Rim Country's Moment In Aviation History

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The early years of the 20th Century were exciting ones for the fledgling aviation industry, and by accident the Rim country became part of that colorful era.

It happened when a relatively new movie studio attempted to capitalize on the aviation mania sweeping the country by flying its new corporate mascot -- a roaring African lion -- from San Diego to New York City nonstop as a publicity stunt. The overweight plane, called The MGM Special, crash-landed in a box canyon 14 miles east of Payson.

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The MGM Special, a plane built by the same company that created The Spirit of St. Louis, held a real African lion. "They've got ‘MGM Lion' plastered all over the airplane," Scott Gifford said. "The whole idea is people would be able to look up as the airplane flies over and see the lion."

The wreckage is now the property of Prescott pilot Scott Gifford, who plans to restore it. Gifford, who has spent hundreds of hours researching the incident, recently told the story of The MGM Special at a meeting of the Northern Gila County Historical Society.

It was 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh captured the imagination of the world by flying nonstop from New York to Paris in his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.

"People thought of airplanes as toys for the rich or entertainment for the masses," Gifford said. "Go to the local pasture and barnstormers would take you for a ride, or go to the local county fair and barnstormers would be doing all sorts of tricks. Get a group of them together and they'd call themselves a flying circus."

It was this atmosphere that prompted MGM Studios, then only three years old, to stage the infamous flight that would earn Payson and the Rim country its place in movie lore.

"Somebody comes up with the brilliant idea of having a nationally known pilot with a nationally known plane fly Leo coast-to-coast, nonstop, while setting a few records," Gifford said. "Talk about great advertising."

MGM turned to the company that built the The Spirit of St. Louis, which agreed to provide the plane, a 1927 Ryan B-1 Brougham, and experienced pilot, Martin Jensen.

It was a newer version of the plane Lindbergh flew, modified with extra fuel tanks and a cage for Leo where four passengers would normally sit.

"The maximum weight of the Ryan B-1 Brougham was 3,300 pounds, and The MGM Special's weight at takeoff was a little over 6,000 pounds," Gifford said.

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Locals made up the search party that rescued Leo after the plane crashed. The lion was brought to Grady Harrison's garage in Payson and attracted quite a bit of attention from the community.

Through his research, he learned that Jensen wanted to fly a more southerly route that would take him over Phoenix, Tucson, southern New Mexico and El Paso before turning toward New York.

"The terrain was much lower and he figured he had a better chance of making it," Gifford said. "MGM said, ‘No. This is a publicity flight. We need you over Albuquerque before dark. There's going to be another airplane fly alongside and take pictures.'"

Assured by the manufacturer's engineers that the plane could clear the mountains, Jensen took off at 10:10 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1927.

"They've got ‘MGM Lion' plastered all over the airplane," Gifford said. "The whole idea is people would be able to look up as the airplane flies over and see the lion."

After crossing California and southern Arizona, the plane flew over Phoenix. According to newspaper accounts, people were, in fact, able to see Leo in the low-flying aircraft. But the heavy load and hot temperatures of the desert limited its ability to climb.

When it reached the Rim country, the struggling plane lumbered into Hell's Canyon; It didn't come out.

"When Jensen saw the end of the canyon coming, his only option was to land in the trees," Gifford said. "As the aircraft settled into the trees, the trees ripped the landing gear off, the wings got ripped off, then the fuselage hit a tree with a diameter of about 10 inches. It took the tree right out of the ground."

Somehow both man and beast escaped unharmed.

"Martin was momentarily stunned," Gifford said. "Then he remembered where he was, and who was behind him, and his first question was -- what condition was the cage in?"

It was intact, but Leo wasn't pleased.

"Leo looked disgusted, and I figure his opinion of me as a flyer was pretty low," Jensen said later.

He climbed out, gave the lion a few of his sandwiches, and set out on foot for help.

"He doesn't know what's in front or off to the sides, but he does know what's behind, so he starts walking that way," Gifford said, "down steep rocks, vertical canyons, at times hanging on by his fingertips."

After three days Jensen stumbled upon some cowboys near Gisela. He got a lift to Payson where he organized a search party to go back for Leo.

By the time they got back, a week had passed, give or take a couple of days. The cage was cut from the wreckage and mules employed to drag it out on a skid.

When Leo got to Payson, school was dismissed so everybody could come to Grady Harrison's garage for a closer look. The lion was eventually returned to Hollywood by truck, but his flying days were over.

Fast forward to March 13, 1982. Gifford, then a student at Cochise Community College in Douglas, Ariz. attends a lecture by the author of a new book on Arizona aviation history. One chapter is entitled "The Day the Lion Fell."

Gifford is captivated by the story of the The MGM Special, especially one line that reads, "The wreckage of the plane still lies in Hell's Canyon near Payson."

He begins his research, but it will be almost another decade before he gets a chance to look for it.

"It's the summer of 1990, and I am now flying under contract to the United States Forest Service out of Payson, Roosevelt and Globe," Gifford said. "One day while flying over the Hell's Gate Wilderness Area, I remember thinking to myself, this would be a very appropriate place for Hell's Canyon.

"On a later flight while looking at a Forest Service map, I see Leo Canyon. Later I found out that Hell's Canyon was renamed in honor of Leo."

The next spring, Gifford and a couple buddies make the strenuous trek into Leo Canyon.

"I stumbled on one of the fuel tanks, looked up, and saw the wreckage. There was an 8-10-foot tree growing up through it."

After a whole lot of red tape, Gifford finally got title to the wreck. He and friends went back with a helicopter and had it lifted 30 miles to the Payson Ranger District helibase.

Back in Prescott, he began the tedious process of restoring the plane. Many of the pieces, including the Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine, were gone.

"One story I heard is that (the plane's builder) went in with pack mules, disassembled the engine and took it out," Gifford said.

Gifford's labor of love was recently interrupted by, of all things, love -- and then marriage. But he's back on the job.

"Airplanes are designed for one purpose and one purpose only -- to fly. The MGM Special will fly again," he vowed.

And while he can't say when it'll be finished, he knows what he'll do when it is.

"On Sept. 17 of that year, it will land in New York City, thus completing the original flight," he said. "Then one year on the air show circuit and it will land back here in Payson -- but out at the airport this time."

At some point, sadly, it will end up in a museum somewhere, where people can revisit "the day the lion fell," and see the fruition of one man's labor of love.

"There's a little bit of a kid in all of us, with dreams and hopes," Gifford said. "The MGM Special is one of my dreams."

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