Aviation Programs in the Golden Age of Radio
By Mike Gretz
Between 1932 and World War II, more than 25 aviation related serial radio programs were broadcast around the U.S. The affect those radio programs had on the youth of America was huge. "Jimmie Allen", "Tailspin Tommy", and the other aviation heros of radio promoted aviation and inspired hundreds of thousands of kids towards mechanical and technical careers. These were the same kids who carried the U.S. to victory in World War II, and later landed a man on the moon. If you read the biographies and interviews of the U.S. aces of WWII, and of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts, almost without exception they listened to these aviation radio programs and built model airplanes in their youth. And so did the tens of thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians who supported them.
The first of the radio programs to capture the attention of young listeners was The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen in 1933. Jimmie was a fictional 16 year old lineboy and pilot-in-training at the Kansas City Airport. His mentor was a war ace named Speed Robertson. Jimmie and Speed, along with their mechanic Flash Lewis, solved mysteries, went on treasure hunts, made emergency landings and parachute jumps, raced in air shows, and took on crime and criminals in weekly 15-minute sky-high adventures. Kids couldn't get enough! Jimmie's immense popularity spawned the creation of a nationwide Jimmie Allen Flying Club. The club newspaper was sent to 600,000 listeners a week. Tens of thousands of Jimmie Allen "cadets" would participate in regional Jimmie Allen Air Races, flying their Jimmie Allen rubber power model airplanes.
Here are some of the most popular aviation programs during the Golden Age of Radio.
Air Stories of the World War, 1932
Sometimes called GEORGE BRUCE'S AIR STORIES. First aired July 19, 1932. George Bruce was a pioneer flyer and a prolific producer of aviation pulp magazines like George Bruce's Aces, George Bruce's Air Novels, George Bruce's Contact, George Bruce's Sky Fighters, and George Bruce's Squadron. Bruce knew the men who flew in the World War. These are his stories as well as the stories of the men he knew. The popularity of his pulp magazine articles made his stories a natural for radio.
The Flying Family, 1932
"The Flying Family" was a radio show based on a real family. The family consisted of Col. George Hutchinson; his wife, Blanche; their daughters, Kathryn and Janet; and their pet lion cub, Sunshine. The Flying Hutchinsons made headlines in 1931 when they flew to every state capital, demonstrating that flying could be safe, reliable transportation. Their adventures earned them an appearance on a Wheaties box, vaudeville appearances on Broadway and the radio show, which was broadcast by NBC. The Flying Family was on the air every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5:30 p.m. Cocomalt sponsored the radio show, and jigsaw puzzles were given out with every can of Cocomalt. More than 4 million of the puzzles were distributed. The show was resurrected in 1939 as THE FLYING HUTCHINSONS.
The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, 1933-1937 and 1946-1947
First aired from 1933-1937; revived new series broadcast 1946-1947.
Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, both World War I pilots and Kansas City Missouri residents, came up with the idea of THE AIR ADVENTURES OF JIMMIE ALLEN at a party. The show centered around 16 year old Jimmie Allen, a line boy at the Kansas City Airport. Jimmie, assisted by his older, more experienced pilot friend Speed Robertson (an air ace from WW1), and his mechanic chum Flash Lewis, took on took on various criminals, spies, saboteurs, and mad scientists in 15 minute adventures that kept kids glued to the radio every week. The show was first sponsored by Skelly Oil which created the Jimmie Allen Flying Club, requiring children to apply for the club at any Skelly gas station. Applicants received a set of wings, a membership emblem, and a 'personal letter' from Jimmie Allen. Jimmie Allen was so popular that Paramount Studios made a feature film starring Jimmie Allen called THE SKY PARADE in 1936.
Anne of the Airlines, 1932
"Over Valley and Mountain, River and Plain, through Wind and Storm rides Ann of the Airlines"
ANN OF THE AIRLINES was a syndicated radio adventure drama series broadcast between 1932 and the 1950s. The story focused on Ann Burton, an airplane hostess employed by Interstate Airlines. She also worked with the Secret Service, as did her romantic interest, pilot Jack Baker. Gerald Mohr portrayed Secret Service agent and co-pilot Art Morrison. Also in the cast was John Gibson who portrayed Pete. It is unmistakable that Ann of the Airlines was created because of the popularity and successes of Amelia Earhart. ANNE OF THE AIRLINES was the only radio serial with a female lead.
