Wedell Williams No.44

JIMMY WEDELL (PRONOUNCED WE-dell) who had only a ninth grade education, couldn't read a blue print and was denied Army and Navy pilot training, not only became one of the great race pilots of the country, but also one of the greatest and most prolific designers and builders of racing aircraft. During the period 1931 to 1936 the Wedell-Williams race jobs took more than their share of firsts Second. third and fourth places were also filled by Jimmy's speed steeds.

Born in Texas City. Texas on March 31, 1900, James Roben Wedell's father. a bartender on the tough water front) and his mother died when he and his younger brother, Walter, were infants. Thus, from the start, the two brothers were on their own. Jimmy was very interested in gasoline engines and at an early age started working for an auto mechanic. Later using a 10 ft. x 10 ft. building, he opened his own garage. Granted this was not large enough to get the flivvers in. but the rent was cheap and Jim was able to work on the auto outside the building. 

During the same period. Walter became a telegraph operator for the railroad. Despite the difference in jobs. when the two brothers got together. aviation and flying were the main topics of conversation. Finally, Jim scraped together enough money and purchased two old Thomas Morse airplanes. Both planes were basket cases and needed r rebuilding. But Jim met the challenge, rebuilt them and then had Francis Rust, an old barnstormer, give him one hour of flight instruction. From this point forward Jim and the Thomas Morses were on their own.

He taught Walter to fly and the two barnstormed throughout the Gulf Coast area. But money was scarce and Walter joined the Navy as a telegraph operator for a four year hitch. At this point, Jimmy travelled south into Mexico and became known as the "Air-Hobo" from Texas. He had lost the sight of one eye during his youth, the accident occurring during a wild motorcycle ride, but Jim continued with life just as if he had the sight of both eyes and was given the name Senior Don Jaime, El Gatilan De La Noche-Sir James, the Night Hawk. He was the one living pi lot who could attend a very wild party, lace a foundation of Mexican beer with Mexican tequila and then jump into his airplane, fly through the dark Mexican sky and land on a rutted landing strip of sand, cactus and mesquite, lighted only by small flares or flashlights.

When Walter finished his hitch in the Navy he joined Jimmy in Mexico and using two airplanes they flew many mysterious midnight missions. Although many of these were questionable, involving guns, liquor, contraband, Mexican Generals and revolutions, Jim and Walter were never in real serious trouble. At least none that they couldn't fly out of.

It appeared that everything the Wedell brothers did had to be spectacular, so when Walter and Henrietta Filiberto of New Orleans decided to get married in 1929, and they agreed that the wedding should take place in the air. They gave it the full treatment with flower girls spreading the flowers to the Ryan wedding plane. Jimmy was the pilot and also best man. The music was furnished by a local radio station so that all in the New Orleans area could listen.


It was in this wild period that Jimmy began to get ideas about planes he was flying and what he might do to improve their performance. He contacted Harry Palmerson Williams, a wealthy planter and lumberman. Williams wanted to buy an airplane and Jim had one to sell. Not only did Jim sell him the airplane but taught him to fly-and fly well. During this instruction period Jim also sold himself, and Harry Williams backed his belief in Wedell's ability with two million dollars, an almost unheard of sum for those days. This gave Jimmy a chance to achieve his lifetime ambition, to build an airplane of his own design, to get the speed and safety he wanted and not have to stop every few days to barnstorm for gas and hamburger money. With Harry Williams backing him, the Wedell-Williams Air Service, Inc. (1928), was organized. Jimmy Wedell was appointed President and told to go ahead and build his dream.

Jimmy built airplanes by eye, as the untrained musician plays by ear, but they flew and they were fast. He wanted to build the fastest, safest fighting and mail planes in the world. At the same time he wanted them safe enough for the average pilot to fly at a top speed of 400 mph plus. Work began with Jimmy drawing some chalk lines on the hanger floor. This roughed out the size and shape of the first Wedell Williams Special. From this Walter Wedell, Charles (Frenchy) Fortune, Eddie Robertson and Jimmy started welding. Periodically, Jim would cock his head and state, "That looks about right for length or span," and not until the racer was finished, was the actual measurement made of the total length or wing span.

