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
Tex Rankin and His Legacy – 50 Years Later
By Ron Bartley
Fifty years ago, John G. “Tex” Rankin, one of America’s greatest pilots, died in the crash of a Republic Seabee in Klamath Falls, Oregon. During a career which spanned the period from the end of WWI to the end of WWII, he inspired and trained untold thousands of our nation’s aviators.
Two generations have now grown up since those years in which Tex kRankin brought his Air Circus to the cities and towns of America. Consequently, only a small segment of our population recognizes his name. When the Oregon Aviation Museum recently announced that it planned to rebuild NX315Y, the “Rankin Special” Great Lakes biplane, few recognized tits significance. We hope this brief review of Tex Rankins’s career will implant a seed of appreciation in those who, unfortunately, never had the opportunity to SEE TEX FLY.
In 1910, John G. Rankin left his Texas home at the age of 16, in search of adventure. Discharged from the Army Air Corp in 1919, he traveled to Washington State, where he learned to fly. He was soon instructing and barnstorming in his Curtiss Jenny.
Late in 1922, with a noticeable Texas drawl, Tex moved to Portland Oregon and started the Rankin Flying Service. Several temporary moves were made to local airfields, but by 1927, the Rankin School of Flight was firmly established, with over 250 students.
Tex later wrote a series of booklets that covered all phases of flight. These booklets, known as The Rankin System of Flying Instruction, emphasized Safety above all else, and were used by more than 60 flying schools nationwide.
During the late 1920’s, Tex barnstormed the western states, and brought the Rankin Air Circus to cities and towns throughout the West. Many watched in almost disbelief, as Tex performed amazing stunts in the sky.
In 1927, Tex entered the National Air Derby from New York to Spokane, Washington. Defying superstition in his number “13” Waco, he finished out of the money after engine problems.
Displaying his talent for showmanship, Tex entered the 1928 Air Derby from New York to Los Angeles, again with a large “13” on the side of his OX-5 Waco 10. But in this race, he carried a “jinx-less” black cat as a passenger. During this flight to and from New York, and with the black cat in the front cockpit, Tex sent a wire to Portland from each stop. In the following examples his dry humor is clearly evident.
“Landed Brightfield tonight – Cat likes trip fine. Has good appetite like mine. Cat loved Ohio. Roosevelt Field (NY) – All set for start at daybreak. Cat and I are all pepped up and believe me we intend to step on ‘er. Best. Tex.”
“Was third in Fort Worth. Someone stole my cat in Kansas City last night. Regards. Tex.” (The cat was found later and shipped to Los Angeles, where it was reunited with Tex – and finished fifth.)
Tex also entered the 1929 Air Derby from Portland to Cleveland, Ohio, flying a number “13” Waco Taperwing. Without the black cat, he finished second, and won $1,500. His “luck” was still intact when he and his mechanic were returning to Portland flying a Great Lakes trainer. Over the Cascade Mountains, and above a thick layer of clouds and smoke, the engine quit. Descending on instruments, they pancaked onto a hill covered with small trees, and climbed out unhurt.
Only eleven days before the 1929 race, Tex had flown nonstop, and without refueling, from Canada to Mexico, the first to do so.
At the 1931 Omaha Air Races, both Tex and Dorothey Hester, (who was one of his students-ed) were performing. During an aerobatic demonstration by Speed Holman, he crashed immediately in front of the stands. The crowd was stunned. Tex Rankin immediately took to the air in an impromptu aerobatic display to soothe the crowd.
In 1931, Tex acquired his famous Great lakes biplane, NC315Y, and began specializing in aerobatics, perfecting new maneuvers by trial and error. He once wrote, “Good substantial scares – the kind that make your hair stand up a little, and icy chills go down your spine – are valuable.” In this same year at Charlotte, North Carolina, Tex set an astounding record of 131 consecutive outside loops. During the early 1930’s Tex started the Oregon Air Tours, a tradition perpetuated by the Oregon Antique and Classic Aircraft Club.
Several endurance flights were also made during the early 1930’s, but mechanical problems prevented a new record.
During the mid and late 1920’s, Tex continued his aerobatic exhibitions across the U.S., thrilling audiences while flying his Great Lakes or Ryan Sport Trainer. For anyone who sat in the shade of a wing, and watched Tex roll inverted at low altitude, roar down a gravel runway and pick up a flag with his wing tip, it was indeed an exciting and unforgettable day.
At the 1935 National Air Races in Cleveland, Tex won the trophy for U.S. Aerobatic Champion. In 1936, Tex moved to Southern California, where he flew in movies, and gave flying lessons to many film notables. Perhaps the zenith of Tex Rankin’s career was in 1938, when he won the International Aerobatic Championship in St. Louis, Missouri, competing against the world’s best aerobatic pilots. At the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, Tex performed daily aerobatic routines, which included the square outside loop.
When WWII threatened in 1940, Tex moved to Tulare, California, and established the Rankin Aeronautical Academy, a civilian flight school for the Army Air Corp. During its 54 months of operation, it trained over 10,450 cadets. Graduating cadets were well trained in aerobatics. Twelve became WWII aces.
After the war, Tex became a West Coast Distributor for Ercoupes and Republic Seabees. He still loved aerobatics, and occasionally performed in his Great Lakes NC315Y.
The aviation world was stunned by the death of Rankin in 1947, and couldn’t believe it had happened on a routine business flight. He was survived by his widow, two daughters, and one son. An older son, flying a P-38 in combat, had been declared missing in action. After 20 years in Oregon, Tex considered Oregon his adopted, and permanent home.
How does one describe a man like Tex Rankin? Perhaps Jimmy Doolittle said it best in the Forward of Walt Bohrer’s interesting and entertaining book Black Cats and Outside Loopers, “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. Tex was certainly one of the most skillfull aerobatic pilots who ever lived. He could enthrall spectators with the grace and precision of his maneuvers. The real purpose of his flying was to improve equipment, to develop techniques, to increase safety, and to teach others. It takes great skill and courage to take an airplane, safely, near to its point of failure, but this Tex did repeatedly.”