Phantom Pilot Patrol, 1932
Sponsored by Langendorf Bread
Capt. Frank Hawks Sky Patrol, 1935
Captain Frank Hawk was a U.S. Army pilot in World War I, and was widely known during the 1920s and 1930s as a record breaking aviator. Throughout his aviation career, Hawks was continually in the news, and was often linked with other famous aviators, including Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh, all of whom were personal friends. More than any other contemporary aviation figure, Hawks exploited his image as an "ace" pilot with countless promotional ventures. A prolific writer, he wrote books and numerous magazine articles, always promoting aviation. Through his "Air Hawks" and "Sky Patrol" fan clubs, Hawks was a favorite with young children. The Capt. Frank Hawks Sky Patrol Pilots Manual and pilots wings shown below are promotional items produced by Post Cereal in conjunction with Hawk's radio show HAWK'S TRAIL.
Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police, 1937-1940
Written by Virginia Cooke. Centered on the adventures of Speed Gibson, a fifteen-year-old pilot who, through his uncle Clint Barlow, becomes a member of the International Secret Police. Speed was described as .a typical American boy: interested in short wave radio, aviation and most of all - The International Secret Police. Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police ran weekly from January 2, 1937 to May 25, 1940. 178 Episodes of the show were produced with each episode lasting approximately fifteen minutes.
Terry and the Pirates, 1937-1948
TERRY AND THE PIRATES was a radio serial adapted from the popular comic strip by Milton Caniff. The radio show enthralled listeners from 1937 through 1948. The central character, Terry Lee is a young teenager who lives in the Orient, and he's lucky enough to know some of the greatest fighting guys a boy could imagine! Pat Ryan is Terry's best pal. Flip Corkin and Hotshot Charlie, plus Connie the coolie, and then there's Burma and Elita, who can fight too. The "pirates" are run by a beautiful baddie called the Dragon Lady, and for years they have been the scourge of the orient. But in the 1940s, Terry and his pals are plunged into the War effort, and take up fighting not only "Japs" but also Nazi spies and sabouterus are thick in the orient, too! The casts were solid, the acting great fun, and the music and sound effects are action-packed. After 1945, with no wartime villains for Terry and his pals to fight, ratings began to drop in the post-WWII period until the final episode on June 30, 1948.
Howie Wing, 1938
The HOWIE WING radio program, created by Wilfred G. Moore, aired from 1938 to 1939 and was sponsored by Kellogg's. Howie Wing was a 21-year-old "junior pilot" whose adventures were typical for juvenile air fiction of the era. Howie was mentored by Captain Harvey, a WW-I Ace. Howie's girlfriend is Donna Cavendish and his fellow pilot was "Zero" Smith, one of the best "tough weather pilots" but cranky, devious, generally irascible, and sometimes suspected of working for the Germans. Kellogg's sponsored the First Air Express Round-the-World shipment to generate interest in the HOWIE WING program. They prepared two suitcases; one to be sent Round-the-World by air in an easterly direction and the other westerly. The race was to see which suitcase would win its Round-the-World trip. The suitcases travelled on Eastern Airlines, American Airlines, Pan American Airway, Air France, KLM Airlines, Imperial Airways, United Airlines, Transcontinental Western Airlines, Chicago & Southern Airlines. The suitcases departed Battle Creek, Michigan on February 22, 1939. The westerly suitcase arrived first back in Battle Creek 25 days later, and the Easterly suitcase 29 days later. Each suitcase made approximately 75 different stops while traveling 31,188 miles around the world.
Captain Midnight, 1938-1949
Began in the fall of 1938 on a few Midwest radio stations sponsored by Skelly Oil Company. The program was another creation of Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, both former World War I fighter pilots who had previously scored a huge success for Skelly with their adventure series THE AIR ADVENTURES OF JIMMIE ALLEN. CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT went on to become the longest running aviation radio show and then successfully made the transition to television.
The title character was a World War I U. S. Army pilot. His Captain Midnight code name was given by a general who sent him on a high-risk mission from which he returned at the stroke of 12:00. The show was extremely popular, with an audience in the millions. Just under half the listeners were adult, and it was a favorite of WWII U.S Army Air Corps crews when they were stationed in the U.S.
When it reached nationwide network status, Ovaltine became the sponsor, dumping its previous LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE program. Kids would beg their parents to buy Ovaltine, if only to get the label to send away for a Secret Squadron Decoder, which were used by listeners to decipher encrypted messages previewing the next day's episode, usually broadcast once a week. Other premiums included rings, telescopes, and WWII items.
The CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT TV series, produced by Screen Gems and starring Richard Webb, began September 9, 1954 on CBS, continuing for 39 episodes until January 21, 1956.