This was true, to a great degree, with the construction of all the Wedell-Williams racers. The results of the first project was a low wing, Hisso-powered racer carrying license number NR278V. It would be later twice revamped to become the famous Wedell No. 44.

Late in December of 1929, rebuilding and revamping began on number 44. It was to be entered in the January 1930 Miami Air Races, so time was short and the midnight oil burned freely. As race time approached, it became more evident that the project would not meet the deadline, still work continued. Then late in January (too late for the race), the bullet nosed 180 hp V-8 Hisso-powered racer emerged from the hangar. A tightly cowled V-type engine gave the racer the appearance of the Verville R-3 Speedster of 1924. Its landing gear assembly was set-up for a full speed fairing, from the bottom of the wings to just below the wheel axle. Small pants covered the wheels only and the remainder of the assembly was not faired. The wing span measured 30', length 24'8": the paint job was scarlet and silver and she unofficially timed at 210 mph.

During the year 1930, Wedell-Williams produced three racing aircraft. First the No. 44 NR-278V already mentioned, another model 44 which would become famous as No. 92-NR-536V tin fact during 1930 these two racers participated in several match r aces) and a Cirrus powered job ~ NR-10337) to be entered in the 1930 American Cirrus Derby. They all had something in common. Each took approximately 90 days to build and each was painted scarlet and silver; all parts were scarlet except the wings and horizontal tail surfaces which were silver. Their race numbers were 90, 91 (44), and 92.

The small job was dubbed "WeWill, Jr." and was powered by an inverted four cylinder super-charged hi-drive Cirrus engine rated at 110 hp at 2100 rpm. Wing area of the racer was 120 square feet, gross weight 1440 pounds and top speed estimated at 170 mph. A small, streamlined red spinner covered the prop hub while the landing gear and wheels that had been set up for full speed fairings remained uncovered. Time had not permitted the construction of the streamlined fairings. "WeWill, Jr." was licensed NR-10337 and drew race number 17 for the 5,541 mile, 16 leg cross country race. Twenty-five thousand dollars was the prize money that "WeWill, Jr." would be vying for. The race started in Detroit, east and then south through Texas, across the southern U.S. to California and back to the northern route to Detroit. A tough go for both pilots and planes as every type of terrain and flying condition would be encountered.

During the first legs of the race, Jimmy fought and exchanged first spot with Lee Gelbach in the "Little Rocket," and Lowell Bayles in the "Gee Bee". However, as the race continued it appeared that the Wedell was faster but the "Little Rocket" more dependable. Arriving in Los Angeles and still fighting for first, Jim decided the Cirrus needed a bit of repair He flew "WeWill, Jr." to the Lockheed factory for the engine work, plus installation of wheel fairings, the type that later appeared on Northrop airplanes~. This work was accomplished during the night and Jim and the racer were at the starting line the following morning. He fired the Cirrus up, checked her power and blasted off into the dawn. But not for long. At 100 feet the Cirrus froze and the prop stopped dead. With no altitude to play with, Jim crash landed straight ahead shearing off the new landing gear and damaging both wings. This eliminated "WeWill, Jr." from any thoughts of first spot in the Derby, but work began immediately to salvage what could be from the race. Twenty-four hours later, and with no sleep, Jim took to the air, ( less wheel fairings and with repaired wings', in pursuit of the leaders.

Full throttle - all the way to the firewall - the throttle position Jim maintained during the balance of the Derby), "WeWill, Jr." went, but the lost time was too great and Wedell finished eighth, and collected $1,600.00 in prize money.

Later in 1930, "WeWill, Jr." appeared at the Chicago National Air Races. Race number 90 replaced No. 17 and small pants covered only the wheels. During these events Jimmy placed third in the 350 cu. in. free-for-all ( 140.08 mph) and fifth in the 450 cu. in. free-for-all ( 132.24 mph).

