Harold Neumann

with thanks to Zachary Baughman,  EAA

May 30, 2003 - This week’s “Voice” is Harold Neumann, famed barnstormer, air racer, aerobatic performer, and IAC judge.  Harold was interviewed in 1986 during the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Fly-In/Convention by some of the good folks in the Vintage Division. 

Harold was born in 1906 and raised in Illinois, just east of Moline in the area of Geneseo.  As he explained it, “I got interested in airplanes flying over the farm. We lived near the Rock Island Railroad track and they used that railroad for navigation between Chicago and Moline.  There was a plane had a forced landing near the farm and I got over there to look at it.  I went down to the airport in Moline shortly after and took a ride.  That started the whole thing…”

After his first flight at Moline, aviation was in Harold’s blood.  Harold learned to fly soon after.  There was a Jenny for sale at the airport and Harold decided he wanted to buy it.  He went to a local bank and asked about getting a loan for $600, the cost of the Jenny.  The bank manager told him that they would be glad to give Harold the money, if his father would sign off on the loan.  Harold’s father agreed and Harold was soon the owner of a JN-4 Jenny biplane.

To help pay off the plane, Harold barnstormed throughout the Midwest, carrying passengers at $5 a piece, and then later $2 a hop.  “One time in Streeter, Illinois, I started carrying passengers there ‘bout 9 o’clock in the mornin’ and I had a feller sellin’ tickets.  I flew till dark, and we made $140.  Divide that by two ($2 per hop) and I made seventy takeoffs and landings.  That’s when you can really fly an airplane!”  He eventually did make enough money to pay off the plane, but Harold wasn’t satisfied with the Jenny. 

“I finally got out one day on a hot day, and that Jenny just would not fly on some days and I damn near killed myself, but I managed to get it back to the airport.  I told Dad that this airplane is limited and if I wanted to continue in aviation I have to get a better airplane.  Dad said, ‘Well sell the Jenny and then we’ll talk about it.’  I did and Dad agreed to lend me $3000 at 4% interest to order a Travel Air biplane, which I did.  It had a 90hp Curtis OX-5.” 

It was at this time that Harold would meet and marry his wife Inez.  “I started entering air racing. We had balloon busting, dead stick landings, and all the little gimmicks to make it interesting and pick up $5, $20, $50.  Some of the OX-5 races were as high as up to $250…Back in 1929 I had enough hours, which at that time had to be 200 hours, and I finally got my transport license…and that’s when I decided I was qualified to get married... I started winning or placing well.  In 1929 I had been courting a nice girl down there at Moline and I had a good day up near Chicago and made a little extra money.  On the next Monday I went down to St. Charles, Illinois and bought her an engagement ring.   I called her that evenin’ and said, ‘I bought you an engagement ring and I hope that’s okay with you.’  She said, ‘I suppose,’ and that’s how we got engaged.  We set a date for the wedding in September and I used the Travel Air to land in the field next to her parents’ farm.  We had the wedding there outdoors and then after that was all over we got in the Travel Air.  We had on our britches, boots, helmets, and goggles and we each had a suitcase.  We got in the Travel Air and headed east for Niagara Falls.  It took us three days because of fog and weather, and then we flew over the Falls.” 

Harold and Inez made a life out of barnstorming.  As Harold explained it, “That’s sorta how it started.  You can call it barnstorming.  It’s doing anything and everything that’s connected with flying to make a few dollars, to build up hours and experience, in the hopes that there was a future in aviation…Barnstorming is just going from town to town or one activity to another with air racing, balloon busting, dead stick landings – and so this is what I call barnstorming, and I did that.  My wife was with me and we lived like gypsies…” 

In those days, nearly everyone had heard of airplanes – Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic was covered by nearly every newspaper, magazine, and journal in the US – but not every one had actually seen a photo of Charles or Anne Lindbergh.  Harold recalled, “I landed one time because of low ceiling and the neighbors came by.  They thought we were Lindberghs.  They had read ‘bout the Lindberghs flyin’ and now here was a pilot and plane with his wife in helmet n’ goggles.  If I had a wanted to, I coulda have got by with that!”

Harold sums up barnstorming in terms of friendships. “In barnstorming you make a lot of friends.  One thing leads to another – I’m a big believer in that.  You stay with something long enough and you go in the right direction, why something good will come of it.  You make a lot of friends and you need a lot of friends in aviation.  You would be surprised, when you have problems or an accident or have trouble your friends come out of the woods to help you get going again.  You have the feeling they believe in you.  They may not be able to do the things I’m doin’, but at least they can be a part of it.  This is the feeling there has been in the aviation world.  I’ve helped many of my friends when they’ve been in trouble and they never forget. Sooner or later, they’ll show up when you need help.”

Eventually, Harold got away from barnstorming and into serious air racing.  He met Benny Howard at the Cleveland Air Races and later at Moline, where Harold was working at the airport and Benny had stopped by while flying for United.  A relationship developed and Harold went to work for Benny, flying the Howard “Ike” racer in various airshows and air races.  He also started flying the Howard “Mike” racer in some of the more competitive races.

1935 would be the single greatest year in Harold’s racing career.  The National Air Races that year would be forever known as The Benny Howard Air Races.  Benny started the win streak by edging out Roscoe Turner by just 23.5 seconds in the Bendix Race, a cross-county race from Santa Monica to Cleveland.  Benny won the race in the “Mr. Mulligan,” a four-place high wing cabin monoplane that Harold describes as, “A big Monocoupe.”  The prize was $4,500 for winning the Bendix.

