Donna Hampton of Wichita and Karen Muller of Hemet, Calif., have always known that their dad flew the famous "Newsboy," but neither was born yet when Tuttle made the groundbreaking flights. Donna was born, in McCook, just a month after the airborne delivery service ended, and Karen was born 16 years later, after the family relocated to Wichita.
Karen said recently, "Dad talked about writing a book -- his memories of 50 years of flying," but the book didn't materialize before Steve Tuttle died on June 21, 1994, at the age of almost 91.
This is the first of three news stories that will highlight pilot Steve Tuttle, the Newsboy and early aviation in America's heartland.
In the 1920s, highways and roads throughout Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas were rough at best, and the farm-to-market country roads were completely impassable in bad weather. Many "farmer roads" were not graveled nor maintained on a regular basis. Harry Strunk, owner and publisher of the McCook Daily Gazette, editorialized in the late 1920s in support of road improvements, highway surfacing projects and proper road maintenance.
Until all that happened though, Strunk decided, he would offer improved newspaper service by delivering his daily paper by air.
In 1929, the 37-year-old Strunk purchased a 1929 Curtiss "Robin C1" two-seat 170-horsepower monoplane in Kansas City, and self-taught pilot Steve Tuttle of Cedar Bluffs flew it to McCook at amazing (for the time) speeds of 80 to 125 miles an hour, in four hours time.
On one early flight in the Robin, Tuttle and Gazette managing editor A. H. Weibel figure-eighted the town for about 15 minutes, and in the air on another flight, Tuttle and Strunk set up the routes over which Tuttle would deliver about 5,000 newspapers daily Monday through Saturday.
A Gazette news story in 1929 said that Fred Pennell, of the McCook Universal Motor Company, helped create flight maps of the Gazette's airborne "paper route." Pennell is quoted in a news story by Strunk, "The ride seemed very enjoyable. It was a perfect day for the flight and the plane rode very smoothly under the control of Mr. Tuttle, who is a very able pilot."
Pennell continued, "We made a nice take-off and Tuttle turned the ship's nose in the direction of Indianola. Circling about the town, we mapped out a possible 'dropping off' field for the papers, and then headed through Bartley, Cambridge, Holbrook, Arapahoe, Edison, Oxford, Orleans, Stamford, Hollinger, Beaver City, Hendley, Wilsonville, Shippee, Lebanon, Danbury and Marion, where we also surveyed surrounding fields. The trip lasted two hours and five minutes."
The news story indicates that Pennell sketched appropriate maps, and that Strunk would then seek permission from landowners to use their fields for the daily delivery of papers. Other flights mapped routes north, south and west of McCook.
The Sept. 12, 1929, edition of the Gazette wrote this about the newspaper's "aeroplane delivery service": "Steve is not finding his search for fields a difficult job, since the only requirements are a sizable plot of open ground unobstructed by tall trees or buildings on the borders, and the owner's permission to drop the daily bundles on the property."
To avoid having to land in each community, Tuttle devised a system to drop newspapers from the plane 500 feet in the the air. He removed one of the Newsboy's seats, cut a 10-inch hole in the floor of the cockpit and installed in the hole a metal chute fashioned with a lever-operated trap door. Tuttle's brother, George, also of the Cedar Bluffs-Oberlin area, was to ride along on each flight and drop bundles of newspapers -- today's edition wrapped inside a casing of old newspapers -- through the chute to newspaper carriers waiting on the ground in each of the 40-43 communities along the 380-mile non-stop route.
Alan Strunk (the son of Harry and Arlene Strunk, born the same year as the Newsboy endeavor) said that Gazette and family history tells that Tuttle flew low enough, slow enough and well enough that the bundles of newspapers very rarely burst open, and then only if the wind was really strong and gusty.
The Tuttles would make a flight east, return to the McCook airport and reload with more newspapers and make the flight west.
The first official flight of "The Newsboy" was Sept. 13, 1929, and was marked with a spectacular two-day air show that also dedicated McCook's new American Legion Airport in northwest McCook. The air show program includes this comment from R.H. Gatewood, Legion post commander: "Chris Hansen Post No. 203 American Legion ... is proud of the fact that it has been able to render a real service in connection with the air show and the inauguration of the FIRST airplane delivery service of a daily newspaper in the world."