"WeWill, Jr." did not appear again until 1932, and then with a very new look. Completely rebuilt to vie for lower power class race money, "WeWill, Jr." had its wings clipped about eight inches and its fuselage shortened by four inches. A new streamlined landing gear with wheel pants, a closer cowled engine, and a new propeller spinner all helped the "WeWill, Jr." look like a new airplane. Even a new license number of NR60Y was acquired with a new designation of Model 22 (1/z size 44) was assigned to its design. However, for one reason or another the now two tone blue (dark and light), racer did not appear at the 1932 National Air Races, but did appear at smaller races in the south including New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Early in 1933, NR60Y appeared with another change. A six cylinder 489 cu. in. Menasco power plant replaced the Cirrus. Test flights were made on April 21, 1933 and the ship was readied for the National Air Races which were to be held during July. The racer retained the two tone blue paint job, but race number 54 replaced 22. Again disaster struck, and again in Los Angeles during the Nationals. A fire on the ground eliminated NR60Y from the 1933 Nationals. All the fabric was burned from the fuselage and the racer was then pushed into the corner of the hangar and its Menasco engine was removed. After the 1933 event the engine was shipped back to Patterson and the balance of the aircraft remained in Los Angeles where it was purchased by Dave Elmendorf.

A second model 22 had been built and the Menasco from NR60Y was placed in this frame. The second model 22 differed from the original in the shape of the fuselage and empennage. Wings and cowl were definitely Wedell, but the aft section had been built by Delgado Trade School of New Orleans and resembled their racers of later years-in fact the empennage and fuselage were almost identical with the "Delgado Maid" and "Flash". Jimmy loaded the airframe and engine on a truck and took off for the International Air Races in Chicago. Arriving at Chicago, Jim assembled the plane and completed the installation of the Menasco from NR60Y. This work was completed the starting day of the races,1 September,1933, and a 15 minute test hop was the only flying Jim had time for. Model 22-No.2 was licensed NR64Y and earned race number 22 on its flanks. Air Race blanks show that the ship was entered with race number 54, this would indicate that Jim planned to race NR60Y at these races and the fire in Los Angeles necessitated the change of airplanes.

NR64Y participated in only one event. Jim pulled out after the first lap as the engine was not functioning well enough to continue this event or enter any subsequent races. There was no time for engine repair as Jim also had the Model 44 at the races, so 64Y was pushed to the corner of the hangar until the International Air Races were completed. After the race the little racer was disassembled and trucked back to Patterson, Louisiana. Later Jim made one more attempt with it. He reassembled the racer and on 25 February, 1934 flew a 20 minute test hop. Performance of the airplane was not acceptable so the Menasco engine was removed, and the remainder of the racer was donated to Louisiana State University.

NR60Y did not appear again until 1935, this time wearing its original race number 22 and a red and silver paint job. Dave Elmendorf had purchased the ship and was the pilot during the National Air Races. He placed seventh in the Greve Trophy Race and fourth in one of the Greve preliminary heats with a speed of 176.016 mph. This was the last record in NR60Y's race history.

Now back to the other two racers Wedell built in 1930. First, NR-278V (Race No. 91) mentioned earlier. Jimmy entered this racer in the 1930 Los Angeles to Chicago cross country race and was leading until the Hisso broke an oil line forcing him to land in Texas. Wedell finished the trip to Chicago by commercial-transportation, arriving just in time to fly "WeWill Jr." in the first event. Later he returned to Texas, repaired the oil line and engine and flew No. 91 back to Patterson, Louisiana for revamping.

Redesigned, the 1931 version of NR-278V would later become the famous No. 44. A full remodelling job resulted in a 23' fuselage, 26' wing span and a Pratt and Whitney replacing the Hisso. Exceptionally clean lines extended throughout the entire aircraft. A streamlined NACA cowl -so small that faired bulges were needed to allow room for the cylinder arms -housed the 550 hp Wasp Jr. Pratt and Whitney engine. Pants covered the wheels, and the gear itself consisted of two narrow, well faired struts.

