Gladys Ingle Inflight Wheel Change: Emergency Action or Stunt?

5 Apr 24 5 Comments

This video of a mid-air wheel exchange goes viral once a year or so, but I never get tired of watching it. Last week, it showed up on Reddit and I discovered that I last write about it over ten years ago, so it seems reasonable to have a repeat.

Air crash averted by women’s pluck and iron nerve. Woman pilot changes planes and fixes new landing wheel on disabled plane in mid-air.

(If you are reading from the mailing list, you may need to click through to the website to see the videos)

In the video, we see a woman clinging to a bi-plane as it takes off and flies beneath another bi-plane which is missing a wheel. She carefully walks along the wing to clamber onto  the lower wing of the other aircraft flying above her. She swings under the bi-plane and, with some difficulty, attaches a new wheel  before climbing back onto the wing with a quick wave at the camera.

The woman is Gladys Ingle, a pilot and wingwalker who performed at air shows as a member of the 13 Flying Black Cats, an aerial exhibition team who claimed that they would do anything for a price.

A popular stunt was to watch the performers move from one aircraft to another while flying. Another involved the wing walker apparently falling off the wing and tumble down about four hundred feet before a hidden parachute suddenly opened. The 13 Flying Black Cats became so popular, they developed a set scale wage for aerial stunts;

  • $100 for an ordinary “plane change”
  • $150 for a parachute jump with a thousand foot free fall
  • $450 for a loop with the performers standing on the wings
  • $500 to climb from an upside-down bi plane to one flying right side up.

    Their pricing provided the model for the first movie stunt pilots’ union in 1931.

Bon MacDougall pilots the plane with Jack Frye pointing to “cowboys” Al Johnson (drinking from a bottle) and Ken “Fronty” Nichols who seem to be playing a friendly game of cards on the upper wing. But a quarrel over cheating breaks out and a shoot-out causes the loser to tumble off — before his parachute opens, 1925. San Diego Air and Space Museum

I’m not sure my heart could take it!

Gladys Ingle’s career started as a team parachute act with her sister, jumping from hot air balloons. In this News-Pilot article from 1922, the women were interviewed before their first jump from a bi-plane, or rather, from two bi-planes. The sisters would each jump from their plane at the same time in a half-mile race to the ground. Neither woman had ever been in an aircraft before. Unfortunately, it seems like most of the interview is focused on their clothes.

Both appear as normal girls, exceptionally good looking and clever, and instead of being dressed in the expected breeches and puttees, they were clothed in the most modern what-do-you-call-’em dresses that girls are wearing now. “Oh, yes,” said Gladys, answering my stare, “we like all the fluffy clothes like reg’lar girls; we never do wear breeches and leggins except on the field, and never on the street. I believe that women have all the rights of men,” –this very seriously– “but knee pants and all that is carrying it too far.”

After this stunt, Ingle started flying and she became the fourth woman in the United States to get a pilot’s license. She took up wingwalking and soon became the only female member of the 13 Black Cats.

So, we know that she was a stunt-pilot and wing walker who loved spectacle and we know that the 13 Black Cats loved to shock their audience. There are many references like this one  Girl Dare-Devil to Thrill Air Fans which excitedly confirms that Gladys Ingle will be changing planes at 3,000 feet for an Air Meet on the 13th-14th October 2028, two years after the video.

Miss Ingle, famed as the girl dare-devil of the air and who has doubled for scores of movie stars in the war pictures of air fighting, will not only change planes but do a series of air acrobatics–hanging from a plane by her knees and doing a full slip over the bar between the landing gear.

Girl Dare-Devil to Thrill Air Fans in the San Bernadino County Sun

It seems that because she was very good at this, people are convinced that the video of her attaching the wheel was part of the act that they planned for the show.

But I’m not sure this was the case! Let’s review what we know about the video.

The 13 Black Cats were at an air show at the time, which is why the cameras were at the ready. One of the pilots, Art Goebel, was performing in his Jenny Curtiss when the wheel came off of his bi-plane.

