June 28 1934: Jimmie Wedell
And they lay to rest Jimmy Wedell. He died as a soldier in the discharge of his duty, for he was teaching somebody how to fly. Aviation is the greatest advancement in our times and America is spending the most money on it, yet our whole government, whole army, whole navy, had to wait to see how fast they could fly till Jimmy Wedell (through his own personality and personal honesty got financial backing from generous and public-spirited Mr. Williams) made the plane. Who knows but what aviation might not be permanently set back 100 miles an hour through the loss of this fellow, with the knowledge that was buried with him. Such men should be grabbed up at once and put into our government service. He had kept one thing that was in keeping with all great aviators and that was his modest.
Beverly Hills, Calif., June 28 1934
So who was this man Jimmy Wedell, of whom Will Rogers was so moved to write? Wedell blazed into the headlines in 1926, a barnstormer who had a need for speed and a heart turned to good works. Like Wiley Post, he had one eye, but that didn’t prevent him from being one of the top racing plane designers and top racers of the romantic interwar aviation era. Together with his partner Harry Williams, he crafted the legendary Wedell Williams Specials, the stubby-winged all-engine monoplane racers that set speed records and thrilled aviation enthusiasts with their blunt, cartoonish appearance.
Wedell’s mother died when he was only an infant, and he was raised by his father, who earned a living as a bartender. This often left Jimmie in charge of both the home and his younger brother, Walter. He quit school after the ninth grade and soon transformed four bicycle wheels, a one-cylinder Yale motorcycle engine, and various parts into an automobile. Wedell lost his eye as a youth in a motorcycle accident. Growing up in Texas City, Texas (south of Houston), he dropped out of school, started a garage, and bought his own plane which he taught himself to fly; prior to World War I, he rebuilt two crashed airplanes, an OX Standard and a Thomas Morse Scout.
Wedell tried to join the army as an aviator during World War I. Much to his disappointment, he was rejected because of his eye. While Walter began a four-year hitch in the Navy, Jimmie, with his Colt .44 for protection, headed for the Texas-Mexico border where he ran guns and transported rumrunners.
He took to barnstorming, and met Harry Williams, who hailed from a wealthy Louisiana lumber family. Williams caught Wedell’s passion for aviation and speed, and combined his wealth with Wedell’s native engineering sense to produce the fastest airplanes of the early 1930s. In 1933 Wedell set a land-speed record for an airplane at 304.98 mph in his Wedell Williams Special, #44 named the “Miss Patterson.” The Wedell-Williams partnership was aptly described by the press in 1933:
Wedell-Williams is a unique combination consisting of one-eyed, tousle-mopped "Jimmy" Wedell, 33, Texas bartender's son, onetime barnstormer; and rich, suave, happy-go-lucky Harry Palmerton Williams, son of the late Louisiana cypress tycoon Frank Williams. To the devoted Cajun and Negro swampers of Patterson, La., the one-street milltown over which he and his wife (onetime Film Actress Marguerite Clark) reign in baronial style, "Mister Harry" is known as "the Speed Kid." He had already made himself a local god with fast horses, fast automobiles, speed boats, when in 1926 Barnstormer Jimmy Wedell dropped down into Patterson to look around. Among the gawpers who flocked about Wedell's rickety crate was ''Speed Kid" Williams, then 40. Results: Wedell taught nim to fly, sold him a plane, became his good friend, confided his own ambitions. Wedell could not read a blue print (he cannot do it yet) but he knew what kind of plane he wanted. Speed Kid Williams built a hangar on an old sugar canefield on his estate and Jimmy Wedell went to work. Before he was through Mr. Williams dropped a half million dollars, but he had his money's worth last year when Wedell-Williams speedsters hung up a string of records, including a transcontinental record of 10 hr. 19 min. in the Bendix Trophy (from Los Angeles-New-York).
Fresh off his successes at the 1932 National Air Races, Jimmie flew Miss Patterson to Florida for some additional competition. After demolishing the other contestants in his first two races, the "44" was ruled too powerful for further races.
In 1932, Wedell set a tri-national record, flying from Mexico across the US to Canada in six hours, 42 minutes. In December 1933, Wedell made headlines when he flew a sick baby, Sue Trammell, over 1,400 miles from Houston to Baltimore for a life-saving surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Wedell made the flight from Houston to Baltimore in 10 hours, 57 minutes, stopping in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Greensboro, NC for fuel; he spent less than fifty minutes on the ground in the three stops. Wedell braved horrid weather in order to complete his errand of mercy; as the Associated Press reported, “despite warning of hazardous weather conditions, mist, fog, and strong winds [at Greensboro], he pressed on to do all within his power to save the child’s life.” Wedell carried a total of five others on the flight, including the parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. B. Trammell (president of the Houston Natural Gas Company) two other family members, and a nurse. The aircraft had been loaned to the family and Wedell by the grandson of the former German Kaiser, Prince Louis Ferdindand und Hohenzollern.
As an early publicity stunt, he convinced Walter and his fiancée Henrietta to marry in the air in one of their Ryan cabin planes. Flower girls draped the plane with flowers before it left, and a New Orleans radio station broadcast the vows. Jimmie flew the plane and served as the best man.
Wedell died on June 28, 1934 back in Patterson, Louisiana. Despite all of his glory, headlines, and fame, Wedell was still a teacher. His life ended when a student pilot on his first flight “froze at the stick” of the Gypsy Moth they were flying. A year later, in 1935, Jimmy’s brother Walter, who helped design the planes and also was involved in the development of Williams Aviation, died when his plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi Coast. Two years later Wedell’s partner Harry Williams, along with pilot Red Worthen, perished in a crash on a late-night flight from Baton Rouge to Patterson. All five of the original pilots for Wendell-Williams died in crashes, marking the highest attrition rate ever for an airline. Marguerite Clarke Williams subsequently sold the company and its New Orleans-to-Texas routes to Eastern Air Lines in 1936.