Experiences of Pioneer Pilot from Hardy Recalled
John M. Rhiner of Cody, WY, has recalled the early flying career of his brother, Leonard H. Rhiner, the Hardy, Iowa born pilot who was killed in an airplane accident on Oct. 23, 1937. His recollections were written in a letter to John Fitzpatrick of Goldfield, manager of the Eagle Grove airport, and are as follows:
Leonard was born at Hardy, Iowa, on 7/18/03. He became interested in flying while working as shop foreman at the Higley Motor Company, a Chevrolet dealership in Kansas City, Kansas. He acquired an exhibition parachute and on weekends and during his spare time he'd take part in air shows, doing wing walking, parachute jumping and what he called "the leap of death." The latter stunt was jumping from the end of a wing with a steel wire attached and catching a rope ladder hanging from the landing gear.
During these junkets to and from air shows Leonard would "take the stick" as often as he had the chance and thereby learned the fundamentals of flying "by the seat of the pants."
Before he had soloed he had a chance to buy a surplus World War I OX-5 [sic], with motor, fuselage, the works; except that the wings had to be covered with linen and treated with banana oil, which I helped him do in the back yard of his girl friend's home in Kansas City, Kansas. This girl friend later became his wife and was probably the first woman to make a parachute jump, which was done under Leonard's tutorage in 1928 [several women had made earlier jumps; see Phoebe Omlie].
While Leonard was in the process of assembling the OX-5 [sic], he took a few landing and take off lessons and completed one solo flight. After assembling and rigging the OX-5, he had a pilot by the name of Proach, who also worked at the Higely Motor Company as a mechanic, check out the rigging, and, after a few minor adjustments, Leonard made his second solo flight on the maiden trip of the plane which he himself assembled and rigged. This would have been about 1926.
From this airplane I made a parachute jump on my first trip up in 1927. Leonard visited Hardy several times in this old War I relic and many local residents were introduced to their first ride, sometimes with some wing dipping and dives for added thrills, in this open cockpit biplane.
Harold Saxton of Hardy wanted to make a parachute jump. Leonard folded the chute, briefed him on walking out onto the wing, sitting, fastening the chute to the life belt, hanging below and then manually unlacing the parachute bag to release the parachute; then took him up for the jump. Harold landed safely in one of the Clancey's pastures. One day Leonard had to make an emergency landing in a corn field. His barnstorming passenger happened to be Earl Saxton's wife. Explanations only proved more embarrassing.
During the early 30's he flew a mail plane from Omaha to Sioux Falls and the Twin Cities. I do not know the type of plane or the employer. For several years he flew for the Bruce Dodson Insurance Company of Kansas City, Mo. I think the first plane he flew for Dodson was a Bellanca [it was a Stinson]. The Bellanca was replaced with a tri-motor Ford [it was actually a Bach Air Yacht] in which Leonard's German Police dog took a great delight in riding. As you know, the tri-motor Ford was a slow, but very safe and serviceable plane. After the airplanes stopped using them, many of them were sold South and Central American countries for use as cargo planes. Several American pilots were recruited by these countries to fly the planes. Leonard had just turned down an offer to go to Honduras on such a job when his application with TWA was accepted.
Dodson sold the tri-motor Ford and sent Leonard to the Northrop factory in California to supervise installations on special twin-motor Northrop which the insurance company had ordered.
During the hard times of "dirty thirties" the Dodson Insurance Company closed its aviation department. Leonard applied for a job with TWA. His application had been accepted and he was to report for duty in December. A friend of his who owned a Stinson monoplane asked Leonard to fly this place on a barnstorming trip out west until the TWA job materialized.
He was flying with a load of passengers at Tacoma, Wash., on Oct. 23, 1937, when one of the wings collapsed on take off at an altitude of about 100 feet. He had presence of mind to "cut the switch" which probably saved a fire; but he was killed along with three of his passengers.
As I recall, this model Stinson had one central fitting which supported the wing struts and the motor strut. There was so much stress on this one fitting that it would crystallize causing a structural failure. This was the third Stinson to crash because of this defect, and, to my knowledge, this model was then permanently grounded.
At the time Leonard was killed a young pilot by the name of Russell Dick was flying for TWA. He and Leonard learned to fly together at the Old Richards Field on which there was always more cars than planes. Russell recently retired from TWA, one of their oldest pilots in length of service,
Leonard's mother died in Hardy in 1927 and his father died there in 1942. Both had been up with Leonard in the old OX-5 [sic], and both had reservations about the future of aviation.