Wedell also had a great love for guns, maybe his Mexican experience developed it, nevertheless, he was an expert marksman and this is where the Model 44 and 22 originated. On the side of the Model 44 was painted a pistol, with a printed legend: "Hot as a 44 and Twice as Fast".

In keeping with this pattern, race No. 44 was added to the wings and fuselage, a number the ship would retain throughout its entire race career. Thirty hand rubbed coats of red and gold dope gave the racer a finish that reflected like a mirror and looked elbow deep.

This was the year Wedell racers started to click. Trailing Lowell Bayles in the "Gee Bee," Jimmy and No. 44 finished second in the Thompson Trophy Race with a speed of 227.99 mph. He also placed second in the free-for all at 221.0 mph and third in the 1000 cu. in. event, with a sour engine, at 167.106 mph. After the 1931 Nationals Jimmy did some engine tuning on the ship and turned a speed of 255 mph. He also set a cross country record (Three Flags Race) that started at Ottawa, Canada, went on to Washington, D.C., and thence to Mexico City. Jimmy and No. 44 started out at dawn, streaked to Washington, D. C., refueled and took to the air for Patterson, Louisiana. A quick stop at Patterson for fuel, then into the sunset and Mexico City, all in 11 hours and 59 minutes. This was quite a feat for this era and in doing so Jimmy broke the 12 hours 36 minute record set by Jimmy Doolittle and his Laird "Super Solution".

During the winter months of 1931-1932, Wedell and his crew were busy building and rebuilding racers. He completely revamped No. 44 and in the process shortened the fuselage another two feet. The supercharged Wasp Jr. was retained but a smooth cowl replaced the 1931 bulge. This would indicate that Wedell went to a larger cowl. Perhaps the smaller cowl had given some cooling problems. A new high gloss red and black paint job that would remain on the racer for the balance of its career, reflected the many hours of sanding and polishing.

Along with the remodelling of No. 44, the previously mentioned No. 92 was undergoing revamping. No. 92 would also be a Model 44 with outward appearance very similar to NR-278V. However, the landing gear legs extended from the wings in almost a straight line while No. 44 angled out a bit. In addition to these two, a third racer was being constructed for Roscoe Turner. This, too, was about identical to No.44, except internally. Extra bracing had been placed in the wing and fuselage area, causing the wings to flex less than in the other racers. Licensed NR-54Y, it had a very short career as it crashed on the third test flight.

Jim had taken the racer aloft for the test, to check its performance at altitude and all had appeared normal. Then came the ultimate test, a flight virtually at ground level with wide-open throttle. He would try for 300 mph, starting in a shallow dive then levelling off to streak across the field.

Flying so low he seemed barely to clear the tops of the standing sugar cane in the fields adjacent to the airport Jimmy-seated on some 30 pounds of iron to make up for the difference between his weight and Col. Turner's- came roaring toward the airport. Just as he reached the edge of the airport, a wing flutter developed causing a main wing flying wire to snap. At this point the left wing seemed to explode and collapsed. Jimmy literally rode the engine to a safe altitude at which point he bailed out just as the racer disintegrated. His parachute opened and he landed safely minus one shoe that never was found.

The remainder of the plane crashed nearby, leaving only a cupful of jewelled bearings from the instrument panel as salvage material. Reason for the crash was the rigidity of the wings causing the left one to snap off instead of flexing.

Gilmore Oil Company had sponsored the building of this racer for Turner, so construction of another ship started immediately. This was completed in time for the National Air Races and 1932 proved to be a banner year for the three big Wedell-Williams racers. They chalked up two firsts, five seconds, three thirds and two fourths. These included a first, second and third in the Bendix Race, a second, third and fourth in both the Thompson Trophy Race and the Shell Speed Dashes. Yes, Jimmy had his racers really cleaned up.

Flying his own No. 44 Wedell placed second in the Bendix (232 mph), Thompson (242.50 mph), Shell Speed Dashes (277.06) and 1000 cubic-inch event 202.74 mph).

