These days, it's a little hard to imagine the celebrity status once given to pilots, but for the generation prior to WW2, pioneer aviators were revered like astronauts were in the 1960's. While not as famous as Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart, Henry Tyndall "Dick" Merrill ranked as a world-famous pilot by the 1930s - most notable for the 1936 so-called Trans-Atlantic "Ping Pong" ball flight in millionaire singer Harry Richman's heavily modified Vultee, christened 'Lady Peace' (which crashed on it's return journey due to Richman accidentally dumping the fuel) and completing the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight (co-piloted by 27-year old Jack Lambie) in history, flying a Lockheed Model 10E Electra, appropriately named the "Daily Express" that was specially commissioned to shuttle back newsreel footage of the May 10, 1937 coronation of King George VI (which resulted in a one-shot movie contract with low-budget Monogram Pictures for Atlantic Flight (1937). Dick had begun learning to fly while stationed in France in WWI but returned home to work on the Illinois Central Railroad as a fireman. He began his aviation career in earnest when he bought a 90-horsepower Curtiss JN4 "Jenny" for $600 at a war surplus sale in Columbus, Georgia in 1920. Merrill spent most of the 1920s barnstorming at air shows and eventually became an air mail service pilot, becoming its highest paid pilot (earning $13,000 in 1930 @ ten cents per air mile) before signing on with the floundering Eastern Airlines after it was restructured under the control of Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker with Merrill heavily promoted as its star pilot. Unlike some of his peers, Merrill was no hot shot. He was a deliberate and careful pilot, so well regarded that many celebrities (his friend Walter Winchell and even General Eisenhower during his 1952 presidential campaign) specifically requested to fly with him. Merrill's calm skills were evident during a flight in 1948 when the prop on an EAL Constellation tore through the fuselage at 10,000 feet off the Florida coast and killed a steward instantly. Dick was credited with saving the lives of 69 people on board. Outwardly humble and unassuming, Dick throughly enjoyed his celebrity and although a non-smoking tea-toadler, he loved the nightlife and hobnobbed with both the famous and infamous. If he had a vice, it was gambling, he habitually spent his high Depression-era income practically as fast as he earned it--- he was habitually broke and it took marriage to settle his financial irresponsibility. He married vivacious 22-year old actress Toby Wing in 1938- twice actually; her mother objected to their original marriage in Tijuana and the couple "officially" married later that June at the home of Sidney Shannon (an early EAL backer and close personal friend) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She left Hollywood and retired from acting in late 1938 after a brief Broadway run in the Cole Porter musical flop, "You Never Know," that starred Clifton Webb, Libby Holman and Lupe Velez. Despite their 20+ year age difference, they enjoyed a remarkable 44-year marriage. The couple settled in Miami with Dick assigned the Eastern Airlines Miami to New York runs with occasional flights to South America. Too old for a commission, Dick signed on as a civilian MTD pilot and flew the China-Burma "Hump" in DC3's and C-46 Commandos during the war conducting critical supply lights and survey missions. He returned to Eastern Airlines after the war and officially retired from Eastern Airlines on Oct. 3, 1961 after flying a DC8 from New York to Miami, reputedly with the most air miles of any pilot in commercial aviation history, and ranked as the second most senior pilot with the airline. Dick continued to fly into his 80's whenever the opportunity arose, accompanying friend Arthur Godfrey on an around the world flight in 1966, set a speed record at age 78, delivering a Lockheed L-1011 Tri-Star from California to Miami at an average 710 MPH ground speed, and once flew an SST Concorde. Virtually no civilian pilot in the history of aviation piloted such a vast range of aircraft. After Dick's death in October, 1982, Toby spent the remainder of her life actively promoting her husband's rightful place in the annals of aviation history.IMDb Mini Biography By: Jack Backstreet
|Toby Wing||(1938 - 31 October 1982) (his death) 2 children|
A rare surviving 1936 Vultee V1-A, re-christened 'The Lady Peace II' in honor of Dick is on display at the Science Museum of Virginia's Virginia Aviation Museum at the Richmond, Virginia Airport. This plane was once owned by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst's son, Randolph Jr. was a personal friend of Dick's.
Sadly, he and his wife Toby both outlived their sons. Their first son died of crib death in 1940. Their youngest son Ricky was murdered in their Miami home in August, 1982 while the Merrills were living in Virginia. Ricky was facing a prison term for marijuana smuggling in Louisiana and given the fact that a co-defendant survived an attempt on his life the previous June, his murder was undoubtedly a contract hit. His new Jeep Scrambler was found parked at Miami International Airport four days later. The facts surrounding his 41-year old son's death were initially withheld from him, but he eventually discovered the truth. An aviation pioneer, iconic Eastern Airlines hero and a true southern gentleman, he died the following October. Dick and Toby were survived by Ricky's two daughters; their son's murder is still unsolved.
