Past Contact: Mechanics in History

March 1, 2007
Ernest Eugene Tissot, Sr.: More than Amelia Earhart's mechanic.

Thursday Eve, Jan. 10, 1935
[Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii]

"Dearest Beulah and Gene,

Well the time is drawing near. I am writing this letter in hopes that Miss Earhart will mail it in Frisco for me therefore you would get it soon. She is planning on leaving tomorrow afternoon if all turns out well and we leave Saturday noon on the Lurline and I'll be home by next Saturday

. . . This is going to be short honey as I am in an awful hurry worked all nite last nite and will work again tonite . . . I'm terrible anxious to get home. I suppose the darn boat will be awful slow have not been off this military post for so long have only been in Honolulu twice and that's to see Paul [Mantz.].

Love Ernie"

Amelia Earhart taxied her Lockheed Vega (NR965Y) toward the runway at Wheeler Field, Honolulu for her record-making solo flight to Oakland. Her mechanic, Ernest Eugene "Ernie" Tissot Sr. ran beside her wing until she picked up speed and flew into aviation history.

This was not the first time Tissot's hands touched fame. Just eight years before, Tissot worked for Ryan Airlines in San Diego, CA, as a welder, constructing the frame for Charles A. Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. It was a proud moment for Tissot's young bride, Beulah, when she learned the Lone Eagle had crossed the Atlantic and landed safely in France. Later that month, Lindbergh joined Ryan employees for a luncheon in his honor, and theirs. Pictured standing behind him is Tissot, among fellow "wrenches," aircraft designers, and clerks.

Tissot: 1905-1952

Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr. was born in 1905, just two years following the Wright brothers epic flight at Kill Devil Hills, NC. He died of cancer at 46, leaving behind his devoted and adventuresome wife Beulah, who lived to be 95, and their only son, Ernest Eugene Tissot Jr.

"His life was short, but I admired and loved him so much," says his son, Gene. "He influenced my entire life —; my career and my love of family."

During the 1930s, Gene watched planes take off and land at the original Grand Canyon Airport at Red Butte, AZ, where his father was chief mechanic for Grand Canyon Air Lines, Inc. (GCA.)

Tissot was hired in 1932 by GCA entrepreneurs, Glover ("Roxy") Ruckstell and Irving ("Kravie") Kravitz, and with Beulah and pre-school Gene, lived within walking distance of the hangar and terminal.

"It was a wonderful life," says Gene. Retiring at the rank of Rear Admiral, USN, Gene traces his own distinguished career as a Naval aviator to the influence of his father. "I spent most of my time watching my father work on airplanes

. . . He taught me to keep my tools clean and put away, something I have not done nearly as well as he did. By watching his work I developed an abiding respect for the aircraft mechanic, and later on as a pilot I never forgot the vital contribution that these dedicated and often unsung craftsmen offered."

Chief mechanic at Red Butte, AZ

During the airline's start-up years Tissot maintained Ford Tri-Motors (one with a P&W Wasp C, 425-hp engine and another with a J-5), a Stinson (w/Lycoming 220 hp), two Travelaires, a Stearman (w/J5 power plants,) a Waco (w/P&W Wasp), a trimotor Bach (one P&W Hornet; 525-hp engine, and two J65s), and other passenger aircraft owned and operated by GCA.

It was at GCA's hangar just 15 miles south of the rim of the Grand Canyon, that Amelia Earhart found refuge from her adoring public, and flew NR965Y in for fine-tuning by Tissot. "Unfortunately, I had a cold and my mother wouldn't let me meet her that day," shrugs Gene. If there are photographs of George Putnam during Earhart's visit, they are well hidden, although he later mentioned stopping at the Canyon in a letter to a friend. Tissot, Ruckstell, and Kravitz were all shutter-bugs and it's no surprise that they took several pictures of Earhart and her red Vega while she was there. One rumor circulated following an interview with Kravitz that he allowed Earhart to pilot GCA's Travelaire while he described the view to tourists. It is certain that Earhart's Vega sat directly in front of the hangar which at that time bore Stanavo's "flying eagle" logo. Stanavo was Standard Oil Company's aviation product line of gasoline, oil, and grease.

The same eagle logo appears on the cover of Tissot's 1933 Stanavo Pilot's Handbook with entries as chief mechanic as well as his flight time. Notes include telephone calls, weather reports, and parts to order. One page itemizes parts Pacific Airmotive of Los Angeles, CA, and his "to-do" list: "push rod housing gaskets; gaskets and blue rock; recondition spark plugs; sump oil drain plug; oil screen plug; pick up starter at airport; flare bracket; motorcycle clutch; sprockets and chain." On page 4, Tissot lists a "Log Book for Ford" [Tri-motor] and "Ventilators for Stinson." Another entry simply notes: "Roxy call Putnam at Mantzs."

Between 1933-1936, at Red Butte alone, Tissot logged over 20 hours in a Stearman, 10 hours in a Ford Tri-Motor, and "eight spins" in a Fleet.

