LEE MILES: SAN BERNARDINO'S RESIDENT PILOT
By Dick Molony
The pictures and other material supplied by Minette Marcelli and John Underwood were of great help in writing this article
Had he been living today Leland Shaw Miles might have been an astronaut, or at the least have entered a profession where he could test his physical, mental, and sensory skills. Having been born in 1903, he pushed those same characteristics to their limits using the tools of the time, "homemade" airplanes.
Lee was born on May 28, 1903, prophetically, the same year the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. He was the seventh of eight children born to Frederick Earl Miles and Julia Helena (Perrine) Miles. His parents farmed in Colorado's San Luis Valley where they had homesteaded. They later moved to Rocky Ford, Colorado, where Lee was born. In 1906 the family moved to California; first to San Diego, and then in 1909 to San Bernardino. When Frederick died in 1933, his obituary described him as "... a retired pattern and cabinet maker and contractor."
Lee attended the San Bernardino City schools, but there is a question about his high school graduation. San Bernardino High School yearbooks don't show him as a member of any senior class. Apparently an interest in flying caused him to take the easiest route to an aviation career. In 1920, lying about his age, he enlisted in the Army Air Service in San Francisco.
His flight training was done at March Field, California. Some say he also was stationed at Kelly Field, Texas. The Army was probably the best place to learn to fly, but peacetime military aviation, involved as it is with drill and training, wasn't the most attractive place for a man of Lee's temperament. Although he continued to be referred to as Lieutenant Miles, he left the service in 1921.
Not only did he win his wings, he also won the hand of a young lady from Riverside, LaVonne Chamberlin Errington. Her parents weren't too thrilled with the idea, but apparently love won out. The couple was married in Oakland, California on June 14, 1923. For a while Lee worked for his father-in-law running a service station. However his habit of closing the station to go flying soon brought that occupation to an end. But he still needed an income, for in 1924 Lee and LaVonne's family grew with the addition of LaVonne Corinne born at Sequoia Hospital in San Bernardino.
Possibly this was the time Lee started flying out of a field near the corner of Highland and Mt. Vernon Avenues in San Bernardino. Leon Atwood, who Lee taught to fly, and who later became Lee's backer and partner in his racing adventures, described Miles' operation, "At this time Lee had a few Jennies and a Waco Ten, taught a few students, did some charter flying, some barnstorming and weekend passenger flying." (SB Sun, Jan. 7, 1968)
A story is told that Will Rogers, needing to fly to Denver, contacted Lee to fly him. This may have been the start of his Hollywood work. He flew in several films, most notably, Lilac Time starring Colleen Moore filmed in 1928. He finally became the personal pilot for another movie star, Ann Harding, and her husband, Harry Bannister.
It is difficult to find an area of aviation that Lee Miles wasn't involved in. Beside the already mentioned flight instructor, charter operations, and motion picture work, he also was an airport manager, airline pilot, air show producer, factory sales representative, aviation author, and of course air racer builder and pilot.
Many of these activities ran concurrently, and to separate them into various time periods is difficult, but they included managing first the Shandin Hills airport in San Bernardino and later the Tri-City facilities in Colton.
At one time or another he represented several aircraft manufacturers. Among them were: Cessna, Bellanca, Stinson, and Spartan. The San Bernardino Sun reported that: "Leland Miles, formerly of San Bernardino, and now sales manager for the Stinson Aircraft corporation at Santa Monica will make the...flight in a new six-place Stinson-Detroiter monoplane which has been purchased in Los Angeles."
He also flew for Western Air Express which later, after several name changes and mergers, became Western Airlines, and was ultimately absorbed by Delta Airlines. Western Air Express received one of the earliest air mail contracts. Lee flew the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
If it could be said there was one, Lee Miles was San Bernardino's "Resident Pilot." Innumerable people remark even today that: "Lee Miles taught me to fly." "I had my first airplane ride with Lee Miles." "We would go out to the airport Sundays and watch Lee Miles fly." There is even a map that has a spot labeled, "Lee Miles flew his WW I Jenny out of this airport."
