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Volume 6620

The Fateful Flights of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

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The Fateful Flights of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

On page 554 of the Porges biography is a picture of a dashing old man with his flying machine. When Edgar Rice Burroughs took up flying, he was 58 years old, weighed 189 pounds, and stood five feet, nine inches tall, all that according to his student pilot license. Burroughs took his first lesson from instructor Jim Granger at Clover Field in Santa Monica on January 5, 1934. That the new student himself questioned the wisdom of such an undertaking is confirmed by the fact that he tried to conceal the whole thing from his wife.

In his diary, Burroughs admitted that the taking up of flying so late in life was, at least in part, an attempt to recover some of the self-confidence he felt as a youth but lacked as an adult. However, he must also have been motivated by a desire to participate in the great adventure of aviation that had grown from infancy during his lifetime.

In his youth, Burroughs no doubt watched with a mixture of anticipation and humor the early efforts of man to build a flying machine. ERB’s humorous account of Abner Perry’s attempt to build an airplane in Pellucidar brings to mind those early newsreels of failed attempts to achieve flight. As it could be used to drop bombs on enemy villages, Perry anticipated that his new invention would be quite an advancement for Pellucidar. The honor of piloting the first test flight was given to David Innes, who described Perry’s contraption as looking like a “parachute with a motor and cockpit on top of it.” When the blocks were removed, the airplane moved backwards, since Perry had unwittingly reversed the pitch of the propeller blades. That corrected, the plane headed down the runway in the right direction but would not rise. Instead, the fabric burst into flames, and David was barely able to escape the cockpit before the gas tank burst, completely destroying Perry’s invention. After the failure of his airplane, Perry decided to turn his attention to the construction of a hot air balloon instead.

Burroughs was 28 years old when the Wright Brothers finally achieved power-driven flight in December 1903. As he aged, ERB must have been amazed and thrilled at the rapid advancements in aviation. The Atlantic was first crossed by way of the Azores in 1919. In 1921 General “Billy” Mitchell demonstrated the military value of airplanes when his bombers sank a captured World War I German battleship. Then it was Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight from Long Island to Paris in May 1927 that completely captured the fancy of the nation. Four years later, Willey Post completed a flight around the world. Man’s age-old earth-bound limitations were being shattered all over the world when Burroughs climbed into the cockpit in 1934.

A passage in “Tarzan’s Quest,” written in April 1934, just two months after Burroughs earned his wings, shows the pride he felt in the achievements of pioneering American aviators. As pilot Neal Brown was flying blind through a storm, he overheard passenger Prince Sborov remark to his wife, “Kitty, you should have hired a good French pilot. These Americans don’t know anything about flying.” Brown, turning to Lady Greystoke in the seat next to him, responded, “I guess that guy never heard of the Wright Brothers or Lindbergh.”

Short on self-confidence at the time, it is not surprising that ERB had difficulty learning to fly. Of his first lesson, his diary reports that the altitude was four thousand feet, the air bumpy, and the student “scared stiff.” Subsequent diary entries commenting on further lessons include the laments of a nervous student pilot. “Can’t make my feet behave.” “Why flying I envy the cow.” “Forgot to put down my goggles again.” “I think I’ll never learn to fly.”

Slowly, however, nervousness diminished with experience, and Burroughs finally felt confident enough to purchase his own aircraft. It was a Security Airster plane, which Burroughs named “Doodad” after the trademark symbol that appeared on the spine of his books. It was delivered to him on February 12, 1934, and just two days later he wrote in his diary, “Soloed perfect. Got my wings. Great thrill.”

Burroughs’ son-in-law James Pierce had already started flying lessons, and ERB’s success got the rest of the family involved. Sons Hulbert and Jack started lessons, and wife Emma did also, taking her first one on March 10. In the early months of 1934, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the patriarch of a family of budding aviators.

Flight in ERB’s Fiction

Aviation was in its infancy in 1911, when Edgar Rice Burroughs took up writing as a profession. From the beginning, a fascination with flight found its way through his imagination into his stories. His first fictional image of aviation came in his first story when John Carter, looking across a Martian valley to the hills beyond, watched as a “huge craft, long, low, and gray painted, swung slowly over the crest of the nearest hill.” Barsoomian battleships and fliers with their directional compasses and 8th Ray propulsion were all creations of ERB’s imagination, with no relation to the science of earthly aviation, as would be the Anotar that Carson Napier used to explore his adopted world in Burroughs’ Venus stories. Napier was a pilot on Earth before the star-crossed expedition that took him to Venus. He flew all over the Earth before he did the same on Venus.