That same day, August 31, Harold flew the “Mike” in the Louis Greve Trophy Race.  He was set to fly the “Ike,” but its gear had collapsed in the qualifying runs.  In his words, “I flew the “Mike” in the Greve Race in 1935 and I won it.  Now that’s pylon racing with a racehorse start.  I was known as a low level pilot and that helped me win…I used to practice around home flying around trees as if they were pylons.  I practiced around windmills and got very comfortable flying low to the ground around 100 feet…by flying low I avoided a lot of traffic that the boys had at the higher levels.  Steve Wittman was great.  He had a plane that could climb rapidly and he would level off and make high turns to get away from the traffic, and I would make low turns.  In many races after the first few turns it would be between Wittman and I because we were out ahead of all the rest with that technique.  That was one of the reasons for my success in air racing.”

Harold explains another of his winning techniques, “We ran full throttle.  People nowadays think, ‘Gee, I got to set the throttle right on 1900 or 2000.’  Phooey!!!  Set it where the engine runs good and within your temperatures and leave it alone.” 

Two days after Benny won the Bendix and Harold won the Greve, “Mr. Mulligan” was entered in the National Air Races’ climaxing 150-mile Thompson Trophy Race, which had a top prize of $6,750.  It was a hectic night and morning before the race, getting “Mr. Mulligan” repaired as it had burned out a cylinder during the qualifying runs.  Finally, the racers were all lined up at the starting line ready to go.  

Harold describes the scene, “We all got lined up there for the start of the Thompson Race.  Roscoe Turner was in it, Steve Wittman, Art Chester, Roger Rae, and others.  So we’re all lined up there to head for the first pylon.  So we’re all sitting there and it was a hot day, musta been a 100 degrees, you can imagine what it was like sittin’ in a cabin airplane with that heat.  They decided to wait another 20 to 30 minutes for the start and you can imagine sittin’ there with them engines runnin’ and you can imagine how hot it was.  Finally we get the signal to go and they drop the flag.  I had it turning up pretty good and released the brakes and gave it more power and it wouldn’t take the throttle – it just started backfirin’ an’ runnin’ rough.  I thought I was going to have to discontinue the race, but I knew the airplane and felt we had a big ‘nuff field there and I was gonna just see if I could get in the air and clear the engine.  I gambled that it was just fouled sparkplugs, so I did that.  Everybody left me and I was the last one to take off.” 

“After two laps I got the engine cleared up.  We’re in the race and the engine’s runnin’ pretty good and I’ve got my power set to finish the race.  I had lost hope of winnin’ because of the poor start.  So I’m startin’ to catch up with the slower planes and passin’ them.  I’m a workin’ my way up and passin’ more of them and I’m very happy…I’m sittin’ there enjoyin’ the race and I finally caught up to Steve Wittman flyin’ in “Bonzo” and I come along side him and he pulled away from me.  I figured, ‘This is gonna be a race!’ because we used to race against each other in the OX-5 days, but I figured ‘I’ll just leave my power like it is – everything is runnin’ good and I don’t want to blow a cylinder again.’  And then I caught up with him again and passed him again.  I figured he must have engine trouble or sumthin’ so I just left everything alone and I passed him and that was the last I saw of him in the race.”

“Up ahead I could see Roscoe Turner, who was leading, making pylon turns and I thought, ‘I’m not going to try and catch him because that will just burn out the engine an it wouldn’t take it.’  I was in second place and thought that’s where I’d end up.  After another lap there here’s Roscoe Turner landing, but I still didn’t get the flag for the finish.  I didn’t see him pull up with the black smoke and forced landing.  I continued on and finally got the flag for finish.  We always make an extra lap in case we had cut a pylon we could still qualify, so I made my extra lap and came in and landed and rolled out to a stop.  There was a lot of traffic out there so I turned the engine off.  My friend, Doc Kincaid with the oil company, came out in an official car to pick me up.  When I got out of the airplane he grabbed me and gave me a hug and said, ‘You won the race!’  That was the first I knew that I had actually won the race.” 

Benny Howard’s team had cleaned up during the Nationals, winning over $17,000 in prize money.  Harold best sums up the day, “To bring you up to date, Benny Howard won the cross-country race which was the Bendix, I won the Greve Race with the Howard “Mike,” and I won the Thompson with the Mulligan.  So it was a clean sweep on the big stuff.”  

Not a bad day for a kid from Illinois.  Harold kept up with air racing for a few more years, winning multiple races along the way, and was eventually hired on with TWA, where he flew for 30 years, retiring in 1966.  He still had the flying “bug” after retirement and purchased another Monocoupe (he had owned one in the 1930s), which he painted white and named “Little Mulligan.”  Harold took “Little Mulligan” all over the airshow circuit and was a regular aerobatic performer for many years, and at one time was America’s oldest active aerobatic pilot, flying aerobatic routines well into his 80s.  Harold “went West” in July 1995 at the age of 89.  While the “Little Mulligan” will never fly again, we will always remember that raspy-voiced aviator who brought the grandstands to their feet at the air races and who won our hearts in his little white Monocoupe

Harold died July5 1995.