IN THE AIR ON THE AIR
Radio Captured the Thrill of Flying
by Maury Cagle, © 2006
(From Radio Recall, February 2006)
America’s love affair with flying and its history has been going on for more than a century, and while it has changed through time, it doesn’t show signs of diminishing. Two of the nation’s top tourist attractions are The National Air & Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. and its new annex at Dulles Airport in Virginia. Big air shows, such as the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual summer meeting at Oshkosh, WI draw upwards of a million people each.
Aviation really became popular in America with the exploits of U.S. pilots flying in World War One, such as fighter ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. After the war, many surplus aircraft were available cheaply, and the age of the barnstormer brought the first glimpse of an actual airplane to the people of small towns across the nation.
When Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in May 1927, two things happened: the airplane proved its reliability, and Lindbergh became the world’s first super hero. People began avidly following aviation and those who flew. Lindbergh was joined in the public eye by Amelia Earheart, Wiley Post, Jimmy Doolittle, and Howard Hughes. The flamboyant Roscoe Turner (who often flew with a lion cub) and others who competed in the National Air Races at Cleveland enthralled the nation. At the same time, explorers such as Martin and Osa Johnson used amphibian aircraft to explore the far corners of the world.
Speed, altitude, and distance records were set regularly, grabbing headlines and newsreel coverage. In this era of constant achievement and innovation, it was natural that the romance of aviation would join with the increasingly popular medium of radio.
At least 25 aviation-oriented shows were broadcast in the Golden Age of Radio. Some are known today only by scraps of promotional material, advertising, memories of listeners and performers, and, in some cases an audition disc. Others had long runs and many programs and/or scripts survive.
The first flying shows known aired beginning in 1932 --- Air Stories of the World War, and The Flying Family. An early big hit was the Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen (1933 –’37) transcribed to stations primarily in the Midwest, and sponsored by Skelly Oil.
No audience was more attracted or more deeply affected by aviation shows than young boys. Lying on their backs in front of the family radio, their hands clinched the controls of fictitious aircraft just as solid in their minds as the real thing. Several of the shows featured 15 or 16-year olds who were not only accomplished pilots, but solved crimes unfathomable to adults.
When it was announced that Jimmie Allen would fly into an airport near Hollywood to make his first feature motion picture, 10,000 (of the 600,000) members of the Jimmie Allen Flying Club gathered to meet their hero.
The program was written by two WWI fliers, Robert Burtt and Wilfred G. “Bill” Moore, who turned out to have a profound impact on shows about aviation. When Skelly Oil decided to develop a new flying hero in 1939, Burtt and Moore conceived what became the longest-lasting, and one of the most popular aviation shows, Captain Midnight (1939 –‘49). Transcribed at first, it soon went network, where it was sponsored by Ovaltine. The announcer was Pierre Andre, who could say: “BroughttoyoueverydayMondaythroughFriday” as if it were a single word, and whose earnest appeal made the show’s many premiums--especially the decoders of the Secret Squadron--the stuff of legend, even worth drinking Ovaltine to obtain.
When World War Two broke out, Captain Midnight’s enemies switched from Ivan Shark and his daughter Fury to the Germans and Japanese, and the shows featured realistic dogfighting scenes and sound effects.
The air war against the Axis that took place each afternoon on the radio was joined by Hop Harrigan, (1942-’48) known as “America’s Ace of the Airwaves,” who successfully made the jump from comic books. If Hop’s crew sounded a lot like that of Captain Midnight, there was good reason: Robert Burtt and Bill Moore were two of the show’s three writers.
For seniors of a certain age, the openings of these two shows are still notable. While the “Captain Midniiiiiiiigggghhhhht” voiced over a diving plane and a booming clock tower is more dramatic, the “CX4 calling control tower” opening of Hop Harrigan had the ring of aviation authenticity. Both were irrestible to young listeners.
When the war was over, many expected a new golden age of aviation, with airplanes as common as cars. Neither Captain Midnight nor Hop Harrigan was able to make the transition to peace time audiences for long. One show that did make the most of post-war aviation was Sky King, (1946-’54) “America’s Favorite Flying Cowboy.” The stories were of an Arizona rancher who used his plane, the Songbird to solve crimes, assisted by Penny and Clipper. Guess who wrote the shows? None other than Robert Burtt and Bill Moore. Not only did Sky King last for eight years on radio (the second longest run for a flying program), but he went on to a television series of 136 episodes.
