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This information comes from the biographical file for pilot Lewis, CL-432000-01, reviewed by me in the archives of the National Air & Space Museum, Washington, DC.

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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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Denver Post. Empire Magazine. February 20, 1966.

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A National Archives film depicting air mail activities during the 1920s is here. The location is Chicago, IL.

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HAROLD TURNER "SLIM" LEWIS

Harold Turner "Slim" Lewis, Date Unknown (Source: Smithsonian)
Harold Turner "Slim" Lewis, Date Unknown
Unsourced, Undated News Article (Source: Cahill)
Unsourced, Undated News Article (Source: Cahill)

It is fair to say that with Slim Lewis we have a pilot’s pilot.  It is also fair to say that, among the pilot denizens of the Davis-Monthan Airfield Register, he was but one of many pilot’s pilots.  Few of their careers, however, became folklore to the extent of Lewis’s: part jester, part daredevil, all pilot.

Slim Lewis was a pioneer air mail flyer who has a good Web presence based on his exploits (you’ll find a couple of hundred hits when you Google “Slim Lewis”).  A nice biography (with music) is here.  On the same site is an image, here. And this link for Smithsonian information and images of Lewis (right).

At left, an undated article (ca. 1921) commemorates the beginning of air mail service, mentioning Lewis in the last paragraph along with fellow pilot and air mail legend Jack Knight. Lewis flew the Omaha, NB to Cheyenne, WY segment of the transcontinental route.

Besides his U.S. airmail service, Lewis left his marks flying for Boeing Air Transport Co., United Airlines, and later as Chief Pilot establishing and operating the Trans Canada Air Transport system.

Lewis visited Tucson once, landing solo on March 19, 1929 at 11:30 AM.  He was flying a Boeing Model 95, NC192E.  Based in Cheyenne, WY he arrived from El Paso, TX.  He departed Tucson westbound to Yuma, AZ at 2:45 PM suggesting, perhaps, he enjoyed lunch or a bull session at Tucson.

Please follow this link to the Cosgrove Collection to see three images of NC162E on the ground at Tucson.  From the images, it was a cloudy day on March 19th, probably a good day to hang out and have lunch or talk for a while. The person in the cockpit is unidentified in these images, but it is probably not Lewis, who wouldn't have been wearing a fedora in an open cockpit airplane, at altitude, in March. The logo on the side of his airplane shows Lewis was still flying under Boeing Air Transport livery at the time of his visit to Tucson.  Note the "U.S. Airmail CAM 10" lettering on the vertical stabilizer. Boeing Air Transport later became United Air Lines.  During 1929 Lewis became chief pilot of United’s western division. 

Unsourced & Undated News of Crash (Source: Cahill)
Unsourced & Undated News of Crash (Source: Cahill)

Lewis had his share of incidents flying for the mail. Most of them had to do with forced landings in out of the way places, like described in the undated news article, left. See other examples, below.

Unsourced News Article, September 7, 1927 (Source: Cahill)
Unsourced News Article, September 7, 1927 (Source: Cahill)

Lewis began his flying career in 1916 and ended it abruptly in 1947, when he retired to his Wyoming ranch.  His reasoning?  All those instruments and dials in cockpits had made the seat of his pants just a piece of cloth; all the fun had gone out of flying.  After retirement from aviation, he ran successfully his 27,000 acre ranch for almost 20 years.  Harold Turner Lewis was born October 3, 1894 at Woodville, CA. He passed away July 25, 1965, in Cheyenne, WY.  His mother, 93 survived him in Los Angeles. Longevity ran on the female side of Lewis' family. Above, right, an article dated September 7, 1928 documents a flight taken by Lewis with his grandmother who was 82 at the time.

Very little mention was made of his passing in 1965. Almost a year later the Denver Post Empire Magazine (reference, left sidebar) published a retrospective article about him. The author described him as mechanically inclined early in his life. He devoured Popular Mechanics magazine and tinkered with mechanisms from washing machines to automobiles.

He worked at whatever jobs he could, including driving mules on a ranch. And he saved his money. He bought a used Dodge that he tuned up so he could race around the Tulare, CA area at 60 MPH, a considerable speed in the early 20th century. Cars were too slow for him, so in 1916 he sank his savings into flying lessons, and thus began the lore.

One of the tales concerns his first solo flight in 1916. There was doubt that the engine in the Curtiss Pusher was producing enough power. To check it, Lewis attached a scale between the airplane's tail and a post. He set the engine at full power and read 320 pounds on the scale. That seemed like plenty of power, so he took off.

Undated News, Army Enrollment (Source: Cahill)
Undated News, Army Enrollment (Source: Cahill)

In 1918 he taught flying at Lake Charles, LA and tested Dehavilland DH-4 aircraft for the Army at Dayton, OH for WWI service. Undated article, right, documents his joining the Air Corps.

After the war he continued flying DH-4s, but in the employ of the U.S. Post Office. On July 1, 1924 Lewis flew the first night mail flight between Cheyenne, WY and Omaha, NB. In 1927 when the Post Office Dept. contracted airmail to private companies, Lewis flew the Cheyenne to Omaha run for Boeing Air Transport. In 1934, after becoming United's Chief Pilot he was transferred to Oakland, CA in the same position.

