Juanita Burns-Lofty AspirationsLEAVE A COMMENT / SEPTEMBER 20, 2021Juanita Burns – Lofty Ambitions
Juanita Burns – Lofty Ambitions By 1930, more women than ever before were taking to the skies as serious pilots. They were proving that flying was safe and encouraging the public to take advantage of air travel. They entered the competitive world of record setting – endurance, altitude, and speed. A pivotal motivation can be attributed to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) which officially recognized women’s records in June 1929. No longer would women ‘s achievements be compared to that of men. Viola Gentry was prevented from receiving credit for her endurance flight on December 20, 1928 for the biased ruling. This was true for two other endurance attempts that broke Gentry’s time in the air – one by Bobbi Trout in January 1929 and the other by Elinor Smith three weeks later. Gentry’s flight, however, was the first woman’s attempt at a record flight officially supervised and recorded by the FAI and its American representative, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA). It served as the impetus for establishing a separate category for women. 1 Front page newspaper headlines featured the latest news and images of the current conquest by an aviatrix. Columnist Thrawn Mountain wrote the following for the New York Evening Graphic Magazine on July 12, 1930. “Over burning deserts, through the fiercest storms, wherever there is danger or the promise of a thrill you will find the woman of today. Soaring high against the blue in a frail ship of the air, looping the loop at great risk of death, at hard tasks that once were strictly marked ‘for men only’, in all fields of sports – there is no field too dangerous for her to enter. Men have grudgingly given ground. One by one the precincts that were theirs and theirs alone have been invaded by the modern woman.” The column was titled “Thrills Other Than Those of Love Lure Modern Girls to Daring Deeds.” Of the approximately 200 licensed women pilots in the United States in 1930, there were a small number who possessed exceptional flying skills and set notable records. Included in this group were Ruth Nichols, Gladys O’Donnell, Phoebe Omlie, Laura Ingalls, and Pancho Barnes. None received the notoriety awarded Amelia Earhart. She was elevated to the status of an American icon following her 1928 trans-Atlantic flight in the Friendship and was the most sought-after celebrity to endorse products. This, in turn, provided her with multiple sponsors to finance her flying. It was left up to the other women pilots to find their own funding. Some found companies willing to trade oil and gas for the placement of their company logo on the pilot’s airplane. Pancho Barnes displayed Union Oil on her Travel Air Model R. Sponsorship was also found by being fortunate enough to get a job test flying aircraft. Elinor Smith was well-connected with Bellanca Aircraft. But, as Ruth Nichols said, “Records are made to be broken, and I only wish that more girls could get good ships and keep setting new marks all the time.” 2 Juanita Eloise Burns, endowed with striking auburn hair and an abundance of energy and charm, was among those determined to set some type of flying record and made a valiant effort for several years. Her story is one filled with lofty ambitions, but not always as a record-setting pilot. She was born November 11, 1913 in Los Angeles as Juanita Eloise Rogers. According to ancestry searches, she often used the family name of McDaniel, perhaps that of a step-father. Juanita and her sister Louise became involved in rum-running while living in El Paso, Texas. Newspapers claim that they were directly responsible for smashing two liquor smuggling rings while working as customs’ service operatives in 1927. Purportedly, at the ages of 14 and 10, they helped federal agents locate and seize a Waco aircraft used for rum-running and furnished the information that led to the arrest and deportation of two liquor barons. Their Waco was found in Roswell, New Mexico. “Officers ran to the plane as it landed and riddled it with bullets to prevent it from taking off.” The sisters were also responsible for the discovery of a Roswell woman known as the Bootlegger Queen. In response to doubts about her employment with the US Treasury Department, Juanita presented her credentials and stated to the press, “What I did was in the line of duty and my sister went along with me.” 3 Whether this interaction with aerial bootlegging or her love for excitement, Juanita took up flying in early 1929 just after her marriage to Conway Burns. She received license No. 9396 