The airplane had little impact upon our popular culture until the sky battles of World War I over Europe. The exploits of those flimsy double-wing planes spawned a torrent of pulp fiction magazines, kids' novels, and silent films. By May 1928, exactly one year after Charles Lindbergh's solo crossing of the Atlantic, we had our first nationally syndicated comic strip with an aviator hero, "Tailspin Tommy".
Then in February 1932 came the first radio series with airborne heroes, AIR STORIES OF THE WORLD WAR. This series, sometimes called "George Bruce's Air Stories" in OTR catalogs, was based upon the pulp fiction tales crafted by Bruce. As we might expect, the shows are melodramatic and full of cliche and implausibility. Records today fail to indicate how long the series ran, but we do have four episodes in circulation now.
There were over twenty-five radio series which featured flying heroes (or in one instance, a flying heroine) during the Golden Age of Radio, but comparatively few audio transcriptions have survived to the present day. Naturally, the syndicated shows, because they were on disc for broadcast, had the highest rate of survival.
Many of the flying adventure shows left meager legacies to our modern age: a few sponsor premiums, brief references in vintage magazines, and the fading memories of former cast and crew members. That's certainly true of PHANTOM PILOT PATROL (Howard Duff's first starring role), HOWIE WING, FLYING TIME, WINGS OF DESTINY (sponsored by Wings Cigarettes) and THE BLACKHAWKS.
With some other shows, at least one episode is still in existence and usually it's the audition show, the only one put on a disc. Among those are THE FLYING FAMILY (1932) and its reincarnation with the same folks, THE FLYING HUTCHINSONS (1939) as well as THE SPARROW AND THE HAWK (1945-46) and SMILIN' JACK (1939).
The latter, of course, is based upon the comic strip by Zack Mosley. While there are only two episodes in circulation today, SMILIN' JACK compiled three unsurpassed records: 1) the longest running aviation comic strip ....40 years, 1933 to 1973 , 2) the last movie serial filmed based upon a comic strip....Universal Studios, 1942, and 3) the shortest duration of any aviator radio series...three months.
There were plenty of syndicated series in the 1930s, and three of them were youthful sky riders: AIR ADVENTURES OF JIMMY ALLEN, SPEED GIBSON OF THE INTERNATIONAL SECRET POLICE and ANN OF THE AIR LANES. This trio is represented in the following totals of existing episodes, respectively: 135, 178, and 65, all of which probably represent the entire run.
The lead actors in JIMMY ALLEN were Murray McLean and Robert Fiske, while Ed Prentiss (who would later portray "Captain Midnight") was the announcer. Cast members of SPEED GIBSON included Howard McNear, Hanley Stafford and Elliott Lewis. However, as of this writing, the identity of "apprentice air-hostess, Ann Burton" and the rest of her cast are still unknown.
Our "Big Three" in popularity and network longevity would have to be CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (1940 to 1949), HOP HARRIGAN (1942 to 1948) and SKY KING (1946 to 1954.) Unfortunately, the total number of surviving audio recordings do not reflect any such parity. There are nearly 300 of HOP HARRIGAN, only about 125 of CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT and less than 20 of SKY KING.
CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT began in the fall of 1938 on a few Midwest stations sponsored by Skelly Gasoline. When it reached network status, Ovaltine (dumping its series LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE) became the sponsor. The Captain, assisted by his "Secret Squadron" of Ickabod Mudd, Chuck Ramsey and Joyce Ryan, sold a lot of that chocolate mixture.
Kids would buy Ovaltine, if only to get the label to send away for a Secret Squadron Decoder so they could read the special messages over the air. This information, though the pint-sized listeners, would help defeat the evil Ivan Shark,and his beautiful but cunning daughter, Fury. (For some reason, it always bothered me that she had the same name as STRAIGHT ARROW's horse. ) Boris Aplon played "Ivan Shark" for nearly 12 years on this series, thus becoming the longest running villain in kids radio adventures.
The usual sponsor for SKY KING, for most of the radio duration and some of the television version, was Peter Pan Peanut Butter. It's a real treat today to hear Mike Wallace, now a hard-hitting TV reporter, extolling the virtues of peanut butter as the announcer on that series. Incidentally, if the voices of Sky's young tag-alongs sound familiar, they should. "Penny" and "Clipper" were portrayed by Bev Younger and Jack Bivens, who earlier had been "Joyce" and "Chuck" on CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT.
There's another strong common element which connects SKY KING and CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT: both series were created by the team of Robert M. Burtt and Willfred G. Moore. This dynamic duo of radio writers originally created the AIR ADVENTURES OF JIMMY ALLEN in 1933. They were also somewhat responsible for a fourth OTR aviator show since one of their principal writers on CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (Albert Aley) wrote the scripts for HOP HARRIGAN.
