United’s Flying Cigar Store

Text and images © Tony Hyman, All rights reserved

Uploaded January 11, 2013    


United Cigar’s Flying Cigar Store

     Russian inventor Igor Sikorsky, who fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 in his early 30s, is renown for four huge contributions to aviation history: [1] building the world’s first four-engine planes, which flew 400 World War One raids over Germany
without loss of a single aircraft, [2] building the first twin-engine plane practical for carrying a commercial passengers, [3] creating the pontoon-equipped Clipper ships that made possible air-travel between the US mainland and Hawaii as well as Central and South America, and [4] realized his childhood dream, the helicopter, which he first successfully built of paper, sticks and rubber bands when he was 12. Amazing feats all, but it’s only the second of those that concerns us here. 

     Sikorsky’s fascinating bio on the website of The National Aviation Hall of Fame tells the story well. The cigar-relevant paragraph is copied here, slightly altered:


    Unable to find work in the United States commensurate with his bomber-building experience, in the early 1920s Sikorsky began hanging out at NYC area flying fields, watching planes built by others. Eventually he “secured several pledges of financial backing to re-enter aviation. Encouraged, Sikorsky designed a twin-engine commercial airplane capable of carrying 12 to 15 passengers, the forerunner of the modern airliner. As Sikorsky raised more cash, construction began in a barn on a chicken farm on Long Island. But there was never enough money for all new parts and he used many salvageable parts from local junkyards. The engines were second-hand and from World War One. Finally, the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff came to the rescue with a $5,000 subscription. When the new plane was ready for its initial test flight, eight of his employees crowded aboard. Sikorsky knew that it was a mistake, but didn’t have the heart to put them off. After a slow takeoff, the engines lost power and he made a forced landing, severely damaging the plane. This appeared to be the end for his company. Sikorsky had learned years before not to become easily discouraged and in a few months he had rebuilt the plane into the S-29-A. The “S” meant Sikorsky, the “29” indicated it was the 29th airplane he built, the “A” stood for America, his first plane built in the U.S.A.

     The S-29-A, the only plane Sikorsky built on that design, quickly proved to be a remarkably good, rugged, airplane, and ultimately made money for Sikorsky as it would for it’s new owner, the colorful Roscoe Turner, who bought the plane in 1926, two years after it was built, a year after it was officially christened.

     Roscoe Turner was, in short, a shameless and inventive self-promoter. He was also an aviation pioneer who delighted in flying the latest and best aircraft, a barnstorming
dare-devil, one of the fastest men of his era, frequent winner of national and international air races, holder of numerous speed records, the first pilot to carry passengers transcontinentally from Los Angeles to New York (movie stars, of course, as nothing less
would do for the flamboyant Turner) and a man who flew 25,000 miles accompanied by a crowd-pleasing African lion named Gilmore after a sponsor, Gilmore Oil Co., whose stations featured 10’ lions atop their signs.

     Turner was exciting, but no flake.  Congress awarded Turner the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1952 for his “peacetime achievements” and leadership in training Army Air Corps combat pilots during World War Two, one of only six such awards given by Congress in the history of aviation. Colonel (an honorary title bestowed by the governor of Nevada) Roscoe Turner, like Sikorsky, is enshrined in The National Aviation Hall of Fame.

     He was also pilot of United’s Flying Cigar Store.

Drawings of Igor Sikorsky and Roscoe Turner courtesy of The National Aviation Hall of Fame. For more about these fascinating air pioneers you are encouraged to visit the Hall: http://www.nationalaviation.org/turner-roscoe/

     Turner purchased the S-29-A in 1926 from Sikorsky thanks to a co-signing  businessman Shelby Curlee, who, like Turner, was a native of Corinth Mississippi. FAA records show that Sikorsky remodeled the huge 50 foot long craft before turning it over to Turner. Turner’s plane carried two 400 HP engines with a top speed of 115 mph and a ceiling of 12,300 feet, altitude tough on a pilot flying from an open cockpit. It could also carry a load of 4,500 pounds of merchandise or people comfortably seated in woven wicker chairs. Sikorsky himself had used the S-29-A to transport two grand pianos to Washington, DC, one belonging to the wife of then President Calvin Coolidge.

    Turner immediately turned the flat-sided aircraft into a flying billboard, providing advertising space to anyone with cash to pay for it. Curlee Clothing, like Gilmore Oil Co., was one of the short-term sponsors.
     The 1920s was a decade in which the world was airplane crazy, innovation followed innovation, and anything unusual in the way

      The plane’s 1925 christening.

of a plane (like the unique huge S-29-A) drew a crowd. Demonstrations, advertising and charter flights paid well enough that Turner was able to make the final payment on the $10,000 he had borrowed by May 1927, mere days before Lindbergh soloed across the Atlantic, a stunt creating huge interest in the fledgeling industry.

     The person who actually conceived of the “Flying Cigar Store” is not identified. It’s a toss-up between Turner, a P.T. Barnum-like promoter who needed advertising dollars to keep him and his plane in the air, and United Cigar, one of the nation’s biggest advertisers with a store in just about every town with an airfield. Whether Turner saw a cash-cow or United Cigar envisioned the crowds the unusual aircraft was attracting, or both, is not recorded. In either event, it was a marriage made in Heaven.  The retail giant contracted with Turner for a 10 week, 25 town tour, for which he was paid $10,000.

