Author Barbara Schultz revisits the life pioneering aviator Moye W. Stephens
By Rebecca Kuzins
All but unknown outside aviation circles, Moye W. Stephens may be the most influential pilot you’ve never heard of.
Author Barbara Schultz, who on Saturday discusses her biography of Stephens at LAX’s Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, is doing her part to change that.
Located inside the LAX Imperial Terminal, the center chronicles the history of LAX and the contributions of civil aviation to the development of Southern California, which makes it the ideal place for this book discussion.
Stephens, who lived from 1906 to 1995, was among a group of innovative pilots who worked in the Los Angeles area during America’s Golden Age of Aviation — the period from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II. Among his achievements, Stephens co-founded Northrop Aviation (now Northrop Grumman Corp.) and flew around the world in an open cockpit biplane.
Schultz celebrates the span of Stephens’ involvement in the aviation field — as pilot, flight safety pioneer, ‘round-the-world flyer, Lockheed Corp. demonstration pilot and Northrop co-founder, where he was a prototype test pilot.
“Moye belonged to a group of successful pilots who did their job and didn’t expect applause after each contribution to aviation. They were humble, skilled and loved flying,” said Schultz, whose book was published in 2010.
“I have met and interviewed many notable test pilots over the years, including my husband, and Moye ranks up there with the best — including Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong,” she said. “This is why the Society of Experimental Test Pilots recognized Moye for his achievements and made him an honorary fellow of the society in the 1980s, a very prestigious honor.”
Shultz met Stephens and his wife Inez more than 20 years ago, when the couple was living in Ensenada, Mexico. She was researching her first book, a biography of Poncho Barnes, a woman pilot who was a good friend of Stephens and another pioneering Los Angeles aviator.
But by the time Schultz started to research “Flying Carpets, Flying Wings: The Biography of Moye W. Stephens,” he and his wife had died, as had Stephens’ lifelong best friend, aviator Dick Rinaldi. Schultz was, however, able to interview Stephens’ son, Moye F. Stephens, and Rinaldi’s three daughters.
As Schultz tells it, Stephens, the son of an affluent Los Angeles attorney, became fascinated with flying when he attended the Dominguez Aviation Meet in 1910. The event, held on an airfield next to the current site of California State University Dominguez Hills, influenced many Los Angeles-area residents to become pilots or work in the nascent airplane industry.
Stephens learned to fly and had earned a pilot’s license by the time he entered Stanford University in 1924. He would return home from school during the summer to fly in several films and to give flying lessons at Clover Field, now the Santa Monica Airport. In the 1920s, said Schultz, Clover Field was a “happening place” where movies were shot and Donald Douglas and other aviation pioneers located their companies.
Stephens dropped out of Stanford Law School when he realized he could make more money as an airline captain than an attorney. To acquire the experience he needed, Stephens took a job with Maddux Airlines, flying passengers between Los Angeles, San Diego and the Agua Caliente Casino near Tijuana. He became a captain when Maddux merged with Transcontinental Air Transport, the forerunner of Trans World Airlines (TWA).
In 1930, the flamboyant writer and traveler Richard Halliburton asked Stephens to fly him around the world in a biplane Halliburton dubbed “The Flying Carpet.” The two set out for their grand adventure on Christmas Day 1930, headed for the legendary city of Timbuktu (now in Mali, west Africa), and from there flew to India, the Philippines and other destinations during their 18-month flight.
“Today’s airplanes have multiple instruments for flying, one of which is a GPS,” said Schultz. But Stephens “circumnavigated the world with just a compass, [which] would be challenging at best — particularly over 1,600 miles of open desert to Timbuktu. Of course they had maps and information from local pilots, but Moye’s skill as a pilot would have been needed to find a small fuel dump [storage tank] in the middle of the Sahara, skirt islands in the South China Sea, or fly into the Himalayas.”
Nearly seven years later, Stephens and two partners decided to establish their own aircraft firm.
“Jack Northrop had worked for Lockheed and Lockheed did not want him to concentrate on his development of the flying wing,” said Schultz, referring to the tailless fixed-wing plane without the main body section (or fuselage) that holds people and cargo. “So when Moye and the other two gentlemen in 1939 wanted to form a corporation to develop innovative aircraft, they asked Northrop if he would come into the company and they would use his name. And he said, ‘Yes, as long as you do all the administrative work and I can work on my aircraft design.’”
While at Northrop, Stephens was a test pilot in charge of developing aircraft that were used by the armed forces in World War II, supervising a staff of nine pilots.
A pilot herself, Schultz is completing her fourth book about aviation. “Endorsed by Earhart,” she explained, “will describe all the products that [pilot Amelia Earhart] endorsed to finance her flying.”
Barbara Schultz discusses “Flying Carpets, Flying Wings: The Biography of Moye W. Stephens” at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, LAX Imperial Terminal, 6661 W. Imperial Highway, Westchester. Admission and parking are free. Call (424) 646-7284 or visit flightpathmuseum.com.