce, a bubbly, plump young mother of a baby girl, teams with her husband as aerobatic pilot, parachutist and wing rider. "Walt's got that 450 Stearman because it makes a howling big noise and keeps the crowd glued to their seats whenever it is in the air," she says. "But also, almost every 450 Stearman that ever flew in air circuses ended up killing a pilot, and this makes the plane a good seller—if the announcer knows enough to accentuate the deaths involved in that kind of plane. People come out to air shows because they want to be there if there's an accident. I don't think they consciously wish someone to crack up, but if something happens they want to be able to say they were there that day." It would seem that Sandi's act of riding on a wing—lurching through loops, hanging head down for inverted passes and tensing against a ton or two of gravity pressure during rolls—would offer risks beyond those any normal mortal would care to take. But Sandi has found that feat lacking in all-round danger. "No one walks a wing anymore, of course, it's just riding. But I just belt myself to a stand on the wing. I don't use foot straps, and during loops or inverted flying my feet slip around, but I know I won't fall. The wind does burn sometimes, though. I heard once of a girl who had her clothes slashed off when she was riding a wing in the rain."

Simple and safe though it sounds, wing riding for women has not attracted many volunteers. One lady who has probably spent more time than anyone smiling into the teeth of the gale atop a wing is Judith Cole, wife of Duane Cole; she did the wing-walking act for more than seven years with the Cole Brothers Air Show. "I wore white because it stood for purity and because it was easier for people to see," says Judy. "I was never afraid because the pilot for most of my rides was my son Roily. He was a smooth flyer, and we were the only mother-and-son wing-riding act in the history of aviation. I haven't ridden a wing since Roily died, but I still get letters now and then from girls asking me how it's done."

The small neat bungalow of the Coles in Burleson, Texas is filled with family memorabilia of aviation shows and contests, races and honors. There are trophies won by Duane and Roily Cole (the father finished first, the son third in the 1962 National Aerobatics Championships). There are clippings and yellowing magazines with articles about the Cole Brothers Air Show and its dazzling lady wing walker. Now matronly and graying and given to frequently interrupting herself to search for her reading spectacles, Judy Cole looks as if the closest she has been to aviation adventure is seeing Twelve O'Clock High on television. Yet, threaded randomly and constantly throughout this dainty lady's conversation are endless references to violence and tragedy. "Bill Stead started up the air races in Reno and he was one of Duane's closest friends. He's dead now.... I rode Bill Adams' wing when I first started. He's dead.... I lived in the first house south of the airport in Burlington, Iowa and in 1928, when I was just a little, little girl, I saw this parachute jumper fall. They said he cut the straps. They said it was a suicide.... Clyde Parsons flew with Duane in the international competition. He was killed last year.... The Cole Brothers had worked up a good name and a good show, but we couldn't keep it going, not after we lost Rolly."

Though they may downgrade the danger inherent in their lives, air-show pilots and performers have long been operating under the influence of death. Take the Cole Brothers Air Show, which managed to survive for 17 years during a period when sky circuses were failing everywhere. After World War II hundreds of crushed-hat Air Corps hotshots were zooming all over America, doing shows or just plain showing off. Duane Cole and his brothers, Arnold, Lester and Marion, put on their first show over the Kewanee, Ill. airport one day in 1946 and they promised no less than eight hours of action. By stretching their imaginations—and the crowd's patience—they tilled the time with such attractions as "Colonel Joe Jet and His Fighting Wing Men" (which turned out to be three guinea hens dumped out of a Piper Cub) and a pilots" pants race (in which flyers took off, landed, removed their pants, took off again, landed again, put on their pants, took off and flew past a finish line). The brothers' show went well enough until 1949, when Bill Odum, a good cross-country flyer, entered the unfamiliar skies of a pylon race in Cleveland and slammed into an apartment house, killing himself, a mother and her baby. Air racing was all but outlawed; spectator aviation was suspect. Then, in 1952, a first lieutenant came rocketing in to an air show in Flagler, Colo., decided to do a roll directly over the grandstand, lost control and plowed a horrible swath through the crowd. Twenty-two died. The very thought of show business in the sky worried many people and some Congressmen were pushing to ban all air shows. The Coles struggled on, however, and Duane helped write new regulations governing air circuses. Then, during a show that same year in Sterling, Ill., Marion Cole was trying to land his Cub on "the world's smallest airport," the top of a car driven by Duane. The field was grassy and the car was rolling over bumps but Marion succeeded in setting the plane down on the platform, when the front wheels of the auto suddenly plunged into a ditch concealed by the grass. Desperately Marion hit full throttle in an effort to take off again, but the plane lurched ahead and fell in front of the car. Still moving rapidly out of the ditch, the auto smashed squarely into the plane. Marion was miraculously unhurt, but the plane was a twisted, splintered mess. Photographers came rushing onto the field, but a CAA safety agent ordered them back until the show was over. After it did finally end, the Coles and some friends formed a grim and threatening barrier around their broken plane. When the cameramen advanced, the Coles bellowed angrily and shook their fists to keep them away, for it had dawned on the brothers that after the Flagler disaster nothing could be worse for them or for the world of air circuses than for a picture of their wreckage to appear in newspapers around the nation. They held off the frustrated photographers until it grew dark, then, in the blackness, they dismantled the plane, loaded it on a truck and sneaked it away to an empty hangar in Kewanee. By morning there was nothing but oil stains and trampled grass to mark the spot of the wreck.

