Building his own charter service at Roosevelt Field, Mont Chumbley got right to work building a clientele. Though 1933 marked the low point of the Great Depression, photographers and reporters from the Associated Press, United Press International, continued to work, beating a path from Manhattan to hire his Waco. Adding student-pilots to his schedule, plus weekends barnstorming around the countryside, Chum made ends meet.
Friendships with other aviation boosters included Amelia Earhart, Broadway producer Leland Haywood, wealthy philanthropist Harry Guggenheim, and his first sweetheart, pilot Frances Harrel Marsalis. In a later interview Chum referred to a long ago passenger, Katharine Hepburn, as a ‘nice girl.’
By Autumn of 1933 Chum unexpectedly found himself a contender in a transcontinental night race, though it hadn’t been his idea. A prominent client who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange believed Chum was New York’s answer to Lindbergh, funding needed modifications to his Waco C, if only the young man would enter. Chum, weighing his chances. finally agreed.
His biplane soon readied, Chum winged his way from Long Island to Glendale, California, flying much of the trip west by moonlight for practice. Resting in Los Angeles much of October 2, 1933, Chum was told he was seeded third for take off, and finally lifted his Waco into dusky eastern skies.
At his first stop, taxiing across a dark air field in Albuquerque, a fueler informed him another plane had already been and gone. A bit panicked, sure he was lagging behind, the young flyer hustled into the night sky, opening the throttle full bore to catch up. Just before dawn, the lights of Wichita appeared, where the spent pilot learned he was, in fact, the first entrant to arrive.
Weary as Chum felt, he couldn’t sleep. Keyed up by the excitement, he had to wait on those planes yet to arrive. And by late morning only two aircraft had cleared Albuquerque, a Monocoupe and a Stinson.
This night derby narrowed to a three-man contest.
Awarded 2 hours and 10 minutes for his first place in Wichita, Chum coaxed his Waco upward against the lengthening shadows of a Kansas sky. Hours later, at his last checkpoint in Indianapolis, Chum pushed on for New York.
However, the weather wasn’t cooperative.
Through western Pennsylvania, the bi-plane’s windshield began to pierce thickening clouds. Growing anxious, he thought he might be off course, or even worse, lost. But luck remained his co-pilot, when he glimpsed a small break in the inky mist. A lone light flickered below in the blackness, and he slipped down through the pocket.
Executing a bumpy landing on a farm field, the young flyer stumbled through darkness and dirt, making his way toward the light pole, and a modest farmhouse. Urgently thumping on the door, Chum roused a farmer and his wife, breathlessly apologizing for his intrusion.
Explaining his predicament the bewildered couple kindly let him in. As the wife perked coffee, and laid out food, 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 hopes for victory.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.