|HOW it all began was that I was in
need of a job. The Great Lakes School was closed down after the
Armistice was signed; so I knew I'd be out of Navy active duty
pretty quick. I had been a mechanics mate in charge of the Sixth
Unit, instructing the maintenance of the Liberty engine and
oddballs like the Hisso-Green and Hall-Scott six-cylinder. When
I saw what was coming, I had some cards printed up saying, "Carl
Schory, Aeronautical Engine Mechanic," and started passing them
out to anyone who might have been in a position to give me work.
| One of my final duties found me assigned to the War
Mothers Festival at the Coliseum in Milwaukee in the fall of
1918. We had a cutaway Liberty engine there, and I was supposed
to explain it to whoever came along. While I was there, two men
came up to me and quizzed me quite severely on the motor. I lit
up a White Owl (not paying much mind to regulations, at that
point) and tried to describe it patiently to them like I would
| Then they showed me a sketch of a gigantic biplane, with a
huge cabin section and two Libertys out on the wings. They said
that the "Lawson Airplane Company" was going to build this plane
and establish an airline stretching from New York to San
Francisco. They were serious fellows, so I didn't immediately
burst out laughing or call them fools. Instead, I looked at the
sketch again, frowned, and bit down on my cigar.
| Then I slipped them a card and said, "Whenever you need
somebody to clean your sparkplugs, give me a ring."
| After that, the whole incident slipped my mind. A few
weeks after the Festival I was discharged. I went down to my
folks' place in Ft. Wayne and settled for a few oddjobs here and
there. In March of 1919, to my surprise, I got a letter signed
by Al Lawson offering me a job. So I got in my Model T and drove
back up to Milwaukee, where I put the letter on Lawson's desk
and said, "Here I am. I'm ready to go to work."
| He looked at me and asked, "When can you start?"
| I said, "I can start tomorrow morning."
| The Lawson Airplane Company factory was located in a loft
over the Cream City Sash and Door Co. It was there that we were
to manufacture the component parts of the plane. At the time I
came aboard the engines hadn't arrived yet; therefore my role
was limited to being a sort of errand-boy. The factory manager,
John Carisi, would come up with a list of things they needed to
buy, and I'd hop in my Ford and go get them.
| From Carisi I learned that Al Lawson, Lee Wallace, and
Vincent Burnelli had sat down and designed this plane when the
War ended. Before then, they had been gearing up to sell their
own self-built military planes up in Green Bay. They had got as
far as flying a couple of prototypes when the Germans called it
quits. They immediately made plans for a peacetime switchover to
this big passenger plane; but the Green Bay financial men behind
the operation backed off when they heard this idea.
| So Lawson and Burnelli went to New York to raise money.
Lawson had published some aviation magazines there, and Burnelli
had been a head of the Continental Aircraft corporation in
Amityville, N.Y. Despite these connections, they didn't have any
luck in New York; apparently Lawson was on the skids with the
Aircraft Manufacturing Association for some reasons and so no
one gave him the time of day. As a last resort they hit on John
Koerner, who's a big wheel here in Milwaukee and,
coincidentally, a relative of Burnelli's mother. The idea caught
on, and within a few days aviation and Lawson became bigger than
beer. Enough money came in to get the organization started.
| This was the point where I had come in. Lawson was feeling
good; the day after I arrived, he afforded himself the rare
luxury of going down to Chicago to romance some women of his
acquaintance. Of course, I didn't know him then; I had no idea
at the time that this was the only acknowledged evidence I would
ever see that Lawson was capable of intimacy with another human
being. When he got back to Milwaukee, the men in the factory
kidded him about being a ladykiller. He was asked when he was
going to get married.
| Lawson scoffed, "Why should I cut myself in two?" He had
no use for the institution of marriage.
| Not that Al Lawson did not cut a fine figure to the female
eye. He was fifty years old and in perfect physical condition.
He stood six feet, looked tough as nails, had a jaw chiseled of
rock, and a high intelligent forehead. His eyes were bright and
clear, but didn't give away his inner thoughts. Short, wavy
locks of hair were kept flawlessly groomed. In both his bearing
and his character Lawson reminded me of a few examples of Navy
top brass that I had seen: aloof, ramrod-straight, totally
confident in his own reasoning, and expectant that others will
jump to it when ordered. And, like a few captains and admirals
I've seen, maybe Lawson was a little crazy, too.
| Lawson was also quite a pitchman, as I soon observed.
Although we had funds to start construction of the planet by
late April our credit was in a bad way. The only method of
getting more money was by selling stock shares in the company.
So, with my Model T, I became Lawson's driver, and took him
around to homes in the Milwaukee area where he would try to sell
stock door-to-door. He usually came back to the car with money
in hand. After a while of this, however, I began to notice that
the houses we stopped at were populated by widows and orphans.
| It slowly dawned on me that when Wallace and Burnelli had
come up to me at the War Mothers Festival, they weren't there
just to seek out my services. They had gone there to get a list
of names for Lawson. Once I figured this out, I asked Lawson
straight out, "How can you take money from these people?"
| We were in the car and Lawson gave me a hard stare. "Look,
son," he said, "I've had it up to my neck with professional
financiers. All they give a hoot for is the bottom line. They
don't care a damn what you're doing, as long as there's a
glimmer of easy money for them in the offing. They don't deserve
to see any profits from our venture.
| "If Congress had listened to my warnings before the War,
and had built an aerial fleet second to none, maybe these
families would still have their husbands and their fathers.
There's a fortune to be made in commercial aviation, and these
folks should be in it from the start. We owe it to them. Their
hopes have been shattered. I go into their homes and give them a
dream that they can believe in--a dream that can be realized
with their help. We're still going to need bankers, but these
people are our real supporters."
| Lawson then told me to drive to the address of the next
house. I did. Like I said, he was quite a pitchman.
| So I was content to do the errands and collect my $50.00 a
week, which was fairly good pay. In late June, I was given the
responsibility of constructing the landing gear. The designs
called for two sets of tires slung underneath the wings on each
side of the fuselage. For the axles, I went to the local
junkyard and spotted a big, old truck with an axle about 2 1/2
to 3 inches square. I strapped it to my car, brought it back to
the factory, cut it down, and put the parts on the plane.
| The four wheels we used were Goodyear Auto Tires. That's
what I had on my Ford and I always had good luck with them. The
only thing was, no one knew how much air pressure to put in
them. I reasoned that once the plane was all together complete
with engines, we should just pump the tires until they sat up.
That suggestion prevailed, to my later regret.
| Then we discovered that the mud guards we had already made
were the same radius as the tires. I took the guards over to
Carisi and they were pounded out, but they still wouldn't fit.
The plans were redrawn, the mud guards banged out again, and
then fitted on. You might assume that this plane was being
slapped together from scratch, but that really wasn't the case.
As the summer progressed, I had to admit that it was a truly
beautiful machine. There were a dozen other craftsmen in the
shop, foremost among them being Thomas Hamilton who made the
propeller and other pieces. These men were geniuses with their
hands. I was confident that if the thing didn't fly it would be
no fault of the workmanship
| I tried to forget that Wallace and Burnelli had used a
streetcar as a model for the cabin. I pushed out of my mind the
rumor that the aerodynamics had been figured from magazine
articles. So what if there weren't to be any internal
cross-braces? So what if, for the first time in history, a
person would be able to stand up and walk erect inside an
airplane? So what if the pilot would be inside as well? And so
what if the monstrosity was three-no, four--times as large as a
Spad or a Newport? No one mentioned these things aloud. It was
enough to know that in the back of their minds each man who
touched that plane knew that it was one of the most daring
engineering feats in the world.
| Aside from pure size, it was the coach space that made the
plane unique. The cabin itself, without the tailpiece, measured
25 ft. long, over 6 ft. wide, and 7 ft. high. In place of
cross-braces, there were laminated wood bulkheads. This enclosed
space, amazingly like a streetcar or a train, included the
cockpit where the pilots would be. There was no partition or
wall between the passenger space and the pilot area, so that
everyone aboard would have a view of how the plane was being
controlled. This little factor was also to be later regretted.