The circus profited nicely, although by the early '60s Duane was the only brother remaining. Still, it was a family affair, with Judy riding the wing, Roily flying her and doing stunts and another son, John, doing the announcing. Then one evening in August 1963 after a show in Rockford, Ill. Roily went up in his 450 Stearman with a friend. No one knows what went wrong. Somehow the engine yanked loose from its mounting, smashed into a wing and the plane fell. Roily Cole, just 24 and already a magnificent pilot, coolly turned off the switch, apparently struggled briefly to free his passenger, then leaped from the plane. It was too late. His parachute opened just as his body slammed into a cornfield and they found him lying beneath a canopy of orange and white parachute silk spread atop the cornstalks. When Roily died the Cole Brothers Air Show went out of business.

The Coles had operated what was probably the country's most celebrated air circus, but unquestionably the dean of all air-show entrepreneurs was—and is—William A. Sweet Jr. of Columbus, Ohio. He is an uncommonly talkative fellow who looks older than his proclaimed 58 years. His face is brown as saddle leather after God only knows how many hours spent in blazing air-show suns, and his forehead and balding pate are pale as ivory from being shaded beneath his black, beaked cap which advertises Kendall oil, one of enterprising Bill Sweet's several tie-in sponsors. He bills himself modestly in his program as "America's No. 1 aviation sporting events announcer-director, the famed Sill Bweet in the comic strip Smilin' Jack!" For 40 years Bill Sweet has been in the business. "I started in 1929," he says, "the year the stock market crashed and Sweet's air spectaculars first took off! Aviation is my life!" Certainly that is true, but there are some people who know Sweet and who swear that the man has never been in a plane in his life. "He won't set foot off the ground and never has," says one acquaintance. "Don't ask me if he flies," says Eddie Green, a hydraulics technician who is currently a stunt man in Sweet's National Air Shows productions. "I've never seen him in an airplane, and all I know is that I've never worked a show where Bill didn't drive a car to it—even if it's a 1,500-mile push." Sweet scoffs at the notion he is afraid to fly. "They 11 tell you that about me, all right, but I've flown a lot. I just have to drive because I got all this stuff to carry in my station wagon—the PA system and telescoping poles and parachutes and the rope ladder. See for yourself."

Bill Sweet has lived close to a vast and fascinating amount of aviation history. For example, he has a red wrench, one end broken off. Waving it about, he says, "I call this my Spirit of St. Louis wrench. One day when I was a boy, Lindbergh came through Columbus and asked at the airport to have his landing gear fixed. Someone gave him a wrench, and he worked for a while until it broke. He sent it sliding aross the floor and I picked it up and have kept it ever since." Sweet's stories go the full aeronautical circle. He can switch from personal recollections of the first transoceanic flyer to his own contact with the first lunar visitor. "Yep, we had a Ford Tri-Motor with us in this one show in Ohio, charging 50¢ until 9 in the morning and 75¢ until noon, and that's when we took Neil Armstrong up for his very first airplane ride. That's a point of some pride with me."

The world of Bill Sweet is, in effect, a living album of memories. He can pour out a rambling, affectionate stream of recollection, perhaps a better record of the life and times of aviation show biz than any formal history.

"In my first shows," Sweet begins, "I had this fellow, Dave White, a paralyzed parachute jumper. Couldn't move a muscle from the hips down. He'd come drifting down and land on his butt. People loved it, I don't know why.

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