    The S-29-A was repainted once again, this time in the familiar red and gold letters and United Cigars shield prominent on street corners nationwide. The interior of the

    Hyman collection  [13472R]

        Final inspection, the day before the store’s inaugural flight.

soon-to-be-famous “Flying Cigar Store” was stocked with cigars, cigarettes, pipes and all other tobacco products as well as candy, gum, pens, watches, playing cards, and a wide selection of the other minutia for which the well-stocked United Cigar Stores had become renown. A United executive and a clerk made up the store’s staff.
    The first day of the tour, the plane laden with company execs for the short flight from Long Island to Schenectady, was less than auspicious.  A dust flurry hid a small Curtis trainer from view, according to Turner, an otherwise accident-free pilot. The result was a broken propeller and slight wing damage to the Sikorsky and demolition of the smaller craft. The wire-service blurb, printed in papers from California to Florida wasn’t good news, but it was good publicity in corners of the country far from where the plane would land.  The Flying Cigar Store was quickly repaired and on it’s way within 24 hours.

          After the slightly delayed landing in Schenectady, the flight plan included stops in Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The return trip listed layovers in Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Philadelphia and smaller towns along the route. 

        Photo from the Roscoe Turner papers held at the University of Wyoming.

     A plethora of news stories and photos bear testimony to the effectiveness of the ad campaign conducted during the Store’s ten-week existence. Landing in Syracuse, for example, was worth two photos and 12 column inches on the front page. Similar responses came everywhere the popular flying star, his unusual giant of a plane, and the novel flying store appeared. A bevy of long-legged babes (above) never hurts, a nifty twist added by the ever-opportunistic retailers.

        Hyman collection [13475]

     In this photo Turner delivers a carton of cigarettes to one of the fashionable young women attracted to the field to see the huge-for-it’s-day aircraft, the first American plane in which it was possible to stand upright inside. Turner is dressed in quasi-military garb, his trademark flying uniform. The man in the tie appears to be Axel Staal, United’s comptroller who accompanied part of [all?] the trip. Note the ads and samples hanging from or leaning against the plane, quickly unloaded and put into place at every visit.

      The American Heritage History of Flight contains this Roscoe Turner memory:


    “My Sikorsky was the largest plane in the the United States at that time, and I used it for passenger carrying.  I tried to start an airline with it from New York to Atlanta, but I couldn't get the necessary financial interest; so I used it as an advertising medium. I did more public relations work and advertising than any other aviator.

    I went out with it one trip as a flying cigar store.  It was an actual store on wings. It was tremendous advertising for the United Cigar Stores.  Then, later on, I went out for the Curlee Clothing Company, flying their top salesmen and dropping them off in their territory.”


         United’s contract with Turner lasted from early July to mid September of 1927, and only 25 cities. Once his contract with United Cigar Stores Company was complete, Turner continued barnstorming for a few months more, including a series of trips for his old friend and backer, the Curlee Clothing Company, flying the company’s top salesmen back to their territory after an awards meeting.

    After flying over the Rockies to Hollywood in the

Turner in costume by the repainted Cigar Store.

Spring of 1928, a fortuitous meeting between the swashbuckling Turner and the equally bodacious Howard Hughes, resulted in some stunt-flying gigs and a pilot’s role in Hughes’ HELL’S ANGELS, a WWI air-movie then in production. Itching to buy newer, faster, planes he could race, Turner sold Hughes the S-29-A for use in the movie. Hughes converted the former cigar store to look like a German Gotha bomber complete with machine guns, Maltese crosses, fuselage art, and additional cockpit installed in the nose.

    Frank Delear in Igor Sikorsky: His three Careers in Aviation, describes what happened during filming on March 22, 1929, in Pacoima, California:


    “The pilot put the plane into a spin and parachuted to safety. The old plane spun down for thousands of feet before smashing into the ground. The scene was probably the most spectacular of an epic film in which, as one movie historian said, ‘The airplanes were the real stars.’  It was an ironic end for an airplane so safe it had never suffered a crash in its long and varied career. Tragically, one crewman [Phil Jones] who was releasing smoke flares far back in the fuselage failed to bail out and died in the crash.”


     By the time Turner sold the workhorse craft it had flown more than 1,000 hours and more than 50,000 miles without a single mechanical failure.

Flying Cigar Store Collectibles

     This small 4.25” x 2” metal ingot weighing 4.4 oz. clearly commemorates the ten week life of the flying cigar store. Were they purchased? If so, for how much? Were they given away? If so, by whom? To whom?  Why have so few turned up? I’ve seen only one on eBay since that auction service began.  [22610 & 22611]

    Considering the short limited life of the Flying Cigar Store, the existence of a poster stamp is surprising.

The art shows a great deal of “artistic license” as the plane portrayed bears little resemblance to the distinctive S-29-A.  How were stamps obtained? How were they used? By whom? These, too, are quite rare. I’ve seen only one on eBay and stamp dealers.



        These were presumably given to children as a souvenir of their cigar store visit.

    The string attached to the front, and other design features, suggest it was not a

    glider but was intended to be pulled through the air, possibly originally attached

    to a dowel. I haven’t tried it. Like other Flying Cigar Store collectibles, it is rare.        

    I’ve seen three in the past decade.


        If you know of, or find, other collectibles related to the Flying Cigar Store,

    I’d like to hear from you.  <Tony@CigarHistory.info>

The internet, including Wikipedia, is filled with mis-information about Turner, the Flying Cigar Store and the S-29-A. Be careful if researching. For the S-29-A I suggest: <http://mlsandy.home.tsixroads.com/Corinth_MLSANDY/rt158.html>
  The books I cite are generally accurate and the National Aviation
Hall of Fame is highly recommended.http://mlsandy.home.tsixroads.com/Corinth_MLSANDY/rt158.htmlhttp://mlsandy.home.tsixroads.com/Corinth_MLSANDY/rt158.htmlshapeimage_2_link_0shapeimage_2_link_1

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Hyman collection  [13474R]