Russell T. Gerow, 1928
Russell T. Gerow

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Your copy of the "Davis-Monthan Airfield Register" with all the pilots' signatures and helpful cross-references to pilots and their aircraft is available at the link. Or use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author. ISBN 978-0-9843074-0-1.

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"Military Aircraft of the Davis Monthan Register, 1925-1936" is available at the link. This book describes and illustrates with black & white photographs the majority of military aircraft that landed at the Davis-Monthan Airfield between 1925 and 1936. The book includes biographies of some of the pilots who flew the aircraft to Tucson as well as extensive listings of all the pilots and airplanes. Use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author. ISBN 978-0-9843074-2-5.

 

 
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RUSSELL T. GEROW

PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION

Image Grouping ID: Russell T. Gerow

Russell T. Gerow, 1933
Russell T. Gerow, 1933

Most of the text complementing this section was written by Russell T. Gerow's son, Mike, who also shares these images with us. He wishes to dedicate this section of the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register web site to the memory of his father on behalf of his brother, Stephen Bradley Gerow, and sister, Ann Worthen Gerow. I'm extremely happy to do this.

At right, Russell T. Gerow sitting on a Ford sometime during 1933. Details in the original photograph show interesting dark-rimmed sun glasses with round lenses, and a gold link watch band. The license plate is from California, 1933.

Although he never signed the D-M Airfield Register, it is possible that Russell T. Gerow--pilot, aerial photographer and aviation mechanic--passed through Tucson at some point during an aviation career that very nearly paralleled the 1925 - 1936 dates of the Airfield Register itself. 

He worked for Continental Air Map, Inc. The next two images show him in that capacity, "on the job".

 

Russ Gerow manning photographer's station of the company's Douglas M-4, Long Beach, CA ca. 1930-33. He constructed a middle cockpit which included an airborne dark room for developing film literally on the fly
R.T. Gerow Aerial Photographer

During his peak years in the field, primarily at Long Beach, California, Gerow amassed a collection of several hundred images, a portion of which featured personalities, aircraft and locations directly related to the Davis-Monthan story. Some of these images are presented in this online Collection.

Continental Air Map Co. crew
Left to right: Joe Mountain, pilot; Russ Gerow, photographer/mechanic; Dick Kerr, navigator. Picture taken at Long Beach, ca.1930-33
Continental Principals

Around this time, Continental Air Map secured a contract with Standard Oil of Calif (Socal) to conduct geological exploration of the Arabian peninsula by air. The old Long Beach team of Kerr, Mountain and Gerow flew together again from September 1934 to mid-1935 in the company's single-engine Fairchild 71 (NC13902). They were among the first two dozen westerners ever to set foot in al-Hasa, as eastern Arabia was then called, and they were the first to map its 320,000 square miles from the air. Their efforts directly led to the discovery of the vast Arabian oil fields that changed the face, and pace, of the world as we know it.

Berryloid Handbook, 1929, Front Cover
Berryloid Handbook, 1929, Front Cover

 

From this period, Mike presents this artifact of his father's work. It is a handbook from the Berry Brothers Company. An image of the cover is at left. Berry Brothers manufactured and sold a wide range of aircraft finishes under the trade name Berryloid. The book presents shop methods for finishing fabric-covered aircraft and its metal structures.

Mike says about the handbook, "It is an original copy of the Fourth Edition Berry Brothers 'Specification for Aircraft Finishing,' dated June 1929." Coincidentally, company president Thomas Berry Colby was a Register pilot. Please direct your browser to his page to view some color samples of Berry Brothers products.

Although a little yellowed and water stained, the book is in excellent shape. It even preserves, on page 25, an intact, perforated tear-off questionnaire.

Berryloid Handbook, 1929, Page 19
Berryloid Handbook, 1929, Page 19

 

 

Mike further points out, "... some marginal notations and paragraph highlighting that were inscribed by my Dad, no doubt during his employment with Continental Air Map Company at Long Beach Airport. Almost certainly this little booklet accompanied [him] on the 1934 Arabian aerial survey ...." The notations can be seen in red and blue pencil on page 19 of the handbook, shown at right. Many other pages are similarly highlighted, indicating a close study of the methods.