According to the Empire Magazine Elrey B. Jeppesen of Denver recalled his first encounter with Lewis. Jeppesen drove from Oakland to Reno, NV in 1929 to see Lewis about an airmail job. "I was just a kid, and kind of timid, " Jeppesen recalled. "Slim Lewis was already a famous guy. I found him -- all 6 feet 4 1/2 inches of him -- in a smoke-filled room at the airport, playing poker with a bunch of pilots. I told him I wanted a job. He looked me over a little, asked a couple of questions, and the next thing he told me to get on the midnight flight to Salt Lake as copilot." Follow the Jeppesen link to see what came of that.

Lewis was also pals with Register pilot Charles Lindbergh, who, before his trans-Atlantic flight, was among the cadre of pioneer airmail pilots. One article near the time of his flight to Paris was headlined, "LINDBERGH HAS HEROIC COMRADES ON AIRMAIL ROUTE." The article goes on to say, "Any of them would have been glad to take same chance that hero [Lindbergh] took."

Empire Magazine goes on to say, "Lewis believed that the seat of his pants was the most dependable flight instrument in the world and that the best way to get from one place to another was to follow the railroad tracks. Low cloud ceilings could be avoided by flying closer to the tracks." About this Lewis once said to a reporter, "An instrument panel is just something to clutter up the cockpit and distract your attention from the railroad or river bed you're following." Be that as it may, during WWII Lewis test-flew B-29 bombers that had prodigious instrument panels.

He believed early-day pilots extended their life expectancy by learning to land in a pasture when weather closed in (as opposed to learning to fly by instruments). He made such an emergency landing once and rammed into the kitchen of a farmhouse. He and assorted local manpower pulled the airplane out, he ordered and installed another propeller and flew the airplane back to base when the weather was better. He also hit a bull one time.

Lewis applied his knowledge of pilot tricks to his job as Chief pilot. Two particular pilots phoned Lewis repeatedly that they were holed up at back country ranches because of bad weather. Lewis became suspicious when these reports started coming from an area where the routes of the two pilots crossed. Lewis hopped into an airplane and presently spotted two Boeing 40s in a pasture beneath a cloudless sky. He found the two pilots with a rancher, in a small cabin playing cards. The story is that Lewis chewed them out royally, then poured himself a drink and bought a stack of chips. Lore has it that Lewis was a shrewd poker player, often carrying five or six uncashed paychecks to finance his ventures at the table.

On July 21, 1926 Lewis married Ethel Nimmo after a three-month courtship. Their friends called them "Slim & Nim". Primly, Ethel stated, "I didn't ride with Slim in a plane until after we were married." Afterwards, however, she went with him on his mail route to Nebraska and nearly froze in the open cockpit. They landed at North Platte, Lewis wrapped her feet in newspaper, fed her some coffee and continued the flight. I have no other record of any flights she might have taken with him.

The Trans-Canada Airlines job mentioned above came in 1937. Slim & Nim were stationed at Winnipeg for two years, while Slim was in charge of flight personnel. Lewis returned to Seattle and Boeing in 1939 as Chief Pilot. WWII came and 6,000 B-17 bombers and 1,000 B-29 bombers that came from Boeing's plant were first flown by Lewis and his men before they went to combat zones. Lewis personally would fly a half dozen a day.

The close of WWII in 1945 led to Lewis' (slow) decision to retire from flying. He actually foresaw this turning point, because he had bought his ranch back in 1939. He stayed on with Boeing for about a year watching the Stratocruiser commercial airline program. This was a dull life for Lewis, who had spent the majority of his flying career in open cockpits, and more recently, if not more intensely, in bombers. After retirement Slim & Nim spent their summers in Wyoming (Nim's brother managed the ranch) and their winters in Palm Springs, CA.

Always an aviator at heart, Lewis enjoyed driving to the high points of his ranch and overlooking his spread. He didn't much like horses, so he drove his car most places over his ranch. During the summer he was intensely into animal breeding and wheat yields. During the winter he played golf five days a week.

According to Empire Magazine, friends described him as modest and never boastful. It was only when old flying buddies from airmail days came around that he'd ever mention his exploits and adventures over poker games and liquor through the night.

Lewis returned from Palm Springs to Wyoming in June, 1965 feeling ill. He went to DePaul Hospital in Cheyenne for six weeks, suffered a heart attack and died at age 70.

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Dossier 2.1.114

UPLOADED: 06/09/07 REVISED: 03/21/09, 04/27/09, 04/13/12

 
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I'm looking for photographs of Slim Lewis and his airplane, Boeing NC192E, to include on this page. If you have one or more you'd like to share, please use this FORM to contact me.

Thanks to Lewis' cousin, Dan Cahill, for the news items posted.

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http://www.cafepress.com/content/global/img/spacer.gifThe Congress of Ghosts is an anniversary celebration for 2010.  It is an historical biography, that celebrates the 5th year online of www.dmairfield.org and the 10th year of effort on the project dedicated to analyze and exhibit the history embodied in the Register of the Davis-Monthan Airfield, Tucson, AZ. This book includes over thirty people, aircraft and events that swirled through Tucson between 1925 and 1936. It includes across 277 pages previously unpublished photographs and texts, and facsimiles of personal letters, diaries and military orders. Order your copy at the link, or use this FORM to order a copy signed by the author.  ISBN 978-0-9843074-4-9.

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