From the Collection of Joe Gertler
Courtesy of his daughter Lucy Leon, 8-15-03
I moved to Buffalo, New York, and got a job at the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. where I spent three months in the engine test room and then enrolled in the company's flying school. After six hours of actual flying instruction spread over a six week period, I received my "ticket," issued by the Federation Aeronautique International, certifying that I could pilot a plane and requesting "the civil, naval and military authorities, including the police" to assist me in case of need. Well, anyone who called himself a pilot after six hours of very primitive training by the few instructors available and went flying around certainly needed plenty of help.
Thanks to one of the officers of the Curtiss Co., Clarence Webster, I was sent to their school at Newport News, Va., for further instruction, and toward the end of 1916 I became one of the school's instructors at $250 a month and $10 an hour flying time. Six students were assigned to me, all fine boys who either wanted to join the Lafayette Escadrille in France or our armed forces.
It was in Newport News that I suffered the only accident in 29 years of flying. I had taken up one of the young mechanics, G. J. (Slim) Eckstrom, for a ride. Before giving him the controls I flew around for awhile, became overconfident in maneuvering near the ground, lost speed and pancaked to a crash. I fractured an ankle but Slim, in the back seat, got away without a scratch. He later became a captain for Pan American.
In the fall of 1917 I went to work for the Army as a civilian flying instructor at Kelly Field, Texas, and later at Call Field, Wichita Falls, Texas.
The "Standard," with a 100 HP Hall-Scott engine, was the type of plane used for preliminary training at Call Field. Several of these planes had caught fire in the air at various fields, killing students and instructor, but the cause of these fires had not been determined.
One day that spring, 1918, I took up an advanced student for a lesson in acrobatics and directed him to take off and fly in a certain direction to 3500 feet altitude. On the way up I was fiddling with my wedding ring; I had just recently married and my hands were not yet accustomed to it. As we reached the required altitude and it was time to raise my hand signaling the execution of a loop, the ring slipped from my finger. The moment I lowered my head inside the cockpit trying to see where it had gone, a strong smell of gasoline hit my nose. Scared to death, I reached for the ignition switch, killed the engine, jerked the controls from the student and put the plane in a vertical dive to clear out the fumes. We landed in a corn field without damage. On inspection, we found that gasoline was spouting out of the air vent in the carburator bowl which, being located at a higher level than the gasoline tank, had to be fed by air pressure in the absence of efficient gasoline pumps. We released the pressure and removed the cover of the carburator bowl. As I had suspected we found that the weights were stuck tight.
Had we made that loop it would have been our last since the speed and consequent air stream was the only thing that prevented the gas fumes from reaching the exhaust stacks. In making a loop with an underpowered and clumsy plane like the "Standard," on reaching the top in upside-down position, the speed is slowed down almost to a stall, especially at the hands of a novice. At this point the fumes would have spread over the exhaust stacks and that would have been the end for us, as had happened a few days before to a fellow instructor and his student and to others at different primary schools. "Standards" were grounded for carburator check-up and soon thereafter, as Curtiss JNs were coming out in large numbers from several factories, they were discarded.
Armistice Day in November put an end to all training activities and by December I was back with the Curtiss Co. in the South American end of the Export Division assigned to head the branches in Argentina and Chile.
In July 1919 we sailed for Buenos Aires, where a few weeks later we were joined by James Honor, a fine fellow and top mechanic. In the same steamer came four JNs, one "Seagull" flying boat, and one "Oriole K-6."
Over the next years our little outfit introduced American aviation to the Argentine.
Our school achieved great success despite the stiff competiton encountered from well-heeled European aeronautical missions already established there with the advantage of official status, and the difficulty I had in winning over the good will of the majority of army officers, most of whom had been trained in France. More civilian students were enrolled and more private planes sold than at all the other schools put together. We were helped in one important deal by pilot-engineer Jimmy Doolittle, loaned to us by the US Army, who came in 1926 and gave a spectacular demonstration with a Curtiss "Hawk." Our final victory came in 1931 when the Director of Aeronautics, Col. Angel Maria Zuloaga, signed a contract acquiring the rights to manufacture Curtiss Wright Cyclone engines at the Cordoba government factory.