Henry Tyndall “Dick” Merrill
By, JR Hafer, aviation writer
Henry Tindall Merrill was a famous early 20th century aviator who was born 1 February 1894, in Iuka, Mississippi.
These modern days, it is quite hard to imagine the “Barnstorming” days when flying was in its infancy and those who took to the air was granted celebrity status by the admiring public.
Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Henry Tyndall Merrill also known as “Dick” Merrill became American household names, even world famous pilot by the 1930s.
After WW-I Surplus Airplanes that were used in the war became cheap and were sold for $500. And many bought them without even knowing how to fly them, and learned on their own JN-1 “Jenny” as did Dic Merrill.
Merrill gained a lot of notoriety as a mail pilot who would fly in all sorts of weather and conditions and safely too, for the most part. But he also was most notable for the 1936 Trans-Atlantic so called “Ping Pong” ball flight in Harry Richman’s modified Vultee.
Harry Richman was a millionaire singer, and he caused the crash of the plane on its return journey, because Richman accidentally dumping the fuel and did not complete the first commercial trans Atlantic flight. The flight, by the way was co-piloted by Jack Lambie in a Lockheed Model 10E Electra.
After that Dick Merrill was hired by a company named the “Daily Express” to fly specially commissioned to shuttle back newsreel footage of the May 10, 1937 coronation of King George VI which resulted in a one-shot movie contract with low budget Monogram Pictures for Atlantic Flight 1937.
The financial backer of Dick’s 1937 ‘Daily Express’ coronation flight the first commercial round trip flight across the Atlantic was the crafty Ben “Sell ’em Short” Smith, who had been the target of a congressional investigation of the 1929 stock market crash, a wheeler-dealer promoter whose philosophy was to promote any scheme for financial gain. Although he was guaranteed a profit on the flight on the basis of a Hearst Newspaper contract alone, he cajoled Dick and co-pilot Jack Lambie into autographing hundreds of coronation first day covers postmarked in London and New York, and selling them through the Walgreen’s drug store chain. Smith ultimately made thousands in profits from the flight; Dick saw just $3500 and a few free meals, Lambie only netted $2500 both mostly received from their appearance in a Monogram quickie, Atlantic Flight 1937 made to capitalize on their achievement, a deal also brokered by Smith and broke a verbal promise to give Dick the Lockheed, quickly selling it to the Russian government. In later years, Dick confessed that Ben Smith was probably the only man he’d ever hated.
Dick had begun learning to fly while stationed in France in WWI but returned home to work on the Illinois Central Railroad as a fireman. He began his aviation career in earnest when he bought a 90-horsepower Curtiss JN4 “Jenny” for $500 at a war surplus sale in Columbus, Georgia in 1920. Merrill spent most of the 1920s barnstorming at air shows and eventually became an air mail service pilot.
Merrill became its highest paid pilot in 1930 earning @ ten cents per air mile. He had been with Pitcairan Air before signing on with the floundering Eastern Airlines after it was restructured under the control of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker with Merrill heavily promoted as its star pilot. Unlike some of his peers, Merrill was no hot shot.
He was, so well regarded that many celebrities his friend Walter Winchell and even Merrill’s calm skills were evident during a flight in 1948 when the prop on an EAL Constellation tore through the fuselage at 10,000 feet off the Florida coast and killed a steward instantly. Dick was credited with saving the lives of 69 people on board. Outwardly humble and unassuming,
General Eisenhower years later, during his 1952 presidential campaign, specifically requested to fly with Dick Merrill due to his reputation of being a deliberate, safe and careful pilot with an impeccable record.
Dick thoroughly enjoyed his celebrity status and although a non-smoking tee-to-tal-er, he loved the nightlife, gambling and the ladies of course and he loved to hob-nob with both the famous and infamous.