In 1933 Wedell was back at the Nationals with his fast No. 44. He had replaced the fabric around the cockpit area with aluminium as he felt that the fabric in this area was a source of drag. He lost no time letting the other race pilots know that he was after the money.

During the off season Jimmy made the engine and cowl installation more flexible and it required only six hours to change front the Wasp Jr. to the Wasp Sr. Then, on the 24th of June 1934, Jimmy Wedell was killed in an air crash. The crash occurred while flying his Moth aircraft and giving Frank Sneering a student pilot from Mobile, Alabama, instructions. The aviation society had lost a great member of their team, one who had given much of himself and still had so much more to offer. He took to the grave with him many advancements and designs but many others that he introduced into aviation live on. He established many records that are not listed herein and placed his name in racing history where it lives forever.

Douglas Davis (1929 winner of the Thompson Cup Race was picked as pilot for the famous No. 44 during the 1934 Nationals. The engine change was used at the Nationals, so the racers No. 44 and No. 45) appeared both with a bulge cowl and smooth cowl. Davis pushed the black and red Wasp Jr. powered racer to first spot in the Bendix, beating out Wedell's last design, No. 45. His speed for the Bendix was 216.24 mph. He also won the first spot in the 1000 cubic-inch race with a speed of 220.95 mph and turned in a speed of 246 mph in the Shell Speed Dash. The Wasp Jr. was then replaced by the Wasp Sr. out of No. 45) and the smooth cowl was replaced by the bulge cowl also out of 45.

With this engine, Davis flew over the Shell course at 306.216 mph. One lap was turned at a speed of 325 mph. This speed picked up the first spot in the 1934 Shell Speed Dashes. Turner placed second and Johnny Worthen placed third and fourth flying the Wedell 45 and 92. Before the Thompson, Davis complained about the shortness of the course and also not being familiar with the position of the pylons. He almost withdrew from the race. In fact, he was supposed to have flown this ship in the 1932 Thompson but his wife talked him out of it. However, this time she consented to let him fly the race but refused to watch it. Doug and the black and red piece of dynamite were first off the ground and he poured on the coal to increase his lead. Going into the eighth lap he was leading the pack with a speed of 253 mph and still pouring it on. On the next pylon, not wanting to be disqualified by cutting too short, he pulled the No. 44 into a very tight turn to re circle. The little ship loaded to the extreme with "G's" shuddered and went into a high speed stall, snapped into a spin and plunged to the ground. Davis was killed instantly. Again, another great in aviation was lost but not before he contributed much to the thing he loved most. 

Of the three original racers built by Jimmy Wedell in 1930, the one not covered as yet is NR-536V or No. 92. Nicknamed "WeWinc," No. 92 had been built as a two place sport plane with the possibility of developing it into a fast mail plane. It also was a low wing job with the same type of wheel pants that were originally fitted to the Cirrus and No. 44. Powerplant for the 1930 version of "WeWinc" was a Townsend ring cowled 225 hp Wright J6-7 765 cu. in.) engine. Its wing span was 30', length 22' and it carried the Wedell red and silver paint job. During the Nationals the front pit was covered, and full (Northrup type) skirts covered the entire landing gear assembly. With 92 as a racer number and Errett Williams the pilot "WeWinc" placed second in the 1000 cu. in. event (159.07 mph ), second in the 800 cu. in. (161.73 mph) and sneaked in fourth in an additional 1000 cu. in. race (150.75 mph). Speeds for the winners of these events were 162.62 and 162.43 mph, indicating that Errett was always in contention. "WeWinc" was entered in the Thompson Trophy Race but was forced out by engine trouble on the eighth lap.