and began smuggling liquor across the Mexican border. Earning a living as a rum-runner was much more profitable than barnstorming which, according to David Courtwright, was on a decline. He stated in his book, Sky as Frontier that “at a time when joy riding prices were declining it was liquor runs that kept pilots in the air.” Living in the border town of El Paso provided Juanita easy access to liquor in Mexico to transport in the U. S. 4 All went well for the novice pilot until she was caught importing 244 pints of whisky from Juarez on April 12, 1929. The police served her with an arrest warrant when she landed in Yuma seven months later. Juanita claimed she was innocent. She declared the accusations were in retaliation for testifying against the two Waco smugglers at the Southwest’s first aerial bootlegging trial. Because no liquor was found in Juanita’s 1929 Travel Air 2000, she was released to continue on to Los Angeles where she would attempt to break the women’s solo endurance record under contract to Wm. Gibbs McAdoo (later U. S. Senator from California). There are no subsequent reports of an endurance flight or her contract with McAdoo. The case against her was eventually dropped when witnesses failed to show up in court. 5 Garvey Airport in San Gabriel, California became Juanita’s base of operations in January 1930. One of the co-owners of the flight school, she instructed, gave passenger hops, and carried parachutists in her Travel Air. The school also owned three Wacos and two Fleets. In July, the sole hangar on Garvey Airport burned to the ground, destroying the Wacos and Juanita’s Travel Air. This did not keep her out of the headlines. 6 Newspapers heralded Juanita as “the finder of lost objects.” When a Western Air Express trimotor was lost in March 1930, she volunteered to be an observer for the search. She and Dudley Steele, pilot for Richfield Oil, departed Alhambra Airport to find the downed aircraft which took off from Kingman, Arizona and was scheduled to land in Alhambra. Juanita spotted the wreckage about 16 miles from Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains on March 6. Crew members James E. Doles pilot, W. Bieber copilot, and John Slaton steward were killed in the crash. Fortunately, there were no passengers on board. In April, she spotted an empty boat five miles off the Santa Monica coast belonging to R. M. Cordill, missing Los Angeles attorney. 7 The biggest event in 1930 for women, the National Air Race’s Pacific Derby, was scheduled for mid-August. Juanita signed up on August 3 along with Pancho Barnes, Ruth Elder, Claire Fahey, Gladys O’Donnell, Margery Doig, Ruth Barron, Bobbi Trout, Marie Graham, Jean La Rene, and Elizabeth Hayward. Although Juanita possessed little experience, she was confident that she could finish ‘in the money’ – $7,000 for the top three finishers. She was not, however, one of the six who departed Long Beach for Chicago on August 17. Whether she didn’t qualify or lacked a sponsor is not known. Gladys O’Donnell insisted on some stringent rules for the competition which eliminated a few participants including Pancho Barnes and Amelia Earhart. 8 Juanita’s first real chance to become a record-setting pilot occurred on December 28. Sponsored by the California Aircraft Corporation which provided their Cub for the flight; Mr. and Mrs. R. B. Curtis, operators of Lincoln Air Lines; Shell Oil Company aviation directors; and her manager Larry Thom, Juanita intended to break the previous women’s altitude record of 26,600 feet made by Ruth Alexander on July 11, 1930. Their ‘light’ airplanes were similar in engine size. Ruth’s Nicholas-Beazley NB-3 (Barling NB-3) and the Cub were both powered by 90 hp Lamberts. 9 Interviewed after her flight, Juanita stated, “I was aloft for 2 hours and 43 minutes. When I reached 24,000 feet my altimeter failed to register. At 18,000 feet I had to use oxygen tanks to aid in breathing which had become awfully hard. I kept on climbing to the 28,000-foot level. The pressure from inside my body was terrible. I felt that surely I would burst. My face and hands began to swell. Then suddenly I couldn’t feel the controls. All power of sensation was gone. Yet I could think clearly. I wondered if I was dying or if I was getting scared. I decided to come down. I tried so hard but I couldn’t move the controls. My ship felt as if it was in a nose dive. I thought surely that this was the end. Then, just as suddenly as sensation left me it came back, and once more I felt the controls. I side-slipped down – down. I shut my eyes and opened them again. I was fully conscious. I knew I had conquered space I had won. It