Becoming A Pilot

His was an unlikely life, shaped through perseverance, and a healthy dose of good fortune. That Mont Chumbley became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.

Born in 1909, young Mont spent his early years on a farm that reflected more the 19th Century than the 20th. The eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next patriarch of the family spread—as had generations before him. But, to his father’s dismay, the boy showed no interest in tending the land. He had other passions; school, sports, and life in town distracted the boy, producing enough friction that Mont ran away from the farm in 1924.  

Following a harrowing ordeal in the West Virginia coal mines, Mont returned home, moving in with relatives in Pulaski, Virginia. He graduated from Pulaski High School in 1927, a football star, and class valedictorian. Determined to become a pilot, Mont set his cap on entering in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. 

While still a child, the boy had been dazzled by a barnstormer who visited his rural community. From that early episode, Mont knew what he wanted from life; a place in the cockpit. When he failed to secure an academy appointment, the young man quickly realized his only way to Norfolk was by enlisting. As simple as that seemed, Mont learned his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, his father would not consent to a Navy career.

This family impasse did not resolve until Mont’s mother stepped in and threatened her husband with legal action. Mont’s mother hired a lawyer and prepared to seek consent from a judge. The stunned father apparently knew when he was beat, and reluctantly endorsed his son’s enlistment papers. Mont entered the US Navy in 1928. 

A hearty boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no issue for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He happily drilled, and trained, reveling in a life he had chosen. What he didn’t count on was the nightmare of serving on colliers, coal-burning vessels. The work was filthy and endless, and not what the young man desired. Mont aimed for the sky.

In the late 1920’s the Navy had no rules limiting enlisted men from flight, but the odds were still formidable. How the young man earned a spot in flight elimination training beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont became a babysitter for the director of schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending the officer’s children, Mont developed a friendship with the Commander. That connection made the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees,  progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.

The short version is that Chum survived elimination, testing on amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. By 1930 he and his class of pilot-trainees, 37C, found themselves in Pensacola training, not on  seaplanes, but in aircraft with conventional landing gear.  Following his time in Florida, his class moved on to Coco Solo, Panama.

Life in the Canal Zone was a universe of its own. Military bases dotted the nearly 50 mile stretch of canal, in a mix of both Naval and Army installations. Coco Solo, anchored by the Navy, commanded the Atlantic side, and trained largely in T3M’s, Martin Torpedo Bombers. In war games, the aircraft would dive until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” level with vessels. In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.

Unexpectedly, by 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, remaining only in the Naval Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to enlist, he did not stay, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.” 

Shipping an old Chevy he bought in Panama, Chum cruised into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Eager for work, he paid calls on air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways.  The young man quickly learned there was no one hiring. The country, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the hopeful, young pilot.

A part of Chum’s search directed his Chevy to Roosevelt Field, and a meeting with a figure who would change the direction of his life. Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to Chum. Explaining again that the country was broke, Ailor counseled the young man to make his own luck. A tireless salesman, Ailor added that what Chum needed his own equipment, and convinced him to buy a brand new Waco C cabin biplane. 

And that purchase made all the difference.

Building his own charter service, Mont Chumbley soon generated a thriving enterprise. With clients from the press, student flyers from downtown, and weekends barnstorming at carnivals and fairs, Chum found his footing. He also forged friendships with other aviation enthusiasts including Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, and the wealthy Harry Guggenheim. In an interview Chum later referred to one-time passenger, Katharine Hepburn as a ‘nice girl.’ 

By Fall of 1933 Chum found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though participating had not been his idea. A client who worked on the New York Stock Exchange, and believed Chum the new Lindbergh, agreed to fund the necessary modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter.  Chum agreed. 

His biplane readied, Chum winged his way to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip by moonlight for practice. Resting much of October 2, 1933, Chum, seeded third in line, finally pushed his Waco into darkening eastern skies. Checking in at a stop in Albuquerque,  he was told another plane had already been and gone. Concerned he was lagging behind, the young pilot hastened to the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Reaching Wichita by before dawn, the weary pilot discovered he was actually the first entrant to arrive. Only two other participants had made it past Albuquerque, making this a three-way race.

Spotted 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place Wichita landing, a poorly rested Chum returned to the late afternoon Kansas sky. A further stop brought his Waco to Indianapolis, and from there he was free to push on to New York. But there were problems. Cloud cover began to  collect over western Pennsylvania, and he had a feeling he was off course, perhaps even lost. At nearly the same time a small break below his aircraft revealed a lone light on the ground, so he took a chance.

Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young pilot stumbled through the dark and dirt, finding a  farmhouse. Thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, apologizing while explaining his situation. It was a bewildered couple that kindly let him in, and while the wife perked coffee, and fed him, the farmer got out his maps and showed Chum his location. With heartfelt thanks, he apologized once again, then returned to the night sky, righting his direction toward New York and victory.

Still, cloud cover continued to challenge the young flyer. Dawn had broken, but visibility hadn’t improved. Running options through his mind, he decided if conditions didn’t get any better, he’d take his Waco Cabin out over open ocean and look for a break. His contingency plan set, Chum buzzed eastward, checking and rechecking his wristwatch. 

That was when a sudden gap in the mist gave him the edge he needed.  

Rolling down landing strip number 1 at Roosevelt Field, Chum brought his Waco to a full stop, satisfied he had prevailed. But his race had not ended. Officials rushed the field, shouting and waving, indicating not all was settled. From the cockpit window the pilot was informed he was on the wrong landing strip, and if he shut off the motor he would be disqualified. Promptly, without a word, Chum taxied swiftly to landing strip number 2, then switched off his biplane.

He had won. 

Seven planes had initially lifted off into darkening California skies. Of the seven only three found their way to Roosevelt Field. Chum’s Waco cabin had journeyed across the sleeping continent in 24 hours and 26 minutes; two minutes added by his last minute dash across the field. His victory awarded $1,500, enough to reimburse the patron who had funded him, and he also paid off his airplane. Not a bad payday for a young man struggling through the worst year of the Great Depression.

The race had kicked off Roosevelt Field’s “National Air Pageant.” Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the event celebrated flight and also raised funds for the First Lady’s special charities. In addition, the Darkness Derby, Chum’s competition, promoted “Night Flight” a new Metro Goldwyn Mayer film which premiered at the Capitol Theater the following night. One of the film’s stars, Helen Hayes was on hand for the opening, and formally presented Chum with his trophy prior to the screening. 

The Transcontinental Air Race was a heady moment for the 24-year-old. Chum realized that his decisions, combined with a little luck had been worth all the risk, and that a promising career in flight lay before him. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.