"Miss New Orleans" was back at the Nationals in 1933, with no changes except the pilot and a slight change in paint design. Jimmy Hazilip had retired from the race game, so Lee Gehlbach, who flew the "Gee Bee" R-2 in the '32 races and the Commadaire "Little Rocket" to victory in the 1930 Cirrus Derby, took over the controls of No. 92. During the Bendix, Lee was running short of fuel. He was east of Indianapolis but felt he could make it. Then with the airport in sight, the Pratt-Whitney quit and Lee started a glide to the field. Glide angle is not very good on racing aircraft and Lee ended up one mile short, in a corn field. Damage was slight and with minor repairs and fuel, the race was continued on to Los Angeles, but not in time to place. Later Gehlbach flew the ship to second place in the Thompson 224.95 mph), second in the 1000 cu. in. race at 192.93 mph) and slipped to third in the Shell Dash (251.93). Mae Hazilip again tried her luck and skill in the woman's race. This time she won with a speed of 168.22 mph.

Two new Wedell- Williams race pilots appeared in 1934. Walter Williams Jimmy's brother) and John Worthen (an associate of the Wedell-Williams Air Service, Inc.) divided their pilot time between No. 92 and No. 45. Walter really hated racing but after the death of Jim, figured he should attempt to take over where Jim had left off. He had idolized Jim and his racing. After Jim's death, Walter became more and more against flying but continued in the manner he felt Jim would have wanted. Walter flew No. 92 to second place in the 1000 cu. in. event, (219.50 mph). Walter placed third in the Thompson (208.38) and fourth in the Shell Dash `248.91 mph) with the same racer. 

Old No. 92 did not appear in the 1935 or '36 National Air Races. In 1936 this ship was bought by Jack Wright of Utica, New York. Wright made no changes on the racer except to paint the name "Utican" on the cowl. He picked Art Davis as the pilot for the ship and entered it in the 1937 National Air Races. Unfortunately, Davis nosed the racer over on the way to the starting point of the Bendix and was unable to get the ship repaired in time for the balance of the '37 races. 

During 1938 the New York State Aviation School reconditioned the ship for the races. The paint job was all white and a new constant-speed propeller was fitted to the nose. A new cockpit and windshield also changed the looks of old No. 92. But trouble again hit and the "Utican" and Lee Gehlbach, who once again sat in the cockpit, was forced out of the Bendix.

The gallant old racer that had participated in the Nationals since 1930 was bought by Woody Edmondson ~famous Monocoupe stunt pilot) but the coming of World War II stopped any modifications planned for the racer and during these war years she became the victim of salvage and supplied tubing and parts to keep other aircraft flying.

Roscoe Turner's "Gilmore Special" was the third Model 44 present at the 1932 races. This was NR61Y the second built for Turner after his first NR54Y crashed during tests. Painted a beautiful bronze gold and trimmed in red with the Gilmore Lion and race number 121 displayed on the side of the fuselage, the racer presented a picture of speed for its Gilmore Oil Company sponsor. Colonel Turner placed third in the Bendix (226 mph), Thompson 233 mph) and Shell Dash (266.67 mph) each time following No. 44 across the finish line. Later the same year Turner lost his sponsor but being quite a promoter he acquired movie stars Miriam Hopkins, Bebe Daniels, Constance Bennett, and Carol Lombard as backers.

Not happy with third spots, Turner showed up at the 1933 Nationals with a new Wasp Sr. engine in his racer. As mentioned, the Gilmore people no longer sponsored the ship, but the Gilmore paint job still decorated the wings while the fuselage had a new paint job and on the side in bold letters was painted "20th Century Pictures-The Bowery". A new race number 2, replaced 121 and the engine cowl for the Wasp Sr. was burnished metal. The 1933 races netted Turner some firsts but also threw him a curve when he was disqualified from winning the Thompson for cutting a pylon. He did circle the pylon, but not on the same lap as the rules called for. He had led the Thompson with a speed of 241.03 mph but when disqualified the first spot went to Jimmy Wedell with a speed of 237.05 mph. Roscoe, however, did pick up a first in the Bendix (214.78 mph) and a first in the Shell Dashes at 280.25 mph.

During the years 1932 and 1933, Turner set many inter-city and coast to coast records selling aviation and giving his sponsors a real show for their money. Late in 1933, Chicago played host to the International Air Races and Roscoe again settled for second behind Wedell. Jim had exchanged his Wasp Jr. for a Wasp Sr. and outran Turner by 15 miles an hour. Turner's speed for the Shell Dash was 289.9 mph and Jim's 305.33 mph. The only change Roscoe had made in his ship was the removing of the "20th Century Pictures" and replacing it with "Ring Free Special". The racer was entered in the International Races with race number 17, but it is doubtful if that number was ever painted on it.