The entire document can be downloaded from the link (PDF 10Mb, 25 pages). It is worthwhile to point out, as strange as it might seem, that the techniques for finishing fabric covered aircraft have changed little in the past 80 years.

Image below shows Russ Gerow in his photographer role in the back of a Fairchild F-71 modified for aerial photography. Note camera mounted to shoot vertically through floor bottom and telegraph key halfway up door frame at right edge. This image was taken in eastern Saudi Arabia, winter 1934-35. Please direct your browser to this link to see some of the earlier aerial images he took.

 
R.T. Gerow in Fairchild 71, date unk.

 

Continental Air Map crew in Saudi Arabia, winter 1934-35. Left to right, Joe Mountain, pilot; Dick Kerr, navigator; Russ Gerow, photographer/mechanic
F-71 Crew

Image, left, taken in eastern Saudi Arabia, winter 1934-35. Note massive balloon sand tires and six-pane sash window enclosing photographer's station shown in photo above.

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Russell Templeton Gerow was born November 13, 1897 in Hanford, King's County, CA, the son of Canadian-born Ichabod Bowerman Gerow and Sarah Edith Bradley. Gerow's maternal kin, the Bradleys and Allens, were frontiersmen and wagon train pioneers from Kentucky and Missouri who had scaled the Sierra cliffs just two weeks ahead of the snows that trapped the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. Ick, as Russ's father was called, was a master carpenter and rancher who bounced around California's Central Valley chasing work in the early 1900s. Russ's formal education ended after the 10th grade, when he entered the work force to boost the family income. His first job at age 13 was apprentice auto mechanic at the Studebaker garage in Dinuba, CA.

He learned to fly in he mid-1920s, before licensing of pilots was manadatory. In the mid-1930s he acquired a legal license. Below, his permit to "learn" to fly. The paperwork was just a formality at this time. Mike Gerow says about this document, "My dad took instruction from [Milo] Burcham at Long Beach using this document, which was issued Jan’y 26, 1932. When [he] learned to fly in the mid-1920s, pilot’s licenses were not yet required. This had obviously changed by the time of his employment with CAM Co. at LGB [Long Beach] c. 1928-32. It is possible that he desired or needed to get his license for job reasons, but we’ll never know."

R.T. Gerow Student Pilot Permit, January 26, 1932 (Source: Gerow)
R.T. Gerow Student Pilot Permit, January 26, 1932 (Source: Gerow)

Further, "The medical examiner was Dr. Francis C. Hertzog, who unfortunately was not a D-M register signatory, either as pilot or passenger. I did, however, find an obit for the good doctor’s son, junior, who passed away this past February [2011]. Interestingly, Dr. Hertzog, Jr. was a commercial pilot, member of the Long Beach Airport Commission and a second-generation FAA medical examiner.  I just include this out of passing interest, since Dr. Hertzog, Sr. was the medical examiner for the Long Beach area during at least a part of the D-M era.... Unfolded, the permit measures exactly 4” x 6” and is blank on the reverse."

Gerow's early mechanical aptitude led to another of his specialties as an aviation mechanic. Below are the leather cover and the interior of his certificate. This license expired in 1938 and the certificate is voided. Contemporary mechanic licenses (Airframe & Powerplant certificates) are good for life (or until revoked).

 
Mechanic License
R.T. Gerow Mechanic's License, 1928
Mechanic License

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22-year-old Corporal R.T. Gerow, 397th Motor Transport Company out of Camp Marfa, Texas, supporting 15th Cavalry on the Mexican border, 1920
R.T. Gerow, 1920

In 1918, he enlisted in the Army and was posted as a truck mechanic with the 397th Motor Transport Company at Camp Joseph E. Johnston in Jacksonville, Florida. Before they could ship to France, the war ended and his unit was instead sent in 1919 to Camp Marfa, Texas, to support the 15th Cavalry along the Mexican border. Gerow attained the rank of corporal in command of a five-man White lorry. 

