Lee and Evel – Chapter 3, Dangerous Flying

 

This is Evel's Beechcraft Duke. Evel loved to fly. He almost always went up with an 'instructor' because he did not have a license of his own.

This is Evel’s Beechcraft Duke. Evel loved to fly. He almost always went up with an ‘instructor’ because he did not have a license of his own.

East Saint Louis, Illinois (June 24-25, 1972) wasn’t the most memorable stop for Lee but it did illustrate the wisdom of travelling the country with multiple motorcycles rather than just one. During Lee’s employment Evel always hauled at least three motorcycles (all Harleys) from show to show. One bike was dedicated to wheelies only and Lee maintained the unit accordingly. Two other Harley 750’s that were specially geared were reserved for jumps. In the days before the jump in Saint Louis Evel practiced as he usually did. Unfortunately a piston broke in one of the jump bikes. The required repair was not something Lee could accomplish with his mobile repair and maintenance equipment so he brought the bike to a local Harley Davidson shop. They were able to make the repair but it would not be completed until after the show dates were history. Luckily they had the spare jump bike and the performance went on without a hitch. By this time Evel was up to 10-car jumps since he was feeling better with each passing week. The best part about Saint Louis, according to Lee, was Six Flags Amusement Park. Lee’s mom made a visit to the Evel Knievel camp and she and Linda took Lee and Evel’s children to Six Flags.

 

Besides being prepared for jumps by carting around backup equipment Evel usually made sure there was time for practice runs. He did not like to make a jump cold. Practice is just what he was up to on July 16 in 1972. The show was camped out in Coon Rapids, Minnesota on the Minnesota Dragways.  All the ramps were erected and ready for the session to begin. The big rig that carried the gear and served as Evel’s office and dressing room was parked along the track at the dragstrip starting line, its rear end facing down track. Evel was standing in the door to his dressing room when he noticed his pilot coming in to make a landing on the strip. It was not an easy approach since the pilot, John Lancaster, first had to clear some power lines that were at the end of the straight portion of the dragstrip. This gave him a severely shortened approach to put down Evel’s favorite airplane, the Beechcraft Duke. Evel could see that there was a problem and he yelled to everyone to get out of the way because a crash was imminent. John landed short and braked hard, blowing out his brake lines and spinning the airplane just enough to make his left engine hit the door on the right side of the trailer. Luckily Evel had vacated that position just in time. John got out of the Beechcraft unhurt and Evel immediately barked at him “Shut off all the electrical on the plane!”

John responded that they were off but Evel fired back “They are not! The beacons are flashing like a lighthouse.”

The damage report, besides a badly messed up aircraft engine, was a destroyed door and a can of oil which, when hit by the protruding airplane engine, spurt oil all over the interior of the trailer. A padlock that was hanging on the door was propelled off its perch so soundly that it was never found.

Evel walked around the wrecked Beechcraft and surveyed the damage.

“Lee, get the motorcycles started” he said, “There is no use standing around crying about a million dollars worth of junk.”

Unfortunately the incident was not saved on film. There was a camera crew from the local TV station that was present during the accident; but, the cameraman dropped the camera before the Beechcraft Duke hit the truck. Sometimes it is wise to just run away as fast as possible.

Another example of unexpected maintenance needs arose a few shows later in Castle Rock, Colorado. Castle Rock has an elevation of 6,184 feet. At over a mile high the oxygen is rather lean and that would produce an unacceptably rich air/fuel mixture in a carburetor.  Lee had never experienced this situation before. The very rich fuel mixture did not produce sufficient power for smooth running, never mind jumps. Lee immediately called the local Harley dealer and ordered sets of smaller jets to go in the two one-barrel carburetors on each bike. Unfortunately, Evel began his practice session before the new jets had arrived. After experiencing the poor performance he asked Lee “What’s the matter with this bike?” Lee explained and then Evel asked Lee “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have called Reiman.” Roger Reiman had a shop in Kewanee, Illinois and Evel regularly got his supplies from him. Lee explained that he had to act fast and get the parts right away so he didn’t bother consulting with Evel. The parts arrived in time and Lee got the bikes set up properly for the show. Lee says that “Evel was happy.” Results spoke loudly for Evel.