After the trimming he had taken from No. 44, Turner removed the Wasp Sr. 1344 cu. in. engine and replaced it with a 1690 cu. in. 1000 hp Hornet engine. A smooth cowl was used at first but later, because of the large frontal area, changed to a tighter fitting smaller cowl with fairing bumps for the rocker arms. The racer sported a new race number 57 for Roscoe's latest sponsor, the H. J. Heinz Company and their 57 varieties of canned foods. Turner won the Thompson Trophy Race with a speed of 248.13 mph. Davis had been leading at the time of his crash with a speed of 253 mph. Turner followed Davis in the Shell Speed Dash with speeds of 306.215 mph and 295.47 mph for the first and second places.

Roscoe made a few minor changes on the racer before the 1935 National Air Races. He had gone to the largest possible engine, so could do nothing more in that line. He was no longer sponsored by the Heinz Co. Number 57 was no longer in a red disc (Heinz Trade Mark), but merely painted as a normal race number: In the Bendix of 1935 Turner was beaten out by Benny Howard and his "Mr. Mulligan". The time difference being a mere 23.5 seconds.

Roscoe was in the lead during the race and going away when his engine faltered and smoke filled the cockpit; a trail of thick black smoke belched from under the cowl and streamed behind the gold racer. Roscoe limbed for altitude, the item he would need for a bailout or to pick a piece of real estate to set the hot little racer on. He could only hope it wasn't on fire and that it might not blow at any minute. He did get enough altitude to nurse the racer over the airport fence, but only by inches. Immediately after crossing the fence she fell out from under him and bounced in for a very hard landing, but his aircraft was saved. Once again fate had dealt him a losing hand in the Thompson race. Investigation revealed that the engine had thrown a supercharger blade causing loss of oil and an engine seizure.

It was hard luck again in 1936 as Roscoe encountered engine stoppage while over very rough terrain in New Mexico. He was enroute to New York, the starting point of the Bendix when the engine faltered. With no desirable place to land, Roscoe picked the smoothest of the undesirable. Hitting down very hard and in deep ruts, the ship now wearing race No. 67, dug its landing gear into the earth, the prop and engine hit the ground and the fuselage broke in two just aft of the cockpit. Roscoe was unhurt but the plane was beyond quick repair and Turner was forced to observe the National Air Races as a spectator. He shipped the racer to Matty Laird in Chicago for rebuilding and it came out looking no different than old No. 57, except the fuselage was shortened a few inches. Roscoe had picked up a new sponsor and the ship was now known as "Ring Free Comet". A bright comet and race No. 25 was added to the sides of the gold fuselage. Other than these, the racer appeared unchanged. Joe Mackey was now the pilot as Roscoe had moved into his new Turner Laird Brown Racer. Mackey didn't have much better luck than Roscoe had in 1935 and 1936. He was forced out of the Bendix and after qualifying second highest in the Thompson time trials with a speed of 247.03 mph he was forced out on the 17th lap.

In 1938, the "Ring Free Comet" was rolled out of the hangar for the races. It had been stored all year and received nothing more than a rubdown before the races. Joe Mackey again flew the racer. This time he placed fifth in the Thompson with a speed of 249.63 mph.

1939 was a duplication of 1938. Old "Comet" was rolled out for the National Air Races, dusted off and fired up. Mackey pushed No. 25 to sixth spot in~ the Thompson Trophy Race, the only event entered, with a speed of 232.93 mph. This was the racer's seventh season and the ship was getting outclassed. The war years, perhaps, hastened the retirement of No. 25 and it now sits in the Thompson Museum at Cleveland, Ohio.