While Captain Midnight, Hop Harrigan, and Sky King dominate the genre in retrospect, the ad agencies and networks at the time tried many others in their search for ever larger audiences. One notable flop was Smilin’ Jack, which, while a successful comic strip for 40 years, only lasted three months on radio (1939).
Here’s a listing of radio flying shows from several sources (thanks to Jack French), with known dates, key performers, and some notes. It does not presume to be exhaustive. As the recent discovery of more in the Howie Wing series shows (detailed in Radio Recall), there’s plenty of research yet to be done.
(1932) Air Stories of the World War
(1932) The Flying Family (resurrected in 1939 as The Flying Hutchinsons, based on real family)
(Early ‘30’s) Phantom Pilot Patrol (Howard Duff’s first starring role)
(Early ‘30’s) Ann of the Airlanes (only flying show with a female lead; aspiring stewardess)
(1933-’37) Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen (transcribed; new series in 1946-’47; written by Burtt and Moore)
(1935-’36) Flying Time (one of Harold Peary’s first radio roles)
(1937-’38) Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police (Howard McNear, Hanley Stafford, Elliott Lewis, San Edwards)
(1938-?) Howie Wing (Generally listed as one season, but recent research has turned up a second; written by Bill Moore)
(1939-’40) Sky Blazers (early shows hosted by Roscoe Turner, famous air racer, produced by Phillips H. Lord)
(1939) Smilin’ Jack (longest running flying comic strip--40 years--but shortest run of any radio flier)
(1939-’49) Captain Midnight (longest running aviation show, sponsored by Ovaltine; Ed Prentiss in title role, Pierre Andre, announcer)
(1941-’42) Tailspin Tommy (long running comic strip aviation character, first adventure strip made into movie (1934), made a total of six features)
(1940-’42) Wings of Destiny (30-minute show in adult 10 pm time slot, sponsored by Wings Cigarettes, starred John Hodiak for part of the series; Marvin Miller, announcer)
(1940’s) In the Air with Roger Gale (Audition discs, but apparently never broadcast)
(1942-’48) Hop Harrigan (Jackson Beck as Tank Tinker, Glenn Riggs, announcer)
(1942-’44) Wings to Victory (30 minute shows dramatizing air battles of WWII)
Other flying shows during WWII with heroes who were either in uniform, or quasi-military, include:
Don Winslow of the Navy (who often flew on his highly secret and dangerous missions)
Roosty (or Rusty) of the RAF
(1945-’46) Island Venture (30 minute shows at 10 pm time slot, south sea locale; Willard Waterman)
(1945-’46) The Sparrow and the Hawk (a 16-year old and his Army Air Corps Lt. Col. uncle)
(1946-’54) Sky King (all but one year sponsored by Peter Pan Peanut Butter; Mike Wallace, announcer; successful jump to television)
(1948) Steve Canyon (audition recordings only)
(1950-’51) I Fly Anything (last new network flying show; daring cargo pilot, played by Dick Haymes; George Fennemen, Georgia Ellis)
(1950-’54) Uncle Ned’s Squadron (WMAQ Chicago 30-minute Saturday morning show about aviation; Hugh Downs, announcer)
By the 1950’s, aviation was no longer a thrilling novelty, as increasingly large numbers of everyday people began to fly the nation’s airlines.
Much of the romance of flying had ended with the combat and horror of the war. At the same time, television started its inexorable inroads into what had been radio’s universal audience.
But for roughly 20 years, people shackled to the gritty daily reality of the Great Depression, and then WWII, could slip the bonds of earth for a few minutes as their radios brought them the thrill of taking off in a fast airplane to some far-off place on flights made both powerful and personal by their audio-fed imaginations. It was a time that will never come again, and for those who experienced it, to cherish.
(Author’s note: Many research sources, including John Dunning, credit Robert Burtt and Wilfred “Bill” Moore as writers for the long string of major aviation shows noted above, well into the 1950’s. However, Kathy Hammel’s investigations into the Howie Wing series (see August 2005 Radio Recall) turned up a New York Times obituary for Moore in July 1939, so these credits may need to be re-examined.)