During ‘wingwalker’ era, daredevil stunt goes awry
R.W. Shrock 1929
Decatur, Ill., Herald May 7, 1929 genealogybank.com
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
On Oct. 5, 1924, veteran pilot Rolland Washington Shrock, 37, was alone in the cockpit of a “Hisso-4,” flying over the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo. His “flying circus” partner, 19-year-old Leonard Dean, was purposefully and precariously dangling from the airplane’s landing apparatus tethered by a rope.
It was a scene the two had practiced many times before, but not over the greatest of all North American rivers.
As Shrock swooped the airplane down over the waterway, Leonard Dean dove to his death from the open-air plane during an aerial stunt, while thousands of onlookers on the ground watched in horror.
The date was Oct. 5, 1924, and no one alive today could possibly remember the hysteria that took place late on that Sunday afternoon, as townsfolk and visitors alike stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the shoreline – from Lover’s Leap to Cardiff Hill - unwitting eyewitnesses to tragedy.
Leonard’s dive into the river was to be the climax of an aerial show sponsored by Company L, 138th Infantry, National Guard, Capt. C.W. Walker, commander.
A hundred times before, local newspaper accounts reported, Leonard Dean (aka Daredevil Dean) – associated with the North Central Aviation Company out of Chillicothe, Mo. - had made dramatic leaps from the airplane, each time equipped with a parachute. But this time, his intent was to dive into the water, only to resurface to cheers from the gathered crowd.
Except, he didn’t surface – not even once.
Rescue teams moved quickly onto the river, beginning a search at the point where it was believed that Leonard entered the water. The pilot of the plane, Rolland (Bob) Shrock, and Delbert W. Wray, the plane’s owner, joined the search as soon as they could. Onlookers remained spellbound at their posts along the riverfront, hoping for a miracle.
But nightfall came, and no body was found.
It would be 34 days before Leonard Dean’s body would be recovered from the river. A fisherman noticed Dean’s body floating in the river not far from shore at Cotton Point, near Ilasco and Saverton on Sunday morning, Nov. 9. He secured the body and notified authorities. The body was recognizable via the clothing: Dean had been dressed in a swimsuit and wore a safety belt around his waist.
The young man’s body was claimed by his father, who had assisted in the search. He was the son of Earnest Azberry and Pearl Ethel Trego Dean, and is buried in Rockville Cemetery, Bates County, Mo.
Praise from the press
Less than a month before the Hannibal tragedy, Leonard Dean and crew performed a “flying circus” exhibition in King City, Mo. After the show, the newspaper praised Dean’s performance.
“Dean was a very likeable young chap, and made many friends during his short stay here, besides thrilling hundreds of persons who saw him hang by his teeth from the landing gear of the ship as it sped over the business section; perform on the trapeze suspended from the plane; walk the wings and made the most spectacular parachute leap ever witnessed here, from an altitude of 4,000 feet.”
Two weeks before Leonard Dean’s body was found in the Mississippi, Pilot Rolland W. Shrock was back in the cockpit, this time commissioned for a night flight over Hannibal.
The Chillicothe newspaper reported on the event:
“The flight which began at 9 o’clock was sponsored by the Hannibal Ku Klux Klan, and beneath the giant ship of the air was outlined a huge fiery cross. The streets were thronged with thousands of people at that hour, largely from the country round about and from the nearby towns, who had come in to view the flight and later attend the shows or other Saturday night festivities. The exhibition was highly spectacular. At times Shrock flew so low over the city that the throngs stood aghast, fearing that he would crash into some of the high buildings or huge smokestacks that at intervals dot the city. At times the plane sailed high into the black sky until the huge cross was dwarfed into a tiny bit of flame, and the roar of the powerful engine was silenced by the cacophony of the city’s noises.”
While this flight came off successfully, it didn’t end without drama.
The airplane’s wing clipped telephone wires near the landing strip.
Shrock was seriously injured, receiving two broken ankles, a broken right fibula just above the ankle, three broken ribs and facial injuries.
He was taken to Levering Hospital in Hannibal where he was admitted for treatment by Dr. John J. Bourn, who incidentally locally served as physician for the Burlington Railroad.
R.W. (Bob) Shrock was a member of a unique organization with its roots in the aviation field: The Early Birds.
Established in the 1920s, the roster of this “club” consisted of (mostly) men who flew before the start of World War I.
While the number of pilots trained for battle during the world war reached into the thousands, those who were the earliest to take flight were true pioneers of the craft.
