Imagine the Spirit of St. Louis with a cage for a fuelage and a full grown African lion as the passenger. If that conjures up a scenario from a black and white silent film, you would not be far off.
Fade in to black and white — 1927
Directly following Lindbergh’s cross-Atlantic flight in 1927, the Lone Eagle received a Spirit look-alike with which to scout potential airport terminal sites for Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT.) Developed by Ryan Airlines but later built by B.F. Mahoney Aircraft Corp., the B-1 Brougham had pilot-friendly modifications including a sweeping cockpit window. Lindbergh’s Brougham (NX4215) was apparently not his favorite, as he gracefully returned it.
While America lionized Lindbergh as a genuine hero, Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in California saw the opportunity to promote its films through aviation. Already using a live male African lion named “Leo” seen (but not yet heard) roaring with its logo at the beginning of each MGM film, it launched a stunt to fly the big cat across the United States. Pilot Martin “Marty” Jensen was hired to ferry Leo nonstop between San Diego and New York in a specially modified Ryan Brougham with a glass-enclosed, iron-barred cage directly behind the cockpit.
With much fanfare, Jensen took off on Sept. 16, 1927 from Camp Kearny airfield, near San Diego, CA. Leo’s flying career and the MGM cross-country promotional flight were short lived however when Jensen’s heavy plane met thin air over the mountain forest called “Hell’s Gate Wilderness” near Payson, in northern Arizona. The Brougham, now called the MGM Special, crashed and luckily neither pilot nor lion were badly hurt. Leaving Leo with sandwiches, milk, and water, Jensen walked for days until he found help to transport the big cat back to Hollywood. MGM generated tremendous publicity over the mishap, but abandoned most of the wrecked plane.
This cliff-hanger feature would have gone “straight to video” remaining obscure folklore, were it not for our protagonist — Scott Gifford, A&P and vintage aircraft specialist.
Dissolve to Technicolor — 2006
Gifford owns and operates NostalgAire in Prescott, AZ. NostalgAire offers modern aircraft owners everything from minor repairs and servicing to complete restoration. Clients with vintage aircraft may not require the results for public display or air shows but Gifford’s MGM Special is intended for both.
Gifford hiked through Arizona’s rugged terrain in 1991, and identified what was left of the Brougham. He legally acquired the remains, transported the wreck to his hangar, and began the long-term project of rebuilding the aircraft, cage and all. His goal is to fly the air show circuit for one year then retire the plane to static display. So far, Gifford has financed the project alone, although he has sporadically considered corporate sponsorship. Oddly enough, none has come forth from MGM, although he has contacted the company.
Aviation museum curators adhere to professional standards by which aircraft are displayed with the proper designation of restored, rebuilt, and/or replica. Each classification depends upon many factors, which Gifford carefully considered before one twist of his wrench on the Ryan. “Restoration depends upon the final destination of the aircraft,” says Gifford. “The Smithsonian or Wright-Patterson AFB try to preserve everything possible and keep replacement and repair to a minimum. Every change must be thoroughly documented. An airworthy restoration [actually flown] requiring durability, ease of repair, and maintenance, has a different set of requirements, including strict regulations by the FAA. Flying museum aircraft [like the P38 Glacier Girl] adhere to a different standard, somewhere in between these examples. The MGM Special would probably be considered by museums to be a replica, since there will be a very small percentage of original structure and components.