By the mid-1920s, his family had relocated to Taft, a wild and wooly oil boom town in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Russ bought a Thomas-Morse S4C Scout (80 hp LeRhone rotary), a popular WW1 surplus fighter trainer and, under the tutelage of ex-Army pilot Dave Matthews, soloed it in June 1925.

While in Taft on business, Dick Kerr, ex-Navy pilot, California geologist (U.C. Berkeley) and half owner of L.A.-based Continental Air Map Co., observed Gerow's beautifully restored Tommy flying low up the main drag of town and followed it out to the airfield. After a short discussion, Kerr offered Gerow the job of mechanic at Continental Air Map, then operating a Liberty-powered DH-4B (R-3494) out of Long Beach Airport.

Below, Russ Gerow running up Continental's DH-4B circa 1929. This image typifies the unglamorous daily grind of all the aviation mechanics who kept their charges, both civilian and military, running in tip-top condition. The airplane, 3494, is not in the Register. The EMSCO Aircraft hangar in the background suggests this image was snapped at Downey, CA.

Russ Gerow and DH-4B, ca. 1929
R.T. Gerow and DH-4B

We salute every unknown, unsung "grease monkey" whose applied knowledge and skill literally meant the difference between life and death. Not only for the pilots who signed the Register over the years, but for their many passengers who, with scarcely a passing thought, flew safely on to their destinations, lived another day and, in most cases, passed into obscurity. Russ Gerow puts a face on all those behind the scenes, in the hanger and on the flight line, who kept them flying..

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Below, Gerow with a Curtiss Robertson Robin. This could be the same airplane (NC7499) as exhibited about ten images down on this page.

R.T. Gerow with Curtiss Robertson NC7499,
exact date and location unknown but probably Taft, California ca. 1928

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Gerow remained with Continental Air Map for approximately four years starting in 1928, during which time he became skilled in the art of aerial photography. In 1930, Continental bought Western Air Express's long-wing Douglas M-4 (NC1475) that Bart Cox had ground-looped at Alhambra. Gerow rebuilt the ship, adding Bendix brakes and a middle cockpit that also contained an aerial darkroom. This ship was used to map Bryce, Zion and Cedar Breaks in southern Utah, as well as other jobs in the western states for the U.S. Deptartment of the Interior. (After changing hands several more times, Western Air Lines restored it in 1976 as a short-wing M-2 in WAE livery (C150) and flew it to Washington D.C. to its permanent place in the NASM's Hall of Transportation.)

Below, R.T. Gerow with the one-off Earl Populaire, date unknown, but after 1929.

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Below, Gerow with Milo Burcham and Bird BK NC48K. This Bird landed at the Davis-Monthan Airfield on November 12, 1929 as a flight of two with another Bird NC28K. See this link to learn the circumstances around that flight. Burcham later owned the airplane in Long Beach.

R.T. Gerow (R), Milo Burcham & Bird NC48K
Bird NC48K

Continental's hanger at Long Beach was next to Gladys and Lloyd O'Donnell's school of aviation, whose chief instructor was Milo Garrett Burcham of later Lockheed fame. The O'Donnell School of Aviation was run by famed race pilot and charter member of the Ninety-Nines Gladys O'Donnell and her husband, Lloyd. Russ Gerow, working in Continental’s hanger, would occasionally bellow out that famous Enrico Caruso lyric, "O solo mio!" to which Milo, in his own hanger, would sing back just as loudly, "I would if you had the time!

Enlargement from Image Above
Milo Burcham & R.T. Gerow

Long Beach Airport would often get socked in by dense coastal fog. Milo Burcham, however, had discovered that one corner of the field usually remained clear. So he devised a little trick in which he would land at that corner, then taxi his plane right up to his own hanger and shut her down as though it were a perfectly sunny day.

