There’s no excuse for an airplane, unless it will fly fast!

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a...lion? Roscoe Turner was the most famous air racer of the 1930s. While his winning record and larger-than-life persona was enough to cement him in aviation history, Turner’s air racing career included flying with a peculiar co-pilot who was a little furrier than average: a lion cub.

Roscoe Turner standing next to the Laird Turner LTR-14 "Pesco Special." Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Flamboyant and charismatic, Roscoe Turner’s fame as a “speed king” transcended aviation into popular culture in the 1930s. During his racing career, he won the illustrious Thompson Trophy race in 1934, 1938, and 1939.

Following his first Thompson Trophy victory in 1934, famed racing pilot Roscoe Turner contracted with the Lawrence W. Brown Aircraft Company to build a new racing aircraft. Designed by Turner and engineered by University of Minnesota professor Howard Barlow, the Turner racer was completed in mid-1936. Following flight tests, Matty Laird extensively redesigned the aircraft and added a larger wing and flaps. Known as the Laird Turner LTR-14 and later the Turner RT-14, the modified racer placed third in the 1937 Thompson Trophy event at the National Air Races and won the 1938 and 1939 contests. With this aircraft, Turner became the only three-time winner of the Thompson Trophy. In 1939 the aircraft was sponsored by Champion Spark Plugs and therefore carried the name "Miss Champion" on its fuselage. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Sponsored by Thompson Products of Cleveland, the Thompson Trophy race was part of the National Air Races. The race was a closed-circuit, pylon-marked contest in which pilots in their purpose-built racers flew at high speed and low altitude, all in view of the spectator grandstands.

The Thompson Trophy donated by the estate of Roscoe Turner. The heyday for the Thompson Trophy was from 1929 to 1939, but it persisted after World War II until 1961. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.  

Roscoe also won the Bendix in 1933—a transcontinental air race that began in 1931 to encourage the development of practical, high-speed, long-range aircraft. Like the Thompson trophy, the Bendix trophy had a corporate sponsor: the Bendix Corporation. The race inaugurated the week-long activities of the National Air Races and typically flew between Burbank, California and Cleveland, Ohio.

Along with his Thompson and Bendix Trophy wins, Roscoe Turner (left) and Clyde Pangborn (right) finished third in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race in their Boeing 247-D airliner-turned-racer. The race covered 11,300 miles (18,186 kilometers) from England to Australia.

Ever the showman, Turner designed his own flying uniform and personal insignia to increase the appeal and image of aviation. Enthusiastic children could send in special “57” trademarks from H.J. Heinz Company products to join Turner’s club—Col. Roscoe Turner’s Famous Flying Corps. In return, they would receive a brass pin featuring wings embossed with “Col. Roscoe Turner’s Flying Corps 57.”

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Roscoe Turner’s custom flying uniform and trademark white helmet. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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A close up of Roscoe Turner’s personal bullion pilot’s wings patch on his uniform. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Roscoe Turner’s custom civilian pilot’s wings featured his personal “RT” insignia and were designed and worn by Turner himself. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

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Lapel pin given to children who joined Roscoe Turner’s Flying Corps. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

So where does the lion come in? In early 1930, Turner received a major sponsorship from the Gilmore Oil Company, which was well known for its Red Lion gasoline brand. In true Turner fashion—he sought a colorful way to promote the company’s products—and the concept of Gilmore the Flying Lion was born. Turner purchased the male lion cub, who was born on February 7, 1930, from the Louis Goebel Lion Farm in Agoura, California.

Gilmore in ca. 1930, possibly at the National Air Races. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Turner and Gilmore began flying together in April 1930, mostly in the pilot’s Lockheed Air Express. In response to complaints from animal rights groups, Turner had a static line parachute and harness made for the cub. Gilmore and Turner broke speed records flying from Los Angeles to New York and from Vancouver in Canada to Agua Caliente, Baja California, in Mexico. On the ground, Gilmore became something of an ambassador for aviation, accompanying Turner to public air shows, movie premiers, restaurants, hotels, and even golf courses.  

Col. Roscoe Turner (left) poses with Gilmore and his mechanic, Don Young, behind (or in the case of Gilmore, on top of) the wheel cover of Lockheed Air Express. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

However, there is a logistical problem (among many others) with having a lion for a co-pilot: at a certain point they are going to get big. Really big. Gilmore and Turner flew together for only nine months before the courageous cub grew too big. Despite his short career, Gilmore logged over 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) in the air.  

Unfortunately, after Gilmore retired as Turner’s co-pilot, he spent the remainder of the decade in a small cage displayed first at the Burbank, California airport and later at a Gilmore gasoline station in Beverly Hills. Gilmore also continued to make periodic publicity appearances with Turner, but this time only from the ground.

A taxidermied Gilmore after being restored in 2021. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

In 1940, Gilmore returned to Goebel’s farm and lived there until he died in December 1950. Turner had the lion’s remains sent to a taxidermist and then brought to his home in Indianapolis. From there, Gilmore spent a brief stint at the Turner Museum after Roscoe Turner’s death and before the museum closed in 1972. He now resides in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection, along with other Roscoe Turner memorabilia.

Read about the conservation of Gilmore the Flying Lion, detailing discoveries made during our initial examination into this unique object’s construction, previous repairs, and his current condition:

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