I had the pleasure on Monday of finding out the story behind the 1927 crash of the plane in the Hell's Gate Wilderness NE of Payson, Arizona that was carrying Leo, the MGM lion. After Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight, people raced to set flying records and score publicity from flying feats. Louis B Mayer and his publicity man came up with the idea for Leo the Lion to fly nonstop between San Diego and New York City.
Martin Jensen, 2nd place winner of the Dole Derby that had taken place shortly after Lindbergh's flight, was hired to fly the plane. The Ryan B-1 Brougham aircraft was similar to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis but had a shorter wing span and was modified with a steel cage for Leo by B.F. Mahoney Aircraft in San Diego.
Gail Hearne, a writer and who lives in Payson, has done a lot of research on this event and had one article published by the Air and Space Smithsonian magazine in 2005. She had some funny stories to share about how Martin brought the plane back twice during trial flights - first when the lion was breathing down his neck. (The plane was small and the lion was facing to the front.) Then the crew turned the lion so he was facing aft. Jensen hurriedly set the plane down again when the lion's tail wrapped around his face! Finally, a board was placed between the pilot and the lion's cage. Problem solved!
The MGM Special took off from San Diego en route to New York City in September 1927.When the plane passed Yuma, they lost radio contact with Martin. Shortly after he flew over Gisela, south of Payson, AZ, Martin realized he was having a hard time gaining the altitude necessary to fly over the Mogollon Rim. In truth, he was overloaded. The lion weighed between 350 and 450 pounds plus he had extra fuel strapped under the wings and under the fuselage. He began looking for a place to land. He flew low over trees to slow his progress (no brakes) but that damaged the wings and he crashed, rolling down into Hell's Canyon and coming to rest against a tree. Remarkably, both Martin and Leo survived.
Martin hiked down Tonto Creek towards Gisela, not realizing that Kohl's Ranch was closer. He gave the lion water and a couple of sandwiches and began hiking. It took him three days and two nights to reach a ranch and then get to a lodge on Roosevelt Lake that had the nearest phone. Mayer's concern? How's the lion? And spare no expense in getting him out. Martin came in second again, he would later quip.
A rescue party - actually a posse of local cowboys plus the animal trainer and Martin- hiked into the remote canyon, bringing along a sled to pull the caged lion out along with two teams of mules to pull it. The lion waited six days in that cage for rescue and more food and water. By the time they got him back to Payson, he had roared so much, he couldn't roar anymore. With the advent of talkies, Leo was replaced by another lion. Actually, Gail's research showed that this Leo was probably named Slats. Other lions have played the part of Leo over the years. Tanner, the next lion, is shown on the MGM page for Leo.
MGM, by the way, got much more publicity out of the crash and rescue of Leo than they ever would have had the flight been a success. People across the country waited on pins and needles for any word of Leo and the headlines spoke of nothing else for days.
Ranchers on both Kohl's Ranch and the neighboring ranch owned by the Haughts were instrumental in rescuing Leo. Gail has talked to people from the Haught family as well as people who remember the crash. All sorts of stories float around- some totally far fetched, so she has sorted through them, to find what likely happened.
Incidents like this are not in the history books but are so much fun to hear about. If you ever get up into this area - especially if you can look down from the top of the rim towards Payson and see the rugged country- mountain after mountain- you can appreciate the feat it was to pull a lion out of a steep canyon (now named Leo Canyon) over a mountain, down and up out of another one to a ranch. Amazing!
And, check the local papers when you are in an area during your RV travels, plus library bulletin boards and other places you see notices. You just might notice a special presentation about an area. You just never know what gem you might discover. Jaimie Hall Bruzenak