On a wing and a prayer

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Welcome to a time ripe with risk, when stunts were tackled with vim rather than parachutes

Some 30 years ago, having taken a design degree but been hijacked onto this venerable organ, I used to hang around with a bunch of newly hatched car designers at the Royal College of Art in London. One of the people I met then was Peter Stevens, the man who made the McLaren F1 look so gorgeous among many other design highlights, who was teaching auto design to my mates. He’s always involved in something interesting, and recently he sent over a photo that made my eyes pop.

While in an American junk shop, Peter found a 1920s photo album that showed a young woman leaping from a car onto an aeroplane. Intrigued, he followed it up and discovered a tale of daring that would be inconceivable today.

During the 1920s an enterprising young lady called Mabel (sometimes Mable) Cody formed a flying circus performing dramatic stunts up and down the western States. Mabel’s outfit specialised in parachute jumps, a “leap for life” from plane to plane, and wing-walking — and we’re not talking being firmly strapped to a nice solid frame. She and her co-lunatics clambered all over the aircraft completely unattached, hanging off wings and wheels at roof-dodging altitudes. The boss, ‘Curly’ Burns, whom Mabel later married, billed the 20-year-old as the niece of Buffalo Bill Cody — as Peter puts it, “Things were looser then. Impresarios made things up to suit the show!”

Burns devised the idea of leaping from a car onto a plane and, in November 1921, persuaded Norwegian Indianapolis driver Sig Haughdahl to drive an eight-cylinder Miller on Villano beach south of Jacksonville, Florida. Circus member ‘Bugs’ McGowan would do the first jump, with Mabel going next. On the fourth pass ‘Bugs’ managed to grab the rope ladder trailing from the Curtis ‘Jennie’, staple of all such flying outfits, and climbed aboard to huge applause from the crowd. Rain sadly snookered Mabel’s jump, but she tried again in 1924, using a big touring car along the spacious sands of Daytona Beach.

This time a crowd of several thousands watched her reach up into the 70mph slipstream (the warsurplus ‘Jennie’ was a stable slow flier), grab hold of a wing strut and clamber aboard. Impressive enough, but the really memorable stunt involved a flailing rope ladder hanging from the wing. This one was filmed by someone in the crowd — you should be able to YouTube it — and it’s scary. The intrepid Mabel leaps for the ladder, the wing dips with her sudden weight and she’s dragged along the sand at motorway speeds before being hoiked into the air. And all of this only yards from gawping onlookers. One dropped wingtip and the Curtis would cartwheel into the spectators…

On a later demonstration a rung of the ladder broke and Mabel somersaulted along the sands, breaking several bones and knocking herself out. It didn’t put her off; by 1927 she and Curly were running six ‘planes and a gang of fearless flyers. As she told the Florida Times-Union, “It’s my neck, and I guess I’ll risk it any time I feel like taking a chance!”

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