Jimmie and Walter Wedell
Trophy presentation to James Wedell and Mary Haizlip in New
Orleans. L to R: James Doolittle, Mary Haizlip, James Wedell
Jimmie and Walter Wedell
Jimmie Wedell was
born in Texas City, Texas, in 1900. His mother died when he
was only an infant, and he was raised by his father, who
tried to make ends meet as a bartender. This often left
Jimmie in charge of both the home and his younger brother,
Walter. A resourceful young man, Jimmie demonstrated his
mechanical aptitude at an early age. 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. This hobby turned into a means for Jimmie to
pursue his greater passion, aviation.
accident that blinded his right eye barely slowed him down.
Prior to World War I, he rebuilt two crashed airplanes, an
OX Standard and a Thomas Morse Scout, into one flyable
craft, although he had never flown in one. Soon thereafter
he met a barnstormer who gave him a one-hour lesson. The
rest, including how to take off and land, he learned by
trial and error. He then engaged in barnstorming for his
self-taught knowledge of flight, 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. After the war,
Walter joined Jimmie in this endeavour. As time passed and
technology improved, the Wedell brothers’ planes proved no
match against the newer United States government planes now
patrolling the border. Jimmie managed to circumvent this
situation temporarily by flying exclusively at night.
Eventually, however, the idea to build his own, faster plane
dawned on him.
Jimmie Wedell and Harry Williams formed the Wedell-Williams
Air Service. A landing field was cleared on Calumet
Plantation, land that had been part of the Williams sugar
fields near Patterson. Eventually, the air service expanded
until Patterson was home base for a flight school, aerial
photography, amphibian service, and aerial transportation.
Harry Williams continued to develop the airport through the
1930s, constructing an additional hangar, improving the
field’s drainage, and installing lights for night
operations. At one point, Williams was the owner of the
largest privately owned fleet of aircraft in the world, with
remembered as shy and reserved, Jimmie had the flair of a
showman. As an early company 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
Walter Wedell with Menefee Airways Plane
Air Service began with two routes originating in New
Orleans: a weekly flight to St. Louis with stops in Jackson,
Mississippi, and Memphis, as well as a daily run from Baton
Rouge to Alexandria to Shreveport, and later, to Dallas–Fort
Worth. The company also established an aviation school at
Menefee Airport in Chalmette, with branches in Alexandria,
Baton Rouge, Patterson, and Gulfport, Mississippi. Wedell-Williams
was awarded a government contract for airmail service
between New Orleans and Houston in 1934.
Wedell-Williams Staff with "44"
Patterson facility, a team of engineers and mechanics began
to manufacture airplanes for both sport racing and mail use.
In later years, Wedell-Williams would be remembered almost
exclusively for its racing exploits. In reality, the service
also owned many other types of aircraft, including a Ryan
monoplane, Lincoln Page, Travel Air, Ryan B-7, Lockheed
Sirius, and several Lockheed Vegas.
First Wedell-Williams Racers
1929 Wedell-Williams began construction on its initial
racing design. The first plane was a racer named the
We-Will, derived from the first parts of the pair's last
names. Completed in early 1930, the We-Will was powered by a
Hisso engine left over from Jimmie’s barnstorming days. The
second model was basically built to meet mail plane
specifications, since Harry Williams planned on bidding on
the mail route service from New Orleans to Shreveport and
Wedell became famous for radically new designs that set
speed records time and again. Among the first constructed at
the Patterson plant was the We Will Jr., which Jimmie flew
in the 1930 American Flying Derby as No. 17. The
All-American Derby, a cross-country race featuring eighteen
planes, left Detroit, Michigan, on July 21, 1930. From
Detroit, the racers traveled a path to Buffalo; Cincinnati;
Little Rock, Arkansas; Houston; San Angelo, Texas; Douglas,
Arizona; Los Angeles; Ogden, Utah; Lincoln, Nebraska; and
finally back to Detroit. The 5,541-mile trek lasted eleven
days. After staying in contention for most of the race,
Jimmie experienced engine trouble leaving Los Angeles and
finished eighth, collecting $1,600 in prize money.
competitor, Jimmie was bitterly disappointed by this finish.
He returned to Patterson to prepare the racers for the
Chicago National Air Races, August 23 to September 1, 1930.
