THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
For many, the modern day long haul flight between the UK and US doesn't quite capture the romance and intrigue that was associated with the early pioneers of the Transatlantic route. Treated like celebrities, the pilots who made the first Atlantic crossings were the heroes of their time. Some, like Charles Lindbergh, take their place at the forefront of the history of aviation. Others, however, seem to have been relatively lost by the mists of time. One such man is Henry Tindall 'Dick' Merrill.
Born in February 1894, in Iuka, Mississippi, Dick Merrill's aviation career would go on to see him fly the first round-trip Transatlantic flight by airplane, the first commercial Transatlantic flight round trip by plane, become Eisenhower's personal pilot during the 1952 Presidential Election, and even a star of on the big screen. But despite these accomplishments, and the extraordinary stories that accompany them, Merrill's name is one that you'd be forgiven for not recognizing.
Merrill learnt to fly in the 1920s, and in 1928 joined Pitcairn Aviation Inc. - the precursor to Eastern Air Lines - as an airmail clerk. It's said that, around the early 1930s, he earnt an unprecedented $13,000 per annum (10 cents per air mile), which made him one of the best paid mail pilots of the time. With his goals set toward making aviation history, it was a meeting with entertainer Harry Richman (of Puttin' on the Ritz fame) which set him on the path to the inaugural Transatlantic round-trip. Atlantic travel was by no means uncharted territory at the time - in 1919, the Airship R34 had already made a Transatlantic round-trip - but the journey had never been completed by plane. The story goes that when Richman and Merrill met, Richman - himself a keen aviator - told Merrill about his newly acquired plane, a Vultee V-1A. Merrill reportedly responded by suggesting they "take the plane to Europe... then we'll gas her up and fly her back. It's never been done."
After modifying the Vultee, the pair - Merrill piloting and Richman at co-pilot - set off from Floyd Bennett Field in New York on September 2, 1936. Their journey was by no means straightforward. Aiming for London, they first had to put down in Wales due to bad weather. They set off once more and landed in London the following day, before beginning their return flight from Southport, England on September 14. Their return leg wasn't any less eventful, as a Time magazine article from September 1936 attested:
"God, it was awful!" exploded Flyer Merrill to a reporter who found him not speaking to Flyer Richman as they labored to pull their monoplane out of a Newfoundland bog. "We had enough gas to get to Atlanta. Why did we land here in the marsh? Ask Mr. Richman! He's the master mind here...."
Explaining that he had dumped 500 gallons of gasoline during the flight, Flyer Richman snapped: "Five hundred miles off Newfoundland we met a gale head wind which nearly forced the plane into the sea. I believe we would have crashed and drowned had the gas not been dumped."
Sneered Flyer Merrill: "I admit that the situation . . . was such as to scare an inexperienced flyer. . . . Safety required lower altitude, at which I immediately aimed. To my consternation Richman emptied a tank against my protest and wanted to send an S. O. S."
After repairs, they finally arrived back at Floyd Bennett Field on September 21. Despite the dramatic journey, the most memorable part of the experience gave the flight its long-held name: the 'Ping Pong' flight. Richman had reportedly filled the wings of the Vultee with Ping Pong balls to aid buoyancy in case the plane was forced to land on water whilst crossing the Atlantic. On his return to the States, Richman apparently signed the Ping Pong balls and sold them. Air Space Magazine ran an interesting article in February 2019 accounting for at least 2 of the balls, and asking where the other 40,998 might be!
Merrill's adventures didn't end in 1936. Less than a year later, he was asked to fly from New York to London again by newspaper publisher Hearst, in a trip which would later be dubbed the "Anglo-American Goodwill Coronation Flight". Setting off in a Lockheed Model 10E Electra nicknamed Daily Express on May 8, 1937, Merrill was joined by his 27 year old co-pilot, Jack Lambie. The US to UK leg of the journey brought photographs of the Hindenburg disaster to the UK, which were rushed away for publication in Hearst's UK papers. The trip was perfectly timed for the duo to then bring photographs from the Coronation of King George VI on May 12 back to the US for Hearst's papers on the other side of the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, the journey at the time "set a record for the fastest picture delivery by a photo syndicate in newspaper history."
When they returned to the States, they met President Roosevelt at the White House on May 15. A caption for the photograph (top of article), from the Library of Congress, describes the meeting: "Transatlantic flyers describe trip to President Roosevelt. Washington, D.C., May 15. Dick Merrill (left) and Jack Lambie as they arrived at the White House today to present President Roosevelt with a "first cover" of their coronation flight for the President's stamp collection. The airmail envelope was dated New York city May 8, stamped in London and again stamped in New York on their return yesterday. According to flyers the President seemed much interested in the weather they encountered and the altitude at which they made the flight."
Merrill's extraordinary Transatlantic feats are only added to by the many other stories of his life. During World War Two, Merrill flew as a civilian pilot transporting supplies over the Himalayas to troops in China. In the 1950s, he flew then Presidential candidate Dwight D Eisenhower ahead of the '52 election. According to HistoryNet, "Dick took special pride in being able to ease Mamie Eisenhower’s fear of flying, as he had calmed so many others ... After Eisenhower won, the Merrills attended the inaugural dinner." In 1966, he flew a corporate jet around the world with broadcaster Arthur Godfrey, setting 21 world speed records in the process.
These are just a few of the stories that made up his life. Merrill passed away on Octber 31, 1982, at the age of 88. Although he may not have the fame of Lindbergh or other aviators such as Amelia Earhart, his Transatlantic feats earn him an important, and interesting, place in the history of US-UK travel.