Frank Hawks (1897-1938)

Frank Hawks gained fame as a member of the Gates Flying Circus wherein he was part of the team that performed the world’s first inflight refuelling in 1921

Issue: 2 / 2016By Joseph Noronha

If there’s one aviator who thrived on being in the public eye, it was Frank Hawks. Through most of the 1920s and 1930s he kept attracting attention by breaking one United States flight record after another. By some counts he set no less than 214 point-to-point records in America and Europe. He counted famous pilots like Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Eddie Rickenbacker as his personal friends.

He found time to pen numerous articles on aviation and write an immensely readable autobiography Speed (1930) that became highly popular. He even featured in the leading role in “The Mysterious Pilot” a 15-episode Columbia movie serial of 1937 and was somewhat misleadingly billed as the “fastest airman in the world”.

Frank Monroe Hawks was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, on March 28, 1897. As a young lad growing up in Long Beach, California, he was fascinated by the flying activity at the local airfield. But what chance did an impoverished student have of ever getting a taste of flying? Hawks soon hit upon a plan. He convinced the owners that he could arrange for a newspaper article on the airfield to be published and so boost their business. And that is how he wangled a number of free joyrides. Hawks was barely 20 years old when the US entered World War I and he immediately enlisted in the US Army. After becoming a pilot and a commissioned officer he was appointed a flying instructor at Dallas Love Field, Texas. Sometime later, during a flying display in support of the United War Work campaign, he was involved in a midair collision with another aircraft. Although both aircraft were severely damaged, they managed to land safely. After the war, like so many ex-US Army pilots, he turned to barnstorming for a living. A sidelight – it was at an air show in Los Angeles, on December 28, 1920, that Frank Hawks took up a 20-something on her first flight. She happened to be Amelia Earhart, who later became one of the world’s most famous women aviators.

Frank Hawks first gained fame as a member of the Gates Flying Circus. He was part of the team that performed the world’s first inflight refuelling in 1921. Another aviator, Earl Daugherty, had claimed to be able to stay airborne for 24 hours in his Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny.’ The Jenny had served to train US Army pilots in World War I. And post-war, the US Army sold thousands of surplus Jennys at bargain prices to private owners, who then used them for barnstorming. Since the Jenny could stay aloft just two hours with internal fuel, Daugherty needed to replenish its fuel several times to make good his claim. So Hawks flew his Standard J – a two-seat basic trainer, two-bay biplane – with professional wing-walker Wesley May as airborne refuelling crew. It was a fairly uncomplicated method. Circling over Long Beach, California, Hawks brought his machine close to Daugherty’s – close enough for May to clamber out onto the wing with a fivegallon (about 19 litres) can of gasoline strapped to his back and cross from one aircraft to another. May then calmly poured the fuel into the Jenny’s tank and scampered back the way he had come.

In 1928, Hawks set out on a goodwill tour of the United States. This is how he described the expedition in his autobiography Speed: “In the course of the tour, I visited 175 cities, carried 7,200 passengers and did 56,000 miles of cross-country flying. All of this without a mishap to plane and passengers.” An estimated 5,00,000 people came and saw his aircraft, Texaco One, thus providing a powerful boost to the popularity of flying. Then in 1931, he decided to conquer Europe. Embarking on a gruelling 20,000-mile tour of the continent, he established 55 intercity records in 12 countries. He was highly appreciated as a goodwill ambassador. In the words of one columnist, “It seems to be a matter of general agreement in aviation circles that Frank Hawks is about the best that America has sent us. Few pilots in the world have greater claims to fame than he, yet never, I think, have I met one who was less assuming or so genuinely a jolly good fellow.”

Frank Hawks made it his life’s mission to promote modern air travel as fast and safe. It is therefore somewhat ironical that he met his end while trying to endorse a new aircraft design. The Gwinn Aircar was a single-engine biplane – touted as an affordable everyman’s machine that would make the transition from an automobile to a plane fairly simple. It had no rudder. A wheel on the control column moved the ailerons up and down to turn by banking. The elevators were operated by moving the control column fore and aft. The aircraft was simple and safe to fly as it would neither stall nor spin. On August 23, 1938, Frank Hawks and J. Hazard Campbell, a director in the Gwinn Corporation, took off in an Aircar for a demonstration flight. Disaster soon followed. According to a report in Time magazine, “Presently Hawks and Campbell took off smartly, cleared a fence, went atilt between two tall trees, and passed from sight. Then there was a rending crash, a smear of flame, silence. Half a mile the fearful group raced from the polo field. From the crackling wreck they pulled Frank Hawks; from beneath a burning wing, Campbell – both fatally hurt. The ship that could not stub its toe aground had tripped on overhead telephone wires.” Though both men were badly injured they were alive. However, they died within hours. Although the accident did not happen due to any technical flaw, the resultant adverse publicity also signalled the untimely end of the Gwinn Aircar.