The activity that endeared him most may have been the air shows he either produced or participated in. The San Bernardino Sun reported January 21, 1935:
That "similar" event might have been the Citrus Belt Air Meet held sometime in the late 1920s. Again Miles was the star in the local paper:
This last contest with the searchlight operators must have had its roots in a bet between Miles and Albert D. Stetson, resident manager of the West Coast Theater in San Bernardino. In 1926, Stetson had praised the searchlight operated by the theater; the power of its beams, and the speed at which it could be operated. According to the SB Sun, "Miles, in effect, said the searchlight was the bunk and would prove it by some night flying if Stetson would take his bet." Miles said he would fly over the corner of Highland and Mt. Vernon avenues at 8 O'Clock. After the searchlight picked him up he would try to escape the beam while the operator tried to keep him covered.
Inclement weather interfered with this attempt, and a series of winter storms caused a delay from December 6, until the 14th. The Sun reported:
Miles' next aviation undertaking was probably fostered by his adventuresome nature and the lure of greater financial rewards. As mentioned above, he had been involved with local air races both at Shandin Hills and Tri-City airports. Now the opportunity came for higher levels of competition.
Today the speed and size of airplanes limits air racing to select venues: Reno, Nevada; Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and coastal cities for the usually over water Red Bull Series. But in the days following World War I the speed of air racers made it possible to hold races wherever there were a few empty acres of land. People flocked to Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Detroit, Dayton, Philadelphia, Spokane, Chicago, and too many small towns to list.
The romance of flying was still relatively new, and aviation articles like the one Miles wrote for the June 1935 Popular Science magazine added to the excitement and glamor:
How much of the article came from Miles and how much from a Popular Science editor, I'm not sure. Either way it has a sense of the excitement the public associated with air racing at that time. In 1934 Lee was the fastest in his class having broken a world's record.
It was 1933 when Lee started seriously thinking of racing on a national level. He and Leon Atwood shared the hopes of, according to Atwood, "...building a racing plane and getting into what we thought was the easy money and fun of air racing."
In early May, Miles found an engine and propeller he could buy. Atwood came up with the money, and later in an article in The San Bernardino Sun he described what followed as they rushed to get ready for a big race scheduled for Los Angeles in a little over a month: "There were no plans drawn in advance, they were actually drawn as construction was being done. Lee and Larry [Larry Brown who designed several successful air racers] and myself would discuss a construction problem or detail, settle on something. Larry would draft it, and at the same time work would be in progress."
Realizing their engine was outclassed by other builders, they went to engine builder Al Menasco for help in building a supercharged engine. Atwood continued, "We all put in longer and longer hours each day...and the evening before the opening day found us still in the shop doing a thousand and one things to try to finish the plane so that Lee could attempt the qualifications on the morrow." Persistence paid off and Lee qualified at over 200 mph on his second run.
Cleveland, Ohio was usually the home of the National Air Races, but in 1933 they were [held] July 1-4, in Los Angeles. After qualifying, Lee entered eight events. He came home with two first place finishes, two thirds, one fourth, two fifths, and a seventh in the Shell Speed Dash where he was clocked at 210.64 mph. He was also $1400 richer.
Stories in the local newspapers, even allowing for home town pride, give a quick view of Miles' racing successes:
But it wasn't just in San Bernardino that Lee's name was becoming known. Listed in the program of the "Press Club of Chicago, Official Farewell Party," along with Ernst Udet and Tito Falconi, German and Italian World War I aces respectively, Jimmy Doolittle, Frank Hawks, Roscoe Turner, Wylie Post, Eddie Rickenbacher, and others, was Lee Miles.
Miles' best racing year was 1934. He raced in Omaha, Buffalo, New Orleans, Cleveland, Miami, and other cities, winning several races, and placing well in those he didn't win. In New Orleans he met Gov. Huey Long who gave him a souvenir derby hat which Lee made his trade mark, wearing it while flying, and having other racing pilots autograph it.
The derby was nice, but the real achievements of 1934 were: winning the first ever Louis William Greve Trophy race --- being named the number one closed course air racer --- and establishing a world's speed record for aircraft in the Miles-Atwood Special class of planes (those with engine displacements of 350 cubic inches or less.)
The Greve trophy was established to increase the competition in racers of smaller engine size, 550 cubic inches or less. It was flown in three heats, the winner being selected on points won in those heats. The total value of the race was $25,000, to be distributed among the racers.
Miles reached 206.24 mph to take the first place trophy, and won $1445.
After viewing all of Lee's competitions in 1934, the National Aeronautic Association named him the top closed course racer of the year, which allowed him to paint number one on the Miles-Atwood Special. Roscoe Turner who had won the Thompson Trophy race that year was number two.