| Throughout the cabin, lightweight flexiglass was used in
copious amounts. Those bulkheads opened up so much room that it
was like what flying buttresses did for stained glass in Gothic
cathedrals. When you were in the cabin, the whole thing seemed
like glass. In front of the cockpit was a curved panel of
flexiglass measuring 6 ft. by 6 ft., making the entire nose of
the plane transparent. On either side of the cockpit were
door-sized windows. The passenger section had nine windows on
each side, each 2 ft. by 3 ft. Everyone who would fly in that
plane would know that they were in the air; they wouldn't be
able to escape the view of the sky.
| The tailpiece was slightly larger than the cabin, making
the combined length of the fuselage 52 ft. The wings, when
assembled, would span 95 ft. It was no mystery why the
bankrollers in Green Bay had balked and no surprise that the New
York aeronautical community had passed this project by. The
damned thing was just so big!
| When it came time to assemble all the separate parts of
the plane, Lawson arranged a minor coup by having the Governor
of Wisconsin loan us the use of a huge building out at the State
Fair grounds. Since our loft was on the second storey, we had to
tear up the flooring to get the cabin out and down. At the Fair
grounds we put together the pieces. The engines had arrived, so
I finally had a chance to put my expertise to work. They were
two 400hp Libertys, rigged as tractors to pull the plane through
the air. The gasoline and oil tanks were situated out on the
wings with the engines.
| The fuselage was painted forest green, while the wings
were a bright red. Along the-tailpiece in 4 ft. tall white
letters, the words "Lawson Air Line" had been painted. Inside
the cabin we placed eighteen wicker seats backed with leather
cushions. Wicker was the most light-weight material we could
think of for seats. Each seat was next to a window, with an
aisle dividing the rows on either side.
| Despite the fact that there were eighteen seats, Old Man
Lawson persisted in telling the newspapers that the thing could
carry twenty-six passengers. Burnelli, who confided to me that
he never wanted to see more than fourteen people aboard
(including crew), tried to muzzle Lawson on this point. Lawson
wouldn't listen; he claimed that we could put a plank over the
aisle and seat people on it. Lawson threw these numbers around
to impress the public with the idea that he was going to make
buses and trains obsolete virtually overnight. He even told one
reporter that sixty "straphangers" could fit inside. As for me,
I had my doubts that the plane, magnificent as it was, would fly
| As the airliner neared completion Lawson began
interviewing pilots. Burnelli convinced him to call in Bert
Acosta, acknowledged asone of the most courageous fliers in the
world. Acosta came up to Milwaukee to check out the offer.
Lawson, Burnelli, and I escorted him around the machine for
nearly an hour.
| When we got to the cockpit, Acosta took one look and said,
"What's with the two seats? I've never seen that before. Is
someone gonna sit by my side and keep me company?"
| Acosta had brought up a point that I had wondered about
myself. I had supposed that if anything, the purpose of the two
seats was for one pilot to spell another on long flights. I was
taken aback when Lawson looked Acosta in the eye and told him,
"On the Lawson Air Liner I will be the captain and navigator.
You will be the co-pilot."
| Acosta was stunned. "What the Hell is a 'co-pilot?'"
| Lawson appeared equally surprised that Acosta would ask
such a question. He explained, "I will operate the throttles.
You will take off, land, and do most of the steering under my
| Bert's eyes widened in disbelief. He looked to Burnelli
and I, hoping we would tell him it was just a joke. Instead we
stared at the ground and shuffled our feet. Finally, Acosta
turned back to Lawson. "Mister," he said, "You're out of your
fucking mind! If anyone dared to mess with me while I'm at the
controls I'd kick the living shit out of them!"
| Acosta then stomped past us, muttering more profanities.
He never looked back at us.
| Following the misadventure with Acosta, Lawson had a
succession of pilots come up from McCook Field in Dayton, site
of the Army's Experimental Flight Test Field. These were men who
were just as cocky as Acosta, with nerves of steel. However,
Lawson didn't even have a chance to enlighten them to his
piloting method. They all took one look at the plane and said we
had built ourselves a "house on wings" which meant sure death
for any fool who attempted to fly it. This was the opinion of
men who daily flew untried aircraft.
| This turn of events made me more than a little nervous. I
still had quite a few payments to make on my car, and in the
past weeks Lawson had taken to paying part of our wages in
company shares. If the plane was not going to fly, my financial
condition would be pretty bleak. I also didn't want to see
anyone, even Lawson, risk injury or death.
| Sometime in mid-July, the boys in the factory were passing
around one of the Milwaukee newspapers. I didn't know about the
others, but when I read the paper I had one eye on the aviation
news and the other open for job advertisements. In the aviation
notes, we spotted an item from Denver hailing the homecoming of
a local hero, Captain Charles L. Cox. Cox had been an ace in the
RAF with nine German planes to his credit. He had also flown
missions in heavy bombers like the Handley-Page.
| A few days later, who should walk into our shop but
Captain Charles Cox himself, or "Louis Charles Cox" as he
announced himself. I have to say that he didn't match my ideal
image of an ace. He was only about 5'6" tall, and couldn't have
weighed over 110 pounds. He was nattily outfitted and wore kid
gloves turned partly-back over his wrists. He shook hands with
| Burnelli came out and asked him in for an interview with
Lawson. Minutes later, I was invited into the office to test his
knowledge of mechanics. From what I could see, Cox wasn't acting
like a man who had come all the way from Denver to get this job.
He seemed distracted, ill-at-ease, and wouldn't look any of us
in the eye. Lawson asked him what he did before joining the RAF.
Cox mentioned something about having been a professional
| Burnelli inquired as to whether he had flown the large
Handley-Page Model 0400. Cox hesitated slightly, and then
jauntily replied, "Oh, yes." We shot questions about that plane
at him, such as where the instruments were located and how the
engine handled. He responded with a tone of bored disinterest;
some answers were right and some were wrong. Cox was confirming
everything I had heard about the glamour boys of the RAF and
their snooty arrogance when it came to mechanical details. I
half expected him to say that all he need to fly was a wink and
| Lawson chose this time to divulge his "co-pilot" notion on
Cox. To everyone's surprise, Cox, after some initial confusion
over the idea, seemed to take it in stride. I formed a mental
picture of the strapping-big Lawson leaning over and whacking
the tiny Cox in the head if he didn't do what Lawson ordered. A
moment later, Cox was separately ushered outside to look over
the plane. Lawson stood up and looked at Burnelli and me.
| "I'm willing to give him a chance," Lawson grinned. "I'm
not sure he's tall enough to reach the controls, though."
| Cox studied the plane for well over two hours--what for, I
don't know. We walked over to him, and Lawson inquired, "Well,
Charlie, what do you think?"
| Cox puffed up to his full height and stared up at Lawson.
"Mr. Lawson," he said, "I will go anywhere in that airliner with
you and do anything you order me to do."
| Lawson was a sucker for earnest gumption like that. We had
| The day came when we were to move the assembled plane from
the Fair grounds to a vacant field in New Butler, about five
miles away. The Milwaukee politicos lent us the services of the
city's maintenance force in order to clear the field of brush
and smooth it over. The next problem was the road leading to the
field--it wasn't very wide, and was lined with overhanging
| We removed the outer wing sections and did our best to cut
the bushes back. A big crowd turned out to escort the machine
along the path. However, going around some tight curves, the
truck hauling the plane proved to be underpowered. An emergency
call was sent out to a nearby brewery, and soon a team of
Clydesdale horses came out to help us. It took two whole days,
but with the help of horse and manpower we finally reached the
| Old Man Lawson called a press conference and announced the
time of the first test run of the engines. Due to the publicity,
a large crowd turned out to witness that event. Paul Gauer,
secretary to Mayor Hoan, explained to the assemblage that we
would run the airliner on the ground across the field once or
twice. Lawson made a speech and then Mrs. John Pfingsten, a
stockholder, christened the plane with a bottle of champagne.
