It was Lindbergh who first coaxed Gurney into parachute jumping on a dare. Surviving the fall, and unexpectedly earning $11.00 from spectators, Gurney saw a quick, albeit dangerous way, to earn money for school. This new skill led to several seasons in an air circus which traveled across Nebraska. When he wasn’t featured as a “jumper” or “wing-walker,” he doubled as ground crew, gassing airplanes, changing engine oil and spark plugs, and covering the planes with canvass at night. This led to barnstorming with Erroll Bahl, a WWI veteran aviator and aircraft designer. Bahl built his Lark airplane in a shop at Lincoln, where again, Gurney apprenticed. He learned frame design, and became proficient at covering wings with fabric, earning adult wages. As often as he could, Gurney had “stick time” in a Jenny or Standard, learning to fly. Gurney had been using parachutes sold by Charles and Kathryn Hardin, but by the time Lindbergh returned to Lincoln with his Jenny, he had hand-fabricated a parachute of his own design. The boys tested the chute, and decided to go barnstorming in eastern Nebraska. “I was working,” Gurney remembered, “but quit to go with him.” In later years Lindbergh would write two books in which he recounted their adventures including a forced landing during a rainstorm in a muddy field. Hoping to avert total damage to the plane, the boys pushed the tail into the wind while lightning struck around them.
Gurney later discerned that he and Lindbergh had both been knocked out for several minutes, but they had managed to save the plane.
Both Lindbergh and Gurney were skilled at making repairs, occasionally sending for spare parts while stranded in a farmer’s pasture. Routine maintenance included sewing tears in the fabric, sometimes using wood crates to carve a replacement of a broken spar or rib, or cleaning the engine distributor head, draining the carburetor jet wells, and oiling the rocker arms.
This short barnstorming trip established a trust between the two maturing young men, but it was Gurney’s near fatal fall from the Jenny which cemented the bond to his friend, “Slim.” At the St. Louis Air Races in 1923, Gurney anticipated much-needed pay for a parachute “double-drop.” Mid-air his chute collapsed in the vortex of another plane and he landed “too hard for bones to take.” Hospitalized for weeks, his only daily visitor was Lindbergh, who took care of Gurney’s medical bills. Gurney recuperated in St. Louis, working for a brief time doing “piece work” at the Fisher Body plant.
Returning to the flying field at Lincoln, Gurney picked up work doing engine overhauls and painting and varnishing planes. He eventually soled and barnstormed across Nebraska as part owner of a Lincoln Standard. After an unusually profitable season, he had earned $3,500 and owned the Standard. Buoyed by success, he returned to Lincoln to completely rebuild his plane. While doping the wings, fire broke out forcing Gurney through a window as his savings, and his airplane went up in smoke. The event was catastrophic, as Gurney later summarized it: “Rich one moment, poor the next.” With no money for room and board, Gurney borrowed $10 and headed out of town to find a new job. Foremost on his mind was returning to school.
He could not have known it at the time, but his future was being shaped by the forthcoming Air Mail Act of 1925 which created a job, again working alongside his pal, “Slim.”
Flying the mail
In 1926, Robertson Aircraft Company won the government contract to fly the mail between St. Louis and Chicago, and hired Lindbergh as chief pilot at Lambert Field, (St. Louis) Lindbergh hired Gurney to completely rebuild the company’s small fleet of DeHavilland DH4 aircraft, a war surplus open-cockpit biplane powered by a 400-hp Liberty engine. It wasn’t long before Gurney was in the air among those dedicated and remarkable pilots who flew in fog, sleet, rain, and snow, often with fatal results. Forced landings or bail-out parachute jumps were not uncommon. The staggering loss of 31 of the original 40 air mail pilots and many aircraft caused a complete restructure of the Air Mail system by 1932. Gurney lost close friends, and made headlines as a pilot who “got through” when others could not. In 1927, when Lindbergh left to make his epic cross-Atlantic flight Gurney replaced him as Robertson’s chief air mail pilot and flight instructor. Lindbergh returned to make one final mail run with Gurney and former Robertson pilots, Leslie Smith, Eyir Sloniger, Thomas Nelson, and Philip A. Love. They carried more than 100,000 letters from St. Louis to Chicago bearing a special commemorative legend meant to inspire confidence in the future of aviation. Gurney did not see Lindbergh often after that, but in January of 1929 “The Lone Eagle’s” Tri-Motor iced over in Illinois. Mechanics attempting to thaw it out with blow torches damaged the plane leaving him in need of a ride to meetings in St. Louis. Gurney made the round trip from Lambert Field in Robertson’s private Cessna, returning Lindbergh to his hectic, high profile life.