Goebel and Ingle had repeatedly performed together with Ingle jumping from another aircraft onto his, so they both knew what to do. Ingle and Bon MacDougall, a founding member of the 13 Black Cats, quickly came up with a plan: MacDougall would fly to Goebel’s bi-plane and Ingle would hop over, something she did at every show, but this time with a spare wheel. Goebel had piloted for Ingle before and knew just what to do. Once there, Ingle could then clamber down and attach the wheel. It may sound like a crazy stunt but with everyone involved being used to changing planes mid-air, it was probably marginally safer than landing with a wheel missing, at least for Goebel.

On the 7th of October 1926, the Fresno Morning Republican ran the story with the headline Girl’s Bravery Saves Wrecking of Crippled Plane.

But more thrilling still was the part played in the dramatic episode 1 by Gladys Ingle daredevil stunt girl. Pilot Goebel was doing stunts for the benefit of those who had gathered at the field when one of the wheels of the landing gear of his plane disengaged itself and dropped to earth. An attempted landing meant a wrecked plane and probably serious injury to the pilot so Goebel stayed in the air while Miss Ingle made a plane change in midair with a spare wheel strapped to her back, and after overcoming many difficulties finally succeeded In adjusting the wheel so that a safe landing was made.

Miss Ingle accomplished the feat of taking to the air, making the plane change and repairing the disabled ship in less than an hour. More than 500 persons swarmed around the plane to congratulate the pair.

The newspaper article is very clear that this was not planned as part of the show.

Despite this, Wikipedia claims that this was a stunt as a part of their performance.

A wheel would conveniently fall off an airplane. Ingle would strap a spare wheel on her back and rendezvous with the “stricken” plane. In mid-air, she would climb to the top of the upper wing of the second plane and transfer to the bottom wing of the plane in distress. She would then climb down to the landing gear and install the wheel. This was filmed on at least one occasion.

Now we know it was filmed once but where’s the evidence for it being repeated at any other airshow. The paragraph has two citations. One is an article in the Fresno Morning Republican, with big letters saying “Girl’s Bravery Saves Wrecking of Crippled Plane” and specifies that Ingle saved Goebel from wrecking his plane.  The second citation is _Barnstormers, Wing-Walking and Flying Circuses _by Peter Brown. That book tells us that Gladys Ingle completed over 300 airplane transfers without a parachute but it seems to contradict itself when it comes to the wheel stunt.

Gladys Ingle was highly skilled at transferring from one plane to another in fight and without a parachute – often purposefully to save another airplane that had a wheel fall off on take-off.

It goes on to detail the amazing wheel change as a rescue. Important: he is explicit that this took place on the 19th of September 1926 with Art Goebel flying over Clover Field.

…when suddenly one of his wheels off and plummeted to the ground. Rather than land and damage the ship, or himself, Art continued to slowly circle the air show waving frantically toward the ground. Gladys Ingel and Jack Frye were watching closely from the sidelines and jumped up to save the day. Frye quickly darted to his Jenny and started it whilst Gladys ran to a hangar and grabbed a spare tyre for Goebel’s stricken ship. In no time, Gladys scrambled into the passenger seat while Frye gunned the engine and, in a flash, they were off the ground and in pursuit of number 27.

…Ingle climbed down below the fuselage of the 27 and proceeded to replace the wheel. The axle had also slipped, so she had to secure the wheel to the ship and climb down to wrestle the axle. She encountered quite a struggle sliding it back on but she was finally successful.

… Nicked up, bleeding, and covered with axle grease, the shaken Ingle climbed for the cockpit after which the two planes quickly descended and landed.

Brown then repeats his claim that it was likely that the event was staged, saying that Goebel’s plane seemed to lose its wheel quite often. However, the event that he describes is clearly the same event as the video and he does not cite any other instance where Ingle changed a wheel.

On the contrary, he tells us that the axle slipping during this particular change as unplanned even if the rest was a stunt.

I’ve searched through contemporary news articles about Ingle and I’ve yet to find one that mentions her changing any wheels as a part of the act or any wheel change after this show made the news.