The Lawson Air Liner stood out in the field, shimmering in the
| I mingled among the throng and overheard more than one
wager as to whether or not our machine would fly. Apparently the
sporting men, who seemed to make up a large percentage of the
crowd, weren't convinced that we were only out to test the
motors. I sought out Vince Burnelli and dragged him aside.
| "Listen," I told him. "These people have the impression
that the plane might go up today."
| Burnelli paused before whispering, "Keep it under your
hat, but I heard Lawson tell Cox that if the engines were
running alright, he would throw the throttles open and take it
| "Damn!" I declared with disgust. I was thinking of my car
payments. "Look, exactly how much flying time does the Old Man
have under his belt?"
| Burnelli clicked his tongue. "Well, the first time he flew
was with Bud Mars back in 1911, if you can believe it. Lawson
sat out there on Mars' wing. Then he took lessons from a couple
of flying schools in 1913 in exchange for advertisements in his
magazines. He learned on a Sloan-Deperdussin and a
Moisant-Bleriot. That same year he bought his own Thomas Flying
Boat and used it to commute a couple of times from Keyport, N.J.
to Manhattan. Since then, he made one of the test flights of the
Lawson military plane up in Green Bay. He didn't impress anyone
with the skill he showed there."
| "That's it?" I said.
| "I've been concerned about it myself," Burnelli confided.
"Wallace and I would put papers on Lawson's desk, and he would
pick them up and move them back and forth in front of his eyes
like a trombone. He doesn't want to admit that he needs glasses,
I guess. Wallace and I insisted that a good pilot like Cox
should be at his side. I'll be honest with you: I wouldn't set a
foot on that plane if Charlie Cox had less than five German
planes to his credit."
| When the ceremonies were over, Lawson, Cox, and Burnelli
(a brave man) got in and took their places. The plane was
positioned on the makeshift runway. A 20 m.p.h. tailwind blew
from behind it, so that on the ground the airliner should have
been able to speed up to 50 m.p.h. I stepped up and spun the
props to start the engines. Lawson was waving out his window at
the cameras. I tried to quickly melt into the crowd.
| Before I had taken five steps, I heard Lawson bellow,
"Where's the Engine Man?"
| Someone pushed me forward and the Old Man ordered me
aboard. People around me were hooting in derision. I found
myself climbing in the cabin door, near the cockpit. Inside I
prayed to myself, "Please, let's just taxi along the ground a
| Lawson gave a last wave and shoved the throttles all the
way forward. "God almighty!" I thought, "He hasn't even warmed
up the engines!"
| The airliner moved forward, gathering speed. A solid bank
of trees loomed ahead of us at the end of the field.
| My hopes were daunted as I heard Lawson command Cox,
"Steer for those trees and clear them by 50 ft."
| Cox swallowed hard and nodded. He pulled back on the
controls with all the strength in his puny arms. We became
airborne. We reached the end of the field, clearing the treetops
by a considerable margin. Cox and Lawson were glued to the
controls. Moments passed, and we were still in a full power
climb with the throttles on full. Burnelli leaned forward and
hinted to Lawson that he ought to cut back. Lawson snapped out
of whatever reverie he was in and did as Vince had suggested.
| "Level off and turn left," he ordered Cox.
| The engines, which had been sounding like they were on the
verge of overheating, cooled down a bit. "Burnelli's a cool
cucumber," I thought. He said he was pleased that the aerleons
were functioning easily. We cruised along smoothly. I glanced at
the gauges, out at the engines, at our pilots, and then the
| "You know," I said aloud. "This is only my second airplane
flight." No one was listening.
| Then I stole another look at the oil pressure gauge for
our left engine. It was plummeting. "Oh, Christ!" I cried.
"Let's get the Hell down there!"
| When they discovered what I was babbling about, Lawson
told Cox to return to the field. Cox leaned forward to look out
the window. His jaw dropped. "Where is it?" He asked.
| We all stared downward. None of us had any idea what
Milwaukee looked like from the air. I decided to let them figure
it out; I was busy watching the damn gauge go down. Lawson
spotted a cow pasture. He pointed it out to Cox.
| "Land there!"
| We descended into a terrific crosswind. The plane hit the
ground in a series of hops. I heard the tires explode (we had
filled them with 65 pounds of pressure). I saw two of the wheels
careen away from us, like runaways in a child's game of stick
and hoop. Mercifully, we finally ground to a halt.
| Everyone aboard sighed. "So," Burnelli grinned. "It
| We tumbled out onto solid ground, which I blessed. I saw
that the other two tires had blown out, too, but were still
attached to the airliner. Suddenly automobiles full of
enthusiastic wellwishers zoomed into the cow pasture. We had
landed only minutes away from our original field.
| Over the next couple of days, we made our repairs there in
the cow pasture. New tires were fitted on and spares were loaded
aboard as a precaution. We topped off the gas tanks. I
discovered that our scare had been caused by the oil pressure
gauge itself. The metal high pressure lines that ran from the
engine to the gauges were joined by a flimsy rubber coupling.
This joint had torn off during our flight.
| On August 27th, 1919, I drove a few of the boys out to the
pasture where the airliner rested. Lawson and company were
already there, making preparations for some taxiing runs. This
time Lawson saw fit to give us advance notice that we might take
the plane up and fly it over to our original field. I threw my
coat and hat into my Ford and braced myself to the prospect of
being invited to take part in another trial flight.
| Lawson, Cox, Burnelli, myself, and another mechanic named
Andy Surini climbed into the airliner. We took off without
incident, ascended to several thousand feet and headed north. We
knew it was north because Lake Michigan was on our right. About
ten miles out, Lawson had Cox turn us around, and we headed back
towards Milwaukee. By any measure, it was a successful run.
| As we neared the city, though, we were shocked to hear
Lawson command Cox to follow the shoreline south.
| "Where are we going?" Surini asked, wiping his sweating
palms on his overalls.
| "Chicago!" Lawson declared with high drama.
| Surini's hands froze in mid-wipe. Burnelli and I looked
heavenwards. I reflected that my car was sitting back there in
the pasture with all my gear in it. I consoled myself with the
knowledge that my rent was paid up. Lawson turned around and
asked me to run up and down the cabin aisle. He wanted to see if
it would disturb the balance of the airliner. For lack of
anything else, I did as he instructed. I marched back and forth
through the cabin, all the time thinking that I had probably
done nothing sillier all my life. Surini was directed to join me
in this workout. We took turns jogging the length of the aisle.
| Lawson had been watching us with a benign smile. Suddenly,
he couldn't tolerate being a mere spectator. "Boys," he said,
"You are the first men to stand up and run inside an airplane.
Now step aside and let me try it." Lawson got up, entrusting the
controls to Cox.
| Surini, for his part, was as goggle-eyed as a fish. He was
breathing heavily not from running the aisle, but from
hyperventilation. We stood aside as Lawson clomped by us.
"Smooth as ice!" Lawson shouted gleefully, as he executed a
perfect baseball slide down the aisle. Then, I swear, he got up
and skipped down the passageway like a little girl.
| Our amazement had only begun. Lawson frolicked up to
Surini and I and dug his hands deep down into his pockets. He
withdrew a clutch of glass spheres. Marbles. "Let's really test
this things boys," he exhorted. And so, with our individual
allotment of aggies and catseyes, we fell to the floor and added
a new first to aviation history. The Old Man had a dead aim.
Surini was trembling so much that he could hardly hold his
shooter. Before my turn came, the floor dipped and the marbles
went scattering. "Lawson's lost his marbless" I thought dully.
| We turned to Cox, who looked like a little child at the
controls, with Burnelli leaning over his shoulder. Charlie
stated that he was having trouble keeping the plane on an even
keel. That wasn't difficult to understand, seeing as he had only
the horizon to judge by. Lawson returned to Charlie's side.
| It was getting near to 7:00 PM. The sun was still bright
up at our height, but it soon became difficult to make out the
lake. We were just about over Waukegan, I guessed. We passed
over the drainage canal and then headed southeast until we were
over the Chicago Clearing Railroad yards. From there the hangers
of Ashburn Field were visible.
| To help Cox with the airliner's angle of descent, Burnelli
monitored the roll of the wings while Cox concentrated on the
fore and aft pitch. We approached the field prettily. There
weren't any head or crosswinds to deal with this time.
| Charlie landed us perfectly. I was especially satisfied to
see that the wheels didn't explode or pop off. Surini scrambled
out, crossed himself, and kissed the soil.
| There was only a handful of people there when we touched
down, but within an hour several hundred people gathered round
the plane. I passed out cigars until I ran out of them. Hordes
of newspapermen surrounded us. "Where's your next destination?"
one of them shouted. Surini and I were at that moment posing in
front of the airliner for a photograph.
| "On to New York!" Lawson declared. The flashbulb went off.