After doing this several times, people got to thinking that Milo had some kind of supernatural powers that allowed him to see through fog so thick that everyone else had trouble seeing their own hands at arm's length. Curiosity finally got the better of Russ, who took Milo aside and asked him how he did it. Milo told him about the clear corner of the field and how he used tachometer, compass and clock to taxi by pure dead reckoning back to the hanger. Milo couldn't see through the fog any better than anyone else, but he was awfully smart and his little trick perfectly illustrates his fun-loving spirit, audacity and talent for precision flying -- even on the ground!

While giving advanced aerobatic instruction on 12 Oct 1931, Burcham's Bird BK entered an unrecoverable flat spin and crashed into a freshly plowed field at El Monte, Calif. Though the plane was completely destroyed, the occupants emerged unscathed. According to Russ, Milo's young student (identified years later by Eddie Martin as Vinetta Sloan), said," Milo, aren't you going to get out?" Burcham, still completely stunned, replied, "I...know...I'm...dead."

EMSCO supervisor Don Feather gave Burcham free use of space and materials in the Downey plant, where Gerow completely rebuilt NC48K from the ground up using "beautiful Chromalloy tubing," as he recalled. The phoenix-like re-emergence of NC48K was memorialized in the photographs above and below, ca. 1932.

Gerow in Brunner Winkle Bird NC48K, ca. 1932
Gerow/NC48K

Rear of the above image.

Data on Photo Reverse

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Russ Gerow held several other aviation jobs in the 1920s and 1930s, the exact chronology of which is unclear. He was a mechanic for Wilmington-Catalina Airlines' Douglas Dolphin (NC12212)  and Loening C-2C Air Yacht (NC9772) through the summer of 1932 to at least the end of the following January. At one point he worked for Hollywood stunt pilot Garland Lincoln rigging airplane crashes for the movies. In September 1933, we find him at Douglas in Kansas City, where his suggested improvements were incorporated in the DC-1 ignition harness. While at Kansas City, Milo Burcham passed through town with the Boeing 100 (872H) that he had just bought from P&W in Hartford, Conn. Learning of Burcham's goal to recapture the world's inverted flight endurance record, Gerow suggested that he invert the engine since it was only held on by four bolts. The suggestion was followed.  

Back home from the Middle East in late 1935, Gerow left Continental Air Map and aviation for good. Soon after hiring on as a tool-and-die maker with Superior Oil Company, he participated in the first ever seismic exploration in California at Bakersfield in 1936. Reenlisting in the Army in 1942, he trained in optics and mathematics at Aberdeen Proving Ground but was released from the military in 1944 to run a secret, experimental machine shop at CalTech, where his work included machining the trigger mechanisms for the atomic bombs that ended World War Two with a bang. Although confirmation is now impossible because the principals are gone, it is highly probable that Gerow's sudden release from active duty was precipitated by use of the Manhattan Project's magic code phrase of "Silver Plate" by Bob Moran, Jr., the engineer in charge of the R&D shop tasked with designing and producing these critical weapon components.

In 1962 Gerow retired from Superior Oil Co. after 27 years as an instrument maker for the company's exploration and drilling operations. For the next 20 years, he worked with legendary inventor Francis L. Moseley who is credited with devising the ADF, VOR and ILS aircraft instruments, among others. In his seventies and early eighties, Russ built a live-steam locomotive, a 4-6-2 "Pacific" type, which he described as "equivalent in effort to building a house." Born on November 13, 1897, he died at Alhambra, Calif. on June 13, 1993, age 95 years seven months.

Russ Gerow's participation in three earth-changing events of the 20th century--Aviation's Golden Age, the Saudi Expedition and the Manhattan Project--would not be considered unusual or remarkable to the generation of men and women celebrated by the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register web site. Like many of his time, Russ Gerow's somewhat austere rural upbringing steeled him for a life of hard work that was characterized in his case by a high degree of mechanical aptitude, technical skill and a quiet dependability that became his lifelong trademark. He was humble, calm and deliberate--the kind of guy who acted like he never really knew what all the fuss was about.

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UPLOADED: 11/16/06 REVISED: 11/21/06, 11/29/06, 12/08/06, 01/18/08, 02/10/08, 01/29/09, 07/20/11,10/08/11

 
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