It was not until his twenty-fifth story, “The Land That Time Forgot,” that Burroughs wrote a scene of fixed-wing flight in the skies of Earth. It was late in 1917. ERB had Tom Billings assemble a “hydro-aeroplane” from crated parts on a beach and fly it over the cliffs into Caspak. The outcome of this first fateful flight of Edgar Rice Burroughs set a pattern that would be repeated in several later stories. The pattern was: (1) hero takes off and flies away gloriously, (2) hero makes a foolish mistake and crashes, (3) hero survives crash and defies all odds to return home on foot.

It happened to Billings, to Tarzan in “Tarzan and the Ant Men,” to Jason Gridley in “Tarzan At the Earth’s Core,” and to Lady Barbara Collis in “Tarzan Triumphant.”

Lady Barbara Collis and Ruth Elder

Speaking of Lady Barbara, it’s noteworthy that among the more than 20 earthly characters Burroughs gave the skill to pilot an airplane, she was the only female to be so honored. ERB portrayed Lady Barbara as an “aviatrix,” a term used to refer to a handful of women who were vying to become the first of their sex to fly certain long distance routes in the 1920s and 1930s. In “Tarzan Triumphant,” Lady Barbara was attempting a solo flight from Cairo to Cape Town, when she ran out of gas and had to bail out over central Africa. Attractive, courageous, and independent, she fit the profile of a real-life aviatrix. These female pilots were the rock stars of their era, setting trends in style and fashion, as well as serving as role models for a generation of young women only recently given the right to vote.

Burroughs wrote “Tarzan Triumphant” in 1931. Some three years later, while taking his flying lessons at Clover Field in Santa Monica, he had a chance encounter with a real life aviatrix. His diary records that one day he a met a Mrs. Gillespie and asked her if she flew. It turned out that Mrs. Gillespie was actually Ruth Elder, the aviatrix. Overshadowed by the legend of Amelia Earhart today, Ruth Elder was a well-known personality in her own day. She burst on the scene in 1927, shortly after Lindbergh’s flight, when she and co-pilot George Haldeman attempted to fly the Atlantic from New York to Paris. They didn’t make it. After 41 hours in the air, they went down and were rescued from the sea near the Azores. Still, Ruth was honored in New York with a ticker-tape parade and the key to the city. The hazel-eyed, shapely Ruth was then spirited off to Hollywood to star in motion pictures. She was back in the cockpit, however, in 1929 as one of 19 pilots who participated in the Women’s Air Derby, a race from Santa Monica to Cleveland.

Ruth Elder and Her Airplane 'American Girl' a Stinson Detroiter

Ruth Elder’s image of a highly independent modern woman obviously impressed ERB, for he used both her name and image in one of his works of fiction. Although Burroughs’ only series play, “You Lucky Girl!” was not published until 1999, it was written in 1927, the same year of Ruth Elder’s abortive but celebrated attempt to fly the Atlantic. At one point in “You Lucky Girl!” Corrie and Anne, two young women who aspire to stage careers, argue with their fiancés, both of whom want their wives to stay at home and raise children. Tracy, one of the men remarks, “The trouble with you girls is that you want to pattern yourselves after such home loving wives as Ruth Elder.” The use of her name in the passage reveals that Burroughs considered Ruth a classic contemporary example of a nonconformist wife. Considering the impression her exploits had made upon him in 1927, Burroughs must have been a bit awed at their chance meeting seven years later.

It cannot be said with certainty that Ruth Elder was the inspiration for Lady Barbara Collis, since Burroughs wrote “Tarzan Triumphant” three years before he met Ruth. However, ERB’s depiction of the cool and courageous Lady Barbara revealed his admiration for those adventurous early women aviators, Ruth Elder being one of the most well known at the time Burroughs wrote that particular Tarzan novel.

Burroughs’ Ill-fated Flights
Aviatrix Amelia Earhart's crashed Airster

Nearly all of the earthly flights Burroughs put into his fiction came to ill-fated ends, and, ironically, nearly the same pattern Burroughs used in his novels would later be played out for real in the Burroughs family. On February 16, 1934, just six days after ERB’s new Security Airster plan was delivered to him and just four days after Burroughs soloed for the first time in it, Hulbert, then 25, attempted a landing at Clover Field. When a gust of wind tilted the plane, Hulbert made the mistake of hitting the gas and trying to take off again. The ship rose only about 15 feet before crashing on the adjacent golf course. Hulbert suffered only minor injuries, but the plane was nearly a total loss. In his diary, ERB lamented, “I had the pleasure of flying it for five minutes.”

Hulbert’s crash was not the only near disaster experienced by the flying Burroughses. In 1943, Jim Pierce, who was operating a flying school at the time, crash-landed a plane on a lake shore near Prescott, Arizona. He had just enough time to drag his passenger away from the wreck before it exploded and burned. ERB himself was never involved in a crash, but he did flirt with disaster on one occasion when he took off on a flight to Pomona College to visit his son Jack. Burroughs later admitted to a friend that he became lost and circled over El Monte until almost out of gas. Fortunately, he turned back home in time, unlike several of his characters whose curiosity and lust for adventure caused them to linger in the air a bit too long.

