American Nurse Plane

In the five years since Charles Lindbergh flew Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic, he’d attracted imitators, many of whom sought publicity by using some sort of publicity in their trans-Atlantic flights. Amelia Earhart had become the first woman to cross in 1928, although as a passenger, not a pilot. She did it on her own in 1932. One year later, 24 Italian seaplanes crossed in the first mass trans-Atlantic flight. Carrying four members of the Hutchinson family and their dog, the appropriately named flying boat, Flying Family attempted to cross the North Atlantic in 1932, only to be forced down off of Greenland.

Hutchinson Family

The Flying Family

So it was that when a physician, veteran pilot, girl parachute jumper, and a woodchuck took off on a non-stop journey from New York City to Rome in a 1931 Bellanca Skyrocket J-400 Long Distance Special, it generated news. The physician, Dr. Leon M. Pisculli of Yonkers, had a theory that many pilots were dying on long distance flights because of a buildup of carbon monoxide in the plane’s cabin, and he’d planned the flight as an experiment.

The good doctor set about assembling his crew. Finding the pilot was easy, William Ulbrich was a Dane who’d been anxious to try his luck across the Atlantic. Dr. Pisculli also had little difficulty recruiting a woodchuck. While driving through Mineola, the doctor spotted a one with a broken leg and nursed it back to health. Named “Tailwind” the woodchuck’s legendary sensitivity to carbon monoxide would serve as an early indicator of noxious fumes.[1]

Finding a nurse proved a challenge. In addition to helping the doctor with his experiments, the nurse would be expected to serve as a co-pilot. She also would need to be willing to parachute out of the plane over Florence, Italy, as a nursing tribute to Florence Nightingale. Only two women in the entire United States had nurse’s training, a pilot’s license, and a working knowledge of parachutes. Gladys Bramhall Wilner, known as “Peggy,” expressed interest, but on second thought, she declined.

Edna Newcomer

Edna Newcomer

That left Edna Newcomer. A nurse turned parachutist aviatrix, Edna happened to be a showgirl too, adding some some glitz to the flight, as well as numerous comments about her million dollar legs.

Pisculli christened the plane The American Nurse in Edna’s honor, painted it white and stocked it full of everything he thought he could possibly need, up to and including honey to go in the tea that would keep everyone awake for the 32 hour flight. Shortly after midnight on September 13, 1932, The American Nurse was fueled and made ready. At daybreak Pisculli, Ulbricht, Newcomer, and Tailwind the woodchuck clambered aboard, and the plane took off into the rising sun.

Some 22 hours later, the British steamer Ashburton sighted it. “The airplane circled the ship four times at a low altitude,” Ashburton reported by telegraph. “It was burning three green lights. [meaning all was going smoothly] We signaled the pilot by blue flare. The engine was working smoothly. The plane disappeared in an east by southeast direction.”

That was the last confirmed sighting of The American Nurse. Due in Rome at 8 p.m. local time, the plane never arrived. Unconfirmed reports from Lisbon and Sardinia reported hearing the plane’s motor, but an intensive search for wreckage, ordered by Mussolini’s Chief of Aviation turned up nothing. The American Nurse was never found.

Off to rome

From left to right, Pisculli, Newcomer, and Ulbrich. Not pictured (unfortunately), Tailwind the Woodchuck.

[1] We have no personal knowledge of the effects of carbon monoxide on woodchucks, but such was the doctor’s rationale for bringing Tailwind along. In an abundance of caution, we urge the readership to conduct their own research before performing woodchuck related flying experiments.


Aha – after posting, courtesy of the Smithsonian, we found a picture of Nurse Newcomer, Dr. Pisculli, and Tailwind the Woodchuck, courtesy of the good folks at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!


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  1. flylady33

     /  December 12, 2014

    This article is very interesting to me. My Aunt Victorine Florsheim were both members of the Queens Birdmen the New York Aerial Police. The two women drove a midget car from New York to Detroit at a total cost of $3.96

  1. Tailwind: The Woodchuck Who Took Flight

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