J.G. “Tex” Rankin
“…one of the most skillfull aerobatic pilots who ever lived.”
-- Jimmy Doolittle
Tex Rankin was one of the early visionaries of aviation and aerobatics between the World Wars. He was one of those that set the foundation for all that came after. Whether he was seen during an airshow or exhibition, training pilots, running a chain of flight schools, testing airplanes, or writing the early flying textbooks, Tex had a hand in it all. He was also a character and a showman. He would paint #13 on his Air Derby airplanes and carried a black cat with him!
Famous Lockheed test pilot, airshow pilot, and educator Sammy Mason flew for Tex at one of his schools during WWII. Sammy Mason was one of the mentors of Master CFI and Emergency Maneuver Training guru Rich Stowell. There are many examples like this of famous pilots of today who had some connection to Tex Rankin. Dorothy Hester, one of the first female aerobatic pilots, and who you will hear about in a later issue, was one of his students.
The aviation world was stunned when Tex was killed in 1947 in what was basically a business flight. Would the slumbering aerobatic history of the 50’s (after the Flagler, Colorado airshow disaster) have been different if Tex was on the scene? We can only wonder. At the 1931 Omaha Air Races he went up and did an impromptu aerobatic display to soothe the crowed after Speed Holman crashed and died. He was voted into the IAC Hall of Fame in 1998.
What follows is article by Dave Lammers from the January 1999 issue of Sport Aerobatics.
J.G. “Tex” Rankin
Aerobatics Instructor and Showman, Joins Aerobatics Hall of Fame
By Dave Lammers IAC 424
One of the purposes of the Aerobatics Hall of Fame is to assure a lasting tribute to those who contributed significantly to aerobatics. By doing this, we attempt as best we can to delay the effect that time has on the memories of generations.
Many, if not most, IAC members do not know the name Tex Rankin. However, these same members most likely gained their first aerobatic inspirational moment from someone who was either directly or indirectly influenced by Tex Rankin. In the period between the two World Wars, Tex and his flight schools in Oregon and California trained more than 13,000 pilots in elementary flying and aerobatics. Many of these went on to become leaders in aviation.
Twelve World War II aces, including top scoring Richard Bong, credit their aerobatic training to the Rankin schools. Pioneer Airline Captain Elrey B. Jeppesen, founder of the aviation charting company which bears his name, began his aviation career flying for Tex Rankin at his school near Vancouver, Washington. The majority of the founding pilots for Pacific Air Transport, one of the predecessor companies of United Airlines, were trained in the Rankin system of flying. This program included a heavy dose of aerobatic training. Over sixty-one years ago, Tex wrote in Western Flying, “Above all, a pilot with a working knowledge of aerobatics gains that most important of all things – confidence!” This theme continues today as one of the fundamental ideologies of the IAC.
In his book, Black Cats and Outside Loops, Tex Rankin: Aerobatic Ace, Walt Bohrer wrote, “As a direct result of Tex’s aerobatic experiences, many improvements were made to airplanes; and these improvements undoubtedly saved many lives over the years. Because of his insistence that each Rankin-trained pilot, whether taught by him or one of his instructors, be thoroughly trained in aerobatics, many of these pilots survived situations that, under ordinary circumstances, could have proved fatal.” He and his schools were the first to formally teach recovery from inverted spins.
Tex left the Army Air Corps in 1919 to form his own flight school in Washington State. He was soon instructing and barnstorming in his Curtiss Jenny. He wrote a series of booklets that covered all phases of flight. These were know as The Rankin System of Flying Instruction and became a standard textbook system for flight training in the 20’s.
Rankin barnstormed his Rankin Air Circus throughout the West in the late ‘20’s. He entered numerous air derbies in his Taperwing Waco flying the unlucky number 13. In 1929, he became the first pilot to fly from Canada to Mexico nonstop without refueling.
In 1931, he acquired his famous Great Lakes biplane, NC315Y (now being restored by the Oregon Aviation Museum) and began to specialize in aerobatics. Later that year, at Charlotte, North Carolina, Tex set an astounding record of 131 outside loops in a period of 131 minutes.
During this period, he could be seen in countless airshows flying relatively underpowered aircraft and always promoting aviation and aerobatics. After landing, he would often stand beside his aircraft for hours shaking hands and talking to people interested in aviation.
In 1935, he won the U.S. Aerobatic Championship at the National Air Races in Cleveland. He then moved to southern California – flying for the movies and becoming the flight instructor for the stars.
Arguably, the peak of his career was winning the International Aerobatic Competition held in conjunction with the St. Louis Air Races in 1937. He flew a Ryan S-T low-wing monoplane. Details of that competition are featured in the LASTPAGE column in the April 1997 issue of Sport Aerobatics. Due to the irregularity of world aerobatic competitions during that period of time, Tex held the title of World Champion until his death 10 years later.
Perhaps the best tribute to Rankin was penned by Jimmy Dolittle in the forward to Bohrer’s book. The following quotes the majority of that text:
“I had the good fortune to have Tex Rankin as a personal friend. He was a superb pilot, a fine gentleman, and a loyal American. Those of us who measure our wealth in friendships rather than physical things appreciate the inestimable value of a true friend like Tex.”
“At a time when the potentialities of commercial and military aviation were not as well understood or appreciated as they are today, Tex dedicated himself to increasing those capabilities and presenting them visually to the public interest in the airplane and its use.”
“Tex was certainly one of the most skillful acrobatic pilots who ever lived. He could enthrall spectators with the grace and precision of his maneuvers. Perhaps the best way to describe his rapport with an airplane was to say he “wore it” rather than flew it.”
“While Tex certainly enjoyed the thrill of acrobatic flying and the pleasure of entertaining a crowd, the real purpose of his flying was to improve equipment, to develop techniques, to increase safety, and to teach other. It takes great skill and courage to take an airplane, near to its point of failure, but this Tex did repeatedly. Only in this way, in the early days, could the work of the designers and engineers and the formulas they used be checked under actual operating conditions.”
“When some people achieve excellence and acclaim in a field, they tend to hoard their secrets and their know-how. Tex was generous with his. Prior to World War II Tex had taught over 3,000 students how to take off, how to fly cross-country, how to do aerobatics – and how to do them all safely. During World War II he trained over 10,000 more flyers, including in their lessons combat and survival flying.” – Jimmy Doolittle