My point is that every single reference to Ingle replacing a wheel during an airshow refers back to the same event.

The San Diego Air and Space exhibit has multiple photographs of Ingle preparing to transfer from MacDougall’s plane to Goebel’s, but in every photograph, all of the aircraft wheels are safely attached to the plane. They had photographers on the ground and in the air at many of their airshows, you’d think someone would have taken another photograph with the wheel on her back.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t think it was a part of the act. If she ever performed this stunt again, I’d expect to find at least some reference to it.

To be fair, one reason might be because her career was soon to be cut short. The US passed legislation which banned passengers from the “wooden structures in planes” — that is, passengers needed to stay seated in the aircraft, which doesn’t seem that unreasonable. But this meant that Ingle and other aviation performers were no longer allowed to walk on the wings or climb from plane-to-plane. By the time the Great Depression started in 1929, the golden age of barnstorming had come to an end.

Slightly off the subject: while looking to see what I’d already written, I found another Gladys in my archives, this time pilot Gladys Davis, who does not appear in this old photograph posted to Reddit.

This fantastic image was posted to Reddit’s OldSchoolCool group with a caption of Pilot restarting a stalled propeller (1960s)”> src=”” alt=”” width=”563″ height=”364″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-92512″ />

The photograph is amazing but what fascinated me was that the photographer, William Larkins, saw the photograph posted to a Facebook group and replied to explain the context of the shot:

I just discovered this group and in scanning through it I noticed my photo of Merle Larson proping his Cub in flight. This has been floating around the Internet for awhile without any explanation. I took this in November 1946 and it shows him demonstrating a small air show stunt that he did. It appears that he is alone in the plane but there is another pilot (Gladys Davis) flying the plane from the back seat and he does have a rope tied around himself. Merle was a WWII B-24 pilot, flight instructor, inventor and builder of three unusual planes based at Buchanan Field, Concord, California.

Larkins bought a Kodak Brownie box camera when he was twelve and by the time he was 14, he had taken and catalogued photos of 145 different planes, leading the FBI to show up on the family doorstep to find out what he was up to.

Back to the subject at hand, I was reminded about Ingle when I saw the video on Reddit. However, I have to admit that the version of the wheel-change video posted to Reddit isn’t the one that I posted above. This was a new modified version of the same clip. Colouring the Past is a Youtube run by a British artist who modernises old footage. In this case, the artist upscaled the video and added colour and sound effects. I wouldn’t like this to replace the original but it is fun to watch the “modern” version.

Category: History,


  • Real or not, the film includes footage from at least two different flights.

    47 seconds into the original video is a shot clearly taken from a camera secured to the “stricken” aircraft. And again in the shot of her on the wing after the transfer, starting at 1:30.

    In all footage looking back at the stricken airplane the camera mount is visible as a low platform just ahead of the fin, but without a camera on it. Clearly the two shots with the camera on the aircraft were taken on a separate flight. Presumably to fill in after it was successfully accomplished, if indeed it was a one time save.

      • Also note the lighting differences between the shots from the mounted camera, vs the ones taken from a third a/c, which make up most of the footage. The sun angles appear to be different, with a very distinct shadow the former shots. That first fixed shot shows a prominent shadow covering roughly the aft half of the lower wing that is not apparent in the following shot, taken from a 3rd a/c. Given that, I suspect the two shots from the mounted camera may have been done on a later day with the sun higher in the sky, and casting the larger shadow on the lower wing.

        The shadows from the fwd struts are also at different angles, suggesting that the sun was not always at the same heading relative to the direction of travel. Maintaining a constant heading relative to the sun would not be a priority for the pilots on this mission, whether one off or a repeat act, and those changes might also affect the other shadows. Significant pitch changes will also affect the shadow line on the lower wing. e.g. raise the nose, and the shadow line will move aft, pitch the nose down, and it will move forward.

        Lots of clues, all worth consideration. In the end, it is a remarkable accomplishment, regardless of the motivation.

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