was a glorious feeling. Was it worth it? And how!” 10 The sealed barograph from the plane was sent to Washington by official NAA timer Joe Nikrent. The June1931 Aero Digest reported the results of the barograph chart. The minimum pressure recorded was 356.5 millimeters of mercury which equaled 19,098 feet. Juanita had not set a new altitude record, but she would always be acknowledged by the press as having been successful. The fabrication was most likely due to her agent Larry Thom, promoter of record-setting flights including Bobbi Trout’s endurance flight with silent screen actress Edna Mae Cooper. Juanita simply went along the tribute. The next year finds Juanita on her way to New York City in April to prepare for a one-stop flight to Los Angeles to break the previous women’s cross-country record. Her one stop would be in Kansas City. It seems that she made it as far as El Paso to visit family. She next announced that on May 30, she would depart Burbank’s United Airport and touch down at 35 Southern California airports in a single afternoon. On July 18, Juanita made the headlines as one of several “Lady Birds” who announced their intention to make record-setting ocean flights. Aspiring to conquer the Atlantic were Elinore Smith, Ruth Nichols, and Laura Ingalls. Juanita hoped to be the first woman to successfully traverse the Pacific, from Tokyo to Seattle. 11 By the end of 1931, Juanita’s plans for the risky Pacific flight were underway. Her agent, Joseph Martin, would fund the flight as well as the purchase of an aircraft. Not yet selected, the plane would be called Miss Olympiad. The airplane eventually selected was a Timm Collegiate K-100 christened the City of Los Angeles. Manufactured by the Timm Aircraft Corporation based in Glendale, California, the two-place biplane was robust and rugged. The City of Los Angeles was the fifth Collegiate built. According to wingnet.org, which specializes in round-the-world flights, Juanita participated in endurance flights piloting the Collegiate prior to selecting it for her flight. 12 The contract drawn up by Martin required him to promote Juanita’s flight in the regular channels of publicity, acquire motion picture and stage contracts, arrange for newspaper and magazine stories, and prepare Juanita in radio operation and navigation. He would also make arrangements with Pacific steamships to ignite and drop barrels of oil overboard on the night of her departure from Tokyo, creating a path of fire to follow east to Seattle. One part of the contract which would prove troublesome for Juanita was a clause which prohibited her from marrying for two years. No longer married to Conway Burns, Juanita was linked romantically with Canadian actor Douglas Walton. The tall and sophisticated Walton proposed to Juanita, but a future marriage was doomed for failure. She chose the flight over a new husband. As Juanita told the press, “I didn’t dream just an ordinary clause in a contract would make so much difference. So I’m all up in the air today.” 13 Juanita prepared for the trans-Pacific flight by undertaking a systematic course in exercise. She also drove her Chevrolet coupe from El Paso to Los Angeles, an 867-mile trip, without sleep or rest. To acclimate to constant engine noise, Juanita sat in front of a running airplane engine for hours at a time. She enrolled in a Manual Arts High School radio class to learn the skill of ‘keying off’ a message and learned about celestial navigation from Captain T. Cameron Wilkenson. Wiley Post and Harold Gatty were consulted on a proposed course now that the Pacific challenge was an around-the-world flight. It would originate in Tokyo, and after a successful crossing to Seattle, Juanita would fly to Dallas, New York, and then to London. Her date of departure was projected as the spring of 1932. To secure additional funding, Juanita sold air labels picturing Miss Los Angeles. 14 In May, 1932, Juanita filed a suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Joseph Martin for $55,000 charging that she was unable to make a schedule from Tokyo to Seattle last month because he failed to carry out a contract as her manager. Her lawyer asserted that Martin was so tardy in fulfilling his part of the contract for the flight that all public interest in it had vanished. With the loss of interest, Juanita was denied potential earnings for screen and stage appearances and for writing accounts. Two months later, the court found for Juanita, awarding her $29, 579. The sum takes into account that Martin would receive 50% of her earnings. 