“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.
“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.
In September 1969, “Bud” and “Slim” were again determined to fly together, unfettered by traffic in the air or curious reporters on the ground. Typically, the plan included a last minute mechanical fix by Gurney.
Hilda, Bud, and son John Gurney, along with Lindbergh, arrived at Santa Paula Airport where they had arranged to borrow a Tiger Moth owned by Robertson. Hangared at the opposite end of the airfield, Gurney’s Gipsy Moth complained enough for its owner to delay take-off. Bud the younger speculates that fouled plugs were the culprit. John Gurney remembers that “Lindbergh and I sat next to the gasoline shack for a few hours and waited for dad to fix whatever was wrong to make it airworthy.”
When the Gipsy Moth was ready, Hilda jumped in to fly with her husband and the two planes took off for a nearby lake and landing strip. There, to defeat the media, Gurney and Lindbergh switched planes.
Hilda remembers that she “jumped back into the Gipsy Moth and Slim looked surprised. I told him, I go where this plane goes.” Their ruse worked and Lindbergh was able to land unnoticed. Lindbergh was then 68. It was the last time the two old pals would fly together. Lindbergh died in 1974.
Hilda remembers times when Bud and Slim did not always agree and spent hours talking things out. “They remained close right up until the end,” says Hilda. “Bud and Slim respected one another and of course shared their common interest in aviation, and almost anything mechanical. They were both interested in how things worked.”
Before he died at age 77 in 1982, Gurney had reconnected with all 12 of his siblings. Bud the younger remembers that, “If help was needed through a tough time, Dad was there for them.” Well loved by his family, friends, and community, Gurney was also honored by the project committee for which he participated in building a 1903 Wright Flyer. The replica was posthumously dedicated in his honor when it went on display in Los Angeles.
The Nebraska boy who left home at age 13 to earn money to continue high school never graduated, yet his life was a constant quest for learning.
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian and author. She was the founder and director of the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation and Museum from 1995-2001 (the site of Charles Taylor’s grave in North Hollywood, CA). Giacinta holds a BA in anthropology with a minor in U.S. history and has given presentations on pioneer aviation since 1995. Most recently she has been awarded a partial grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund to write her second book, highlighting the life of Amelia Earhart’s mechanic, Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.