“When I think of [Bud] I see him with more than one wrench in his hand and a very studied look of inquiry.” — Cliff Robertson, 2008
In 1930, luxury air travel was just taking off and Harlan “Bud” Gurney was already in the cockpit.
As director of operations for Universal Aviation Corp. in St. Louis, Gurney kept the airline’s Ford Tri-Motors tuned up for the cross-country trip advertised as less than 60 hours travel time using planes and trains. Although the Tri-Motors were noisy, the landing fields were muddy, and passengers were often airsick, it was a far cry from the open cockpit barnstorming and dangerous air mail flights of Gurney’s past.
Offering a hot meal from the Tri-Motor’s kitchenette, Universal was a favored charter for businessmen and special occasions. Gurney was usually the VIP pilot, and by 1929 was noticed by the newly formed Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) for which his old friend, Charles Lindbergh, was a technical advisor. Gurney signed on with the Lindbergh Line, which offered coast-to-coast flights in less than 48 hours.
In 1932 TAT became TransWorld Airlines (TWA). That same year, National Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport formed United Air Lines (UAL), which lured Gurney into a promising job, initially flying their Boeing aircraft (the 80A and later the 247). Gurney and his wife Helen moved their family to Seattle and he began what would turn out to be a 33-year career.
As United expanded its destinations, Gurney moved nine times in 10 years, finally settling in Los Angeles with his family which now included four children. In his off hours, he was never far from the sound of an engine. Gurney’s first son, also nicknamed “Bud,” remembers Bud the elder’s love of motorcycles and power boats, as well as automobiles and airplanes.
Gurney’s great joys of fatherhood were offset by sad years during which Helen’s health deteriorated until she died in 1941. Gurney became a widower with four children at age 36. His priority was now to care for his children, and in time he found help and an unexpected new love in Hilda Voges. Twelve years his junior, beautiful, and smart, Hilda brought joy to the Gurney home. Soon after their marriage Hilda gave birth to Gurney’s fifth child in 1943. They built a custom home atop the hills of the San Fernando Valley and settled in to a comfortable and happy life. All five children attended fine high schools, of which Gurney was most proud. Hilda surprised her husband by secretly earning her pilot’s license.
“We did a lot of flying and knew a lot of famous movie people who flew,” says Hilda, now 91. “Charles Lindbergh kept in touch and we always had a room ready for him.”
Retirement — “romping around” Southern California
During WWII Gurney flew for the Air Transport Command in Alaska and the Pacific. In the following years he tested aircraft, invented and marketed a hand-held circular device for pilot navigation called a “Computair,” and explored new ideas for private and military aircraft designs (which were never built). He returned to fly for United and was the most senior captain on the line to transfer from the Douglas aircraft prop fleet to the DC-8. He retired in 1965 with 40,000 hours in his logbooks.
Hilda still lives in the home which Gurney constructed of cement block walls built to insulate against the intense valley heat during the years when air conditioning was not yet common. Gurney’s handiwork is everywhere. The wood-paneled living room ceiling and walls, fireplace mantel, and customized kitchen cabinets, as well as the artfully welded iron trellises for their patio, were all created in the Gurney garage workshop.
Online auction winners ride in replica.