The next morning the picture showed up in the Tribune. Surini
looked like he had just seen a ghost. I had a smug smile on my
face; I had learned what to expect from Lawson.
| It must have been 9:30 PM before we left the field and
checked into a hotel. Only then did I remember my car sitting in
the pasture back in Milwaukee. I got on the telephone and made a
call up to the crew there. They were hysterical; my call was the
first news they'd heard of our fate since we'd left sight of the
pasture. They'd thought we must have crashed somewhere. When I
told them we had made it down to Chicago, they thought I was
pulling their leg.
| The next morning, the Tribune and the Herald-Examiner ran
front page stories on our flight. From the dining room of the
Blackstone Hotel Lawson had a brunch session with
representatives of the afternoon papers: the American; the News;
the Journal; and the Post. I overheard Lawson describe to them
his plans for the future:
| "I expect to have 100 ships in operation between New York
and San Francisco by next spring. The flying schedule will call
for thirty-six air hours from coast-to-coast. Our
sleeping-compartment plane will leave New York in the evening,
and on arrival in Chicago in the morning, the passengers will be
transferred to a chair ship, which will carry them to Salt Lake
City. In the evening at Salt Lake City, they will be transferred
back to a sleeping plane and will land in Frisco the next
morning. The chair ships used on this route will be just like
the one I came in yesterday. The sleeping-compartment ships are
almost finished now up at the Lawson Airplane Company's shops in
| "Chicago will be the center not only of the
transcontinental lines but also of feeder lines running north
and south. One branch will run from Chicago to St. Paul, and
eventually to Seattle. Another will reach from Chicago to
Milwaukee, then on to Duluth, terminating in Winnipeg. A third
will stretch from here to St. Louis, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
There will also be a line from Chicago that will hit Detroit,
Toronto, and Quebec. Finally, we'll have a route from Chicago to
Pittsburgh and on to Washington."
| I was hard pressed to figure how a dozen employees were
going to build 100 copies of the "World's Largest Airplane" (as
one of the Chicago rags hailed it; actually, Burnelli told me
that the French had a bomber somewhere that was slightly larger)
over the winter. I also wondered where the sleeping-berth model
was hidden. I was further puzzled at where we were going to find
100 old truck axles for landing gear. Finally, I had a fleeting
doubt that there were 100 former RAF aces walking around in need
of a job. Lawson, I concluded, did not dream small.
| After a few days in Chicago, our impromptu itinerary
called for a flight to Toledo, Ohio, 250 miles away. Besides
Lawson, Cox, Burnelli, Surini, and myself we took along Mr. Krum
of the Chicago Tribune, Sam Blair of the Herald Examiner, Edgar
Croft of the American, and the noted Chicago aviator Ralph
Diggins. Both Blair and Krum had been in the U.S. Air Service in
France. Lawson, as navigator, used Diggins to help him spot the
Wabash rail lines leading out of the city.
| Edgar Croft was a real strange bird. Besides being a
reporter, he subscribed to some strange Christian sect that
firmly believed the Earth was flat. He told me that there was a
whole community of people like him living in Zion City,
Wisconsin, under the direction of Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva.
Croft maintained that flying in an airplane in no way effected
his faith. I sort of shied away from Croft after he had told me
all this. He and Lawson got along tremendously.
| Blair fell asleep as soon as we passed Gary, Indiana.
Croft banged away on a typewriter he had brought. I spent most
of my time hopping around looking at the engines. The weather
had started out fine, but before long we headed into punk
visibility-fog, rain, and heavy clouds. To dodge the clouds we
flew down low, at one point buzzing over a church. I saw the
preacher and his congregation pile out of the building and point
up in the air at us. I wondered if they were praising our glory
or damning us as an infernal machine.
| Lawson had been told that Maumee Park in Toledo was
suitable for a landing. It was easy to find--we just followed
the railroad tracks until we spotted the Maumee River, and there
it was. It looked a little short, but Lawson instructed Cox to
try it anyway. As we descended toward the field, we noticed that
there seemed to be some sort of debris strewn over the field.
The airliner lowered to within ten feet of the ground.
| Burnelli shouted, "Stop! The place is covered with lumber!
We can't land here!"
| Cox instantly pulled the nose up. We just missed a line of
trees on the rights but then a bridge span materialized ahead of
us. Cox banked to the right. Our lower wing barely cleared the
bridge. By instinct, Charlie shoved the throttles open to get
more power. Lawson barked at him to keep his hands off the
| When we were out of danger, Blair stumbled forward. He
yelled over the engine noise, "They just had the Dempsey-Willard
prizefight here! I guess they dismantled the stands, but didn't
clear out the wood!"
| Diggins then crowded around and offered a more practical
suggestion. "I know a field nearby," he said. "I once landed
| We headed for Diggins' field, which turned out to be a
farm about ten miles outside Toledo. Cox guided the plane down,
but Lawson abruptly cut the throttles. We dropped like a stone
and hit the ground, The tail skid caught in some brush along a
harrow and I thought the whole back end would shear off. But it
broke free and Charlie made the ground loop. Two tires popped
| Diggins' farmer friend and his wife treated us to a
| The next day we headed into town and were given a luncheon
by the Toledo Chamber of Commerce. Over a toast, Lawson
announced his familiar offer to sell stock in the company to all
citizens of the cities on the proposed routes. This suddenly
included Toledo. Moreover, Lawson shrewdly advocated that
landing fields and facilities should be financed through the
sale of municipal bonds. I suppose the previous days' adventure
had brought home the importance of this to Lawson's plans. At
any rate, he was heartily cheered.
| That afternoon at 5:30 PM, we set out for Cleveland. Since
it was Labor Day, there was a large crowd in Toledo to see us
away. A bunch of young girls swarmed over Lawson, pleading with
him to take them along. Lawson was immensely pleased. Diggins,
our savior, stayed behind, but the Chicago journalists decided
to continue onwards. To their number were added reporters from
the Toledo Bee and the Blade.
| Blair and Krum both fell asleep within five minutes. Croft
pecked away at his "Ship's Log." Lake Erie, to the north,
glistened from the rays of the setting sun. Below us, farms,
lakes, and rivers stretched as far as the eye could see. It was
so peaceful that I almost forgot that sooner or later we would
have to land.
| Nonetheless, we came down uneventfully an hour and twenty
minutes later, alighting on Glenn Martin's field in Cleveland.
Martin's aircraft plant was right next to the field. Martin had
sent a letter to Lawson with directions to the field; he
personally came out to greet us. Alongside him were Lawrence
Bell, his manager, and Donald Douglas, his engineer. We parked
the airliner next to Martin's "Round the Rim" ship. Martin had
an impressive shop there, in which all the Martin bombers had
been built. We stayed two days to check over our plane.
| On September 3rds we took off for Buffalo, N.Y. The two
Toledo reporters were replaced with three from Cleveland, but we
retained our entourage of Chicago newshounds. None of the
reporters we carried ever paid for their passage, since Lawson
figured that the publicity more than compensated for their
passage. Besides, Lawson had remained silent whenever he was
asked what the fares were going to be for the regular airline
| Again, the trip turned out to be a smooth one. Sam Blair
claimed it was damned boring. "Hey, Lawson," he complained.
"Can't you enliven matters a bit? I can't get a story out of
| "What do you want me to do, Sam?," Lawson replied.
| Blair pondered, "Say, you're Captain, aren't you? Don't it
work out that you have the same powers as a captain of a ship at
sea? You could perform a wedding ceremony, or something."
| Lawson peered around the cabin. There were no women
aboard. Blair continued, "Or say there was an unruly passenger
or an attempt at mutiny. You have the power of life or death.
You could order someone thrown off if you liked."
| The other reporters guffawed. The rest of us chuckled.
Surini sweated. Lawson was in a contemplative mood for the rest
of the flight.
| Cox put us gently down on Curtis Flying Field near
Buffalo. Once more, we were surrounded by a throng and posed for
pictures. Lawson made a short announcement that we would be
leaving for Syracuse the next day at 7:OO AM. By this time, we
had left quite a trail of newsprint and headlines. It occurred
to me all of a sudden that Charlie Cox had always been strangely
absent from the photographs. My first thought was that Lawson
was pushing him out of the limelight, but this was a discredit
to the Old Man, who always sang the praises of his team, and
made a special point to mention Charlie's ace status and his
years of service in the RAF. I finally figured out that Cox must
have been self-conscious about his size, making him camera shy.