He brought three planes from Patterson to Chicago. The first
was the We-Will Jr., piloted by Wedell. He managed no better
than third in the 350-cubic-inch free-for-all. The second, a
We-Will, had engine problems and never competed. The third
plane was the We-Winc, piloted by Everett Williams (no
relation to Harry), who finished second in the
800-cubic-inch free-for-all and in the 1000-cubic-inch
free-for-all. All in all, 1930 was not a promising start for
Wedell-Williams racing planes.
We-Will (sideview) at the New Orleans airstrip just outside
of one of the hangars. 1930
of the damaged We-Will was used as the starting point for a
new design, which Jimmie hoped would be capable of winning
the coveted Thompson Trophy. This was the first racer to
bear the famous number "44." At the 1931 National Air Races,
few people outside those pilots who had flown with him had
heard of Jimmie Wedell. After his arrival in the "44,"
called the mystery ship of 1931, there was no doubt that
Jimmie Wedell was a powerful force. So great was his debut
that Roscoe Turner immediately ordered a Wedell-Williams
plane. The "44" was designed as a pylon racer and was not
yet tested for endurance flying, so Jimmie kept it out of
the Bendix. Wedell finished second in the prestigious
Thompson Trophy Race, claiming a $5,850 prize.
eight to ten planes on the starting line, the Thompson
Trophy Race was the grand finale of each year’s National Air
Races. Its purpose was to honor the fastest airplane that
could be built. There were no restrictions. Any power of
engine could be used, any number of engines, any number of
pilots, and any weight.
hundred planes took part in the celebration of the opening
of the new $200,000 Baton Rouge airport in June 1931. The
newly outfitted We-Winc was the winner of the open
free-for-all race for engines under 800 cubic inches, by an
unheard-of margin of two miles. Jimmie won the event’s main
prize, the Alvin Callender Trophy, for his performance.
1931, Jimmie prepared to leave Los Angeles in an attempt to
smash James Doolittle's transcontinental speed record. While
waiting for bad weather to clear, Wedell heard of Captain
Frank Hawks's pending attempt to break the Three Flags (Agua
Caliente, Mexico, to Vancouver, Canada) record. Jimmie
decided on an informal race with Hawks, just to "kill time."
With this spontaneous trip, Jimmie set a new record of six
hours, forty minutes, breaking the old one by one hour and
eight minutes. The two men flew the same course, with Wedell
starting in Mexico and Hawks in Canada. An over flight of
Vancouver cost him fifty-five minutes, but Jimmie had not
thought it was possible to arrive in less than six hours, so
he kept on flying. Only the previous summer, Roscoe Turner
had held this same record with a much slower time of nine
hours and fourteen minutes. Hawks was overcome in his
cockpit by carbon monoxide and unable to complete the trip.
following week, convinced that he could make the
transcontinental trip in less than ten hours and armed with
messages of encouragement from such notables as Louisiana
Governor Huey P. Long and Orleans Levee Board Chairman Abe
Shushan, Jimmie left Los Angeles in an attempt to break
Doolittle’s record of eleven hours and sixteen minutes.
However, the flight was cut short after bad weather,
including high headwinds, which slowed the plane to as
little as ninety miles per hour, and snow over Colorado,
ruined his chance for the record.
1932 New Racers
the beginning of the era of Wedell-Williams air-racing
dominance. First up was the Three Capitals record, a flight
from Ottawa to Mexico City through Washington, D.C. Jimmie
left Ottawa on March 23, 1932, and landed in Mexico City
eleven hours and fifty-four minutes later, breaking James
Doolittle’s record by thirty minutes. Wedell claimed that
his time would have been considerably better if not for
Next was the
2,041-mile Bendix, which began the National Air Races and
followed a route from Los Angeles to Cleveland. Jimmie flew
the 1932 version of the "44," Miss Patterson. Jim Haizlip
was contracted to fly the "92," Miss New Orleans, as well as
another "44." Roscoe Turner flew his "44," known as the
Gilmore or by its race number, 121. On August 29, 1932, Jim
Haizlip won the Bendix with a time of eight hours and
nineteen minutes and continued to New York to break Jimmy
Doolittle's transcontinental record by fifty-seven minutes,
with a time of ten hours and nineteen minutes. After leading
for a large portion of the race, Jimmie Wedell came in
second and Roscoe Turner placed third, a 1-2-3 victory for
the Wedell-Williams Air Service. After the long flight, Jim
Haizlip remarked, "It’s nice to be with people again. It was
awful lonesome over the canyons."