In 1937, three years after ERB’s flight to Pomona, ERB wrote “Carson of Venus.” The following passage from that novel could easily reflect what he felt in the cockpit during that aborted flight to visit his son.

“Everyone who has ever flown will recall the thrill of his first flight over familiar terrain, viewing old scenes from a new angle that imparted a strangeness and a mystery to them as of a new world; but always there was the comforting knowledge that the airport was not too far away and that even in the event of a forced landing one would know plenty well where he was and how to get home.”

A real tragedy did touch the Burroughs family in October 1934, however, when Jim Granger, the flight instructor the whole family had come to admire, died in a plane crash. First Hulbert’s accident, and then this tragedy caused ERB to lose interest in flying. The great adventure in flight, begun with such enthusiasm in the new year, was abandoned in a matter of months.

With all the troubles that came with the family’s brief foray into aviation, perhaps Burroughs felt then as did the wife of Harkas Yen, a character in “Beyond the Farthest Star,” “Planes! The curse of all time. I hate them,” she cried. Of course, having lost 13 sons in the war planes of Poloda, she probably had stronger feelings on the subject than Burroughs did in real life.

Airplanes Moved ERB's Plots Along

Although Burroughs was out of the cockpit, he continued to put his fictional characters in it. In 1936 he had Pat Morgan fly into Northern Siberia and bring out Jimber-Jaw, a visitor from the Pleistocene. The next year, Tarzan again was involved in a fateful flight, this time as a passenger in “Tarzan and the Forbidden City.” In 1940, aviation played a role in three Burroughs stories — “Tarzan and the Madman,” “Savage Pellucidar,” and “Beyond the Farthest Star.”

For plot purposes, Burroughs almost always used airplanes to insert characters in a desired location so that further action could take place. Billings was airmailed into Caspak so he could meet Laja and fight his way north on the island. Tarzan was dropped inside the thorn forest to encounter the Ant Men. In “Tarzan’s Quest,” Jane and her friends were delivered into the heart of Africa to begin their fateful adventures in that story. The same was true in “Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’” when the crash of “The Lovely Lady” left Tarzan and the American aviators to fight their way out of Sumatra.

That story, one of the last Burroughs would ever write, was born out of one last true life adventure that fate allowed Edgar Rice Burroughs to experience. In 1942 Burroughs sought and received credentials as a war correspondent in Hawaii. He went into three expeditions deep into the South Pacific, flying thousands of miles each time. These flights took him to New Caledonia, Australia, the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Caroline Islands. He flew on transport and hospital planes, as well as bombers on daylight missions against Japanese installations. In an article in the “Honolulu Star Bulletin” of February 27, 1942, ERB wrote reverently of a recent flight in a B-17 “Flying Fortress.”

Wartime Journals of Correspondent Edgar Rice Burroughs :: December 1942-April 1943

“It is difficult to conceive, viewing them from the ground, the stately majesty of these great ships moving steadily and serenely through the air against a backdrop of blue flecked with little bomb bursts of soft, white cloud — moving in faultless formation, guided by a single mind as though by a single hand, bound together by the thousands of hours of intensive training behind the six young pilots who flew them.

“I don’t know at what altitude we flew; but as I stood between two open gun ports, holding to both because of the roughness of the air, the sea, far below, appeared a solid mass of dark blue ice, flecked with snow — the whitecaps that did not appear to move, from my Olympian vantage point.”

At that moment, having observed in his lifetime both the development of flight and two world wars, perhaps Edgar Rice Burroughs pondered both the good and the evil of which mankind was capable. Certainly, in his fiction can be found many expressions of both pride for one and disgust for the other. 

Being a war correspondent was an adventure Burroughs passionately sought, but it was one that also took a great toll on his health. A preexisting heart condition was much worsened by those strenuous trips. When the war ended, Burroughs resolved to return home and spend his remaining years with his family. On October 28, 1945, Edgar Rice Burroughs left Hawaii and flew to Hamilton Field in California. It was probably the last flight of his life. He was 70 years old.

— The End —



From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
A Princess of Mars
A Gallery of Barsoomian Airships
Tarzan’s Quest
The Land That Time Forgot
Tarzan and the Ant Men
Tarzan At the Earth’s Core
Tarzan Triumphant
You Lucky Girl!
Carson of Venus
Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan and the Madman
Savage Pellucidar
Beyond the Farthest Star
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion

Wartime Journals of Correspondent Edgar Rice Burroughs - 1942-43
Transcribed and Illustrated by Bill Hillman Across 50 Pages

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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