Jimmy's last design prior to his death was the Model 45, NR62Y. This ship was built in 1933 and tested by Jim in June. Differing from the other Wedell Williams racers, No. 45 had full cantilever wings and a retractable landing gear. Its design was bought by the Army Air Service (design only) and designated the XP-34. Model 45 was powered with the Wasp Sr. out of No. 44 and the two engines were interchangeable. Her paint job was red with a black cowl and gear panels, and as expected, she carried race No. 45 on her fuselage and wings. First unveiled in February, 1934 at the Pan American Air Races, New Orleans, with Jimmy Wedell at the controls, she turned a speed of 264.703 mph. Wedell's untimely death prevented him from getting the bugs worked out of the Model 45. However at the 1934 National Air Races, John Worthen flew the ship to second place in the Bendix race. He averaged 203.13 miles an hour and could have taken first had he not overshot Cleveland and landed at Erie. In the Shell Speed Dashes, Worthen turned 302.36 mph with the Wasp Sr. and 292.14 with the Wasp Jr. After the crash of No. 44, it was decided not to fly back to Patterson with the Wasp Jr. engine and it was shipped back and later donated to Louisiana State University.

Jimmy Wedell had designed and was in the process of building a long distance racer for the MacRobertson Race, London, England, to Melbourne, Australia. This project ended with Wedell's death. A year later, his brother, Walter, died in an-unexplained air crash, also Harry Williams and Red Worthen. So ended the wonderful years of the Wedell-Williams Air Service and its racing airplane.

During the years Wedell-Williams chalked up many victories in smaller races not contained herein. Their records were most impressive. At the Nationals alone, 1931 to 1935, they finished the Thompson with two firsts, three seconds and two thirds; the Bendix with three firsts, three seconds and one third; the Shell Dashes with three firsts, five seconds and two thirds. They did this using less horsepower than their big competitors.

"Gilmore - Red Lion"

In 1932, Roscoe Turner, with the financial backing of the Gilmore Oil Company, commissioned the Wedell Williams Air Service Corporation to construct a racing airplane. The airplane was to be the third in a series of almost identical ships known as the Wedell Williams Model 44s. The first version of Turner's Wedell broke apart in mid-air during a test flight, but the airplane's designer and test pilot, Jimmy Wedell, was able to bail out. The second version was strengthened and delivered to Turner during the summer of 1932.

Roscoe Turner with his Wedell-Williams "Gilmore - Red Lion" racer at the 1932 Cleveland National Air Races. 

Sporting a colourful red and cream paint scheme, Turner flew his Wedell to third place in both the 1932 Bendix and Thompson trophy races. In 1933, Turner purchased the airplane from the Gilmore Oil Company and replaced its 550 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. engine with a more powerful 800 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp Sr. The new engine won him the Bendix trophy in 1933, but he was disqualified from winning the Thompson Trophy Race because he flew inside one of the race pylons. Still not satisfied with the power of his Wedell, Turner once again upgraded his engine to a 1000 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet and went on to win the 1934 Thompson Trophy Race.

In 1935 Turner in the Wedell finished a close second in the Bendix race but mechanical problems forced him out of that year's Thompson Trophy Race. Turner's bad luck continued when he crash landed on his way to the start of the 1937 Bendix race. The Wedell was rebuilt by Matty Laird at his Chicago factory in only ninety days. But by the time it was ready to race again, Turner had already taken delivery of a new more powerful racer, the LTR-14. The job of flying the Wedell in the 1937-39 National Air Races was then given to Joe Mackey, a long time associate of Roscoe Turner. Mackey was never able to finish better than fifth place with the Wedell.

After the 1939 National Air Races, the now obsolete racer was stored in a Cleveland Airport Hanger. In 1947, Frederick Crawford acquired the former champion for the Thompson Products Auto Album and Aviation Museum in exchange for paying off Turner's substantial back storage bills.

The aircraft on display was restored to its appearance at the 1939 National Air Races.


Wedell Williams Model 44


1020 hp Pratt & Whitney 1690 Hornet


Maximum speed 295.47 mph


2492 lb. empty; 3892 lb. gross


Span 26 ft. 2 in.; Length 21 ft. 3 in.