Evel always had a tendency to do things his way, often ignoring the advice of others. It’s not that he didn’t seek the opinions of those around him. He did. It’s just that if he had a choice between an expert’s opinion and his own gut feeling, he sometimes went with his gut. He also liked to give the impression that he was in charge of every aspect of a jump including the mechanics of the motorcycle. Although Evel was a great stunt jumper he had very little knowledge of how motorcycles worked. Often before making a jump Evel would pull on the chain and poke at the carburetor. George Hamilton did the same when he accurately portrayed Evel in the 1971 movie Evel Knievel. This was all for show. He would also make several full speed passes past the ramp before making the jump.

The kids at Six Flags (left to right): Kelly Knievel, Linda (Evel’s wife), Tracy Knievel, Robbie Knievel, Nancy Ratliff.

He would then drive over to Lee and ask him how he was doing. Lee could tell from long experience whether or not Evel was developing sufficient speed to clear the vehicles and land on the touchdown ramp. Lee would advise him on how to modify his speed if he thought it was necessary. Usually Evel would act on Lee’s advice. Sometimes it was just impossible for him to attain the necessary speed in which case he would go through with the jump anyways, sometimes with disastrous results. The most effective technique that Lee used to insure a successful jump was to adjust the motorcycle before the jump. The main sprocket that comes off the engine is the countershaft sprocket. It attaches to a larger sprocket on the rear wheel. If Lee wanted to give Evel more speed he would replace the front sprocket gear which might have 15 teeth with one that had 18 teeth. This usually worked fine so long as Evel did not choose to override Lee and insist that he gear the bike differently.

The September, 1972 Monroe, Washington venue probably best illustrates Evel’s stubborn persistence in doing everything, with or without an audience, his own way.

Evel loved to fly his own airplane. He almost always did so with a pilot on board since it was the only way he could legally operate an airplane without a license. The pilot was his ‘trainer’ and Evel was the student. Evel was a mostly competent pilot but he had absolutely no ground school training. That would have required that he stayed in one place long enough to attend classes and take exams. According to Lee “The only flying lessons Evel took were in the air.” Lee tells me that most pilots did not last long in Evel’s employ. The pilot-student relationship usually came to a turning point when Evel would demand that the pilot do something that was clearly illegal and/or unsafe. If the pilot refused to meet Evel’s demands he was fired.

In the time leading up to the Monroe, Washington show Evel decided that he wanted to buy a new airplane. The logical place to make his purchase was in Lee’s home town, Wichita, Kansas. At the time it was the home of Beechcraft, Cessna, and Stearman Aircraft. Evel, Lee, and Mike went shopping at the Beechcraft plant. The people there treated Evel well. One of their pilots took the daredevil trio up for a test ride in a Beechcraft King Air twin-engine turboprop that belonged to the company CEO, Olive Ann Beech. With Evel at the wheel they headed for Butte, Montana. Upon their return to Wichita Evel promptly purchased his very own King Air. The man who ferried them to Butte and back was a temporary pilot and Evel sent him on his way. Evel’s previous pilot had been recently fired. This left Evel with a new airplane that he could not legally fly unless he found a pilot. Unfortunately he was not able to hire anyone. Evel was itching to fly the plane back to Butte so he could have his name and show advertising painted on it. He trusted the painters in his hometown. While still at the airport Evel explained his predicament to Lee: “Heck, I can fly this thing! I just don’t know how to get there.” He did have in his possession air maps, though. Evel continued “I don’t know the tower frequencies and such.” He was beginning to understand the value of ground school. At this point Lee noticed a highway patrolman who was sitting at the airport while waiting for the ground school to open. Lee suggested to Evel that he talk to the cop. The idea sounded good to Evel so he walked over to the officer with a notebook in hand and asked for a little assistance. Evel drew circles connected by lines in his notebook. The circles were the airports and the lines represented the path he had to take. He asked the patrolman to write in the proper tower radio frequencies in each circle and to indicate compass headings along the route. The officer was happy to comply with Evel’s requests. After thanking the man Evel and Lee walked over to the new King Air and Evel commented “If that cop knew what kind of airplane I was getting into he would shit.” Evel was obviously a novice but his airplane was not what you would expect a newbie to be piloting.

Evel took off for Butte, Montana in the brand new King Air all alone. He made it all the way to the Butte airport. That is when his troubles began. When he arrived there was a strong crosswind. Evel had never landed in a crosswind before and so he was reluctant about putting down. He radioed the tower and asked them to call all nearby airports to determine if there was another field that was not experiencing crosswinds. If there was he would head their way. Unfortunately all of the terminals within range were experiencing the same conditions. Evel circled the runway as long as he could while hoping that conditions would change. When his fuel was almost exhausted he decided to land the airplane. The landing was successful but he nearly crashed. Nobody at the airport bothered him about the small detail of his not having a pilot’s license; everyone there knew him. Evel got the fuselage lettering down by his favorite sign painters and then got back aboard the Beechcraft for the return flight to Monroe, Washington.