I shook my head at this insight. Cox was a pip, a real pip.
| Our lone new passenger for the trip to Syracuse was a
representative of the Buffalo Morning Courier--a female
representative. Lawson was a little upset when she showed up; he
wasn't sure whether he would be criticized or not for "risking
the life" of a member of the fairer sex. However, Lawson knew
that he’d want women aboard sooner or later, to prove the safety
of the airliner. Also, he didn't want to miss out on any
headlines in the Morning Courier. So she came with us.
| Nothing noteworthy occurred during the takeoff. We
ascended and began to follow the New York Central tracks. The
airliner passed over Batavia and Rochester at 4000 ft. Down
below, we glimpsed sight of an express train. Cox swooped down
low and matched its speed at 50 m.p.h. We could make out the
figures of the engineer and the fireman. After spotting us, they
began to shovel coal furiously. Lawson throttled back even more,
allowing the train to nose ahead of us. Then he opened the
throttles wide, shooting us forward at 100 m.p.h. Lawson laughed
heartily; he hated trains.
| Lawson found Bethka Field using a letter from the Aero
Club of Syracuse as his guide. It was four miles east of the
city and one mile north of the New York Central line. We
encountered a stiff wind gusting near the ground. As Cox banked
into the approach turn, Lawson again cut the throttles at the
wrong moment. Charlie couldn't get the plane over fast enough;
the wheels hit a cabbage patch, and the left wing tip dipped low
shredded the heads off the vegetables. We swung around in a
circle and came to an abrupt stop. The nose dove down into the
earth and our tailpiece stuck up in the air at a 45-degree
| Everyone appeared to be unhurt. Our lady friend from
Buffalo had a show of fainting away in Sam Blair's arms, but
within a minute she was up powdering her nose. "Is this the
manner in which the Lawson Air Liner usually lands?" she asked
Lawson. The Old Man snorted and threw his shoulder against the
cabin door. It didn't budge; our only means of exit was jammed
| Outside, we saw photographers arrive, setting up their
cameras to document the crash of the Lawson Air Liner. Lawson
was apoplectic. "They can't take pictures! We've got to get
outside and pull the tail down so it looks right-""
| A few floorboards in the cockpit had loosened on impact.
Lawson began stamping his feet on them, busting the wood until
there was a hole large enough for a man to crawl outside. He
scrambled out, with me right behind him. A couple of the others
began squeezing out, but Lawson shoved their feet back inside.
"Get back," he ordered. "I want them to see our passengers come
out through the door!"
| He and I hurried over to the door and ripped it open.
Someone lent us a rope, and Surini and I had the plane righted
within a matter of minutes. Even so, we were too late to stop
the photographers; to Lawson's wrath, the next day's papers were
plastered with the illustrated story of our wreck.
| All in all, the cockpit floor had taken the worst of the
damage. Lawson sent a wire to our woodworkers in Milwaukee to
pack their bags and come to Syracuse. The airliner was laid up
for an entire week. Lawson spent the time trying to get the
publicity back on track. He told the crew that our next stop
would be Albany, where he would deliver a letter from Gov.
Phillip of Wisconsin to Gov. Al Smith. Then we'd take Gov. Smith
to New York City.
| As we prepared for the next flight, we had to say goodbye
to our Chicago reporters. They were going no further. Our new
co-travelers were to be Anna Towse of the Syracuse Post-Standard
(the hullabaloo about taking women along never materialized),
John Cullen of the Syracuse Journal, and Mr. and Mrs. Walter
Carrier, of air-conditioning fame.
| We stood ready to leave Syracuse at 7:30 AM on September
13, 1919. I spun the props and the engines sputtered to life.
The Carriers, pulling up late in their car, brought with them a
telegram for Lawson. It was from Gov. Smith, who sent his
regrets that he wouldn't be able to make the flight down to New
York City. Lawson crumpled up the telegram and told Cox that we
were eliminating Albany as the next stop. We were to proceed
directly to New York City.
| Lawson and Charlie had takeoffs down pat. Within twenty
minutes we climbed to 10,000 ft. Mr. Carrier looked a little
green around the gills, and complained that the cabin was
intolerably hot, but his wife was a real trouper. A table was
set up in the aisle, and soon our four passengers were playing a
game of bridge. Later, Mrs. Carrier brought out a small gas
heater and brewed a pot of tea. Then she passed around a tray of
| We climbed to 12,000 ft. over the Catskills, and by 10:00
A.M. we had reached New York City. We flew over Manhattan at
several thousand feet, then circled the Statue of Liberty.
Lawson had scheduled our landing for Roosevelt Field, but over
Mineola he changed his mind when he saw Mitchel Field. Cox set
us down perfectly.
| The New York Sunday papers trumpeted our praise. Lawson
was being called things like the "Air King", the "Columbus of
the Skies", and "Genius of the Air." The airliner was viewed as
America's answer to recent European aeronautical advances.
People said that we were ushering in a new era, that we were
changing the course of human affairs. Our mishap in Syracuse was
forgotten. We bathed in the glory.
| The exhilaration was short-lived. On Monday, September 15,
we went aloft with our largest load yet, sixteen people. There
were six reporters, two photographers, one motion picture
operator, Henry Woodhouse and Augustus Post of the Aero Club of
America, and our five-man crew. We sped here and there over Long
Island, over Jamaica, up the border of the Sounds and back to
Mineola. Our passengers were delighted, not once noticing
anything amiss. However, up in the cockpit, we were deeply
| We couldn't coax the speed past 90 m.p.h. Nor could we
climb higher than 5000 ft. Lawson, Wallace, and Burnelli had
been sure that even with a full load we could reach 115 m.p.h.
and 15,000 ft. And we weren't bucking any headwinds or
experiencing any unusual atmospheric conditions. It was obvious
that we were woefully underpowered; transcontinental flights
would be impossible with this many people aboard. I had my first
inkling that this was a doomed enterprise.
| Although a new tide of rave reviews washed over us, we
left for Washington, D.C. on the following Friday in a somber
mood. Lawson was less disturbed than the rest of us; he saw
several ways around the problem: another engine; or stronger
engines; or perhaps a whole new plane designed with more power.
At any rate he maintained that this tour had become more
important than ever, because we need money more than anything
else. Good publicity equaled money, as did the prospect of an
Air Mail contract with the Federal government.
| Since we weren't crossing over any mountain ranges, we
judged it safe to take fourteen people down to Washington.
| They were: Fred Steele of the Herald and his wife;
Felicity Burnelli, Vince's stunning sister; Evan David, editor
of Fly; Katherine Brody of the Evening Globe; Mr. and Mrs.
Richard Wightman, from the Aerial Touring Association; major
Tracy Lewis of the Morning Telegraph; Mr. Frank Shober; Cox;
| Burnelli; Surini; Lawson; and myself.
| We gave our passengers a few thrills by dodging the clouds
between Baltimore and Washington. Lunch was served shortly
before we reached the Capitol. We circled the city and headed
for Bolling Field. Before arriving there a squadron of scout and
battle planes came up to act as an escort. Compared to the
mammoth airliner, they looked like sparrows compared to an
| Mrs. Steele tore up the will she had written as soon as
the wheels touched down. Lawson posed for a few photographs and
then rushed off to the Willard Hotel. He wanted to get in touch
right away with his two government contacts, Sen. Warren G.
Harding and Joe Cannon, Speaker of the House. From the hotels
Lawson proceeded to the Senate chamber at the invitation of Sen.