News stories in the Gazette indicate that 20,000 spectators flocked to the McCook airport to watch barnstorming pilots in 40 airplanes compete for prize money in contests of flying expertise. While pilots raced and competed, the air show rules read: "No pilot will 'jazz' the crowd or in any way endanger any individual by wild flying."
The same enthusiastic pilots and spectators watched the Newsboy, with its famous droning "Challenger" radial motor, take off on its first paper route on Sept. 13, successfully meeting its daily deadline of 3 p.m. The Newsboy also flew out of the airport at 3 p.m., the second day of the air show.
Strunk declared -- with the christening of the Newsboy by McCook's "Best Girl" 18-year-old Ruth LeVine and the inaugural take-off of his little yellow-and-orange airplane -- "No home is more than two hours from the press."
"The Robin peddles the news while it is still news," blared an early-1930 advertisement for the Curtiss company in the Aero Digest magazine. The advertisement indicates that when the Newsboy isn't flying the daily paper, it is used for speedy coverage of distant news stories, promotional activities and some passenger business and flight lessons.
Curtiss billed the Robin as "designed for private owners," and "not pretty, but practical." The dependable Robin became one of the most commercially-successful airplanes of the day; the company produced 769 of them from 1928 to 1930. In the summer of 1929, the Curtiss plant in St. Louis was turning out 17 Robins a week.
The air show brochure assured Midwesterners, "that aviation has reached a practical stage and that this (daily delivery of goods) is an area in which the airplane is to become an integral part of every business."
Harry Strunk is quoted in the NEA (a newspaper feature service) SNAP magazine distributed in May 1930, "Readers and advertisers alike were at first inclined to regard the whole thing as a publicity stunt to be discontinue after a few weeks. It took the droning presence of the 'Newsboy' over them every day to prove this thing is a fact and practical."
In the April 16, 1992, edition of the Oberlin Herald newspaper, columnist Wayne Herzog remembered that he, Jack Riley and Jack's six-month-old son, Tad, went to watch a daily paper drop at Oberlin. "When Steve climbed out full throttle, there was a big bang, a lot of smoke and Steve landed in a wheat field west of town. We drove out there and Steve already had the head off one cylinder, which 'had swallowed a valve.'
"We took him to town where he made arrangements for the rest of the papers to be delivered by car and he went to McCook for parts."
Joseph Beck of Topeka, Kan., wrote to the Gazette in November 2004, recalling his childhood in Danbury. He wrote, "Some 75 years ago, I was a child of 10-12 living in Danbury. Your newspaper provided a great deal of entertainment for this small-town boy, watching your Curtiss Robin airplane deliver your paper via air mail.
Your pilot was fearless and reckless, too, as he flew at treetop levels in zero-zero (zero visibility, zero ceiling) conditions."
In a memoir written in January 2000, Jack Hendrix, a native of Traer, Kan., a community over which Steve Tuttle dropped newspapers, remembers that the Newsboy and Tuttle fascinated him as a child. Hendrix wrote, " ... Tuttle ... whose very name would bring a feeling of adventure to the kids in Traer. All of the boys knew everything about the plane and its pilot. Every workday evening, during its operation, we would go to an alfalfa field just east of town and wait for the plane to arrive. We went early so that we wouldn't miss it. When it finally came, the plane would fly low and the bundle of newspaper for Traer was thrown out. For our benefit, I think, the pilot would dip one wing and then the other, after which it turned toward the next town and disappeared over the horizon. We would race to see who could get to the papers first, then deliver them to the people in our town."
Leopold "Bus" Bahl, who worked for the Gazette for 63 years, from 1922 until his retirement in 1985, often flew with Tuttle as the "pilot's assistant" who helped operate the chute and drop the newspaper bundles. Bahl recalled in 1988 that he sometimes rode in the Newsboy when it was so windy no one else was willing to go. Bahl told Liz Watts -- who wrote a study of Harry D. Strunk and the Newsboy and presented it to the Association of Journalism and Mass Communication in Washington, D.C. in 1989 -- that McCook businessmen often wanted to fly along as the assistant, but quickly lost interest when the wind blew.
