The sleek designs, the light construction, the spray of white light from the propeller: the fighter plane captured the hearts and minds of millions of American
boys in the 1930’s and 40’s. Piloting an elegant craft and achieving flight was a dream that was part of the fabric of wartime Americana, and the fearless technicians skilled enough to do so were role models.
The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen
Jimmie Allen was one of the teen pilots on the airwaves in the golden era. The character’s premise is that he worked as a telegraph messenger at a Missouri Airways station when a hijacking (in the show’s debut episode) embroiled him in an ongoing partnership with the veteran pilot Speed Robertson. The two of them would embark on dizzying 15-minute adventures, often of a crime-fighting nature.
The role of Allen was played by John Frank, not a young actor, but a director in his 40’s who felt up to the challenge of the vocal gymnastics required to convincingly sound like a teenager. Robert Fiske played Speed.
The show went out over WDAF from Kansas City, and was the brainchild of two former pilots, Bob Burtt and Bill Moore. That two WWI dog fighters both ended up in media jobs in Kansas City was a considerable coincidence that would prove fortuitous both for radio and for aviation.
Though the show was originally produced in KC, during its long life from 1933 to 1947, it would originate in studios in some of the U.S.’s big show biz towns. The show’s focus on a relatable, youthful character who went out and did the right thing made it irresistible to the intended demographic of young boys.
This, the longest-running airplane show in radio history, Captain Midnight also ascended from the minds of Burtt and Moore, creators of Jimmie Allen. The protagonist was a WWI Army pilot, christened with his irresistible, just-right name after returning from a mission at exactly guess what time.
Midnight was the head of a paramilitary organization called the Secret Squadron, which fought espionage. Once World War II began, the show, aired from 1938-1949, shifted focus to war battles for the Secret Squadron. They faced characters clearly based on real war figures: Admiral Himakito, Baron von Karp. The key villain before and after the war was Ivan Shark.
One of the program’s claims to fame and contributions to popular culture was the decoder ring, which it sent off to listeners in exchange for their Ovaltine labels. It also offered other premiums, a kitschy delight of years now gone by.
Tail-Spin Tommy is interesting and illuminating as a way of studying aviation’s place in Americana. Not only was it a radio show, but it began as a comic strip in 1928, thus demonstrating how Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earheart had caused aviation to enter the popular lexicon. A film version came out in 1934, and the radio show debuted in 1941.
Like the young Jimmy Allen, Tail-spin–Tommy Tomkins–started with stars in his eyes and then worked his way from mechanic to pilot. Like many on-air fly-boys, he soared with a crew, in this case his girlfriend Betty Lou and his pal Skeets Milligan.
When it came to bringing the exploits of fighter pilots to the airwaves, Burtt and Moore weren’t half-hearted. Hop Harrigan was the third flight-oriented program the partners brought into being. In this case, the two didn’t invent the character. Rather, HH was the protagonist of a comic book series, and B & M thought if the public liked Tail-Spin Tommy on the air, why not adapt another comic book pilot?
This program aired from 1942-1948 and took listeners into WWII theatres in Germany and Japan. Harrigan, America’s Ace of the Airways, had as big a retinue of sidekicks as any of the other radio barnstormers. His girlfriend was Gail Nolan, and his flying partners was Tank Tinker.
The title role was played by Chet Stratton, a stage and screen actor in addition to being a radio star.
Terry and the Pirates was yet another radio program based on a comic strip. Its protagonist, Terry Lee, a precocious whipper-snapper from “The Orient,” whose circle of acquaintances was wide enough to accommodate Connie the coolie, Burma and Elita, Pat Ryan, Flip Corkin, and Hotshot Charlie, freelance Nazi fighters. Not surprisingly, zest for the show began to recede after the war, and it ended an impressive eleven-year run in 1948.
Before Michael Jordan and Paris Hilton, Captain Frank Hawks understood how to turn success in one area into an all-encompassing brand and money-making machine. He was a WWI dog fighter turned celebrity pilot turned man of many endorsements and author. He was also a radio host. This program, including an organ of Capt. Hawk’s fan club of the same name, involved many radio premiums like belt buckles and brass rings.
Other Aviation Programs
Other flights of fancy to be heard over the airwaves included The Flying Family, Anne of the Airlines, Phantom Pilot Patrol, Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police, Howie Wing, and Smilin’ Jack. See also: Airplanes and Pilots in Old Time Radio