Shrock, who was born in Maryville, Mo., Feb. 22, 1887, told an aviation reporter for the Arizona Republic newspaper in 1966 that his interest in flying was first piqued in 1909.
At the age of 21, he said that he “sank his agricultural worker savings into $5 flying lessons on Canucks and Jennys at a grass strip near Wichita Falls, Texas.”
An early newspaper account noted that Shrock was among the flight trainers at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. This is where many World War I pilots were trained for active duty.
Shrock said he served as vice president of the Early Birds in 1929.
Rolland Shrock was married to Miss Ethel Woodward of Marceline, Mo., in June 1909, at St. Joseph, Mo. Prior to their marriage, Ethel was a public school teacher. They had a least five children, four daughters and a son. During the Depression years, he invested in four “Stearmans” and opened a crop dusting business in Milwaukee, Wis. Ethel moved with their daughters to Santa Paula, California.
He eventually settled in Illinois, participating in the development of airfields and flight instruction at airports at Jacksonville, Ill., Springfield, Ill., and Decatur, Ill., before moving to Phoenix, Ariz., in the mid 1950s.
The Jacksonville, Ill., Daily Journal published a feature on R.W. Shrock in January 1967. Fred Wharton, who was operating a skating rink on the site of the town’s old flying field, reminisced about the flight promoter.
“Shrock was a ladies man but a fine fellow,” Wharton said. “He was honest, trustworthy and dependable.”
When Shrock came to Jacksonville (in the mid to late 1930s) Wharton said, “The old flying field, located south of Jacksonville near Memorial Lawn cemetery, had one airplane, a 1938 Piper. The field had a single hanger and a snack bar.”
R.W. Shrock finally let his pilot’s license lapse around 1964, when he was 77.
“The old eyes just didn’t have it anymore,” he said. “And this durn hearing aid of mine wasn’t any help,” he told the Arizona Republic reporter.
He estimated that he lost 30 close friends to airplane accidents over the course of his flying career. Yet he never lost his lust for flying.
“… sometimes I sit out on the lot and watch the planes fly overhead,” he said. “I get kinda sick inside … I want to go back out there and fly again … I guess I just can’t help it.”
He died in August 1971, at the age of 84. He is buried in Phoenix.
* “Jenny” was the common nickname for one of a series of “JN” biplanes built as a training aircraft for the U.S. Army.
The "Canuck" was so named as to distinguish it from its U.S. counterpart, the American Curtiss JN-4. ... The JN-4 (Can) Canuck was a Canadian modification of the Curtiss JN-3 trainer, developed to meet Royal Flying Corps specifications.
* The Stearman, built by the Stearman Aircraft Corporation in Wichita, Kansas. Although the company designed a range of other aircraft, it is most known for producing the Model 75, which is commonly known simply as the "Stearman" or "Boeing Stearman".
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com
The smiling group shown above includes some student fliers at Fleck’s airport south of Springfield, Ill. Left to right are Frank (Bud) Fleck, proprietor of the airport; Marshall Myers, the first member of the “Dawn Patrol” at the airport to solo; Miss Zelda Gray Schell, Springfield, and Miss Geneva Woodman, Madison, Wis., two fair young ladies who are learning to fly; Horace (Shorty) Bergen, who already has won his wings, and R.W. Shrock, instructor. Daily Illinois State Journal, June 19, 1938. Genealogybank.com
R.W. Shrock 1966
July 16, 1966, Arizona Republic newspapers.com
The crew of the Sealdsweet airplane, co piloted by R.W. Shrock, unsuccessfully attempted to set an endurance record in Tampa, Fla. In December 1929. The refueling plane for the adventure, the Mor-Juice, crashed soon after takeoff, bursting into flames and killing the two pilots aboard, “Boots” Dempsey and Stanley Smith, both of St. Louis. With heavy fog in the area and quickly running out of gas, the Sealdsweet, piloted by Leonard Carothers and co-piloted by Shrock, was forced to crash land in the Florida Everglades. Both Shrock and Carothers survived with only minor injuries. Tampa Tribune/photo by Carl T. Thoner. Dec. 9, 1929, newspapers.com
Pictured are the crew members who participated in a failed attempt at an endurance record in Tampa, Fla., in December 1929. From left, Boots Dempsey, Stanley Smith, R.W. Schrock and Leonard Carothers. Dempsey and Smith were killed when the refueling plane they were piloting crashed. Tampa Tribune/photo by Carl T. Thoner. Dec. 9, 1929, newspapers.com