Although several air-adventure radio programs made it to the silver screen (usually in serial form) SKY KING was one of the very few to make the flight to television. NBC began running it in 1951 and ABC ran the show starting in the fall of 1953. Both the radio and the video versions (with different casts, of course) ran until 1954. Nabisco Cookies sponsored most of the 130 TV episodes which had Kirby Grant as "Sky" and Gloria Winters and Ron Haggerty as "Penny" and "Clipper".
HOP HARRIGAN, who was very successful as a comic book hero (debut: April 1939) proved equally adept when he made his appearance on network radio in August 1942. This popular kids show had no trouble finding sponsors, which over the years included Grape-Nut Flakes and Lever Brothers.
That wonderful, alliterative introduction of this sky hero on radio, "America's Ace of the Airways" was actually coined by his comic book artist/writer, Jon Blummer. It had been used in the comic books for over a year before we heard it on the air. "Hop" was played by Chester Stratton and his side-kick, "Tank Tinker" was the voice of Kenny Lynch. Their announcer was Glenn Riggs.
From December 1939 to August 1940 we could listen to a radio show about "real" aviators which was produced by Phillips H. Lord. Using a technique borrowed from his other show, GANG BUSTERS, Lord had an actual air-hero. Col. Roscoe Turner, begin the program by interviewing a flier who had an exciting tale to relate.After a quick introduction, the show would segue into a dramatization of the tale, played by radio actors.
Lord called the show THE SKY BLAZERS and got Wonder Bread to sponsor it. However as soon as Lord got the series established, he dropped Turner and had a radio actor impersonate a series of "Flight Commanders" as the narrator.
However this show never achieved the success of other Lord ventures so Wonder Bread, dropped it in favor of new show in that time slot, YOUR MARRIAGE CLUB. There are four copies of SKY BLAZERS in trading currency, including the last episode.
There are three other shows that were aimed primarily at youngsters, but one of the three was apparently not aired. IN THE AIR WITH ROGER GALE was the story of a teen-aged flyer, whose initials were the same as Red Goose shoes, the potential sponsor. Two episodes (# 1 and # 26) are in circulation, but there is no proof they ever aired.
THE SPARROW AND THE HAWK was sustainer on CBS five times a week from May 1945 to September 1946. It recounted the wild, blue yonder adventures of Col. Spencer Mallory (The Hawk) and his juvenile nephew, Barney (The Sparrow.) Michael Fitzmaurice, who briefly played another "flying hero" (Superman), was the voice of Mallory. Don Buka portrayed Barney. The only episode available today concerns an activity far from the airport; Barney enters a birling (log-rolling) contest at a lumber camp.
UNCLE NED'S SQUADRON was a local kiddie's show on WMAQ in Chicago that was heard through-out the Midwest from 1950 to 1954. It was a half-hour show on Saturday mornings. "Uncle Ned" talked to his young studio audience about the history of flight and famous pilots. He also gave away model airplanes to contest winners on the show. Hugh Downs was the usual announcer on this series and you can hear him in some of the seven shows that are in trading currency.
While many of the heroes in the cockpit were intended for a juvenile listenership, it's apparent that some were clearly marked for grown-ups, even though we have no copies to prove it. WINGS OF DESTINY must have been one since it aired long past the kids' bedtime (10:00 p.m.) and it was sponsored by a cigarette company. We can conclude the same for the the 1945-46 series, ISLAND VENTURE since it came on at 10:00 p.m. on another network. The cast of this series included Willard Waterman and Hugh Rowlands, but no copies have surfaced yet.
There are two 1948 audition recordings of STEVE CANYON in existence. Both used the same script, "The Rubies of Kali". but with different leads, Wendell Corey in one and Barry Sullivan in the other. While both are excellent versions, the series never found a time slot or a sponsor.
WINGS TO VICTORY was a Blue Network production which began in November 1942 and dramatized the air battles of World War II which commanded the daily headlines. These 30 minute shows aired weekly until March 1944 and about a dozen episodes are currently being traded. The cast members are not identified in the closing credits, but there are some recognizable West Coast voices, including Alan Ladd.
The last of the aviator shows was I FLY ANYTHING, a 1950-51 sustainer for ABC. It had a unlikely lead, crooner Dick Haymes, playing a dramatic role as "Dockery Crane", a cargo pilot. He was assisted in the cast by two members who later became mainstays on GUNSMOKE. Georgia Ellis, was portrayed Crane's secretary, became "Miss Kitty" in Dodge while the side-kick, "Buzz", was the voice of George Fenneman. The latter was usually an announcer, and he was the back-up one on GUNSMOKE. There are two surviving episodes of I FLY ANYTHING and both are well done. .