You would think that Evel had experienced enough flying difficulties by now but you would be wrong if you thought all his troubles were behind him. He told Lee “I looked down at those mountains and they didn’t look like the Rocky Mountains.” His premonition was confirmed when heard someone hailing him on the radio. It was air traffic control in Canada and they had an urgent message for Evel. They informed him that he was in “restricted airspace” and he needed to turn around immediately! This is one time Evel did exactly as someone told him to. Lee doesn’t know whether or not Evel requested new headings for Seattle from the Canadians but in any event he did make it back to the USA. Lee believes that he landed in Seattle.

All this happened before Evel put on the show at the Evergreen State Fair near Monroe. It was a big event that featured some great fireworks. Lee got real close to the people who set them off and he was amazed by the precision they displayed. An old man moved rapidly from launch tube to launch tube while dropping huge charges in each. Following inches behind him was a young boy who lit each fuse with a torch. Lee remembers them as “the prettiest fireworks I ever saw”.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Lee had work to do. He had to get Evel’s bike ready for the jump. Lee began to change out the bike’s countershaft sprocket to one that he believed would provide Evel with the speed necessary to clear the lengthy obstacle of 22 cars. Lee had an 18 -tooth sprocket in his hand when Evel walked over and intervened. “Put this sprocket on there. Use the 16-tooth.” Lee thought to himself “that’s not going to make it” but he complied with Evel’s wishes. He knew that once Evel made his mind up on something there was no sense in arguing. Evel then surveyed the jump and commented to Lee “That’s a long way, isn’t it?” Lee responded with his usual brevity “Yes, it is”.

“Well,” said Evel, “If we don’t make it we’ll just come back and try again next year.”

When it came time for the jump Evel made a few passes while Lee and the crowd watched.

Evel pulled up next to Lee as he always did just before the final approach.

“Evel, you’re not going fast enough” Lee told him. “You’re going to be short but don’t worry about it. I have enough safety ramp to catch you.”

And then Lee added wryly “We can just come back again next year and try again.”

Evel chuckled.

It was time to jump. Evel never made any changes to the bike after he completed his practice approaches. He had no choice other than to give it his best. He cleared 21 of those 22 cars and his bike came down on the safety ramp that covered car number 22. He bounced off the safety ramp and brought the bike down without losing control on the landing ramp. Of course there was just one other little hitch. Evel had promised his sponsor, Olympia Beer, that when he landed he would deploy a parachute that had Olympia Beer advertising printed all over it. Now there really wasn’t any need for a chute. It was just a prop that added drama to the jump. It worked well if you hit the landing ramp at full speed. That night was different. Because Evel first came down on the safety ramp he had to attempt to regain control during the impending impact with the landing ramp. And so he put the brakes on. That helped him control the bike. It also slowed the bike. Evel released the chute at the last possible moment (he had no choice in the matter, a promise is a promise). Since the bike was now going rather slow after two bumps and nearly locked brakes the chute flew back into the bike and became entangled in the rear wheel. It was a mess. It took Lee quite a while to get that parachute out of the bike.

Evel at one of his favorite places (other than a golf course), the Butte, MT airport.

Evel at one of his favorite places (other than a golf course), the Butte, MT airport.

Lee and Evel is presented as a series of six chapters. If you want to be notified at the time of additional postings you may subscribe to this blog and thus receive an email when they appear. The “Subscribe” button is at the bottom of the column to the right of this article. Your email will not be disclosed to anyone! Lee and Evel is the property of the author and other than short quotes no person is authorized to distribute, copy, or otherwise publish the content.

(Note: Comments Welcome – If a comment field does not appear at the end of this story, please click on the title of this post , Lee and Evel – Chapter 3 , Dangerous Flying . Then the Comment Field should appear)

 

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2 Responses to Lee and Evel – Chapter 3, Dangerous Flying

  1. Scott Wiley says:

    As usual, great story! Really enjoying this

    • Kenneth Carr says:

      Glad you like it, Scott. Lee has a unique perspective that really needed to be told.There is always more than what the crowds see. We are lucky that Lee is able to recall so much of what happened over 40 years ago!

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