Kirby. There he invited some of the statesmen to take a flight
over the city on Sunday. On Lawson's next day, Saturday, he had
an appointment with Postmaster-General Burleson. Then we
conferred with Generals Monocher and Billy Mitchell of the Army
Air Service. Mitchell asked Lawson if the airliner could be
converted into a bomber. Mitchell had a fixation about wanting
to see an airplane blow a Navy destroyer out of the water.
| On Sunday afternoon Cox, Burnelli, Surini and I found
ourselves at Bolling Field preparing the plane. A motorcade of
six automobiles pulled onto the fields with Lawson at the
forefront. They stopped alongside the airliner, and Lawson
ushered the gaggle of dignitaries around the outside of the
craft. Surini and I started up the engines in preparation for
the later flight. Once that was done, Lawson ordered Cox and I
to get inside to show our visitors the cabin. Through the door
came Secretary of War Newton Baker; his wife; their daughter,
Betty; Baker's cousin, Elizabeth Freas; Sen. Henderson of
Nevada; Sen. McCumber of North Dakota; Sen. Stanley of Kentucky;
Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia; Sen. McNary of Oregon; Sen. Johnson
of South Dakota; Johnson's two daughters; Lt. Scott, Liason
Officer of Bolling Field; and the Rev. John Cavanaugh, president
of Notre Dame University.
| Outside, awaiting their turn at a look inside, stood Sen.
Warren G. Harding, General Billy Mitchell, a young pilot named
Hap Arnold, and a host of others. Lawson climbed in behind Rev.
Cavanaugh. "Will everyone take a seat, please?" Lawson
| At that point I knew Lawson was going to take the plane
up; I was less sure that all these people realized that. I made
a head count of the now apprehensive tourists. Including Lawson,
Cox, and myself, there were seventeen bodies. I was just about
to tell Lawson that we should let a few people out when he sat
down and shoved the throttles forward.
| The airliner rolled ahead down the field. I caught a look
at Hap Arnold outside, his mouth agape. I guess he couldn't
believe we would take off without warming the engines longer.
Inside, Secretary Baker finally woke up to what was going on.
"Stop! Stop!" he shouted. "Mrs. Baker and I have promised never
to risk our lives together! Neither of us has ever flown
| Their daughter Betty, piped up, "Oh, Daddy! Don't be a
bore! After all, you are Secretary of War."
| Lawson squinted at the field in front of us. Cox was
battling with all his weight to keep the overburdened plane
steady as we gathered ground speed. Amazingly, we arose with
little effort. We climbed to 3000 ft., tried to go higher but
couldn’t, and headed down the Potomac. We hit a patch of rough
air so the ride was a little bumpy. Still, everyone aboard
remained calm; even Baker had regained enough of his composure
to engage Lawson in some banter.
| "What would happen if one of the two engines failed?"
Baker inquired, leaning forward in his seat.
| Lawson turned backwards in his pilots' seat (remember,
there wasn't any partition between the cockpit and the passenger
area). He stared at Baker and answered honestly, "If that
happened, we'd crash.
| "Lawsonian science," the Old Man continued over the roar
of the motors, "Will eventually be able to overcome weight
altogether. A gas will be discovered that is 800 times lighter
than air. Far lighter than hydrogen, even. It will be
approximately in the same ratio that air is to water, and thus
man will be able to lift ships as heavy as our present marine
vessels up into the atmosphere. Ships of the sea will dive
upwards as well as downwards. There will be ‘supermarines' as
well as submarines."
| Baker, on hearing this, collapsed back into his chair, a
look of abject horror covering his face. I pondered what Lawson
had said; somehow, the physics didn't sound quite right. I also
wondered what "Lawsonian science" was all about. Meanwhile, I
couldn't help but to notice the 300-pound Sen. Smith wedged in
one of the rear seats looking dangerously ill. Lt. Scott came
forward and politely mentioned to Lawson that Smith was feeling
| Lawson ignored this news. We flew on. A moment later, Rev.
Cavanaugh walked up to Lawson and reiterated Smith's
predicament. On his own initiative, Cox turned the plane around.
Lawson started to protest, but thought better of it. Instead he
excitedly pointed out the Capitol building as we passed over it.
Because of the turbulence I didn't see anyone aboard get
awe-inspired by the sight. I think they were all wishing we were
back on the ground.
| As we came in for our approach Lawson closed down the
throttles. He couldn't have timed it worse. The overloaded
airliner went into an extended glide. It looked as though we
were going to overshoot the fields so Cox tried to bring the
nose up, thinking it'd be better to make another pass. Charlie
wasn't the one with the throttles in his hands, though. Lawson
refused to open them. We stalled and drifted downward like a
falling loaf. The wheels bounced against the earth.
| "Thank God, we're down!" Baker yelled.
| The airliner rolled down the field, only we all saw that
there wasn't much of the field left to roll down. We were
heading straight for a ditch filled with tree stumps. Lawson
finally saw the danger and poured on the power. Cox urged the
plane back into the air in the nick of time.
| Then the engines started to whine. Normally, gas was fed
into the carburetors with air pressure, but the gauge indicating
the pressure wasn't registering anything. Cox or Lawson must
have released the safety valve during the glide--which was our
standard landing procedure--only we hadn't landed. So there we
were, a hundred feet above the Potomac River with a pair of
| I grabbed the hand pump that lay on the floor between
Lawson and Cox. After cutting the safety valves I began pumping
for my dear life. Slowly the sputtering motors purred back to
life. Lawson mopped his brow. Charlie's knees were shaking
uncontrollably. Our frantic efforts were obesrved by everyone on
board. Baker wasn't the only one who looked horrified.
| Cox circled the airliner around and landed it in the
center of the field. There was a general rush for the door.
Several of us had to pry Sen. Smith out of his chair. What
happened next was the most astounding point of the whole
episode--something that demonstrated to me that politicians were
different from the average person. As soon as we opened the door
to let people out, we saw that some photographers were already
there to capture the moment. At that point, as they emerged onto
the field, all our passengers were smiling like they had just
been on a carnival ride! They never let on for a minute that the
flight was less than wonderful. And Lawson got out there and
lifted little children into his arms and kissed them for the
cameras! It beat all.
| That was Sunday, On Monday, Surini, Burnelli, Cox, and I
lounged in our quarters reading the glowing accounts of our
latest success. To my delight, I noted that one of the
shutterbugs had finally caught Charlie in an unguarded moment,
and now his picture was all over Washington. Once we had
finished poring over the papers, though, Charlie dropped a bomb
on us. He announced that he was taking the next train up to
Montreal to get married. His fiancee had come over from England
and cabled him to come claim her. He promised us he’d be back
with his new wife by Thursday when we were due to leave for
| Surini immediately scrounged up some champagne. After
several toasts, we trundled the tipsy Cox into a taxi and sent
him to the train station. Then the three of us had a few more
drinks before being interrupted by the clang of the telephone.
The call was for Lawson, but Burnelli agreed to take the
| It was a long call. Burnelli stood there with the receiver
in his ear, occasionally answering, "Yes" to some unheard
question. Then his face went pale.
| "Good God!" he muttered, dropping his glass to the floor.
A minute later, he quietly ended the call.
| Vince was still dazed. "That was Air Commodore Charlton,
the air attache of the British Embassy," he said.
| Surini was in the good cheer of the booze. "Don't tell us!
Lawson's promised that we'd hop the airliner over the Atlantic
to London, right?" Surini and I both laughed.
| Burnelli mumbled. "It's about Charlie Cox. It seems that
there are two Charlie Coxes"
| "What do you mean?," Surini scoffed.
| Burnelli sat down and took a swig from the bottle. "Well,
there's Captain Charles Cox, the war ace, with three years of
service and nine Germans to his credit…"
| "That's our Charlie!" Surini asserted.
| "…and he's been living in Australia for the past year,"
| Surini yelped, "Who the Hell is our Charlie, then? Wasn't
he in the RAF?"
| Burnelli nodded. "He was in the RAF alright, but he wasn't
exactly an ace. He wasn’t a Captain, either; he was a lowly
Second Lieutenant. His total flying experience amounted to eight
hours--in a single engine trainer--after the Armistice."
| Surini fainted. I lit a cigar and paced the room. Whacking
my foreheads I exclaimed, "So that's why he didn't want his
| Burnelli concurred. "He probably finished with the RAF and
went back to Denver, where through a misunderstanding he was
hailed as a conquering hero. That's why he hightailed it out of
there and came to Milwaukee."
| I picked up the chain of events, "Then he saw his mug in
the papers today, realized the game was up, and lit out. Maybe
| "I wouldn't be surprised," Burnelli agreed. "If, by
chance, Charlie does come back then I'll have to tell Lawson
what we know. The Old Man will hit the ceiling, but if he gives
Charlie the boot, it'd be real bad publicity."
