GURNEY, HARLAN “BUD”. Charles Lindbergh’s oldest friend and a consultant for the 1953 film version of The Spirit of St. Louis. TLS. (“Bud”). lp. 4to. October 4, 1971. With a TMs of the anecdote mentioned, entitled A Year of Thirty Seconds. 7 ½ pp. 4to. N. p., N. d. Unsigned, with holograph emendations throughout. To Alden Whitman of the New York Times.
Typed Letter Signed and Manuscript about Barnstorming Pilot’s Adventures with His Close Friend Charles Lindbergh
“I make you a promise that the next anecdotes will be clean and pretty, not smudged, erased and scribbled as this one is and the others have been. We have found a good stenographer who needs to obtain extra earnings in her spare time. We can afford it and we can also afford to have someone known to you, re‑type the previous anecdotes [in holograph: this one too] if you know of such a person…Now that things have gone this far, and if you can take it, I am resigned to completing the whole batch. It would help, though, if I could stem [in holograph: HA‑HA] a tendency to violate all grammatical rules. In putting words on paper something happens and old faces, names not thought of for years and years; little details like the flags blooming in a forgotten garden, all come back to mind’s television. While that is happening, and it isn’t imagination, but memory; the words flow, expressing the feelings of that long ago in the words I used then. It’s awful! So I have my problems. [in holograph: I can’t spell either!] I hope you like this story of an early air show. Slim [Lindbergh] will remember this one, but maybe not precisely as I do. After all, I flew the ‘pick‑off’ airplane where I could view everything. He had the harder job. Actually we made five, not three tries to make that plane‑change. The anecdote tells enough with only three.”
The manuscript follows:
“’We’ were Charles Lindbergh, Frank Dunn and I. Our ‘advance man,’ Harry Perkins, had departed for Little Egypt (southern Illinois) more than a week before. He had given free tickets to our show to every barber who would hang our ‘Flying Circus’ poster under his shelf of shaving mugs…he gave outrageous interviews to editors of country newspapers about “his” aviators: “Beans” Lindbergh was the only pilot who had looped the loop about Ed’s Bridge: ‘Upside down’ Dunn, really liked to fly that way best. Once he carried his enthusiasm a bit too far: He billed me as ‘Captain Gurni, the great French Ace’!…It was an enterprise of close margins; close on time; close on profit. Hurry to get the passengers out of the front cockpit and two new ones in. A dozen flights to a filling of gasoline and three quarts of Mobile B. No time to really taste the noonday sandwich or the quick swig of soda‑pop while passengers were lined up and waiting. A crowd like that didn’t come along, cash in hand, every day. While one pilot was overhead stunting the other two were hopping passengers…Lindbergh looped the loop a dozen times or so and ended with a spectacular split‑ess landing. I flew Herb Budd through his scheduled wing‑walking act and taxied to the flight line with Herb still riding an upper wing…The afternoon painted shadows as the day wore on and yet people seemed not to be leaving…Slowly the air grew sultry. Suddenly the western sky was black and purple. Our breese [sic] became a wind and the nearby threes began to bow as they do to an approaching thunderstorm. Harry Perkins ran to my airplane as I taxied in. ‘Bud,’ he yelled, ‘I’ve already told Slim that we have to do the plane‑change now!’ “Why, Harry, is that so important now? We’ve had a good day. Look at those clouds.’ Harry’s answer was to the point, ‘If we don’t do that change we don’t get a dime! Our contract is all‑or‑nothing!’ Oh, Lord. ‘Slim,’ Budd was saying, ‘Those clouds aren’t very close and the wind isn’t really very strong. I think we can do it before the rain hits. Maybe I can even make that last parachute jump. It won’t hurt to try.’… In moments we were at our planned three hundred feet and turning back toward the grandstand…Herb, in the meantime was out of Slim’s front cockpit and making his way to the outer wing strut…I opened the throttle ever so slowly. The grandstand was drifting under my left lower wing while my right one trailed Lindbergh’s upper wing by only two or three feet…It will look too easy to the spectators, Budd was signaling. Jink the elevators; and rock the wings; Pretend you and Lindbergh are trying to avert a collision.