Setting the world record took several flights. Competing at the All-American Air meet in Miami, Florida, on his first try he won the 15 mile triangular race with a speed of 194.51 mph, but fell short of the established record of 207.39 set in 1933 by Delmottee, a French pilot. The next attempt was faster, but not fast enough. Cross-winds limited him to 205.987 mph.
Planning to race next at New Orleans, Lee remained in Miami a few days longer to make another attempt, which he described in an article written for the Miami Beach Tribune, Thursday, January 18, 1934:
Even though he now held a world's record and was rated number one in his class, Lee didn't forget the people at home who followed his career in the local papers. On May 27, 1934 The Sun reported on the impromptu "show" he put on:
While 1934 had been a good year, his successes put a strain on Miles' personal life. In an article in the Prescott Sunday Courier of March 20, 1994, his daughter Corinne remembers, "...Pilots were considered very romantic during the '20s and '30s, and groupies followed fliers everywhere. Such women contributed to the eventual deterioration of Lee and LaVonne's marriage.... The risk of flying and the constant demands on his time were burdensome on his wife. A lull in income and some mounting debts were too much for Lavonne, and they were separated."
In the 1935 National Air Races, Lee's standing dropped. He could only manage 197.722 mph from the Miles-Atwood Special, and ended up with one first and one second in the 375 cubic inch displacement events. His attempt at flying another plane wasn't successful either. He flew a Seversky amphibian in the Thompson Trophy race, the only amphibian ever to enter that race, and placed fifth. His total winnings at Cleveland were only $2,195 compared with $3,935 in 1934.
In 1936 the National Air Races were held in Los Angeles. Lee's ranking was now fourth in closed course racing so the number on the side of the Miles-Atwood Special was changed from the number one it had carried. The Special and its Menasco engine were aging. He managed one lap at 223.159, but ended up with two thirds and one fourth, for a total of $1150.
He again tried another plane for the Thompson Trophy race. He flew the last of the Gee Bee (Granville Brothers) racers, the QED, but engine trouble forced him out in lap eleven.
I'm sure Lee hoped for a better year in 1937. He had a new engine in the Miles-Atwood Special, and had made some changes in the wind screen. Getting ready to leave for Cleveland he was still close to the family. His older sister, Minette, wrote to her daughter telling of seeing Lee:
Lee flew his Cessna while Leon pulled a trailer holding the Miles-Atwood Special. Their plans were to enter the Special in the Greve and other races, and maybe pilot a Seversky in the Thompson.
Lee used the Cessna two days before the races to help a competitor. Roger Don Rae needed a new carburetor for his plane, and the nearest one was in South Bend, Indiana so Lee flew to pick it up. The next day he got ready to qualify the Special.
Flying at about 200 feet he started around the first pylon. Apparently one of the fittings connecting the supporting wires that ran between the wing and the fuselage broke. The wing, losing that support, folded, and the imbalance of lift caused the whole plane to roll rapidly, so rapidly a pilot who viewed the accident said they couldn't count the revolutions. The plane came down in a wooded area. One report says he was dead when rescuers reached him, another says he died on the way to the hospital. There was no fire, for Lee had remembered to cut the switches before he hit the ground. He had never before in all his various flying experiences seriously damaged a plane or hurt a passenger.
The racing world was shocked and saddened, but the show went on. Rudy Kling won both the Greve and the Thompson races. Interestingly enough, Roger Don Rae whose carburetor Miles flew in from South Bend, came in 4th in the Greve.
Leon Atwood, after conferring with Lee's family took charge of things in Cleveland. Miles' body was cremated and brought home to San Bernardino for services. James Lindsley, who had been a member of the Sun editorial staff, and was a close friend of Lee's wrote the newspaper report:
Leon Atwood, who Lee had taught to fly, and who had supported him financially, and in every other way possible, and had been there when Lee crashed, said, "After that happened, I returned to California and went back to ranching. I continued to fly for pleasure until World War II when I became a civilian flight instructor. I've never actually forgotten flying."
Atwood later was a City Councilman in San Bernardino, and in 1968 he renewed his aviation interests by welcoming a glider club to his Five Winds Ranch in Yucaipa. He died in 1995.
Miles would have been only thirty-eight in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Would he like Leon have become an instructor or would he already have been off trying to join the Flying Tigers or some other group that pre-dated the official entry of the U.S. into the war?
Beside his grave about all that remains to remind today's generations of his efforts is a replica of the Miles-Atwood Special in the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California.
Gordon Israel, racer and builder-designer of the racer Redhead, possibly best summed up that early air racing age: