“Bud never stopped working with his hands. He made useful things that still work,” says Hilda, who proudly demonstrates her garage door opener fashioned from “some motor off something else he found.”
Amid faded newspaper articles and photographs in the family scrapbooks is the Airframe and Power Plant certificate issued in Gurney’s name (license #M958, dated July 14, 1952.) Hilda recalls he was still a captain with United at the time. “He had not retired yet,” says Hilda, “but it was important to him to keep up his mechanic’s license — probably so he could work on restoration projects.”
While still flying for United, Gurney restored a damaged 1927 DeHavilland Gipsy Moth and a 1930 Monocoupe in his garage. He refurbished, replaced, and rebuilt the steel tubing for the Monocoupe’s fuselage and tail, and forced life into a radial, 7-cylinder, 125-hp Warner engine (the “110”).
“The old wheels had mechanical brakes and they were absolutely worthless,” Gurney told Sport Flying magazine in 1956. “I had to change the wheels in order to have hydraulic brakes.” Gurney installed a “reverse-reading compass” in the rear, which the pilot viewed with a mirror. The compass in the normal (front) position “wasn’t dependable because it was too close to the magnetos,” according to Gurney, who recalled using reverse-reading compasses in a Ryan Braugham and a Fokker. Taped to the Monocoupe’s wing strut was a household temperature gauge, which Gurney confessed was a throw-back to “the old days” when he was a test pilot for aircraft designer Don Luscombe.
“That’s all we had,” Gurney explained, “and it worked just fine.” The “junk heap” transformed into an airworthy beauty which Gurney often flew over the hills of Southern California.
Considered an expert at restoring aircraft, Gurney enjoyed helping others, particularly when it came to a “Jenny” or a Standard. “I should mention,” he advised a builder, “that my own philosophy of restoring old aircraft is to correct those defects as might endanger the user but leave the positive virtues strictly as designed.”
Gurney’s experience with vintage aircraft engines and airframes came in handy when Warner Brothers Studios filmed “The Spirit of St. Louis” with Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in 1956. The film’s technical advisers also included famed stunt pilot Paul Mantz and aircraft designer Otto Timm, who had taken both Gurney and Lindbergh up for their first flight in 1922.
In 1977, John Larson acquired a Standard aircraft which he believed had been used in the film and wrote to Gurney to confirm the rumor that Lindbergh had visited the set and flown it for fun. Gurney wrote back, enclosing a photograph of a “Hisso Standard” used in the movie:
“Notice the air-driven fuel pump mounted on the left front undercarriage strut … The original wing struts were solid spruce but Otto Timm glued two layers of ¾-inch spruce together when we couldn’t get enough thicker material. I flew both of the two Standards … and when Lindbergh and I were romping around with them that day at Irvine Ranch, we traded ships before flying back to Orange County airport. Lindbergh wanted to avoid any possible photographers who might be waiting. They were there, but I was flying the “Daredevil Lindbergh” airplane. Slim taxied right up to the hangar while they focused their cameras on me … I guess you are safe in saying that Lindbergh flew that ship you have. We practiced make believe plane-to-plane changes as if we had a wingwalker during barnstorming days. It was a lot of fun. Good luck with it. If I ever get the opportunity I’d like to fly it again. I haven’t bent anything in 50 years of flying. It would be safe.”
The inquisitive mind
All five children inherited part of Gurney’s inquisitive nature, and for three, also an interest in flying. Daughter Hilda and son John earned their private pilot licenses. John also became a skilled A&P who worked on several vintage planes which were hangared at Santa Paula Airport in California, owned by family friend, actor, and skilled pilot Cliff Robertson. Bud the younger flew for the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1978 as a colonel. While on USAF tours in Hawaii, he often saw his father who was flying DC-8s from Los Angeles to Honolulu. In 1965, father and son were together in the cockpit during Gurney’s “retirement” flight. At age 60, Bud did not slow down, eagerly taking on new projects.
“Work was Bud’s middle name,” recalls Robertson, who watched Gurney hurry through lunches so he could get back to working on an airplane.
Greg Herrick serves as the president of the Aviation Foundation of America, and has been the driving force behind many historic flight recreations. He is a 2014 inductee into the Minnesota Aviation...
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