Similin' Jack, 1939
The longest running aviation comic strip - 40 years, but one of the shortest running radio programs. The comic strip was created in 1933 by 27-year-old cartoonist and aviation enthusiast Zack Mosley, who had previously worked on the Buck Rogers and Skyroads comic strips. Mosley was a member of organizations that indicate his avid aviation research for his strip: Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Aviation-Space Writers Association, Silver Wings Society, OX-5 Club, and the Quiet Birdmen. Mosley's nickname was 'Smilin Zack' and was the inspiration for naming the comic strip THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN JACK. Smilin' Jack's appearance was based on that of notable air racing star Roscoe Turner.
After the huge success of kid's aviation radio programs in the early 1930s, the Mutual Broadcasting System launched the SMILIN' JACK radio series February 13, 1939. The 15-minute program, airing three times a week at 5:30pm, was sponsored by Tootsie Rolls, which offered a premium for ten candy wrappers - a flying chart .. "just like the one Jack uses." The program opened each episode with announcer Tom Shirley demanding, "Clear the runway for Smilin' Jack!", over the roar of an airplane. The program only lasted 4 months.
Sky Blazers, 1939-1940
The show aired on CBS from December 9, 1939 to August 31, 1940. Produced by Phillips H. Lord. SKY BLAZERS was not fictional, but a show about "real" aviators and their exploits. Using a technique borrowed from his other successful radio show (called GANG BUSTERS) Lord had an actual air hero, Col. Roscoe Turner, begin the program by interviewing the real life aviator about his exploits. After a quick introduction, the show would segue into a dramatization of the tale, played by radio actors. Wonder Bread sponsored the show. As soon as Lord got the series established, he dropped Roscoe Turner and had a radio actor impersonate a series of "Flight Commanders" as the narrator.
Wings of Destiny, 1940-1942
All of the aviation radio programs offered "premiums" (wings, badges, membership cards, model airplanes, etc.), but only one gave away full-size airplanes! The radio program was WINGS OF DESTINY, the sponsor was Wings Cigarettes and the airplane was a new Piper J-3 Cub. The show gave away 63 Piper Cubs, one every week for over a year.
WINGS OF DESTINY debuted on radio on October 11, 1940 in Chicago over the NBC affiliate. It was a 30 minute show broadcast on Fridays at 10:00 PM. The sponsor was Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation based in Louisville. They used the show to promote one of their cigarette brands called WINGS (they also manufactured Raleigh and Kool).
Despite its ostentatious title, the program was basically a routine radio adventure show featuring a courageous pilot, Steve Benton, his amiable mechanic, Brooklyn, and his girl friend, Peggy Banning. According to Variety magazine WINGS OF DESTINY was "Aimed at an air-minded generation, young enough to see only the excitement, old enough to smoke". But it probably wasn't the script nor the acting that drew audiences to their radios; it was the Piper Cub giveaway.
If it seemed too good to last, it was. Within weeks following the U.S. declaration of war in December 1941, all airplane manufacturers, including the Piper plant, began producing aircraft only for the military. With its supply of Piper Cubs eliminated, the sponsors of "Wings of Destiny" had no choice but to cancel the giveaway portion of that radio series. On December 26, 1941 Brown & Williamson issued a press release stating that the 63rd and last Piper Cub would be given away that very day. The program limped along for only five more weeks before Brown & Williamson pulled the plug and canceled the show; the last episode aired on February 6, 1942.
Tailspin Tommy, 1941-1942
In the wake of Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic, the public's fascination with aviation escalated. TAILSPIN TOMMY was the first aviation-based comic strip to appear as a result of this heightened interest, and it also became the longest lasting. Scripted by Glenn Chaffin, a newspaper journalist, TAILSPIN TOMMY began its run in four newspapers on April 30, 1928. By 1931, it was published in more than 250 newspapers across the country. By 1934 a movie version of TAILSPIN TOMMY was in the theaters. A total of six TAILSPIN TOMMY feature movies were made.
On September 5, 1941 Tommy's fans finally got the opportunity to hear their hero's thrilling adventures coming from their home radio. "Ladies and gentlemen, come to tell you another thrilling story, that lovable, exciting aviation hero Tailspin Tommy with his flying pals Skeets and Betty Lou. Stepping out of the newspapers from coast to coast and jumping down from the motion picture screen, Tommy visits you now each week over the radio. So join us for another exciting half-hour with that ace of the skies Tailspin Tommy."
Wings to Victory, 1942-1944
WINGS TO VICTORY was a World War 2 era show created to boost morale on the home front and encourage enlistment to the American Air Force. Sponsored by United States Army Air Forces, broadcasting began on November 5, 1942 on the Blue Network, American Broadcasting Company. Seventy-seven 30-minute shows aired weekly until March 1944. Each show focuses on the personal experiences of a single individual in the Air Force. The stories were based on official combat reports from the fighting fronts, however the names and characters in the show are fictional. This was done for operational security during wartime. The cast members are also not identified in the closing credits, but there are some recognizable West Coast voices, including Alan Ladd.
