His was a storied life of potential and opportunity.
With damn good luck and perseverance Mont Chumbley forged a career in the earliest days of aviation. And that he became a pilot at all stood in stark contrast to his rustic, Virginia beginnings.
Born in 1909, young Mont spent his childhood on a farm more 19th Century than 20th. As the eldest son of the eldest son, Mont, as a matter of custom, was expected to follow his father as the next heir of the operation—as had scores of Chumbleys in prior generations. But to the patriarch’s displeasure, the son showed little interest in tending fields.
Instead young Mont discovered other passions; school, sports, girls, and the excitement of town. This lack of enthusiasm for farming generated enough animosity, that the boy had to run away from the farm in 1924.
Mont was 14.
Following a horrifying ordeal in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine, the shaken young teen caught a train back to Virginia, but not the farm. Rather he found sanctuary in his aunt’s opulent home in town. Grateful for his unexpected deliverance, Mont blossomed, graduating from Pulaski High School in 1927, lettering in football and class valedictorian.
Through his academic and athletic achievements, Mont’s opportunities appeared endless, and he knew exactly what he wanted.
While still a little tyke Mont had witnessed a barnstormer set down a biplane in nearby fields. Hearing the roar of the plane’s engine, glimpsing the spinning prop as the aircraft winged above the fields, Mont discovered his calling. Inspired with this childhood memory, Mont set his cap on entering the United States Naval Academy in 1928.
However, he couldn’t crack admission exams, so his hopes for Annapolis vanished, leaving Mont only one option–enlisting as a seaman recruit.
As straightforward as that path appeared, the young man ran into an immediate hurdle; his father had to sign his enlistment papers, and that the old man would not do. If the heir did not want to farm, the father would not help.
This family impasse did not resolve until Mont’s mother stepped in and threatened her husband with legal action. Mont’s mother, sure to her word hired a lawyer and prepared to seek consent from a judge. The father stunned by her defiance knew he was beat, and reluctantly endorsed his son’s enlistment papers, allowing Mont to enter the US Navy in 1928.
A hardy boy, the rigors of Naval training proved no problem for Seaman Recruit Mont Chumbley. He easily adapted to drilling and training, initially pleased with the life he had chosen. What he didn’t expect was his first assignment below deck aboard a Navy collier, (coal-burning vessel). Shoveling endless black filth wasn’t what he had envisioned. Mont aimed for the sky.
The Navy of the 1920’s had no regulations excluding enlisted men from flight, but still the odds were daunting. How the young man earned a spot in Naval aviation beggars belief. Through a series of chance encounters, Mont soon served as a babysitter for the Commander of Schools at Norfolk Naval Station. Through tending this officer’s children, Mont developed a son-like attachment to the Commander, and felt courageous enough to ask for help. That single connection made all the difference, and Mont, now called “Chum” by his fellow enlistees, progressed to flight elimination exercises at Hampton Roads.
The short version of this tale is Chum survived flight-elimination trials competently handling amphibious Curtiss NC4’s. The next year, he and his compatriots, Class 37C, found themselves soaring over the Gulf in Pensacola, this time in wheeled aircraft. Later his class received their first assignment, shipping out to Coco Solo, Panama.
Life in the Canal Zone was a jungled 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 simulated war games, the pilots descended until parallel with the sea, then Chum and his fellow pilots would release virtual “payloads” into surface vessels.
In later interviews, an elderly Chum expressed his reservations about the maneuver as far too hazardous for aircraft.
Suddenly, in 1933, Chum up and decided to leave the Navy, though he remained in the Reserves. When asked why, after so much trouble to join, he admitted, “I didn’t much like taking orders.”
Shipping an old Chevy he had purchased in Panama, Chum steamed into New York Harbor in May, 1933. Optimistic and eager to find work, he paid calls on various air carriers from Eastern Transport to National Airways. But no one was hiring. No one. The country and the world, deep in Depression had nothing to offer the young pilot.
Disappointed, Chum rumbled out to Roosevelt Field on Long Island, for a chance meeting with a figure who would change his life.
Howard Ailor, sales representative for Waco Aircraft, took a shine to the young pilot. Repeating the same gloomy job forecast Chum heard elsewhere, Ailor counseled him to make his own luck. The silver-tongued salesman, said what Chum needed was his own equipment, and talked him into buying a brand new Waco C cabin biplane.
And that purchase transformed young Mont’s life.
Next time the Transcontinental Air Race.
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.