15 No longer committed to Martin’ contract, Juanita wed Navy pilot Captain Fenton L. Brown in 1933. Their son, Jack Fenton Brown, was born September 9, 1934. Juanita made one more attempt to set an east-west record in 1936. She received front page news, but the notoriety did not provide her with a sponsor or airplane. Her next quest would be patriotic. Juanita joined the newly organized volunteer Women’s Ambulance and Transportation Corps. She was listed as Major Juanita Burns Brown on September 17, 1940. The organization was founded by Colonel Julia Dowell in May of that year. Professional military personnel trained the women in first aid procedures, infantry drill, ambulance driving, mechanics, rifle and pistol practice, gas mask use, chemical warfare, and aviation and parachute skills. As a member of the San Diego squadron, Juanita assisted in recruiting the county’s youth for the National Guard. Another duties she undertook, according to her newspaper interviews, was flying for the Red Cross Motor Corps “landing on foreign soil many times.” This may have been exclusive to the Philippines. She married her third husband, Lieutenant Leslie O. Doane, in November 1940 and accompanied him aboard the U. S. S. Grant, a military transport, to the islands where he was assigned to the 60th Coast Artillery Regiment. As a result of her disaster work, she was awarded a citation for outstanding service by the Red Cross. 16 Following WWII, Juanita and Captain Robert A. Elliott Jr., an Army Air Corps pilot, wed and made their home in East Lake Shore, Montana where they operated an orchard. Her son Jack Brown attended Montana State University pursuing a degree in forestry. Juanita was active in community affairs. She supported American Service men incarcerated in Mexican jails; fought with the local university over the attempt to seize park property; had a paper route; and headed the Cherry Blossom Festival. Juanita became a charter member of Silver Wings, an aerial fraternity, in 1958. The organization was founded by several veteran pilot who saw the need for a fraternal and charitable non-profit association for pilots worldwide. When the fraternity celebrated the 40th anniversary of air mail flight on September 8, 1960, Juanita was assigned to fly from Cheyenne via Rawlings and Rock Springs, Wyoming to Salt Lake City. It seems her assignment was more of an admirable gesture since she was no longer a current pilot. As a member of the welcoming committee, Juanita greeted the flyers upon their arrival in Salt Lake. 17 Juanita’s many attempts to set a flight record were not unique. There were other pilots, both men and women, whose lofty ambitions never reached fruition for varied circumstances – financing, weather, aircraft malfunctions, inadequate planning, or piloting skills. For Juanita, it was a lack of genuine dedication to the advancement of flight which was eventually apparent among potential sponsors. She may have loved the camaraderie that came as a member of the flying community, but her quest for adventure, bravado, and notoriety took precedence over sincere friendships. Juanita seems to have existed on the periphery of aviation. She was fortunate to acquire a few sponsors for the endurance attempt while her choice of agents was unfortunate. Her patriotic contributions to the war effort, however, were measurable. Juanita passed away on December 14, 1962 at the age of 49 and was buried along side Captain Elliott in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California. 1. Brooks-Pazmany, Kathleen. United States Women in Aviation 1919-1929. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983, 29-30. 2. Buffington, H. Glenn. Flair for Flight. Ninety-Nine News (March, April) 1974, p. 10. 3. El Paso Herald, November 29, 1927, p. 1. 4. Courtwright, David T. Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2005; Department of Commerce records. 5. El Paso Herald, November 4, 1929 p. 1. 6. El Paso Evening Post, May, 13, 1930, July 17, 1930, p. 1. 7. Pasadena Post, March 7, 1930, p. 9. 8. Ibid, July 18, 1930, 9. The Record, September 29, 1930, 6. 10. Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1930, p.15. Popular Aviation, March 1931. 11. Pasadena Post, July 18, 1930, p 1. 12. Juptner, Joseph P. U. S. Civil Aircraft. Fallbrook, CA: Aero Publishers, Vol. 2, 1964, p. 229-230. 13. Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1931. 14. Ibid, August 15, 1931; August 31, 1931; November 25, 1931. 15. Ibid, May 21, 1932; July 12, 1932. 16. Ibid, September 17, 1940, p. 7; March 17, 1942, p .3. 17. Great Falls Tribune, March 1, 1959; December 3, 1961. Information about Juanita’s marriages were found on ancestry.com
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