If he had a vice, it was gambling, he habitually spent his income practically as fast as he earned it. The fact is he was habitually broke and it took the marriage to rein him in to settle his financial irresponsibility. In 1938 Dick married vivacious beauty 22 years his junior, she was an actress named Toby Wing. They were married in Tijuana Mexico over her Mothers objections and the couple “officially” married later that June at the home of Sidney Shannon, who was an early Eastern Airlines supporter and close personal friend in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Dicks Wife left Hollywood and retired from acting in late 1938 after a brief Broadway run in the Cole Porter musical flop, “You Never Know,” that starred Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez.
In 1949 while serving as chief pilot with Eastern Airlines and as Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s good friend, Dick Merrill and Arthur Godfrey made a movie, Filmed, directed and produced by Jerry Fairbanks called “Flying with Arthur Godfrey”. The thrust of the movie was to convince the public that air travel was safe. “After all, if Arthur Godfrey says it’s safe, it surly has gotta be safe” was the attitude of the day; and they set out to prove just that by making the movie.
Arthur Godfrey and Dick Merrill piloted a brand new Lockheed Constellation L-1049 Super Connie from Idlewild Field New York to Miami Frlorida to demonstrate the safety of air travel. Dick had a minor role as the Co-Pilot, of course, while “The Man” Arthur Godfrey spent most of the movie, actually, in his simplified way, explaining the way air planes and instruments fly. It was a very instructive movie. The Arthur M. Godfrey Aviation Foundation, Inc. is still showing the movie today.
Dick and his wife enjoyed 44 years of marriage. The couple settled in Miami with Dick assigned the Eastern Airlines Miami to New York runs with occasional flights to South America. Too old for a commission, Dick signed on as a civilian MTD pilot and flew the China-Burma “Hump” in DC3’s and C-46 Commandos during the war conducting critical supply lights and survey missions. He returned to Eastern Airlines after the war and officially retired from Eastern Airlines on Oct. 3, 1961 after flying a DC8 from New York to Miami, reputedly with the most air miles of any pilot in commercial aviation history, and ranked as the second most senior pilot with the airline.
Dick would go on to clock a record 45,000 hour flight career that spanned some 56 years. Dick flew frequently after his EAL retirement in 1961. Restricted to non-revenue flights by the FAA age limit, Dick and his friend, entertainer and avid pilot Arthur Godfrey (accompanied by co-captains Karl Keller and TWA pilot Fred Austin) flew around the world in an executive Rockwell Jet Aero Commander (N1966J) in June, 1966, clocking 23,524 miles at an average 429 MPH, mostly at 40,000 feet. This flight set 21 speed records. At age 78, he had flown the Concorde SST with its evaluation team. Later in 1976, Dick flew a Lockheed 1011 Tri-Star jumbo jet from Palmdale, CA to Miami in a record 3 hours and 33 minutes.
Dick continued to fly into his 80’s whenever the opportunity arose, accompanying friend Arthur Godfrey on an around the world flight in 1966, set a speed record at age 78, delivering a Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star from California to Miami at an average 710 MPH ground speed, and once flew an SST Concorde. Virtually no civilian pilot in the history of aviation piloted such a vast range of aircraft.
A rare surviving 1936 Vultee V1-A, re-christened ‘The Lady Peace II’ in honor of Dick is on display at the Science Museum of Virginia’s Virginia Aviation Museum at the Richmond, Virginia Airport. This plane was once owned by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s son, Randolph Jr. was a personal friend of Dick’s.
Very few pilots could claim to have flown so many historic aircraft. Beginning with his first $600 WWI-surplus Curtiss OX-5 powered JN-4 “Jenny,”
He continued to accept invitations to fly until age 82.
Henry Tindall “Dick” Merrill aviation pioneer, died on October 31, 1982 in Lake Elsinore, California…
After Dick’s death in October, 1982, Toby spent the remainder of her life actively promoting her Dick Merrill’s rightful place in the annals of aviation history. Henry Tindall “Dick” Merrill is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of fame.
Henry Tyndall “Dick” Merrill
By, JR Hafer, aviation writer