Although Gene was unable to meet Earhart at Red Butte he does recall the excitement of his father's trip earlier in December 1934, with Mr. and Mrs. Putnam (George Putnam and Amelia Earhart) and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mantz on the SS Lurline.

"I clearly remember driving to San Pedro [CA] with my parents . . . We went aboard the Lurline and visited Dad's cabin in Third Class . . . Dad maintained the Vega which was tied down on the after deck of the ship, during the trip to Honolulu, keeping the engine protected from the saltwater environment . . . Dad spent nearly all of his three weeks in Hawaii at Wheeler Field, working on the Vega. On that flight Amelia carried a letter for my father in her Vega. He wanted it to get to Mom and I quickly. It was postmarked Jan. 11, 1935 in Honolulu and Jan. 12, 1935 in Oakland as she [Amelia Earhart] mailed it in Oakland."

Earhart got her hands dirty too

Earhart historian, Dr. Alex Mandel claims that our most famous aviatrix was no "prima-donna." Earhart took special interest in the maintenance of her aircraft. After purchasing her first plane from engine designer, Bert Kinner of California he invited her to help develop and test one of his radial engines, of which she remarked, "It smoked and sputtered oil [and] adjustment of a proper propeller was difficult. One of its eccentricities was an excessive vibration which tickled the soles of the feet when they rested on the rudder bar, putting a new meaning into joy ride..."

Mandel believes Earhart's husband said it best years later when he published the details of her fatal world flight.

"She was seldom happier, I think, then when perched on a service stand watching some adjustment of her beloved engines, or sprawled on the concrete tarmac observing experts wrestle with a troublesome strut or dump valve. And probably as grimy as a greasy monkey . . ."

Amelia Earhart was so pleased with Tissot's abilities that she wrote a letter of recommendation, dated Jan. 24, 1935. In part it reads:

"Dear Ernie:

. . I appreciate the very fine work you did with my Lockheed in preparation for the Pacific flight. Every bit of mechanical work which you did, or helped to do, has proved thoroughly satisfactory and I couldn't hope to have mechanical assistance more intelligently rendered than yours.

I am glad to add that the Army officers . . . at Wheeler Field
. . . record their feeling that you were one of the best all-around mechanics they ever encountered. If I can be helpful to you at any time, please call upon me . . .

Sincerely yours, Amelia Earhart."

Mechanical background

To determine how Tissot had gained such loyalty from the world's most famous aviatrix at that time, requires tracing his early years on both farm and ranch in California, where he developed an interest in how machines work. Throughout his entire life Tissot was never far from cars, motocycles, or airplanes. He began as an autombile mechanic and proceeded to gain skills in welding; kept up with the rapid technological advances of power plants, and earned his Aircraft and Engine repair license #11540 during the Depression.

Between 1932-1937, the Ruckstells, Tissots, and eventually the Kravitzs, all lived in cabins and bungalows with their children; plus horses, dogs, a goat, and a donkey named Geronimo, on over 800 acres in Arizona's Kaibab National Forest.

These California "City Slickers" learned to cook at high altitude (~ 6,300 feet) on wood-burning stoves and check for rattlesnakes en route to the outhouse. If you had to be stranded in a blizzard, cut off from the rest of civilization, Tissot and his fellow employees at Red Butte knew how to keep you warm and well fed, if not happy to make snow forts.

Hangar and machine shop

The hangar, originally built for Scenic Airways during 1927, had been abandoned after Scenic fell victim to the Depression. When Tissot unlocked its doors for GCA, he had his own machine shop with a ceiling drive shaft for air compressor, lathes, sanders, and drills. A welder's grip conveniently hung overhead.

Ernie's shop was the pulse of maintenance for GCA's equipment and its heart was a Kohler diesel power plant enclosed in a nearby outbuilding. Snow melt and rain water was captured and pumped from a stone cistern behind the hangar. Inside the hangar Tissot had a separate parts room, private tool cabinets, and space for four automobiles. A chain fall was suspended from the building's infrastructure for lifting heavy engines in/out of aircraft.

When GCA expanded to include tours over Boulder Dam, the Tissots moved to Boulder City, NV. For Grand Canyon - Boulder Dam Tours (GCBDT), Tissot maintained aircraft as well as motorboats used for sight-seeing on Lake Mead until 1937.

After GCBDT folded, Tissot found work in Michigan and eventually became superintendent of maintenance for Continental Airlines in Denver, CO. Never forgetting his roots, Tissot moved his family back to California during WWII, and continued using his experience and skills in the aircraft-related industry so vital to the war effort.

Ernest Eugene Tissot Sr.'s family openly revere his legacy among "old wrenches," however, Earhart would no doubt agree that "Ernie" was more than "the best all-around mechanic" of his era. He was a devoted family man and trusted friend. It would please him, I'm sure, to know that the buildings in which he lived and worked have recently been listed on the Arizona State Register of Historic Places, in part due to his legacy for aviation —; a masterful mechanic.