| I digested this. "You mean you'd still fly with Charlie?"
| Vince shrugged, "At this point, I'm not sure I'd want to
fly with anyone else." I admitted the same. "In the meanwhile,"
he continued, "I'll try to drum up a reserve pilot. We'll tell
Lawson that Charlie eloped and is woman-happy."
| By late Wednesday night, Cox hadn't shown. Lawson was
miffed, but jocularly chided the absent Charlie for having
fallen prey to female wiles. Lt. Joseph Boudwin of the Army Air
Service was engaged as our new steersman. On Thursday morning,
we went to Bolling and prepared to depart. I was already feeling
that there was a jinx on the flight and the weather conditions
didn't help. The sky was overcast and the wind gusted so hard
that it kicked up dust. All the military planes were grounded.
| Lawson surveyed the heavens. "The Lawson Air Liner will
operate on schedule regardless of weather," he declared. Of
| Since we'd be crossing the Alleghenies Lawson had the
sense not to overburden the plane. After I warmed the engines,
Lawson and Boudwin got in, followed by Surini, Burnelli, myself,
William O'Neal of the Washington Post, and a young woman who
introduced herself to me as Grace Anderson. As we made our final
check, all of a sudden a car raced across the grounds and
screeched to a halt next to the airliner. Out jumped little
Charlie Cox, with his new bride in tow! Burnelli and I stared at
each other. I shook my head. What a pip! This was not the moment
to inform Lawson of Charlie's past.
| I say that because Lawson whooped with delight at the
sight of Cox. Charlie carried his wife onto the planes and
Boudwin was hastily shunted to the rear of the cabin. Cox
assumed his rightful place at Lawson's side. The Old Man rammed
the throttles forward. Within seconds, we were thundering
towards Dayton, Ohio.
| As we leveled off at 10,000 ft., Lawson thumped Charlie on
the back and boisterously admonished him for not properly
presenting his new bride. They both turned around and Cox
performed the introductions. They had been hitched the day
before, Charlie explained.
| Lawson was confused. He pointed a finger at Grace Anderson
and demanded, "Who the Hell is she?"
| Nobody answered at first, least of all the terrified
Grace. "We thought you had invited her," Burnelli defended to
Lawson. The Old Man had a fit.
| "Please, Mr. Lawson, I promise not to be any trouble,"
Miss Anderson pleaded. "I'll pay my fare right now, if you like.
My father is a very important man in Cincinnati."
| "I have half a mind to toss you overboard, young lady,"
Lawson scolded. I remembered how Sam Blair must have put that
notion in Lawson's mind. Before he could vent any more of his
ire, the airliner bumped upwards. We were heading into some
storm clouds. Cox tried to climb above them, but found the
turbulence to be as bad at 17,000 ft. as it was lower. Our only
consolation was that we had the altitude to make it over the
| However, headwinds of up to 80 m.p.h. were blowing us all
over the sky. By the time we reached the Alleghenies, we
realized that we had consumed so much fuel that it would be
impossible to reach Dayton. We'd have to land short. Lawson
spotted a river down below us. "There's the Ohio," he declared.
"Follow it, Charlie."
| Cox threaded his way through the hilly countryside,
desperately searching for an open field. Winds were coming at us
from every direction and the ship was bucking like a mad bull. I
experienced true fear for the first time in my life. We hit one
air pocket with a thump. I feared that the damn wings were going
to snap off.
| Reporter O’Neal, who hadn't uttered a word in the 3 1/2
hours we had been airborne, came up behind me and grabbed my
shoulders. He reeled me around, yelling hysterically, "What's
the matter? Is everything alright?"
| Seeing this man's sheer panic eased my own fears. I
assumed a confident manner and replied, "We're just getting
ready for the big smash-up." O'Neal whimpered and collapsed back
into a chair.
| Cox finally spotted some open land and headed for it. We
glided downwards, coming in over an adjoining cornfield.
Suddenly a tremendous downdraft hammered us. The fuselage
whacked the ground. I heard the tires explode and assumed that
two of them had busted loose, too. The wings ripped through the
cornstalks. The nose plowed into the earth, forcing our tail end
to go straight up in the air. Everyone aboard was tossed by
gravity into the cockpit. We landed there in a pile as the
airliner settled to a halt.
| Even before we had recovered our senses, we heard voices
outside. Someone roped the tail and pulled the plane horizontal.
The door was opened and all aboard poured out. Once again,
providence had shined on us; no one was seriously injured.
Newsman O'Neal, after checking his bones, started to run away.
He lit out cross-country and was still running when we lost
sight of him.
| "Where are we?" Grace Anderson gasped.
| One of the locals answered, "On the Monongahela, near
Connelsville, Pennsylvania." Navigator Lawson was silent.
| That wasn't the end of the Lawson Air Liner, but it did
put the kibosh on our hopes for the trip. Lawson did his best to
salvage the effort; the plane was disassembled where it had
crashed and loaded onto a train for Dayton. A month was spent
there making repairs. On October 24th we departed for
Indianapolis, where we landed at the Speedway. We were grounded
there by ten straight days of rain. Then it was on to Chicago,
where we received another fine welcome. On November 14, 1919, we
completed the last leg of the tour back up to Milwaukee.
| At that point, Lawson sat down and figured the expenses of
our 2,000 mile journey. He discovered what I suspected from the
start--there was no way that we could compete with train fares,
even without crashes and delays. It was obvious that the plane
couldn't handle long runs, and there just wasn't a market for
limited-passenger short runs.
| To meet Lawson's goals, we definitely needed a new ship.
What was required was more space and more power. Space was
needed for more passengers, for freight, and for Air Mail; power
was needed to accommodate this space, in a greater proportion
than we had in the first Lawson Air Liner. Experience had also
shown us that we needed more ground support in the form of
landing fields, hangers, terminal facilities, and directional
| Our tour had very nearly expended as much money as it
brought in. The stockholders were impressed with our success,
but were anxious for a return on their investment. Lawson had a
real time of it explaining to them that a new plane was needed.
He also guaranteed that we would get a federal Air Mail
contract, which was stretching the truth; Congress was still
considering the legislation that would open up the Air Mail to
private airlines. As for ground support, Lawson was pinning his
hopes on the willingness of the local communities on the
proposed routes to provide these. The Old Man was really rolling
| On top of these obstacles, Lawson lost a lot of key men.
The worst setback was when he hastily fired Thomas Hamilton
because Tom was caught working on a friend's car on company
time. Vince Burnelli left for greener pastures. What hurt me
most was when Charlie Cox and his wife just disappeared one day.
I had come to look upon Charlie as our good luck charm.
| Lawson made a real go of it. With money he had coaxed out
of the stockholders, we purchased the vacant Fisk Rubber Company
building and three acres of land located at 9th and Menomenee
Ave. in South Milwaukee. The early months of 1920 were spent
installing machinery in the new shop. Additional craftsmen were
signed up. We banged together a genuine hanger next to the shop.
The blueprints of the new plane were ten times more professional
than the first; I saw that I wouldn't be called upon to innovate
in any way, like I had in the first plane.
| Lawson called the new aircraft the "Midnight Airliner."
