Above we see a classic 1925 photograph of Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger playing a game of tennis on the wings of a bi-plane above Los Angeles.
Now regular readers will know I can’t just leave things at that.
Who the hell was Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger? And how could anyone play tennis on a flying airplane?
In answer to the second question – you can’t.
They had to fake it. If you try and hot a ball straight across to the other person, that ball is long gone.
What if you hit it in front of the aircraft? Well, if it didn’t hit the propeller, it would still blow past you thanks to the speed of the airplane.
So… fake it, playing with an imaginary ball. How could anyone below actually see a tiny tennis ball – even with opera glasses or binoculars?
As for wing walker Gladys Roy… let’s go back a a bit farther and discover who the heck was crazy enough to try something like that first.
Apparently there are two crazy buggers.
One is Colonel Samuel Franklin Cody, who in 1911 reportedly was attempting to show how stable his Flying Cathedral bi-plane was with a passenger 10-feet six inches away from the aircraft’s center of gravity.
But is that wing walking?
Let’s take a look at Ormer Locklear (October 28, 1891 – August 2, 1920) of Greenville Texas, who had no problem during WWI to simply step out of his cockpit to move up to fix his aircraft while in flight. This could in clued the engine, or perhaps the wings themselves.
I suppose if the alternative was going to be a crash, I’d wing walk, too.
Now… Gladys Roy. As you can see from the image directly above, she was one hot daredevil.
To me, anyone getting up in one of those old crates prior to WWII was incredibly brave… and to know there were daredevil fliers and daredevil wing walkers in that era – well… wow.
The photo above shows wing walkers Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger (foreground) playing tennis atop a Curtis JN-4 Jenny bi-plane.
The plane was flying at a speed between 40 and 60 mils per hour, which while still strong, wasn’t enough to blow them over – especially when you realize that they were booted and strapped in place.
Gladys and Ivan were members of the 13 Black Cats, a famous wing walking group of daredevils of the 1920s.
Along with the tennis act – the image above is probably what she is best remembered for—and I’m sure you can find postcards of that for sale on-line somewhere—Gladys also danced the Charleston while on the wing of a bi-plane and walked across the wings blindfolded. She was also purported to be a daredevil parachutist.
Little is actually known about Gladys, but it is suspected that she was from Minnesota, had moved to Los Angeles by 1921.
There is a November 1921 news report from the Los Angeles Times noting that there was an upcoming attempt by Gladys to break the women’s world altitude parachute record by jumping from 16,000 feet.
Perhaps because things were called off, there is no further mention of her success or failure in the attempt. It was, reported in that earlier article, that it was only to have been her third time in a parachute.
Brave or crazy? Probably helps to be a bit of both.
Her 1924 personal letterhead declares her to be the record holder of the world’s lowest parachute jump, at 100 feet.
“Needless to say, I don’t care to make the jump again,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1925.
Although Gladys was earning anywhere from $200 to $500 per performance (anywhere from $2,600 to $6,700), she still said in 1924 that she was barely making any money as her expenses were high.
If I had my guess, it would because of those amazing waves she has in her hair. Still, it makes one wonder what her expenses could have been?
By 1926, with crowds seemingly no longer as fascinated by daredevil flying, Gladys was barely making $100 per performance.
In a May 1926 article in the Los Angeles Times, Gladys said: “Of late the crowds are beginning to tire of even my most difficult stunts and so I must necessarily invent new ones, that is, I want to hold my reputation as a dare-devil. Eventually an accident will occur and then—”
While one would expect the life of a daredevil to be short, due to the inherent dangers, Gladys actually died on the ground in a most-tragic manner.
While performing at an aviation exhibition in Youngstown, Ohio in August of 1927… and getting her plane ready for a New York to Rome flight with Lt. Delmar Snyder.
For the gory details, let’s take a look at an August 16, 1927 article from the Knoxville Journal:
Youngstown, O., Aug. 15(AP) – Gladys Roy, 25, attractive aviatrix who had planned a New York to Rome airplane flight as a climax to years of stunt flying, died in a hospital here tonight from injuries received when she was struck by a whirling propeller at Watson field here late today.
Rushed to a hospital after the accident, surgeons there reported her skull was torn away by the spinning blade.
The accident happened as the noted aviatrix climbed aboard a plane which was motionless on the ground with its motor running.
Miss Roy arrived in Youngstown today on a business trip. She appeared in a plane stunt act at Kinsman fair grounds yesterday and was to have appeared near here in another exhibition feat early next month. Her home was in Minneapolis.
Miss Roy, well known in aviation circles since 1920, was being groomed for a New York to Rome flight. Her co-pilot in the flight was to have been Lieutenant Delmar Snyder. She recently paid a visit to Lieutenant Snyder’s mother in Cleveland.
Miss Roy had climbed into the plane to have her picture taken with an Ohio bathing beauty who won a place to compete in the Atlantic City annual bathing beauty contest. The picture was nearly finished being taken when the woman flier started the engine, stepped down from the fuselage and unconsciously walked into the propeller.
She is the holder of several parachute record jumps from airplanes. “Chadwick Smith, her brother, also is a pilot. He flies a mail plane between Chicago and Minneapolis.
Bizarre, eh? She walked into her airplane’s propeller.
If you are sober or thinking in your right frame of mind, you don’t do that. If you do… is it really possible for someone to forget where a propeller is on one’s own airplane?
I don’t wish to cast any falsehoods, so I’ll just wonder aloud if it was a suicide… she seemed down regarding her profession and her place in it… in debt…
Suicide possibility? Yes… a possibility… but no one alive can say so for sure.
Her mind could simply have been clouded with thoughts… anxious to get the flight underway… in a hurry to get the photo pop done… anxious about her flying companion… the trip… money… life… people get absent-minded when too many things, or even one thing gets in their head.
Whatever the reason… a tragic death for Gladys Roy. Gone, but not forgotten.