True to Strunk's expectations of the success of the air delivery system, subscriptions to the Gazette increased. In 1928, the paper's circulation was 2,800, and early next year, it had increased by only 380. With the advent of the Newsboy delivery routes in late 1929, subscriptions increased by 1,340, bringing the Gazette's total circulation to 4,500.
Circulation dropped to 4,050 with the end of the Newsboy era, but that's still 45 percent more subscribers than two years earlier.
Although the Newsboy garnered a lot of good press and more readers for its efforts, the air delivery system was not without problems as delivery costs sky-rocketed and the Great Depression was setting in. And on top of all that, a wind storm or tornado damaged the Newsboy while it was parked at the McCook airport in May 1930.
Strunk reported in mid-June 1930 that, although continuing improvements in airplane technology and motor efficiencies were helping to make airplanes less expensive to fly, they did not address challenges created by the ever-changing and unpredictable weather of the High Plains.
Strunk knew that the news contained in a daily newspaper must be delivered quickly and with regularity -- and that the newspaper itself must meet its daily deadlines for the press run and for its delivery to readers. "Men can control the deadline and they can control the press hour," Strunk wrote. "They cannot as yet control the elements of the weather, nor have they yet built the airplane that can fly successfully in rain, wind, sleet, snow and fog."
Strunk continued, "Consequently, with week after week of inclement weather, during which time we have found it impossible to fly our route on schedule, we have figured that consistency is more important than speed."
The little plane would not be repaired ... the Newsboy was grounded.
Strunk concluded, "If we were to attempt to do the same thing over again, we would have advantages that we did not have nine months ago. Airplanes have taken a 25 percent reduction in price; (and) new planes will handle a reasonable load on much less gasoline and oil consumption. ... Aviation seems to be getting down to a business basis gradually which will hasten the day when more planes will be used in circulation work. Personally, I feel that the venture has been worth all that it has cost us, and that the day will come when more planes will be used in daily newspaper delivery service."
With the grounding of the little Newsboy, Gazette newspapers that once fell from the sky were delivered to communities along the highways on commercial buses that traveled in and out of McCook. The presses ran in the basement of the Gazette office on McCook's Main Street and then were taken to the bus stop at the Keystone Hotel, a block south of the Gazette office. Carriers in outlying communities picked up their papers at their respective bus stops and delivered them to their subscribers. Subscribers off the main highways were relegated to day-after delivery again.
Strunk tried airplane delivery again, for a four-year period starting on Jan. 20, 1950, from the new airport northeast of McCook's city limits. McCook pilot, airport owner/manager and flight instructor Ben Frank flew a single-engine Cessna 120 over the same route mapped out 21 years earlier for the Newsboy. But again, costs to keep the service in the air were daunting, and flights stopped when Frank increased his contract fee from seven to nine cents per mile.
Since those times, highways and country roads have improved and the Gazette has used pickups and small fuel-efficient cars to deliver its papers along the same Newsboy paper routes.
The original yellow-and-orange Curtiss Robin Newsboy was scrapped, stored and restored over time, and now, owned by Perry A. Schreffler and R.C. Van Ausdell of Camarillo, Calif., is on loan to and displayed in the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Wash.
The museum display tells about the little plane's daily flights to deliver its newspapers, and about Robin pilot Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, who was denied permission to make a transAtlantic flight in 1929, so he decided to fly instead to California. Corrigan "took a wrong turn," and ended up in Dublin, Ireland -- a transAtlantic flight after all.
The museum display also indicates that, in a Robin in 1929, pilot/mechanic Dale "Red" Jackson performed more than 400 slow rolls without stopping, and then he and fellow pilot Forrest O'Brine spent nearly 27 days circling over St. Louis. In 1935, pilots Fred and Al Key flew their Robin for 653 continuous hours; fuel was delivered via hose from another Robin, and mail, food and spare parts came in a supply bag on the end of a rope.