The Early Years
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Eugene (Gene) Francis May was born on September 28, 1904 in Shelby, AL to John C. and Cornelia E. MacKnight May. Gene was the second of six children: Audrey (my Grandmother), Gene, Cecil, John Jr., Verne and James. Verne is the only one still living and he celebrated his 93rd birthday in January of 2009.
The May family moved frequently and John tried several professions -- grocer, carnival concessionaire, railroader, theater proprietor and hotel manager that I know about. 1912 found the May family in Tipton, IA and this is where Gene saw his first airplane at the county fair. From that day forward he knew he would become a pilot.
In 1918 the May family moved to Aledo, IL where John opened the county's first motion picture theater. Gene, already demonstrating his mechanical aptitude, ran the projector while Audrey played the piano during the silent movies. The Empire Theater was located on the corner of College Avenue and what is today State Highway 17. Three doors to the north was McHard's Paint Store, run by one of my maternal Great Grandfathers, Sam McHard.
John, Sr. always had a fondness for drink, but it increased as the years passed, forcing Gene to drop out of school after the eighth grade to keep the theater running. It didn't take Gene long to realize he was trapped in a bad situation.
One day in the early 1920s, he saw a Naval Aviation poster and decided to join up and learn to fly. It wasn't until after he enlisted that he learned they only admitted college graduates into their small and elite aviation program. So he became a radio operator hoping to gain access to the aviation program through the back door. After his training, he applied for duty as a signalman aboard the airship Shenandoah, but instead was assigned to the battleship USS West Virginia where he served out the remainder of his hitch. Although we don't know for sure, he was probably on the "Wee Vee's" maiden voyage -- the first of a long list of "firsts" for Gene May!
While Gene was away in the Navy, his older sister, Audrey, married my Grandfather, Farr Carroll (1923) and his mother and father were divorced. His father moved back to Iowa, and his mother took Cecil, John, Verne and James to South Bend, Indiana. Following Gene's discharge from the Navy, he moved around northern Illinois a bit selling theater equipment then radio gear. Before long, though,he ended up in South Bend with his family.
This is where he met his first wife, Louise, and he soon married the 16 year old beauty. Shortly thereafter, they were blessed with a son, Leland, born in 1926.
1926 was also the year Gene started taking flying lessons in a WW I surplus Curtis Jenny for $35 an hour. To earn the extra money to afford this, he worked in the evenings and weekends as a painter and steeplejack. It took a lot of painting to earn $35, so the progress was slow. Gene did managed to solo later that year, but the financial drain was imposing a hardship on his young family, so, at his wife's insistence, he put it aside for the time being.
In 1929 Gene moved his family to Detroit, MI and went to work as an advertising salesman for R. L. Polk Company. With a little more change in his pocket, and convinced more than ever that "aviation would become more than the peanut stand it used to be," he resumed his flight training. After 5 hours instruction from Ronald Chappell at the Burns Airport on Plymouth Road in Detroit, he obtained his pilot's license. Soon he was barnstorming, instructing students and selling a few airplanes to augment his income.
It was about this time that Gene started thinking about a career as a test pilot and in 1932 he got his first chance. A friend of his was thinking of buying an "old airplane" and he wanted Gene to go to Toledo and check it out for him. What Gene didn't know was that the bird had been neglected for many years, damaged, then questionably repaired. It took a little coaxing, but finally the French Salmson engine was ticking over nicely and Gene was off. Everything went fine until Gene tried to land. As he began slowing down, the nose began rising uncontrollably and the tired old Salmson didn't have enough power to recover from the impending stall. The mush-in from about 10 feet altitude was more that the rotten wood in the fuselage could stand, and the landing gear folded and over on her back she went. Gene was unhurt, except for his pride. That, however, was soon partially restored when a shade tree mechanic wandered over and remarked that he guessed he must have installed those new wings a little too far forward, thereby throwing the center of gravity too far aft! It was a lesson Gene never forgot --- never step into an airplane without all the facts.
That flight also taught Gene that simply being a good pilot was not all it took to be a successful test pilot. Had he fully understood aerodynamics and weight and balance theories, he could have spotted the plane's defect before it was too late. So, to supplement his eighth grade education, he began studying engineering, physics and mathematics while traveling the Midwest as a salesman for R.L. Polk Company. He joked that the librarians in his territory knew him better than the motel clerks did.
This knowledge would become invaluable to him in the future (self-education became a lifelong pursuit), but he also realized he needed to fatten his log book, too. Not having the money to buy his own plane (his family had grown with the birth of two more sons, Don in 1931 and Carl in 1933), Gene became very creative in ways to gain flight time in other people's airplanes and at other people's expense. Barnstorming on shares, turning most of the money over to the plane's owner, became one of his favorite weekend activities. However, he knew he needed experience in larger and higher performance airplanes. This presented an even greater challenge.
Being one of Polk's top salesmen, he had the ear of the company's president, Walter Gardner, and the two became friends. Gene saw a golden opportunity here and repeatedly tried to sell Gardner on the idea of a company airplane and that he should fly it. He nearly succeeded more than once, but just as Gene would be about to close the deal, headlines would appear in the newspapers about another "terrible air disaster," ending the discussion.
In 1935, he taught his younger brother Verne to fly in a Verville AT Sportsman --- and not just any Verville, but serial number 1! Verville, in a joint venture with Packard, also did some pioneering research on diesel fueled radial aircraft engines during the 30s in a couple of their Verville Air Sedans. Perhaps Gene did some flight-testing over there. Come to think of it, he always drove Packard automobiles and usually came to Detroit to pick them up. Hmmm...........
In 1936 Gene went to Wright Field in Dayton, OH and applied for a reserve commission in the Army Air Corps. This, he reasoned, would provide him with free flying time between sales trips. Everything was all set and approved, but during the flight physical the doctors discovered that he had only four molars. It was necessary to have at least six, so the doctors said gravely, or a person would be prone to bad hearing. To the Army, clearly, molars were as important as a college education was to the Navy. So ended another scheme to get free flying time.
Gene was spending less and less time at home, what with his traveling as a salesman for Polk and barnstorming on the weekends. Soon, Gene was not only getting to know the librarians along his route on a professional level, but on a personal one, too. This also applied to the barmaids, waitresses and any other attractive young ladies he came into contact with. The other women, along with the burdens of raising three small boys with no help from their father, was more than Louise could tolerate. The marriage ended in divorce.
Early in 1937 he landed a job as co-pilot with TWA airlines flying Douglas DC-2s out of Kansas City. By later that year he was flying out of Los Angles and quickly earned his Captain's wings, along with a shiny new DC-3. Bette Davis was one of his frequent passengers and a friendship quickly developed. In fact, it would develop into more than a casual friendship in the years to come. But that's another story.
When hostilities broke out in Europe, Gene saw another opportunity to gain fight experience. In 1939 he packed his bag and headed north to Edmonton to work for Canadian Airways' military division, teaching navigation to RCAF crews and ferrying bombers and transports to England. Gene quickly was promoted to chief pilot and piled up flying time at about twice the rate of the average hard-working flier.
Gene also took advantage of not being "on the road", so to speak, to get to better know his growing boys. He brought all three of them to Edmonton for an entire school year. That winter would be fondly remembered by both father and children for years to come.
In March of 1941, after a particularly cold Canadian winter, Gene felt the time was right to take the next step. He sent an unsolicited letter to Douglas Aircraft inquiring about flying positions. Douglas already had several military airplanes in production and more under development. They were actively seeking experienced pilots who wouldn't later be swept up by the military. Gene was in!
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