We’ were Charles Lindbergh, Frank Dunn and I. Our ‘advance man,’ Harry Perkins, had departed for Little Egypt (southern Illinois) more than a week before. He had given free tickets to our show to every barber who would hang our ‘Flying Circus’ poster under his shelf of shaving mugs…
So I hammed it up. I could almost see the crowd standing on it’s [sic] toes; strong men with insides tied in knots and timid ladies shrieking at our ‘near miss.’ Lindbergh, with Herb still there on his wing could add little to the maneuvering [sic]. It wasn’t needed!…It was becoming difficult to hold formation as gusts reached up to rock our wings…Herb by this time no longer stood erect. Sensibly, he crouched, clutching a cabane wire with one hand…Throttle opened, my wing came toward Herb. At first I thought it in his hands, then suddenly, a downdraft took him away. Snatching the throttle closed, I pulled the stick back to slow up. No use, an updraft was driving Budd upward again much too swiftly. It took hard left rudder to get out of way…Perhaps we should have given up right there. I was placing far too much confidence in Lindbergh’s endurance. I wondered, too, how long Herb could hang on to his fragile footing above Slim’s wing…But time stopped. It seemed a day passed; then a week; then a month, before I felt Herb hanging from my wing. Pulling back on the stick, I tried to climb away but could not. The magic of lift had left our wings. Lindbergh’s wing came upward rapidly toward Herb who was hanging by bare hands from my wing‑skid. Until Herb could get his leg over the steel half circle it was important that I make slow corrections with the controls. Anything else might break his grip! Desperately Lindbergh was trying to take his wing away and, as his surge of wind continued, hard left aileron did the best it could…Slowly as time dragged on and on, Lindbergh’s ship, still lifting on the gust, tilted left, began sliding under ours. Quickly, I snatched my throttle closed. The other ship’s propeller was much too close to Herb, still kicking at the wing to keep our ships apart. Slowly, as if there were no calanders [sic], the other ship broke clear and from my sight with Herb yet hanging from my wing. A year passed! I don’t know how long I held my breath but at the end of time, I saw Herb Budd’s hand reach past the wing’s leading edge, test his grip and drag himself to safety on the wing. Only then did moments resume their ancient pace. In crossing the grandstand for our landing in the smell of rain, we could observe whole lines of people flowing toward the shelter of the roofed grandstand, and a trickle of cars homeward bound down a no longer dusty lane…Then it poured! With leatherjackets draped over our heads, we too fled to the grandstand. There we found the veteran’s committee awaiting us. I dreaded hearing what they would say. After all, Herb hadn’t performed that last scheduled parachute jump. Harry Perkins stared at the floor. “Gentlemen,” I heard their chairman say, ‘There’ll never be another show like that. I say you more than earned your money!’ So ended one day ‑when aviation was but show business. And a year that lasted only thirty seconds!”
In 1922, twenty‑year‑old Charles (“Slim”) Lindbergh (1902‑1974), signed up with Nebraska Aircraft and met “Bud” Gurney who was working as an odd‑jobber. Having made his first flight that spring, Lindbergh and Gurney joined an aviation tour. Still in its infancy and largely considered entertainment, aviation appropriated the theatrical tradition of “barnstorming,” giving informal exhibitions, sightseeing tours, and performing death‑defying acts to lure its customers. A generation later, Lindbergh sold the film rights of his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Spirit of St. Louis to Warner Brothers studio, but insisted that Gurney, now flying DC‑6s for United Airlines, oversee its production and monitor the film for accuracy. “Gurney got to take a lucrative leave from his commercial flying, and Lindbergh had his oldest friend shepherding the filmmakers if they ever strayed too far from the truth” (Lindbergh, Berg). Directed by Billy Wilder, The Spirit of St. Louis starred the incomparable Jimmy Stewart in the leading role. Although it failed to generate the attendance Warner Brothers had hoped for, Stewart was pleased with the film, saying that he had gotten “right into Slim’s character” (Charles A. Lindbergh: Lone Eagle, Hixson). The real “Slim” did not help the film at all, according to Stewart, as his characteristic dislike of publicity impeded the personal appearances which would have generated interest in the movie.
A fine example from one of the men who knew “Slim” best. In fine condition. Rare.
A Scene from the Movie “The Spirit of St. Louis” (1957) with Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh and Murray Hamilton as Harlan “Bud” Gurney