Monoplanes were as yet unproved, so this was to be another
biplane, even larger than the first airliner. The wingspan was
120 ft., nearly 25 ft. wider than the first plane. The fuselage,
at 65 ft., was 15 ft. longer. Since more powerful motors were
unavailable, we dismantled the two Libertys from the first
plane, put them on the Midnight Airliner, and added a third
Liberty to the nose of the new ship.
| Of course, Lawson had already conceded his promise of 100
copies of the original airliner by the Spring of 1920. However,
his loud mouth had also promised 10 Midnight Airliners by August
of 1920. Soon he was down to one lone Midnight Airliner by
mid-July, 1920. Constructing that plane was much more complex
than he realized. Then he promised that the new plane would be
in the air by October of 1920.
| Despite this, our investors were getting edgy and refused
to put any more money into our efforts. Moreover, by the Fall of
1920 it was clear that the entire nation was in an economic
slump. Lawson saturated the Milwaukee area with pleas for new
investors, and by December was placing full-page ads in papers
throughout the state in an effort to sell more stock. But the
financial climate made it difficult to find funding for any
project, much less a giant airplane.
| The strange thing is that we had completed the new plane
by late November of 1920. Despite the third engine on the nose,
the weight distribution was more evenly balanced. We didn't
think that the Midnight Airliner would make the nose-first
landings that the first plane had. However, the engine sticking
out in front did tend to obstruct the pilot’s view, which would
be crucial when landing. So what we did was to put a trap door
in the roof of the cockpit. Then we put in pilots seats that
adjusted in height. When making a landing approach, the idea was
that the pilots would crank their seats up, slide the trap door
open, and peer out over the engine. Guess whose idea this was?
| The dashboard was made out of mahogany and consisted of
three sets of Delco boosters, tachometer, oil pressure gauges,
water and oil thermometers, a clock, a barometer, an air-speed
indicator, a vertimeter, and lateral and longitudinal
inclinometers. Then there were the dual dep controls, and, of
course, the throttle levers, which lay between the pilots'
seats. A small hand wheel over the throttles operated the
trimming plane. On a separate dash overhead the pilots, near the
trap doors, were the switches. Next to the pilots' seats were
fire extinguishers. The cockpit was partitioned off from the
passenger section by a pair of hinged doors with windows in
them. Inside the passenger section, the foremost seat on the
right was reserved for the Engine Mechanic. The mechanic had his
own dashboard containing air pressure gauges, an air distributor
tank, and ignition control handles. It was a wonder.
| Aside from seating for a four-man crew, there were two
rows of twenty-four other seats. The seats could fold away,
either to permit more room for baggage or to allow two tiers of
built-in sleeping berths to be lowered. There was a toilet room
with running water and a shower. In the rear of the cabin, there
was another trap door through which we could parachute-drop mail
without having to land. The windows throughout the cabin were
smaller than those in the first airliner, to provide for better
insulation. Smaller portals dotted the tail section.
| On the outsides the fuselage was again painted green. The
white letters of "Lawson Air Line" were as big as ever. The
elevators and trimmings were left in a natural wood varnish
finish, and the nose engine was encased by a polished steel
sheet. Instead of Goodyears there were Palmer Cord Aero Tyres.
In my opinion it was a genuine wonder of the modern world.
| In reply to our advertisement for new pilot, this fellow
walked into the shop one day. I shook his hand and asked,
"What’s your name?"
| He smiled, "Charlie Wilcox."
| I nearly hit my foot with a dropped wrench. "You weren't
by any chance an ace in the RAF, were you?"
| "Nope," he answered. "I flew for awhile with the Postal
Service out of Chicago." I sent him in to Lawson.
| With the plane ready and the crew set, you'd think we were
sitting pretty. Then came the devastating winter of 1920-1921.
The weather made it impossible to move the Midnight Airliner
starting in the first week of December. Our stockholders were
growing extremely fidgety by this time. Lawson met with them in
mid-January of 1921 and tried to placate them. Meanwhile, the
operation was in debt and eating money everyday while we sat and
waited for a thaw in the weather. The Old Man promised to start
building eight more Midnight Airliners by February 1st; since
the stockholders weren't about to come up with any more money,
Lawson advertised in the Sunday papers for loans on which he
would pay ten percent interest. There were few takers; the other
planes weren't started.
| The whole operation was coming apart at the seams. Half
the workers were released. By April, the ground still hadn't
thawed. Our Air Mail contracts were canceled for non-compliance.
The investors met behind Lawson's back and came up with an
ultimatum that he must get the plane in the air or resign. I
ordered a new supply of my business cards.
| Lawson assembled the remaining workers and informed us of
the ultimatum. "Men," he announced,, "We've been told to fish or
cut bait. As you know, there's no way we can move the plane out
to Hamilton Field." We lowed our heads in resignation.
| "Therefore," he said, his voice rising, "We must build an
airstrip right here!" Lawson shot his arm out and pointed at the
three acre lot next to the factory.
| We were agog with disbelief. Surini summoned up the
courage to suggest the obvious. "Sir," he said. "That land over
there is no bigger than a football field. Not even the smallest
plane in the world could takeoff there."
| "I know that!" Lawson snapped. "I've asked Mr. Hughes, who
owns the farm next door, if we couldn't take down the stone
fence dividing the property. We'll open up a hole large enough
for the Midnight Airliner to pass through."
| It was a long shot, but we went for it. The yard was
graded, leveled, and cindered. We pulled the stones out of the
fence line. Farmer Hughes watched our efforts with bemusement.
He was out in his field, sitting on his tractor, plowing furrows
in the half-thawed earth from east to west: perpendicular to the
direction of the airstrip. We began running the engines every
| In the first week of May, we heard a rumor that the
investors were trying to call in the law to get Lawson forcibly
expelled from the premises. On May 8th, the northeasterly winds
that had plagued us shifted around. The Old Man ordered the
engines roared up. He, Wilcox, Surini, and I climbed aboard.
Surini and I took our places in the first seats of the cabin.
Lawson and Wilcox went through the doors into the cockpit.
Outside, the chocks were withdrawn. Lawson pushed the throttles
forward and we began to move.
| We rolled halfway down our acreage, and at that instant, I
sensed something was wrong. Lawson wasn't giving the plane
enough power. We passed through the opening in the stone fence
and hit the furrows in Hughes' field, slowing us down even more.
Luckily, the ground sloped downwards, and so Wilcox was able to
edge the nose up in spite of our speed, but we had taxied along
the ground longer than anticipated.
| We climbed ten feet into the air and passed over a
railroad crossing. The Hughes' house was dead ahead. Wilcox
swung to the left. The wings dragged through the branches of an
elm tree. The Midnight Airliner was out of control. The next
thing I knew, our right wing hit a telephone pole. The pole
broke off and stuck in the wing. We hit the ground a hundred
feet beyond this collision. Two wheels popped off. The right
wings dug into the earth and dragged the plane in a semicircle.
The left wings collapsed and the engines tore out of their
mountings as we ground to a stop.
| Surini and I leapt outside. I fell down. Sparks lit up
back inside the cabin. Surini grabbed some dirt and went in to
smother them. Lawson and Wilcox squirmed out of the cockpit.
They hadn't suffered a scratch. The four of us stood in the
field watching one of the propellers spin sickly. It was the
last dying gasp of the Midnight Airliner.
| "Well, boys," Lawson noted, clearing the oil smudges from
his face, "I reckon it will take about $8,000.00 for repairs."
Wilcox threw up.
| I glanced over at the Hughes' house and saw a curtain
quickly being replaced over a window. "Let's go round up some
coffee and doughnuts," Lawson suggested. He began to stride in
the direction of the Hughes, residence.
| That was the end of the Lawson Aircraft Company. The Old
Man met with the stockholders and returned to tell us he had
resigned as manager. He told them he would return as soon as
they could provide proper financing. I never heard their side of
the story. I was paid through for the two weeks it took to pick
up the remains of the Midnight Airliner.
| I needed a job. I got in my Ford and headed down to
Dayton, showing up uninvited at McCook Field. They were
developing the Turbo-Supercharger there and I desperately wanted
to get onto the flight line. More by mistake than by intent,
they took me on. In 1922 I made a trip back up to Milwaukee to
visit some friends. By coincidence, the Lawson Aircraft Company
had been declared bankrupt a few weeks earlier. So I found
myself in the city the very weekend that the remaining assets
were to be auctioned. After hesitating, I decided to drive over
to see what happened.
| By the time I got to the sale there was only one item left
on the block: the cabin of the first Lawson Air Liner. There was
a lone bidder; it sold for $200.00. After the gavel came down, I
wandered over to the buyer and presented myself.
| "Mister," I said to the fat, short, and bald character who
had bought the cabin. "I was aboard that plane on every flight.
I wonder if you'd mind telling me what you plan to do with it."
| He gave me an ugly look and then shrugged. "I own a few
eating establishments down South," he explained. "I just bought
land for a new one smack dab beside a busy road. I remembered
seeing pictures of this plane and thought to myself, 'Here's a
ready-made building!' So I intend to take that cabin, truck it
down to my land, and open it up as a roadside diner."
| That was the sorry fate of the World’s First Airliner, and
the end of my story.