Very few pilots could claim to have flown so many historic aircraft. Beginning with his first $600 WWI-surplus Curtiss OX-5 powered JN-4 "Jenny," Dick would go on to clock a record 45,000 hour flight career that spanned some 56 years. Dick flew frequently after his EAL retirement in 1961. Restricted to non-revenue flights by the FAA age limit, Dick and his friend, entertainer and avid pilot Arthur Godfrey (accompanied by co-captains Karl Keller and TWA pilot Fred Austin) flew around the world in an executive Rockwell Jet Aero Commander (N1966J) in June, 1966, clocking 23,524 miles at an average 429 MPH, mostly at 40,000 feet. This flight set 21 speed records. At age 78, he had flown the Concorde SST with it's evaluation team. Later in 1976, Dick flew a Lockheed 1011 Tri-Star jumbo jet from Palmdale, CA to Miami in a record 3 hours and 33 minutes. He continued to accept invitations to fly until age 82.
The financial backer of Dick's 1937 'Daily Express' coronation flight--- the first commercial round trip flight across the Atlantic--- was the crafty Ben "Sell 'em Short" Smith (who had been the target of a congressional investigation of the 1929 stock market crash), a wheeler-dealer promoter whose philosophy was to promote any scheme for financial gain. Although he was guaranteed a profit on the flight on the basis of a Hearst Newspaper contract alone, he cajoled Dick and co-pilot Jack Lambie into autographing hundreds of coronation first day covers postmarked in London and New York, and selling them through the Walgreen's drug store chain (these frequently appear on eBay today). Smith ultimately made over $170,000 in profits from the flight (Dick saw just $3500 and a few free meals, Lambie netted $2500--- both mostly received from their appearance in a Monogram quickie, Atlantic Flight (1937) made to capitalize on their achievement, a deal also brokered by Smith) and broke a verbal promise to give Dick the Lockheed, quickly selling it to the Russian government. In later years, Dick confessed that Ben Smith was probably the only man he'd ever hated. He actually thought about shooting him if they ever met again.
Was all of 18 months younger than his father-in-law, Paul Wing (1892-1957).
At a Hollywood function in the late 1930's, Dick and Toby ran into her fellow ex-Paramount contract star, Bob Hope, who quipped, "Toby it's nice to see you and I'm glad to see you brought your father along." Although Toby would remain friendly with Hope, she claimed Dick never forgot the insult.
The following is the CAB report summary of the incident involving pilot Dick Merrill on 07 FEB 1948: Time: 13:09 Type: Lockheed L-649 Constellation Operator: Eastern Air Lines. Registration: NC112A. c/n / msn: 2533 First flight: 1947 Total airframe hrs: 1522 Captain: Dick Merrill. Crew: Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 6. Passengers: Fatalities: 0 / Occupants: 63. Total: Fatalities: 1 / Occupants: 69. Airplane damage: Substantial. Location: 250 km (156.3 mls) ESE of Brunswick, GA (United States of America). Phase: En route. Nature of flight: Domestic Scheduled Passenger. Departure airport: New York-La Guardia Airport, NY (LGA/KLGA), United States of America. Destination airport: West Palm Beach International Airport, FL (PBI/KPBI), United States of America. Flightnumber: 611. Narrative: Flight 611 originated at Boston, for Miami, with stops scheduled at LaGuardia Field, N. Y., and West Palm Beach. The Constellation departed LaGuardia at 10:09. The aircraft climbed to the planned cruising level of 20,000 feet. At about 1309, No. 3 propeller failed and a portion of one blade was thrown through the fuselage. It entered the lower right side at the galley section, severing control cables, electrical wires and engine controls, came up through the floor, fatally injuring a purser and left through the upper left side. The cabin depressurized, heavy vibration was felt and all of the flight and engine instruments became either inoperative or impossible to read. Power was reduced and a rapid descent was started. An attempt was made to feather No. 3 engine and orders were given to prepare for ditching. An estimated one or two minutes after the failure of the No. 3 propeller the front portion of No. 3 engine and some of its cowling fell free of the aircraft. Concurrently the heavy vibration stopped. A fire followed in No. 3 nacelle but quickly extinguished itself. Near the coast low clouds prevailed and the aircraft was let down visually to about 1,000 feet altitude, as most of the flight instruments remained inoperative. Bunnell Airport, FL was sighted and an emergency landing was carried out. PROBABLE CAUSE: "The Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of a propeller blade due to high stresses induced by accumulative engine malfunctioning." Sources: CAB File No. 1-0010.
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