Early Arizona Aviator Ralph Vaughan
Published: October 8, 2012 at 1:05 pm
Ralph Vaughan came to Arizona in 1929 to open a commuter air service from Globe to Phoenix. As a young adult, he became interested in flying and decided to make a career out of it. At that time, however, flying airplanes was considered a daring and, at times, dangerous, occupation. Fortunately for Ralph, he grew up in an adventurous family that prepared him for an exciting career as an aviator.
His grandfather, John Vaughan, came to America from Scotland and worked in Pennsylvania at the weaving trade. He married Abbie Strouble, a telegraph operator for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in 1866. In 1882, the Vaughan family moved to Merkel, Texas, where Abbie, John and their eldest son Henry (Ralph’s father) worked as telegraph operators.
At the age of 19, Henry decided to move to Mexico and seek employment as a railroad station manager and telegrapher for the Mexican Central Railroad. After convincing his father of the excellent employment potential of the location, John moved the family to Montezuma, Mexico, where they worked as station managers.
In 1912, the Mexican Revolution forced the Vaughans to leave Mexico, and by 1913 they resettled in California. Over the next several years, Henry found work as a grocer, oil company manager, carpenter, and with the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Long Beach, Calif.
With the entry of the United States in World War I, Henry’s three sons, including Ralph, decided to join the military. Ralph and his brother Edwin volunteered for the latest form of warfare — military aviation. Ralph became an aviation mechanic with the Army Air Corps and then later trained to become a certified pilot. By the end of the war, he was assisting in teaching aviation to other potential pilots, and upon discharge in 1919, he realized that he wanted to stay with the military and continue flying.
Ralph returned to California and joined the Army Air Corps Reserve to teach aviation to military officers. In between flying, he opened an auto garage in Ontario, Calif., and married Ruth E. Lewis, who he met on a trip to Tucson.
Ralph eventually got out of the garage business, purchased an airplane and turned all of his attention to aviation. He established a flying service in Ontario that provided transportation of individuals and packages to nearby communities. He organized and instructed aviation training as well as worked as a local crop duster. He also invented a camera to take aerial photos and provided this service to patrons.
In 1929, Ruth and Ralph moved to the Globe-Miami area and opened the state’s first commuter aviation service — Apache Airlines. The commuter airline provided daily service to and from the Phoenix airport. Unfortunately, the business was hit hard by the Depression, and Ralph had to shut it down.
Although Ralph’s dream of commuter service flying may have been curtailed, his love of flying did not stop. He found employment in any form of aviation work available. He took aerial photographs of the mining complexes in Globe and Miami. He flew to various communities in Arizona and the Western United States to perform barnstorming exhibitions. He also provided rides on his plane to patrons at fairs.
With war clouds gathering again by 1940, the military was looking for aviation pilots, and since Ralph had maintained his Reserve status, he was recalled to military duty. He was assigned as the Army Air Corps representative to the Boeing Aircraft Company in Tucson. His assignments included liaison work between the Army and Boeing, and testing and development of the military’s new long range bomber, the B-29 Superfortress aircraft.
As World War II concluded, Ralph was sent overseas to inspect bombing effectiveness in Asia and Europe and report the results to the Air Force. After that, he was transferred to Fort Worth, Texas, to work on the next line of Air Force bombers.
In 1946, Ralph moved back to Tucson and opened a salvage business. His military experience, however, was not quite finished. In 1951, he was recalled again to active duty. Initially, he worked with inspection teams reviewing aviation facilities and personnel, but later was assigned to Okinawa, Japan, and the 307th Bomb Wing.
After the Korean conflict ended, Ralph remained on military duty and worked at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. In 1957, the Air Force recognized his record in total flight time hours, listing him third among pilots who have logged more than 15,000 hours in the air.
That same year, Ralph was also given credit for saving an aircraft and possible injury to its crew in 1957. While on a flight in a B-25, the plane developed hydraulic problems, which resulted in the bomb bay doors jamming in the open position and the landing gears refusing to lower. Ralph turned the controls over to the co-pilot and calmly crawled down into the wind-swept, fluid saturated bomb bay. After two hours, he managed to repair the damaged hydraulic line and lower the wheels to allow the plane to successfully land.
Ralph Vaughn continued working at Davis Monthan AFB until 1958, when he retired as a full colonel. In 1989, he died at the age of 91.
— Dave Tackenberg. Photos courtesy Vaughan Family Collection, Arizona Historical Society, Tucson.