Pilots gathered before the start of the 1932 Bendix Race.
Second from left, Jimmie Wedell; centre, Roscoe Turner.
on the newly improved "44" took place during the weeks
leading up to the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race. The plane’s
original 300-horsepower engine was supercharged to produce
more than 525 horsepower. One test flight on the ninety-mile
flight from Patterson to New Orleans took only seventeen
minutes, an average of 324 miles per hour. All three Wedell-Williams
racers were also entered in the Thompson Trophy Race. Jimmy
Doolittle dominated, flying the Gee-Bee 7-11. He lapped the
entire field, except for Wedell. Jimmie took second, Roscoe
Turner third, and Jim Haizlip fourth, this time a 2-3-4
Wedell-Williams finish. This was the final air race for
Doolittle. After flying the dangerous and highly unstable
Gee-Bee, Doolittle decided that he was lucky to be alive and
put his racing days behind him.
returning to Patterson after their remarkable showing at the
1932 races, Jimmie Wedell and Jim Haizlip roared down Main
Street in Patterson, side by side, at 300 feet and 280 miles
per hour. Jimmie proceeded with the "44" to the first annual
New England Air Pageant, which dedicated the Rhode Island
State Airport. He easily won all three events that he
1933 World Speed
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. So much did he enjoy the thrill of the chase that
Jimmie borrowed a Warner monocoupe from a friend and
proceeded to win three more races without Miss Patterson.
Jimmie began testing a new design, the "45." Mechanical
difficulties forced him to leave the plane in Patterson for
the 1933 New York to Los Angeles National Air Races, so its
Pratt and Whitney Wasp 985 engine was mounted on the "44."
Jimmie finished second in the Bendix, beaten by Roscoe
Turner, who flew his Wedell-Williams with the more powerful
Hornet engine. Roscoe and Jimmie were the only two
contestants even to finish the race. The "92," flown by
famous racer Lee Gelbach, was forced down with mechanical
difficulties near Indianapolis. The Thompson Trophy Race
resulted in another 1-2-3 Wedell-Williams victory with
Roscoe again in first place. Roscoe was later disqualified
for cutting a pylon, and the 1933 Thompson Trophy was
awarded to Jimmie Wedell, with Lee Gelbach second in the
Jimmie Wedell standing in the cockpit of the "44" at the
Landspeed Race 1933. You can see the other planes lines up
down the field.
to the overall world speed record, he broke records flying
between New Orleans and several cities while transporting
Times-Picayune photographs of Tulane University football
games. After the Georgia game in 1931, Jimmie flew from
Atlanta to New Orleans in one hour and fifty-seven minutes.
After the Georgia Tech game in 1933 he flew through two
thunderstorms and still managed to return from Atlanta in 1
hour and 41 minutes, improving his own record. Showing a
more serious side, Wedell gained a reputation as a "mercy
flier" after he conducted several aerial searches for
persons lost in the swamps and on lakes. He made national
news when he flew through fog and heavy crosswinds to rush a
West Columbia, Texas, baby, Sue Trammel, to Baltimore’s
Johns Hopkins Hospital for a brain operation.
impressive and overwhelming was Wedell’s success to this
point, that other racers actually avoided races in which
they knew Jimmie would be flying. At the 1933 National Air
Pageant, a charity event held at Roosevelt Field in New
York, only one other flier even entered the measured course
speed trial event against Jimmie.
Death of Jimmie
On June 24,
1934, aviation suffered a crushing blow when Jimmie Wedell
died in a plane crash. At the time of his death, Wedell was
recognized as the speed king of the world, aviation’s most
successful designer of racing planes, and the holder of more
records than any other flyer. Syndicated columnist Will
Rogers added, "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?"
History has incorrectly blamed the accident on a student
pilot, Frank Seeringer, of Mobile, Alabama, who supposedly
froze at the controls of the DeHavilland Gypsy Moth. It
appears that Jimmie was at the controls when the crash
occurred in Patterson, probably due to structural failure.
Jimmie was buried in West Columbia, Texas, following
services held in New Orleans.
Plane Crash of Jimmie Wedell
Plane Crash of Jimmie Wedell