Hop Harrigan, 1942-1948
The opening of the HOP HARRIGAN radio show (to the roar of a prop fighter plane):
The writing team of Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt had created Jimmie Allen and Captain Midnight, and in 1942 got together with Albert Aley to do a radio adventure based on the popular comic book hero, HOP HARRIGAN. On radio, HOP HARRIGAN aired from August 31, 1942 to February 6, 1948. The series began on the ABC Blue network and moved in 1946 to the Mutual Broadcasting System. Known as "America's Ace of the Airwaves", the HOP HARRIGAN show was hugely popular with kids and had no trouble finding sponsors, which over the years included Grape-Nut Flakes and Lever Brothers.
Island Venture, 1945-1946
Action-adventure drama about two ex-Naval Aviation veterans who return to the South Pacific to establish an air freight service. Premiering late Thursday evening, November 15th 1945, the 30-minute show aired nationally between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. over most CBS affiliates. The sponsor was Wrigley's Gum. The series hit all the right notes for the era: two ex-GIs undertaking a much-needed air service for the area, the encroachments of competitors--both fair and criminal, and a series of encounters with the aboriginal natives and French colonialists inhabiting the local islands.
The Sparrow and the Hawk, 1945-1946
THE SPARROW AND THE HAWK aired on the CBS radio network five days a week at 5:45 PM from May 14, 1945 to September 27, 1946. It recounted the wild, blue yonder adventures of Lt. Col. Spencer Mallory (The Hawk) and his 16-year old nephew, Barney (The Sparrow).
Sky King, 1946-1954
The SKY KING radio show, which began on October 28, 1946, was based on a story by Roy Winsor. It was the brainchild of the phenomenal radio writing team of Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, who had also created Jimmie Allen, Captain Midnight, and Hop Harrigan. The show aired on ABC Radio Network from 1946-1950, and the Mutual Radio Network 1950-1954. The sponsor was Peter Pan Peanut Butter, a subsidary of Swift & Company. Mike Wallace was the announcer.
SKY KING was a story about an Arizona rancher and former World War II Navy pilot named Schuyler "Sky" King, who lived, along with his niece "Penny" and nephew "Clipper", on the Flying Crown Ranch near the fictitious town of Grover, Arizona and near a top-secret military installation. "America's Favorite Flying Cowboy" captured criminals and spies, and finding lost hikers with the use of his plane, a Cessna T-50 twin-engine bamboo bomber called the "Songbird".
Although several air-adventure radio programs made it to the movie screen SKY KING was one of the very few to make the flight to television. The television show began airing on Sunday afternoons on NBC on September 16, 1951.
Steve Canyon, 1948
STEVE CANYON was an American adventure comic strip by writer-artist Milton Caniff, launched shortly after Caniff retired from his previous strip, Terry and the Pirates. The comic strip began in January 1947 and centered around the adventures of USAF Lieutenant Colonel Steve Canyon and his team of pilots at Big Thunder Air Force Base. Because Caniff's Terry and the Pirates had successfully transitioned to radio with a popular 11 year run, plans were made to put STEVE CANYON on the airwaves. Only one "audition" recording remains from 1948. Eventually STEVE CANYON was adapted into a filmed, half-hour television series of 34 episodes on NBC in 1958.59.
I Fly Anything, 1950-1951
I FLY ANYTHING was the last new radio network flying show. The 30-minute show was first broadcast November 29,1950, on the ABC radio network. This as a show about a cargo pilot named Dockery Crane, a pilot who's seat of the pants operation included one old DC-4, appropriately named "The Flying Eight-Ball".
The show's opening gave ample evidence of the content; "Flight 743 calling La Guardia Field ... Is that you Crane? What're you bringing in, tea, teak, or teepee poles? ... I got a tradewind tan, a tall tale about a tribal treasure, a tropical tramp, and a torrid Tahitian tomato. You know me, I fly anything!"
Uncle Ned's Squadron, 1950-1954
UNCLE NED'S SQUADRON a local kiddie's show on WMAQ in Chicago that was heard through-out the Midwest from 1950 to 1954. It was a 30-minute show on Saturday mornings. Uncle Ned talked to his young studio audience about the history of flight and famous pilots. He also gave away model airplanes to contest winners on the show. Norbert "Uncle Ned" Locke was a perfect host for this show which taught young people about aviation in a very substantive way. He was not only a broadcaster but also a pilot and flight instructor. The broadcast included reviews of the material just presented and what were, in essence, tests. The listeners of UNCLE NED'S SQUADRON probably didn't realize it, they were going to school on Saturday mornings. Hugh Downs was the announcer of this show.