Two pilots kept the City of Yuma airplane aloft for a world-record 46 days in 1949 to help reopen a local military airfield.
Adventurous couples may blushingly admit to joining the “Mile High Club,” but during a six-week stretch in 1949, two Arizona pilots and their wives routinely performed an arguably more risqué romantic feat in full view of onlookers. Flying their single-engine plane a few yards above the 5,000-foot-long runway at the Yuma airport, Woody Jongeward and Bob Woodhouse mastered the trick of pulling alongside a 1948 Buick convertible floored to 80 miles an hour. Whichever aviator was off-duty at the time would then dangle from the plane to kiss his wife, who was standing atop a platform in the speeding vehicle.
Their brief amorous displays signaled the end of another successful resupply of the airplane known as the City of Yuma. The plane was attempting to break the aeronautic endurance record, or the time an airplane is in flight without landing, and demonstrate to the military brass in D.C. what any Arizonan knows: Yuma has eternally sunny skies perfect for flying.
At the outbreak of World War II, Yuma was an oasis along U.S. Highway 80, noted for its agricultural bounty, with a population of 5,000. The Yuma Army Airfield, which trained pilots in AT-6 Texans and B-26 Marauders, opened in 1943, bringing a huge economic boost to the city. Cash from government construction contracts and cadet paychecks soon became sweeter to Yuma businesses than the local cantaloupe crops.
After World War II ended in 1945, however, the city took an enormous economic hit. Examining its air warfare needs, the U.S. Army closed its large airfield in Yuma, sending the city into a recession. Endeavoring to get the air base reactivated, distraught local businessmen started brainstorming ways to make the feds reconsider their decision – but they knew it would take more than a sun-tanned delegation in D.C. armed with weather records.
Ray Smucker, the manager of Yuma’s KYUM radio station, heard about a California aviation team that was attempting to break the 30-day aerial endurance record set by Wes Carroll and Clyde Schlieper of Long Beach, California, in 1939. He thought a similar feat by local pilots would spotlight Yuma’s unmatched 365-day-a-year flying weather.
The Yuma Jaycees, a civic organization for young men, sponsored the venture and borrowed a single-engine, four-seat Aeronca Sedan AC-15 airplane that was christened the City of Yuma. More than 600 volunteers contributed to the project, including mechanic Hal Burch, who added extra fuel tanks to the plane and reconfigured the engine to allow in-flight additions of gas and oil. Three seats were removed from the 8-foot-long by 4-foot-wide cabin to create space for supplies and sleeping. Community donations included fuel, oil, food, a Buick convertible and a new paint job for the plane that read, “The City with a Future Yuma.”
With high hopes, Jongeward and Woodhouse took off from the former Yuma Army Airfield on April 21, 1949. The Yuma residents and former Navy pilots had a love of flying and had eagerly volunteered for the aerial marathon. The pilots traded four-hour flying shifts and returned to the airport twice each day for supplies. Guardrails added to the convertible helped the dangerous ground-to-air resupply, in which provisions were handed to the off-duty pilot, hanging from the cabin. Most cumbersome was the fuel, which was transferred in 2.5-gallon steel milk cans, requiring an average of 24 runway handoffs a day. Officials also checked the chalk marks on the wheels, which would burn off if the plane had landed. The plane would typically fly at around 8,000 feet where the temperatures were 25 degrees cooler, and cruised as far as Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson and southern California.
An overheated engine forced the plane to land after three days.
By the time the airplane returned to the skies a few weeks later, the pilots had a new record to break. A team out of California had just flown their plane, the Sunkist Lady, for 42 days, or 1,008 straight hours. The new goal was 1,010 straight hours, and “Ten-Ten” became the mission’s slogan.
The second try ended after six days, again due to mechanical problems. Undeterred, the team prepared for a third attempt following a major engine overhaul.
The City of Yuma departed on August 24. The airplane performed better than the new Buick, which needed its engine replaced to make the resupply runs. “We used to draw thousands of people out there, at least, in the evening refueling runs, because they were sure somebody was going to get killed, and they wanted to be there and see,” Chuck Mabery, a ground crewman, told Arizona PBS in 2009.
The pilots’ scariest moment occurred one night when Jongeward fell asleep at the controls and had no idea how long he had been dozing or what their location was. They finally determined they had drifted deep into Mexico but made it back to the airfield in time to refuel.
As the pilots neared the record, the press interviewed them daily via two-way radio. One popular question involved their bathroom routine. These were the days before plastic bags, so the pilots lined a pot with insulated bags made of asphalt. “I would always joke that we’d fly over California and throw it out,” Jongeward told Arizona PBS.
Finally, on the night of October 5, 1949, Yuma went dark for one minute. Then the city lit up, accompanied by a cacophony of sounds to celebrate the pilots overhead, who had just broken the endurance record. But they just kept on flying. “We feel fine, now that the tension is off,” Woodhouse said to the Arizona Republic. “Making the record gave us a new lease on life – like a second wind.”
After a few more days of flying, the plane developed engine problems. In-flight repairs would require cutting off power, which was deemed too risky. So the City of Yuma, escorted by eight Navy F6F Hellcat fighters, finally landed in front of 15,000 fans on October 10. The plane had traveled more than 80,000 miles, and made 1,500 resupply runs. “It was a venture of love; so many people contributed to the process,” Greg Gardner, a Jaycee member, says.
“The whole world heard about Yuma, Arizona,” Smucker, the event’s coordinator, boasted in the book, The Longest Flight: Yuma’s Quest for the Future by Shirley Woodhouse Murdock and James A. Gillaspie. The amazing feat put Yuma on the national radar, and the military reactivated the airfield two years later in 1951. Today, it’s a joint-use facility known as the Marine Corps Air Station-Yuma and the Yuma International Airport. The City of Yuma airplane is on display in City Hall.
Despite achieving the endurance record, the event did have its limits. “LIFE magazine sought a photo showing an 80-mile-an-hour kiss along the runway,” Shirley Woodhouse Murdock, the sister of Bob Woodhouse, recalls. “But they wanted the wives dressed in shorts bent over kissing their husbands. The ladies politely declined.”
Early Yuma Aviation Milestones
• 1911 – Robert Fowler takes off in his Cole Flyer from Mecca, California, and lands in a Yuma ballpark, piloting the first airplane to fly into Arizona.
• 1929 – Amelia Earhart damages her propeller while landing a Lockheed Vega airplane in Yuma during the first women’s Air Derby Race from Santa Monica to Cleveland.
• 1941 – Volunteers staff an aerial observation post located on the water tower at Prison Hill in Yuma, searching for enemy aircraft flying north from Mexico during World War II.
• 1942 – Planes based in Yuma are flown east to nearby Wellton as the result of the military banning civilian aircraft from flying within 150 miles of the Pacific Coast.