In the spring of 1922, Harlan A. Gurney was working his way through high school at the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation factory in his hometown of Lincoln, when he met the man who would become his life-long friend. NAC’s owner, Ray Page also operated “Page’s Flying Pageant” and offered flying lessons, attracting at least one student who arrived from Missouri. “I was working in the engine room when the boss came in with this young fellow and told me to teach him all I knew about engines,“ Gurney recalled years later.
The two teenagers worked together, soon sharing adventures on an Excelsior motorcycle, with a common goal to become pilots. For each of them, barnstorming, wing-walking, and carrying the U.S. Air Mail during the 1920s began a long and successful career in aviation. Gurney’s new pal was a few years older and a lot taller. His name was Charles Augustus Lindbergh.
The handy assistant
Born July 15, 1905, Gurney was third of 13 children raised near Beatrice, NB, and later in Lincoln, where his father was a successful building contractor. After WWI, the family fell on hard times just as young Gurney was entering high school. Without money for supplies and clothes, Gurney made the first of many painful and remarkably responsible decisions toward his goal to finish his education. At the age of 13, he ran away from home, hitching a ride on a train with no plan except to find a job. Within days, the hungry and travel-weary boy concealed his identity and traded room and board to work as a hired hand on a farm north of Lincoln.
Bright, inquisitive, and hard working, the teenage Gurney learned how to run a dairy farm, work in a pattern factory, and wait on tables. More than once he earned, and lost, enough money to return to Lincoln and attend a semester of high school. He was a voracious reader and self-taught on subjects ranging from trigonometry to Greek philosophy. Although remaining on good terms, he never lived with his parents again rather than burden them with his welfare.
During a semester as a freshman, he rented a room not far from the Lincoln Standard Aircraft Company. By 1921, Gurney had set his sights on working at Standard’s assembly plant owned by Ray Page.
Bud and Slim
With woodworking skills gained watching his father make furniture, Gurney crafted a scale model of a J1 Standard which Page accepted in exchange for a job at the factory. Bud swept shop floors, straightened tools bins, and did some woodwork on the frame of Page’s Fokker D7. Standard and the Dayton Aircraft Corporation of Ohio quickly combined to form the Nebraska Aircraft Corporation, operated by Page.
Gurney was good with his hands and learned fast. In addition to wood finishing, his responsibilities included removing nuts and bolts from engines so they could be reused to make “new” Hispano-Suiza power plants. It was during this time that he met the tall, lanky, Lindbergh who Gurney called “Slim.” Lindbergh called him “Buddy,” which he later shortened to “Bud.” The two nicknames stuck for life.
Working day and evening at the factory Gurney had no extra time to study, yet he excelled in class. He spent his Sundays at the flying field south of town. Here he helped assemble airplanes without pay, eventually meeting the factory manager, Otto Timm, already noted for his distinguished military career as a flight instructor. It didn’t take long for Gurney to become Timm’s “handy assistant.” Testing a Lincoln Standard fresh off the assembly line, Timm invited both Gurney and Lindbergh for their first flight. In later years, Gurney recalled that he watched the world below “become a map,” listening to the “breath of the engine.” Said Gurney, “I knew then I wanted to fly more than ever!”
Between 1922 and 1923, Lindbergh took flying instructions, worked at the factory with Gurney, and had gained experience making parachute jumps and wing-walking while barnstorming. In the spring of 1923 he bought a “Jenny” in which he made his first solo flight, then flew it to Lincoln that winter.