A young Portland girl, Carol Mangold, loaned her black cat, Alba Barba, to a pilot in the 1928 National Air Race from New York to Los Angeles. The pilot, John “Tex” Rankin, started flying with the number 13 on his Waco 10 biplane fuselage in the national race the year before, attracting more news photos and articles than other participants. He reasoned that by flying an airplane again with the number 13 and adding a black cat, ample publicity would flow again.
To find the blackest cat, Rankin delayed his departure and held a “cat audition” by convincing three Portland newspaper aviation editors to ask their readers to present their black cats. Cat day was a yowling, hissing and snarling event. Fortunately, no dogs appeared. A part Siamese cat, Mangold’s Alba Barba, meaning white whisker, was selected to become a famous flying feline.
By the time of the race, Rankin was an experienced pilot.
In 1916, Rankin joined the Washington National Guard, eventually finding himself in Europe. In France, the Army put him in charge of assembling American planes. After the Armistice, he returned to Walla Walla and opened a flying school. By mid-1922, he had graduated 70 students and performed in an air circus with a then-unknown parachutist, Charles Lindbergh.
Rankin eyed Portland for his school because the coastal beaches promised lucrative summer barnstorming. For 18 months during 1924 and 1925, he ran the Rankin Flying School out of Pearson Field. He left Pearson in 1925 when Mock’s Bottom along the Willamette River was up for lease. It was across the river from what would become Swan Island Airport years later. Rankin built a hanger and painted “Learn to Fly—$250” in large letters on its side.
Recognizing that aircraft were indifferent to who sat in the pilot’s seat, and being an entrepreneur, Rankin encouraged women to fly. At one time, he claimed to have 65 female students. Yet, despite his vision, for decades women were only slowly accepted into aviation.
The bright red “Rose of Portland” bearing the number 13 may have been unlucky for Alba Barba, who escaped his noisy confinement during a Kansas City stop. Unable to find the cat, Rankin headed to New York catless. Luckily, friends forwarded the black feline to Rankin in time for the race. He finished fifth, pocketing $500. Upon his Portland landing, Carol met him at the airport and reclaimed Alba Barba. The fifth-place winner was more than happy to turn over the troublesome cat.
Rankin and his school gained national recognition, and in 1939, he moved it to California, where celebrities like Edgar Bergen became students. Before that, he still used Pearson Field for soloing student pilots like Leah Hing, the first Chinese American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Foreseeing World War II, he applied for and received a government contract to train pilots.
Rankin Aeronautical Academy at Tulare school trained 10,450 cadets, 80 percent of whom graduated. Only five died. After the war, Rankin sold Republic Seabee amphibious planes out of one of the larger Pearson Field Army hangers. In 1947, Rankin died after crashing his Seabee amphibious plane into a power line while taking off from Klamath Falls, Ore.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.