Wedell-Williams Air Service Makes Its Mark

Stop 4 of 6 in the Wedell-Williams Airport in Patterson tour

The Wedell-Williams Air Service pilots entered air races across the country from 1928 through 1935. These races kept the viewers in suspense as the aircraft circled the pylons that marked the race course. The crowds usually only saw a portion of the race due to the immense size of the race course, making for short periods of excitement followed by long periods offering nothing to watch.

By the 1930s, air races learned to incorporate more than just racing in order to attract larger audiences, so race coordinators would include parachute jumps, aerial stunts, and military flight demonstrations.

Though he struck people as shy and reserved, Jimmie Wedell loved to show off to the crowd whenever he flew in air shows. Wedell entered the 1930 races with the We-Will Jr. The National Air Derby put Wedell in contention with the nation’s greatest pilots, but a problem with his plane in Los Angeles as well as a stop to help a downed pilot on the way to Chicago caused Wedell to lose.

Racers often coped with mechanical problems, and Wedell was fortunate never to experience a devastating crash during his races. Other pilots were not so lucky. Merle Nelson died during the Pan-American Air Races in 1934 when his plane caught fire. This crash and others did not help to abate the general public's fear of flying, which was prevalent in the 1930s. Air service and airplane manufacturer advertizing campaigns sought to educate the public about the comfort and speed of air travel to help relieve fears. Such efforts worked for many who realized that flying could be no more dangerous or uncomfortable than riding in a car or taking a train.

Each year, Wedell-designed planes fared better in competition. At the National Air Races held in Chicago in August 1930, Wedell won third in the men’s 25 mile free-for-all. In 1932, Wedell and Jimmy Haizlip, piloting the #92, broke two of Jimmy Doolittle’s speed records. Haizlip accomplished this in the 1932 Bendix race and Wedell did the same in a transcontinental trip from Mexico City to Ottawa. The high point came in 1933, when Wedell, flying his iconic #44, broke the land speed record; later in the year he won the Thompson Trophy at the 1933 National Air Races. Though Wedell had much earlier won the trust of Harry Williams, his financial baker, these 1933 accomplishments proved that Williams made the right choice in backing Wedell’s ideas.

Images

Jimmie Wedell's 1934 Racing License

Jimmie Wedell's 1934 Racing License

Pilots who wished to participate in sanctioned air races had to obtain a special license. The National Aeronautics Association issued the sporting licenses (and continues to do so today), which the pilots would have to renew annually. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

The Wedell-Williams Crew with the #44

The Wedell-Williams Crew with the #44

Known as the "Miss Patterson," it was "hot as a '44' and twice as fast." Built in 1931, it broke the landspeed record in 1933. The plane resides in the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. Image courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

The 1932 National Air Races

The 1932 National Air Races

The #44 competed in the 1932 air races, finishing second to Jimmy Doolittle in the Thompson race. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

1932 Bendix winner Jimmy Haizlip and the #92

1932 Bendix winner Jimmy Haizlip and the #92

After winning the Bendix, Haizlip's wife, Mary, broke the women's landspeed record in the same plane, which resides at the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

Roscoe Turner and the #121

Roscoe Turner and the #121

A flamboyant pilot, Turner saw the #44 in action, and he ordered a plane for himself. The #121 did well on the racing circuit, and currently resides at the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

The 1933 Thompson Trophy, awarded to Jimmie Wedell

The 1933 Thompson Trophy, awarded to Jimmie Wedell

Though Roscoe Turner finished first, he cut a pylon and was disqualified. This trophy and others currently resides at the Louisiana State Museum--Patterson. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

Jimmie Wedell on the Cover of Aviation Magazine

Jimmie Wedell on the Cover of Aviation Magazine

Jimmy Wedell broke the world speed record in the #44 with a Pratt & Whitney engine, which led to his being featured on the cover of Aviation Magazine. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

The only plane to surpass the #44:  the #45

The only plane to surpass the #44: the #45

The #45 made its debut at the 1934 Pan-American Air Races, but it never gained the same renown as the #44. The plane is currently on display at the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson. Image Courtesy of the Wedell-Williams Memorial Foundation and the Louisiana State Museum View File Details Page

Wedell Intended to enter the MacRobertson Air Races

Wedell Intended to enter the MacRobertson Air Races

The MacRobertson Air Race took place in October 1934. The course began in Mildenhall, Great Britain, and ended in Melbourne, Australia, with compulsory stops along the way. Unfortunately, Wedell's fatal accident would suddenly end such plans. Image Courtesy of the Times-Picayune View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Teresa M. Thessen, “Wedell-Williams Air Service Makes Its Mark,” New Orleans Historical, accessed June 24, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/689.
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